Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Venezuela briefs (July 17, 2018)

  • Venezuela's electoral authority has announced municipal council elections for December, but the main opposition parties will be barred from participating after boycotting the last election, reports David Smilde in his weekly at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
  • Last week prisoners at the infamous Helicoide prison, which holds many of the country's political prisoners, mutinied for the second time in three months. (Efecto Cocuyo)
  • Venezuela has become a regional crime hub, and organized crime is digging in deeper as President Nicolás Maduro continues to survive the country's devastating crisis, writes InSight Crime's Jeremy McDermott in a New York Times op-ed. "Drug trafficking is the main growth industry in Venezuela, followed by illegal gold mining. Cocaine may well become the lubricant that keeps the wheels of corruption moving in Mr. Maduro’s Venezuela."
  • The scale of Venezuela's economic collapse is vast, and the decimation of the once-powerful oil industry is particularly telling, argues a Foreign Policy piece. "The only way Venezuela, which is broke and stripped of talent, can possibly fix its oil industry today is by relying more on foreign companies. Even if they were given a free hand, however, it’s not clear that international firms could turn things around anytime soon; the lack of investment in recent years hasn’t helped the health of Venezuela’s oil fields."
  • U.S. President Donald Trump seems to prefer strongmen everywhere in the world, except for Latin America -- where he has readopted a contemporary version of the Monroe Doctrine, argue Michael Shifter and David Toppelberg in another New York Times op-ed. "Trump should be commended for coming down hard on Latin America’s strongmen. But by also resurrecting an impulse for unilateral action and indifference to the region’s needs and concerns, he is making it more difficult to help bring about the democratic change he ostensibly seeks."
  • Last week, outgoing Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called on Trump to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop supporting the Maduro administration. (EFE)
  • The Lima Group voiced concern over military mobilization on the Colombian frontier, reports EFE.
News Briefs

Migration
  • The U.S. has pledged $6 million more to fund health and nutrition programs in Colombia to aid the Venezuelan refugees flowing into the country. The fresh funding is in addition to the nearly $16 million that Washington earmarked in April to help Venezuelan migrants in Colombia and Brazil, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The New York Times profiles a reunited Guatemalan family -- mother and daughter were separated at the U.S. border and deported together.
Nicaragua
  • Lethal violence against anti-government protesters continues in Nicaragua, carried out by security forces and "parapolice," reports InSight Crime. (See yesterday's post.)
Haiti
  • The U.N.'s top poverty expert criticized the IMF's push for Haiti to reduce fuel subsidies, and called on donors such as the World Bank and the IADB to help poor Haitians struggling with austerity measures, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's briefs.)
El Salvador
  • Three years after El Salvador's government launched Plan El Salvador Seguro -- a citizen-security initiative -- authorities point to a reduced homicide rate and say it's been a success. Critics say crime rates in some targeted municipalities have actually increased, and that other improved indicators can be chalked up to street gangs' increasing sophistication. They call for more attention to the root causes of crime and violence. (InSight Crime)
Brazil
  • Infant mortality rose 5 percent in Brazil between 2015 and 2016 -- the first such increase since 1990. And authorities expect the 2017 numbers to be worse, caused by cuts to health services in recent years as well as the outbreak of the Zika virus in 2015, reports the Guardian.
  • Scorpions are adapting to urban habitats, and increasingly pose threat to Brazilians, particularly children. (Guardian)
  • The New York Times profiles a ballet teacher inspiring children in Rio de Janeiro's Manguinhos favela to overcome their dismal circumstances.
  • The son of presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro -- Rio de Janeiro City Councilman Carlos Bolsonaro -- tweeted an old canard linking LGBTs to pedophilia last week. The Intercept reports that "overt hatred for LGBTs has become a central prong of the increasingly powerful Bolsonaro family and the retrograde wing of Brazil’s evangelical political movement (that wing by no means represents all evangelicals, many of whom are progressives or otherwise opposed to the Bolsonaros)."
Honduras
  • Honduras has lost approximately 30 percent of its total forest cover since 2000 -- and deforestation appears largely spurred by the drug trade's use of of logging, land purchases, and cattle operations to launder profits, writes Luis Noé-Bustamente at the Aula Blog.
Guatemala
  • A U.S. State Department official speaking at a congressional committee ruled out Russian interference in the CICIG. (InSight Crime)
Ecuador
  • An international arrest warrant against former Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa is proving divisive, and plays into broader regional accusations of politically motivated judicial attacks against former leaders, like Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Argentina's Cristina Kirchner. (Council on Hemispheric Affairs)
Chile
  • An indigenous anthropologist was key in resolving a long-time mystery regarding Inca markers scattered through the Atacama desert. (Guardian)

Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Monday, July 16, 2018

Bloody repression of anti-government bastions in Nicaragua (July 16, 2018)

At least 11 people were killed in Nicaragua over the weekend, as pro-government forces attacked protester bastions around the country. The Ortega administration may have temporarily reestablished control in these areas, but at a heavy cost amid increasing criticism of its heavy handed tactics against anti-goverment protesters since April. (Washington PostWall Street Journal and Guardian)

Three students were killed in a clash at Managua's main university campus, which has been occupied by anti-government protesters since April.  El Confidencial describes a fifteen hour siege on protesters at Universidad Nacional de Nicaragua (UNAN-Managua), though the students were in negotiations with authorities to liberate the space. On Friday, armed attackers kept about 200 students trapped in a Catholic church used for triage, and prevented medical assistance from reaching the wounded. Two journalists were trapped there as well, including Washington Post correspondent Joshua Partlow. Catholic Church clerics secured safe-passage out for students on Saturday.

And rights groups said another 10 people -- including a young girl -- died in clashes in Masaya, another city dominated by anti-governnment barricades over the past few months. (Reuters) Paramilitary groups also entered the nearby cities of Diriá, Niquinohomo and Catarina. El Confidencial said the reports are of five deaths, but so far has verified two. The attacks prevented a scheduled visit by Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' "Special Follow-up Mechanism for Nicaragua".

In the Miami Herald, Andrés Oppenheimer criticizes U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres' broad statement calling on all parties to end violence, noting that the vast majority of deaths have been caused by pro-government forces.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission said last Wednesday that 264 people had been killed since the protests began and that the violence has intensified since the beginning of this month, particularly after the government began sweeping through towns to dismantle barricades. Thirty-four people had been killed in the previous week alone. (New York Times)

José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said that his organization had as of last Tuesday verified about 270 deaths of civilians, but by the weekend that number had probably risen to more than 300, he said.
In a New York Times Español op-ed, Venezuelan writer Alberty Barrera Tyszka ponders President Daniel Ortega's path from revolutionary to authoritarianism.

News Briefs

Haiti
  • Haitian Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant resigned Saturday, after a plan to raise fuel prices set of deadly protests. He resigned ahead of a no-confidence vote in the Chamber of Delegates. Though unrest calmed last week, the situation is still considered volatile by many observers. Haiti’s president says he will appoint a new prime minister as soon as possible. (Associated PressReuters, and Miami Herald) At CEPR Jake Johnston analyzes IMF pressure to reduce fuel prices, aimed at improving the national budget deficit and obtaining international financing. The government failed to do outreach and implement mitigating policies along with the significant price hikes he writes, but the unrest also reflects more long-term failures of Haiti's governance.
Mexico
  • Mexican president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador met with a U.S. delegation headed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday. AMLO's transition team said the meeting was positive and that they suggested areas of work: commerce and the NAFTA renegotiation; development in Mexico to combat insecurity and poverty fueling migration; and including Central American governments in discussions regarding migration and security. Not on the docket of the brief meeting: the U.S. family separation policy and Trump's wall. (Animal PolíticoEl Universal) The issues highlighted by the AMLO team are at the center of the two countries' relationship, but shifted the focus in relation to migration to development, notes the New York Times. There have also been hints that the AMLO administration will shift security policies away from the war on drugs approach favored by the U.S.
  • Lame duck: Pompeo's meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto the same day received far less public attention than the AMLO meeting, reports El Financiero.
  • AMLO was elected with an ambitious mandate, with rooting out corruption and reducing violence at the top of the to-do list. The question for many is whether he will be able to advance on those and other issues given the disparate nature of the coalition he cobbled together to win the election. (Conversation)
  • AMLO is slashing his own salary by 60 percent, to about $5.700 a month -- and has decreed that no public official can earn more than he does. (Associated Press)
  • The public health effects of hydrating with soda are devastating in Chiapas, where water is scarce and Coca-Cola is produced locally. And angry protesters say the two issues are likely linked, reports the New York Times.
Migration
  • As children are reunited with their parents after forced separation at the U.S. border, it is becoming clear that the trauma of the experience will be deep. (Washington Post)
Colombia
  • FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño (Timochenko) appeared before a special transitional justice (JEP) tribunal on Friday, and apologized to victims of kidnappings and forced disappearances. Thirty-one FARC commanders were summoned to the first hearing for the case, in which the JEP is investigating FARC kidnappings between 1993 and 2012. The prosecution has documented 8,163 victims of kidnapping involving the rebels. (AFP)
  • The Wall Street Journal looks at the Colombian offensive against criminal gangs that have gained prominence since the FARC demobilization, in particular the Gulf Clan. (See last Thursday's post.)
  • Colombian president-elect Iván Duque named several cabinet members. (Reuters)
Guatemala
  • Weakening U.S. support for Guatemala's international anti-impunity commission -- recent reports indicate Guatemala is angling to do just that -- would be a mistake for both countries, argues Michael Allison in the Hill
Peru
  • Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra fired his justice minister on Friday, after local media released a secret audio recording of a conversation between the minister and a judge, reports Reuters. (See Friday's briefs on Peru's growing judicial corruption scandal.)
Argentina
  • The Argentine government may postpone implementing parts of a tax reform passed last year in hopes of meeting fiscal targets mandated by the IMF. Nonetheless, the government will push forward with reducing soy bean export taxes. (Reuters)
Dominican Republic
  • Thousands of Dominicans protested in favor of decriminalizing abortion in cases where the pregnant woman's life is endangered or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. (EFE)
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Friday, July 13, 2018

Mexico unwilling to accept "Safe Third Country Agreement" (July 13, 2018)

Mexico
  • A high level U.S. delegation is in Mexico today for meetings with president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The group, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to offer better ties and financial rewards, in exchange for increased Mexican efforts to stem the flow of migrants crossing the country en route to the U.S., reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Mexico is opposed to a U.S. proposal to make would-be asylum seekers apply for protection in Mexico rather than the U.S., reports Reuters. U.S. officials reportedly hope to implement a  "Safe Third Country Agreement" as a deterrent to Central American migrants applying for asylum in the U.S. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
Migration
  • Central America's Northern Triangle countries suffer atrocious rates of violence. In The Conversation Juan Ernesto Acuna García writes that homicide rates among youths, especially teenagers, have been rising -- part of what is spurring migration of families and unaccompanied minors to the U.S. despite the considerable dangers of the journey and arrival.
Upstart Journalism
  • Digital media outlets are playing a leading role in getting information out in the region's more authoritarian countries. They have also played a critical role in shaking up media monopolies and establishment interests in other parts of Latin America and have produced impressive scoops from Mexico to Argentina, reports the Economist. Their work has pushed traditional news outlets to focus more on fact checking, even as the digital media starts seeking ways to enhance its business viability.
  • Brazilian schools are teaching students how to detect fake news -- Media analysis studies became compulsory in December 2017, reports AFP.
Peru
  • Hundreds of Peruvians marched yesterday demanding judicial reform, in the wake of audio recordings released this week apparently showing magistrates offering reduced sentences, asking for favors or setting rates for improper actions, reports AFP. (IDL Reporteros has several stories detailing the audios -- herehere and here.)
Venezuela
  • Proposed legislation in Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly seeks to allow the country's state-oil firm to seek relief from creditors by declaring bankruptcy. Though it's a long-shot, and would need approval from the government controlled Supreme Court or the supra-congressional National Constituent Assembly to be enacted, the fact that it's being debated at all is telling, according to Americas Quarterly.
  • Venezuela's cash is impressively worthless -- the free-market exchange rate is about 3.5 million bolívares to a dollar and the annual inflation rate is estimated at 46,000 percent. That being said, the country is also facing a banknote shortage, so bills -- needed for bus transportation and other transactions -- are sold in bundles at three times their face value, reports the Economist.
  • Speaking of bus fare, David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernaís detail Venezuela's transportation crisis at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. "... This year, public transportation has basically collapsed, with reports of over 90% of buses not operating in some regions of the country. What is more, even when there are buses available, riders have a hard time cobbling together enough cash to pay for them and find themselves walking or staying home."
  • In an interview with BBC Español Smilde reviews his criticisms of international sanctions' potential effectivity, but also notes that "they are the most plausible tool the international community has." He urges for them to be accompanied with cross-national networks such as the Boston Group which led to Joshua Holt's release.
  • Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and the United States agreed to share information on Venezuelan government officials suspected of corruption and their support networks and expand cooperation to fight illegal financial networks in Venezuela. (Reuters)
Nicaragua
  • Nicaragua's bloody protests are following Venezuela's script, according to the Economist. (See yesterday's briefs.) However, unlike Venezuela, the opposition remains unified, and Nicaragua's may be more susceptible to U.S. pressure.
Brazil
  • Amnesty International called for independent monitoring of the police investigation into Rio de Janeiro councillor Marielle Franco's murder in March. The crime prompted protests in Brazil and international condemnation, but there has been little headway in a case that appears to implicate security force agents. (Guardian)
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was found not guilty of obstruction of justice, in one of several cases against the jailed politician, reports the Associated Press. The decision was not surprising, as the prosecutor's office asked the judge to acquit the former president, having found no evidence that he was involved in attempts to interfere into Petrobras corruption investigations.
  • The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned recent violence in Haiti that left at least four dead. (AFP) Protesters were spurred by drastic fuel price increases, which were quickly retracted by the government. (See Wednesday's briefs.) Nonetheless the International Monetary Fund said it expects Haiti to create a revised reform plan that will include a gradual lowering of fuel subsidies. (Reuters)
El Salvador
  • El Salvador's legacy of impunity for corruption has hampered recent efforts to hold politicians accountable. What headway has been made in recent years is largely due to the efforts of attorney general Douglas Meléndez, writes Christine Wade in World Politics Review.
Colombia
  • The International Crisis Group reports on the slow progress of negotiations between the Colombian government and the ELN, carried out in Havana.
Trade
  • Panama and China have started talks to create a free trade agreement. (Reuters)
  • Paraguayan president-elect Mario Abdo Benítez said he'll seek to add Bolivia to the Mercosur trade bloc. (EFE)
More from Mexico
  • President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador's government will seek to decriminalize abortion in Mexico, said his future Minister of Interior, Olga Sánchez Cordero. (Vanguardia)
  • AMLO's legislative priorities will include measures to end presidential immunity and lower salaries and perks for higher-earning government officials. The president's own salary will be among those to receive reductions. (Reuters)
  • A newly opened Mexico City mall collapsed yesterday, though the area was previously evacuated and there were no injuries. (Associated Press)
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Colombia's Gulf Clan to surrender imminently (July 12, 2018)

On Monday Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos signed a law that will allow organized crime gangs to turn themselves in and receive reduced sentences. Santos said the "Gulf Clan," also known as the Urabeños, Clan Usuga and Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, will hand themselves in as a result of this law, possibly by this weekend. (RCN and Bloomberg)

The so-called "Ley de Sometimiento" is in line with what Gulf Clan leader Daíro Usuga (aka Otoniel) called for in a video released in September of last year, and lawyers working with the gang are completing the documentation required for surrender, said Cali Archbishop Darío Monsalve who has acted as a facilitator in the process. (El Espectador

The law passed by Congress last month targets criminal organizations that evolved from paramilitary organizations -- BACRIM -- considered the greatest threat to Colombian security since the FARC demobilized. The law won't give the gangs political recognition, like the FARC obtained, but allows members to halve their sentences if they surrender themselves collectively. Groups must list membership, give evidence against members, divulge assets and details of criminal operations.(Reuters and InSight Crime

However the law might come too late to help in light of the BACRIM's increasing fragmentation, according to InSight Crime, which questions how many of Otoniel's followers will actually turn themselves in if he does.

Other Colombia news
  • Nearing the end of his term, Santos granted an interview with France 24, in which he said "post-truths were applied" to FARC peace deal.
  • A new Colombian law aims to finance and strengthen opposition parties. (La Silla Vacía)
  • Colombian President-elect Ivan Duque on Wednesday named Alberto Carrasquilla as his finance minister. Carrasquilla held the same post under former President Álvaro Uribe. (Reuters)
  • At least 16,000 people have been displaced from their homes by armed conflict -- between rebel groups and with the military -- in the border region between Colombia and Venezuela, the United Nations said. (AFP)
News Briefs

Venezuela
  • Venezuela’s economy contracted 12 percent in the first three months of this year compared with the same quarter last year, according to the opposition led National Assembly. (Reuters)
Honduras
  • Chronicle of an election un-foretold: the Due Process of Law Foundation reports on the surprise reelection of Honduran attorney general Oscar Chinchilla last month, concluding the appointment "was the product of an ad hoc legislative procedure that violates the law, the Constitution, international law, and, above all, the credibility of the institution charged with criminal prosecution in the country." (See July 2's post.)
Brazil
  • Brazilian attorney general Raquel Dodge ordered an investigation into the actions of appeals judge Rogerio Favreto, whose order to free former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Sunday caused legal chaos. Dodge said there was evidence that when he acted professionally, he did so "motivated by personal feelings and interests," reports AFP. (See Monday's post.)
  • "Militias," Rio de Janeiro paramilitary organizations have quietly taken control over vast swathes of the city's western suburbs over the past couple of decades. They claim to be acting against criminals and drug dealers, but quickly impose their own extortion rackets, explains the Guardian. They have operated largely in the shadows, and murder those who disobey or talk about them too much, but have come to prominence after the murder of city councilor Marielle Franco in March. (See March 15's post.)
  • Brazilian prosecutors say GE's LatAm chief executive took part in a medical equipment price-fixing scheme while at the conglomerate. He was one of 20 people jailed last week in what prosecutors say was an arrangement among multinational companies Philips, Johnson & Johnson, and several others to bribe government health officials, in return for help in inflating prices for an array of medical gear. (Reuters)
El Salvador
  • El Salvador's government said a Supreme Court ruling forcing President Salvador Sánchez Cerén to testify in a 1979 abduction case was politically motivated, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Salvadoran legislators have a Sunday deadline to choose four new magistrates for the Constitutional Court, a key decision in terms of strengthening national institutions, said WOLA in a press release calling on the National Assembly to leave aside political considerations in the selection.
Nicaragua
  • U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres joined the chorus of international concern over ongoing violent repression of protests in Nicaragua, reports Reuters. (See Tuesday's post.)
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights put the total death toll since protests started in April at 264 yesterday, and more than 1,800 injured. (AFP)
  • The Washington Post editorial board compares the Nicaraguan repression to that exercised by the Venezuelan government against anti-government protesters, and calls on regional governments to help avoid a civil war. 
Migrants
  • U.S. homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met with the foreign ministers of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and discussed the separated families and reunification effort. Up to 3,000 children are waiting to be reunited with their parents amid U.S. bureaucratic chaos. (Guardian)
  • An Honduran asylum seeker in the U.S. is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the federal government over the forced separation of families at the border. (Guardian)
Mexico
  • President-elect Andres Manuel López Obrador said he'll cancel a pending purchase by Mexico's navy of eight armed helicopters from the U.S. government, and example of the cost-cutting he intends to effect. (Associated Press)
  • While Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer doesn't actually believe AMLO will turn follow Turkey's authoritarian path, he can't help but draw parallels between the Mexican president-elect and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (See July 4's post for a sampling of the debate over who AMLO should be compared to.)
Peru
  • Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra will seek to reform the judiciary in response to reports of influence-peddling and other misconduct. (EFE)
Panama
  • Panamanian prosecutors demanded a 21-year sentence for spying against ex-President Ricardo Martinelli during an indictment hearing yesterday. (AFP)
Cuba
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has joined a U.S. task force investigating "sonic incidents" that affected U.S. diplomats in Cuba. Authorities have been unable to clarify the cause of the incidents that caused headaches, hearing loss, and other mysterious ailments in more than 25 diplomats and their relatives. The episode led the Trump administration to withdraw personnel from Havana and contributed to reversing the thaw in relations with the island, report McClatchy DC.
Chile
  • The daughter-in-law of former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet was found guilty of tax evasion and could face four years imprisonment. The investigation into Natalia Compagnon lasted years and dented the reputation of Bachelet, affecting her attempts at reform. (Reuters)
Off-shores
  • We tend to lump together the off-shore banking universe, but in reality "in reality, they are distinctive and highly specialised predators in the financial shark tank," explains a Guardian piece on the Caribbean island of Nevis -- which "specialises in letting its clients create corporations with greater anonymity than almost anywhere else on earth."

Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What will AMLO do? (July 11, 2018)

Though there's a long way to go before Mexican president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes office in December, there are already hints about how the landslide electoral winner will govern.

AMLO's incoming chief of staff said as much as 40 percent of the country is hostage to chronic violence and insecurity. “Veracruz is paralyzed. Tamaulipas, paralyzed; Michoacán, paralyzed. Guerrero, paralyzed,” Alfonso Romo told a group of business leaders on Monday. Future public security chief, Alfonso Durazo, said plans to reduce violence included raising police salaries, eradicating corruption, considering the decriminalisation of marijuana and an amnesty for low-level criminals, and placing a greater emphasis on crime prevention. (Guardian)

Durazo said the new administration will seek to be an ally of "good cops" and will seek to improve their socioeconomic conditions. (Animal Político)

Economically AMLO has sought to sooth markets and business leaders, promising pension reform and pursuing a budget surplus -- though how he will finance his ambitious social programs remains unclear. Observers are also wary about how he will implement anti-corruption promises that formed a corner-stone of his campaign. (Americas Quarterly)

There has been much handwringing regarding AMLO's promise to return Mexico to a policy of non-intervention in foreign affairs -- and the potential implications for regional pressure on Venezuela's government to transition back to democracy. (See yesterday's briefs.) But AMLO's stance is merely a return to Mexico's longstanding Estrada Doctrine, argues Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, and doesn't preclude an important diplomatic role in regional issues. "AMLO’s promise to return to this principle may also mean that Mexico could work for such a solution to the situation in Venezuela in a more independent manner. ... Instead, the Mexican government could shift towards a strategy of engagement, offering itself as a “good cop” to the Lima Group’s “bad cop” routine, and perhaps try to push for meaningful negotiations to overcome the failure of the Dominican Republic talks. This does not guarantee the success of any future talks, but it at least could create a dynamic where there is some room for creative thinking among Latin American governments in addressing Venezuela’s crisis."

AMLO will be meeting with U.S. officials including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Friday. He said he will use the opportunity to discuss regional anti-poverty programs and will seek to push improved well-being for Mexicans and Central Americans as a deterrent to migration. (Bloomberg) However, his future foreign relations minister has assured the press that the wall will NOT be on the agenda. (Animal Político)

Another addition to the literature on what (if any) kind of a populist AMLO might be: the Washington Post analyzes reports that Trump has called him "Juan Trump," apparently considering him a south-of-the-border version of himself.

News Briefs

Migrants
  • In the meantime, U.S. officials hope to take advantage of outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto's lame-duck period to enter a deal that would require potential asylum applicants crossing through Mexico to apply for protection there rather than continuing to the U.S. The “safe third country agreement,” could drastically curtail migratory flows across the U.S.-Mexican border, but could expose Central Americans to further violence and strain Mexico's already overloaded capacity to attend applications. (Washington Post)
  • Despite the end of forced family separation, migrants and asylum seekers still face significant obstacles in entering the U.S. and remaining together. (Washington Post)
Guatemala
  • The U.S. Trump administration is working to undermine the international anti-corruption mission in Guatemala, as thanks to the Central American country for moving its Israel embassy to Jerusalem, reports McClatchy DC. Supposed proposed changes to the U.N. backed CICIG have alarmed supporters and include: changing the body’s mandate to more narrowly redefine corruption, increasing reporting requirements for donors, limiting terms of the commissioner and appointing a deputy commissioner which Guatemala would help select. The U.S. is the CICIG's largest individual donor, and has been key in supporting the anti-graft commission, which has been increasingly under fire from Guatemala's political establishment, including President Jimmy Morales who has been the target of its investigations.
  • What's next for Guatemala's former head prosecutor Thelma Aldana? Possibly a presidential run next year, reports Americas Quarterly. Aldana told AQ she'd be open to run, though she lack funding and a political party. That being said, she stepped down in May as the country's most popular public official, and the possibility comes as Guatemala's political system is in flux, with the establishment under attack for entrenched corruption.
Venezuela
  • Venezuela's crisis is of a magnitude that can no longer be solved by financial markets or multi-lateral lenders such as the IMF. Rather the country would now have to solicit international donations (humanitarian aid) to finance the urgent importations of medicines, food, and primary goods necessary to revert its broad crisis, argue Ricardo Hausmann, Miguel Ángel Santos and Douglas Barrios in a New York Times Español op-ed.
Haiti
  • Haiti's government was well aware of the inflammatory potential of fuel price hikes that caused days of rioting since last Friday, but proceeded anyway in an attempt to reduce its budget deficit, reports the Miami Herald. The unrest that claimed at least three lives and destroyed businesses in Port-au-Prince pushed business leaders to demand Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafont's resignation, ahead of a no-confidence vote on the government scheduled in Haiti's Chamber of Deputies on Saturday. (See yesterday's and Monday's briefs.)
El Salvador
  • Former San Salvador mayor Nayib Bukele negotiated with gangs, gave them power over certain concessions, and distributed money ahead of elections according to an El Faro report from two weeks ago. The report details the various methods of negotiation reportedly employed by the Bukele administration, noting that dealing with the city's de facto powers was also a choice that allowed governability. Unlike mere electoral pacts, these were quotidian negotiations regarding day-to-day management of the city. The report demonstrates the ongoing reality of gang control in El Salvador that obligates local politicians to pact with criminal organizations, while denouncing the negotiations in public, notes InSight Crime.
  • El Salvador's highest court has ordered President Salvador Sánchez Cerén to testify in the case of a South African ambassador to the country who was kidnapped and later killed. (BBC)
Colombia
  • Colombian general Henry Torres appeared before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a transitional justice system created by the FARC peace deal. He denied responsibility for two murders he was charged with, but apologized to victims for the harm done. (Colombia Reports)
  • The alleged arrest of a FARC dissident commander highlights the dangers of partial implementation of the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the guerrilla group, according to InSight Crime
Brazil
  • A Brazilian court has received 146 habeas corpus requests on behalf of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva after Sunday's dramatic legal wrangling over whether he should be freed from prison where he is serving a corruption conviction sentence, reports the Associated Press. (See Monday's post.)
  • Brazil's most powerful gang, the First Capital Command (PCC), has long operated on the Paraguayan border. But as it struggles with competitors, such as the Red Command, it must deploy increasingly sophisticated strategies in its transnational activities, reports InSight Crime.
  • Geopolitical divisions in the West are an opportunity for the BRICS to exert stronger influence on the world stage, argues Oliver Stuenkel in Americas Quarterly
Ecuador
  • Ecuador’s highest court upheld a $9.5 billionn damages award against oil giant Chevron yesterday, over decades of pollution that harmed indigenous people. But the decision largely symbolic because Chevron now owns no assets in Ecuador. (AFP)
  • Steven Donziger, the lawyer who originally won the 2011 judgement against Chevron, was suspended from practicing law in New York by a state appeals court, yesterday. A U.S. judge said Donziger and his legal team used bribery, coercion and fraud to obtain the judgment. (Reuters)
Cuba
  • A sixteen month freeze on new private restaurants and home-stays will end in December. The government will implement new regulations tightening tax compliance and preventing wealth accumulation. (Associated Press)
Peru
  • Meet South America's newest superfood: lucuma! (Bloomberg)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

38 people killed in Nicaragua on Sunday (July 10, 2018)

Sunday was the bloodiest day in Nicaragua over the past three months of violently repressed anti-government protests, according to the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (Cenidh), which said 38 people were killed in clashes in three different areas of the country. Cenidh says 31 were anti-government protesters, four police officers and three members of pro-government groups, and that most of the clashes occurred between anti-government protesters manning roadblocks and police and pro-government groups attempting to clear the barricades.(BBC)

Yesterday masked government supporters attacked Roman Catholic priests arriving at a Diriamba church to help anti-government protesters trapped inside since Sunday. The delegation led by Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes succeeded, but Managua auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez said he was wounded, hit in the stomach and verbally attacked by an "angry mob." (Associated PressHe posted a picture of a cut on his arm and blood on his cassock on Twitter. El Confidencial has more details on the attacks, justified as "christianism" by vice president Rosario Murillo.

The attacks came the day after both Brenes and Báez criticized government repression. (See yesterday's briefs.) The national dialogue process, mediated by the Episcopal Conference, was suspended yesterday.

International rights groups criticized the ongoing government repression. Amnesty International said "the repressive actions of the Nicaraguan government have reached deplorable levels," while Human Rights Watch said "high-level Nicaraguan officials bear responsibility for grave, pervasive abuses being committed on their watch."

The crackdown has alienated one of the Ortega administration's key allies, the country's most powerful business association -- Cosep --, reports the Wall Street Journal.

El Confidencial interviews the mother of one of the police officers killed this weekend, who told her his commanding officer refused to let him quit.

Last week El Faro published an in-depth piece on the barricades stopping traffic across the country -- in which anti-government protesters retaliate against deaths by blocking transport.

News Briefs

Haiti
  • Protesters clashed with police yesterday in Port-au-Prince, in the fourth day of unrest following fuel price hike announcements. A general strike that affected transportation kept most people at home across the country, though the government backtracked on the price increase over the weekend, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's briefs.)
Honduras
  • The American University's Monitoring MACCIH Project released an assessment of the international anti-impunity commission's first two years of work in Honduras. The title -- From Steady Progress to Severely Wounded -- is indicative. The report by Dr. Charles Call comes as the mission is under increasing duress, with political and judicial elites striking at its ability to effectively operate against political corruption. "The next few months will determine whether there is a window for MACCIH to demonstrate an ability to make any notable difference in transforming one of the most notorious networks of corruption in the world. Without external and internal pressure on the government, MACCIH’s future looks grim."
Guatemala
  • Three weeks ago, former Guatemalan foreign minister Edgar Guttiérez published allegations that President Jimmy Morales sexually abused two female government workers. Yesterday he formally reported the accusations in the Public Ministry in a meeting with the new attorney general, Consuelo Porras. The victims remained anonymous at their own request, and no evidence was presented, reports El Periódico. Porras has offered to go to the victims to gather their testimony, and include them in a witness protection system. The implications of their testimony could be vast, both for Morales and for the victims themselves who will likely have to leave the country, according to Nómada.
Mexico
  • Authorities suspended a Mexico City police commander after a newspaper photographer was allegedly attacked by officers while covering street-level drug arrests. (Associated Press)
  • Mexico's president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador is often called a populist -- but the tag, intended to be belittling, is misleading in this case, argues James North in The Nation, pointing to the broad social movements that swept AMLO to power on July 1, as well as his long history of grassroots organizing.
  • Though AMLO spent much of his campaign battling a narrative that painted him as the next Hugo Chávez, he is now "relishing a singular, exuberant honeymoon," reports the Los Angeles Times. "His rivals have embraced him, current President Enrique Peña Nieto has hosted him in the ornate National Palace, business leaders have extolled his message of moderation and well-wishers have celebrated his relaxed style. On social media, hashtags such as #AMLOVE have been trending, reflecting a kind of collective euphoria normally not associated with Mexican politicians."
  • AMLO's government will adopt a hands-off policy towards other countries in the region, such as crisis-wracked Venezuela and Nicaragua, promised incoming Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard. (Reuters) It's not yet clear whether Mexico would remain in the Lima Group, a coalition of countries in the region aimed at pressuring Venezuela. (Exame)
Venezuela
  • As Venezuela's economy continues its collapse, President Nicolás Maduro is increasingly leaning on the military as a bulwark against challenges to his power, writes David Smilde in his Venezuela Weekly at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
Migrants
  • The recent U.S. attorney general's decision to deny victims of domestic abuse asylum set up obstacles for people fleeing violence in Central America. The new standard requires proof that the home country government condoned, ordered or was helpless to counter the violence by private actors. At the AULA blog, Jayesh Rathod examines the lack of clarity in the new regulations.
Fact-checking
  • Latin American fact checking organizations reflect some of the peculiarities of the regional media landscape, writes Ariel Riera at the LSE Latin America and the Caribbean Centre. Many are independent or part of small media outlets, in contrast to those in other parts of the world that tend to be part of established news outlets. The piece also explores how Latin American fact-checking sites, such as Chequeado, have sought to incorporate user's in the verification process and in media literacy initiatives.
Colombia
  • Special measures protecting members of Colombia's armed forces in the newly established transitional justice system have left perpetrators of the "false positives" killings in a "limbo of impunity," writes Human Rights Watch's Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco in Semana.
  • Outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos condemned Colombia's soaring violence against human rights leaders, yesterday. He called on the nation’s political parties and judiciary to sign an agreement to protect activists, after a particularly bloody week that claimed seven lives, reports Reuters. (See last Thursday's post.)
  • Even as the overall murder rate has fallen in Colombia, killings of LGBT people remain high. There were 109 reported murders of LGBT people last year according to Colombia Diversa. (Reuters)
  • An Open Society Foundations report in May explores the legal potential for coca leaves in Colombia, reports the Global Post.
Brazil
  • Quota laws aim to increase the participation of women in Brazilian politics -- where female lawmakers make up just over 10 percent of the 513 members of the lower house and just under 15 percent of the 81-seat Senate. But Bloomberg details how parties avoid running viable candidates, instead fielding "ghosts" who run in name only.
  • Former senator Marina Silva's newly created party, REDE, will have little public funding. The presidential candidate intends to overcome lack of resources with a forceful anti-graft message. (Reuters)
  • Boeing's takeover of Embraer, a $3.8 billion deal announced last week, will likely become a divisive campaign issue ahead of October's presidential elections, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Peru
  • Peru's government announced plans to create 1,040 square km offshore reserve to protect feeding and breeding grounds for humpback whales and other marine species. The reserve  overlap with four offshore oil blocks, which would be permitted to keep functioning, albeit with stronger oversight. (Reuters)
Bolivia
  • La Paz will inaugurate he seventh line of the world’s highest-altitude and most extensive cable car system. (EFE)
Paraguay
  • Paraguay has officially eradicated malaria, even as cases increased in other countries world-wide and in the region. (New York Times)
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Monday, July 9, 2018

Judicial wrangling over Lula (July 9, 2018)

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva -- serving a 12-year prison sentence for a corruption conviction -- was the center of a legal battle between judges yesterday, who disputed whether he should be released. (El País

The move to liberate voters' favorite for October's presidential election was ultimately blocked by the chief justice of the TRF-4 appeals court, who granted a request from prosecutors to end the legal uncertainty and keep Lula in prison. (Reuters) The dueling positions over the former president fired up supporters and opposition, who accused the judiciary of acting politically. (El País)

Lula is a strong favorite in October's presidential election, though a law prohibiting people from running for eight years after a corruption conviction will likely bar him from running. The electoral authorities who must determine that ruling cannot do so until September, after the PT officially registers Lula as its presidential candidate -- creating tensions in a race that is otherwise wide open. (Los Angeles Times)

Página 12 and the BBC recount the quick moving plays yesterday, all in the context of the three month judicial holiday that has most judges on vacation. TRF4 judge Rogerio Favreto is on duty this month, and yesterday morning ordered Lula's release in response to an habeas corpus petition presented on Friday by Workers' Party lawmakers. Favreto found that Lula has the right to participate in television debates and campaign acts ahead of October's election. He argued that Lula should be free to campaign while he appeals the conviction, in order to protect the democratic process. Two hours later Judge Sergio Moro -- who is hierarchically below Favreto and was off-duty -- sent a resolution challenging Favreto's authority to release Lula, commanding police authorities to await a legal resolution. He was later backed by another member of TRF4, also on holiday. In the afternoon Favreto ratified his original decision and gave police one hour to release Lula. At 8 pm yesterday the head of TRF-4 blocked the release. 

In the wake of the attempt to liberate Lula, critics are pointing to Favreto's PT ties, though El País notes that most high-profile Brazilian judges have ties to political parties. Lula and his supporters maintain that the corruption case against him is politically motivated. Lula's opponents say the whole move can be chalked up to an attempt to get the case before a favorable judge. (New York Times.)

Since Lula was jailed in April, the PT has filed appeals in numerous courts, including the Supreme Court, though all have been denied so far. (Bloomberg)

News Briefs

Haiti
  • Rioters kept Port-au-Prince in a virtual state of siege for three days after Haiti's government announced steep fuel price increases on Friday. Protesters blocked roads with trees and rocks, as well as piles of burning tires. Looters stripped some supermarkets that were burned down. Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant announced the temporary suspension of the price hikes on Saturday, but failed to quell unrest. Yesterday many protesters demanded the immediate departure of President Jovenel Moise. The decision to raise prices -- gas was to go up by 38 percent, diesel by 47 percent and kerosene by 51 percent -- was part of an IMF agreement aimed at increasing government revenue. Observers also point to dissatisfaction with social problems. The unrest left tourists and volunteer groups stranded due to blocked roads and cancelled flights, though most airlines resumed yesterday evening.  (Miami HeraldDeutsche WelleWashington Post and Reuters)
Nicaragua
  • On Saturday, President Daniel Ortega appeared to rule out early elections as a solution to the country's ongoing political crisis, after three months of protests and violent repression. He pinned the unrest criminals, murderers, torturers and terrorists angling to oust him. (Guardian) Yesterday Matagalpa bishop Monsignor Rolando Álvarez accused Ortega and his wife, vice president Rosario Murillo, of carrying out a cleansing operation at a "price of blood and death." Álvarez is a moderator in the negotiation process mediated by the Catholic Church, reports Confidencial.
U.S. Diplomacy
  • Ecuador diplomats say they were threatened by the U.S. with trade measures and withdrawal of military aid in order to force them to drop a resolution supporting breast feeding in the World Health Organization. The measure was expected to pass easily, but the U.S. sought to support the interests of infant formula manufacturers, reports the New York Times.
Mexico
  • President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador created a coalition of disparate characters from across the political spectrum, and was backed by a broad majority of Mexicans in last week's elections. Now he must marshal all these characters -- many political neophytes -- into a coherent government that doesn't betray the Morena party's leftist leanings, according to the Washington Post.
  • The New York Times profiles Mexico's political shift in Atlacomulco, a municipality that elected a non PRI mayor for the first time since 1929.
  • Mexican authorities extradited Dámaso López, known as El Licenciado, to the U.S., where he faces charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine and commit money laundering and could face life imprisonment if convicted. (Guardian)
Migrants
  • U.S. Border Patrol is moving further inland in attempts to detain migrants, as smugglers become increasingly sophisticated, reports the New York Times.
Colombia
  • Victims fear a cases linking former President Álvaro Uribe and his brother Santiago to paramilitary groups could languish now that Uribe's handpicked candidate, Iván Duque, has won the country's presidency, reports the New York Times.
Unasur
  • The already hobbled UNASUR regional bloc could be further undercut by loss of its Ecuador headquarters, reports the Associated Press.
Chile
  • Chile's university students are protesting against sexual harassment and sexual discrimination -- a movement that is translating more broadly to demands in support of access to safe abortion. A protest is planned on July 25. (Guardian)
More Brazil
  • The Guardian profiles Geovani Martins, a young literary sensation from Rio de Janeiro's favelas.
  • Friday's World Cup defeat is being chalked up as representative of a national malaise, according to the Guardian.