Friday, November 17, 2017

Ortega accuses Maduro of crimes against humanity in ICC (Nov. 17, 2017)

Ousted Venezuelan chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega accused President Nicolás Maduro and other top officials of crimes against humanity. She asked the International Criminal Court to capture and try them in relation to approximately 8,290 deaths between 2015 and 2017 at the hands of officials who received instructions from the government, reports Reuters

Ortega appeared at the Hague-based tribunal, yesterday, to turn over more than 1,000 pieces of evidence including forensic reports, witness interviews and expert testimony linking security forces to more than 8,000 murders since 2015, reports the Associated Press

The accusation refers to incidents of torture, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrest -- some during repression of anti-government protests this year, and others during polemic police raids known as "Operations to Free the People." The AP notes that the ICC receives hundreds of fillings each year, the complaint does not mean the case will be taken up by the court's chief prosecutor.

In two closed-door OAS sessions yesterday, relatives of victims of alleged extrajudicial executions in Venezuela's protests gave testimony. A group of three international experts named by Secretary General Luis Almagro are evaluating taking another case to the Hague, reports EFE. Cases of political persecution -- towards opposition legislators and mayors -- also came up in yesterday's sessions.

Almagro said Ortega's decisión to present a complaint in the ICC strengthens the OAS's case.

Talks with opposition: Though an official dialogue meeting to be held in the Dominican Republic this week was cancelled (see yesterday's post), opposition and government delegations held a preparatory meeting yesterday that both sides considered positive, reports Efecto Cocuyo. The meeting would be held at the beginning of December and aims at guaranteeing free elections. Foreign ministers from Latin American countries would attend the December meeting as guarantors.

In turn, Maduro said he was asking for opposition support in seeking the end to international economic sanctions, reports Efecto Cocuyo separately.

Political prisoners: A former Caracas mayor under house arrest fled to Colombia. Antonio Ledezma travelled overland with his family, reports the Miami Herald. As of this week, there are 342 political prisoners in Venezuela, according to Foro Penal, cited in a separate Miami Herald piece.

Debt: Yesterday, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association has ruled that Venezuela and its state oil company PDVSA have defaulted on their debts, reports the Financial Times. But investors said they did not expect a significant market reaction, as Venezuela is making efforts to pay and holders have so far been tolerant of delays, according to Reuters. (See Tuesday's post.)

While China yesterday voiced certainty that Venezuela would meet its debt obligations, it did not provide refinancing as Russia did on Wednesday, reports El Nacional. (See yesterday's post.)

Venezuela aside: The economic crisis and shortages affecting the country have led university students to drop out in droves and top-professors to join emigrating Venezuelans. But not all schools have been affected equally, and some of the top institutions -- perceived as bastions of the wealthy elites -- appear to have been specifically targeted by the government, reports the Washington Post.

News Briefs
  • Former Nicaraguan VP Sergio Ramírez Mercado became the first Central American to win the prestigious Cervantes prize for literature, reports the Associated Press. Though he was key member of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional and Daniel Ortega's VP between 1985 and 1990, Ramírez doesn't consider himself a "political animal," reports El País in a piece that reviews his literary and political trajectory.
  • Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres' killing has been internationally condemned, but fellow activists in the Copinh organization she co-founded continue to face threats and harassment, reports the Guardian.
  • A group of Haitian government officials and business heads are accused of embezzling $2 billion in Venezuelan oil loans. A special Haitian Senate commission concluded that charges should be filed against two former prime ministers, several ex-ministers and the owners of private firms for stealing funds that left post-earthquake Haiti with unfinished government buildings, poorly constructed housing and overpriced public works contracts, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Colombia's Senate approved a transitional justice law that forms the cornerstone of the peace accord with the FARC, reports Reuters. The lower chamber of Congress is expected to vote next week. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
  • Chileans head to the polls on Sunday. The strong favorite to win is conservative former president Sebastian Piñera, and, journalist Alejandro Guillier is expected to come in second. The two would theoretically face off in a Dec. 17 run-off election, reports Reuters. Piñera promises to revive slow economic growth, while Guillier has promised to deepen current President Michelle Bachelet's tax, labor and education reforms. (A Reuters factbox on the candidates.) The Economist is betting that "Chileans do not want to break with the liberal economic model set up under Pinochet and refined by his elected successors." Turnout in recent elections has been low, notes TeleSUR: only 43 percent of voters participated in 2013's general elections and only 13 percent went to polls for the recent primaries.
  • A general election later this month in Honduras could potentially undermine the work of a police reform commission, reports InSight Crime. While incumbent (and frontrunner) José Orlando Hernández has been a champion of the commission's work, his opponent, Salvador Nasralla has said he would revisit layoffs of police.
  • Cuba's government is turning to scientists in an attempt to disprove accusations that its behind an alleged "sonic attack" against U.S. diplomats on the island, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Many residents of San Luis de Potosi, a Mexican city considered to be a "free-trade miracle" believe they can survive the demise of NAFTA, but other communities are not so sure, reports the Washington Post.
  • Residents in Mexico's Chiapas state took matters into their own hands, and used picks and shovels to restore one of the country's best known waterfalls after it was affected by earthquakes in September. Locals were concerned about potential impact to tourism, which they depend on, reports the BBC.
  • "Democratizing coups," like the one a group of soldiers in Zimbabwe claim to have carried out against despot Robert Mugabe, are largely fiction, warns Argentine scholar Rut Diamint in the Conversation. She says Latin America's history of dictatorship shows that military juntas often claim to be patriotic, they mostly excel at violence. And though the region has made huge democratic inroads in the decades since, "ridding countries of their militaristic culture, though, has been tougher. That’s another lesson for Zimbabwe: After one military coup, civilian control over the armed forces is never again a done deal."

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Venezuela gets debt leeway from Russia (Nov. 16, 2017)

Yesterday, Russia announced a deal to restructure $3.15 billion in debt owed by Venezuela, giving the South American country some breathing room, reports the BBC. The debt will now be repaid over 10 years, with minimal repayments during the first six years, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The move will allow Venezuela some lee-way in meeting other debt obligations, as a credit rating agencies declared it in "selective default." It also highlights the role of Russia as Venezuela's main backer, according to the Financial Times. (See Tuesday's post.) Assistance from China and Russia has been increasingly vital for Venezuela in recent years, especially as relations with the U.S. worsened, notes the WSJ. Separately, China also expressed confidence in Venezuela's financial situation. 

The U.S. and the E.U. have sanctioned Venezuelan officials and denounced lack of democracy -- along with a dozen Latin American nations.

Venezuela is broke and it's Chavismo's fault because it strangled entrepreneurship, argues a Wall Street Journal editorial. "Faced with expropriation, hyperinflation, price controls and rampant corruption, human and monetary capital has fled Venezuela."


An attempt at talks between the Venezuelan government and the political opposition scheduled to take place yesterday in the Dominican Republic was called off because the Maduro administration would not accept the presence of several Latin American foreign ministers as "guarantors," according to Efecto Cocuyo. President Nicolás Maduro did meet with former Spanish President  José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero who has been acting as a mediator in the crisis.

Earlier this week, Geoff Ramsey noted at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights that the scope of these talks, unlike previous iterations, was far more limited, focusing on how to achieve a relatively clean presidential election next year. But even though National Assembly President Julio Borges and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Luis Florido said the MUD coalition parties were largely behind the efforts, the announcement that they would occur was immediately criticized by prominent opposition leaders including María Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma. He analyzes the ongoing schism within the opposition between those who seek to participate in politics and those who favor boycotting. "Underlining this tension within the MUD is the fact that its members appear to be jockeying for nomination as the opposition presidential candidate. While presidential elections are due in late 2018, many believe that the government is likely to move them up to early in the year, perhaps as soon as March."

News Briefs
  • Violence in Mexico's Guerrero state has overwhelmed morgues, where infrastructure is inadequate for the flow of homicide victims. Workers have complained that bodies are decomposing, reports the Guardian. Between eight and 10 bodies have been arriving daily at morgues in the state, according to Reforma, while the state has registered 1,919 homicides so far this year – already at least 100 more than last year.
  • A recent report by independent experts (GAIPE) regarding the investigation into Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres' assassination emphasizes the participation of security forces and business interests in the killing. More broadly, "As with anything in Honduras, the United States looms large in this case," reports The Nation, reviewing the recent GAIPE report. (See Oct.30's and Nov. 2's posts.) The piece examines the U.S. role in permitting ongoing human rights abuses in Honduras. "Since the coup, a small number of US lawmakers have expressed concern about the human-rights situation in Honduras, sending multiple letters to the State Department, but their admonitions and entreaties seem to spark little meaningful action. The State Department has continued to employ an opaque process to certify that Honduras complies with human-rights conditions despite clear evidence to the contrary, (including its own reports), such as its summary dismissal of credible evidence that Cáceres had been on a military hit list."
  • Honduras appears poised to end 2017 with a significantly lower homicide rate than it started with, reports InSight Crime. The government estimates that the 2017 homicide rate will be 42 per 100,000 citizens by the end of the year, compared to 59 per 100,000 registered in 2016. The drastic reduction -- about half the rate registered in 2012 -- is due to seven factors, according to InSight, including a focus on fighting crimes like extortion in the country's most violent neighborhoods. The piece cites Omar Rivera, the advocacy coordinator for the Association for a More Just Society (Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa - ASJ) who also emphasizes the capture of criminal organization leaders. Other sources point to police reform and prison modernization, as well as cooperation between government institutions and international organizations.
  • In the U.S., a congressional hearing on the effectiveness of the Kingpin act showed the benefits and pitfalls of the 1999 law used to sanction individuals suspected of involvement in the drug trade, reports InSight Crime. Though a former DEA official said the law was tremendously effective, other witnesses criticized parts of its implementation. For example, Eric Olson, the deputy director of the Wilson Center's Latin American Program, cited the case of the Rosenthal family in Honduras to illustrate how the sanctions "risk of collateral damage that can potentially undermine legitimate sectors of the financial system and ultimately the economy."
  • Another Colombian social activist was killed in Tumaco -- just hours after participating in a protest regarding the killings of 130 community leaders in the region this year, reports TeleSUR.
  • Mexican police detained the alleged mastermind of a 72-person massacre in Tamaulipas state. The victims were mostly migrant workers from Central and South America, who appeared to have been tied up and blindfolded before being executed, reports Reuters.
  • A Brazilian proposal to subsidize off-shore oil fields would increase emissions, in direct opposition to the country's stance in international climate change forums. Environmental groups say the government is unfairly providing relief to big oil in order to increase revenue before shrinking global carbon budgets push down demand and prices, reports the Guardian.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has denied receiving any campaign donations or bribes from the Brazilian construction giant, Odebrecht, reports the BBC. (See yesterday's post.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Odebrecht waves continue, Ecuador's VP to stand trial (Nov. 15, 2017)

Ecuador's Vice President Jorge Glas was ordered to stand trial over corruption allegations. He is the highest ranking politician to be indicted in the transnational Odebrecht bribery scandal. Prosecutors accuse Glas of taking $13.5 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction giant, reports the BBC. The vice president denies the charges and says they are politically motivated.

A former Odebrecht executive in Ecuador said the company paid  $33.5m in bribes since 2007 to secure infrastructure contracts in the country. Prosecutors accuse Glas and a dozen others, including the VP's uncle, of illicit association, reports El Comercio. He is accused of charging up to 1.3 percent of contracts for five public works. Evidence given by U.S. prosecutors demonstrates how an offshore account controlled by Glas' uncle received a $150,000 transfer from an Odebrecht subsidiary.

Glas and 12 other defendants could face up to 5 years in jail if convicted, reports the Associated Press.

Odebrecht executives' plea-deal testimony continues to complicate high level politicians around the region. This week Peruvian media reported that Marcelo Odebrecht told prosecutors that the company hired President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski to work as a consultant a decade ago, reports Reuters

IDL Reporteros has an in-depth report on the revelations, which allege that Kuczynski was hired after his opposition to a project made him a thorn in Odebrecht's side. He was allegedly paid under the table. Odebrecht's testimony also includes allegations that Odebrecht contributed to the 2011 presidential run of Keiko Fujimori. 

In Peru, lawmakers voted last week to restrict local Odebrecht partners, part of the country's response to revelations of graft last year.The financial restrictions aim to limit the transfer of company assets abroad until civil reparations have been paid, reports Reuters.

News Briefs
  • Colombia's Constitutional Court unanimously approved the creation of a transitional justice system to try atrocities committed during the country's long civil conflict, reports La Silla Vacía. The unified decision also gives the polemic plan political legitimacy and does not modify the structural backbone of the Jurisdicción Especial de Paz (JEP), explains the piece. The decision also clarifies that former guerrillas can indeed run for office and participate in politics. They will however have to agree to submit themselves to the JEP when it is up and running. (See Nov. 2's post.) Their decision also shields former presidents, namely Álvaro Uribe, from facing proceedings in the JEP over their policies. And runs counter to Human Rights Watch's recommendations regarding military officials' responsibility for atrocities committed under their watch. Colombian lawmakers must now approve legislation regulating the transitional justice system, reports El Tiempo.
  • A Venezuelan sovereign debt default on the horizon (see yesterday's post) is sending traditional investors running, and attracting the so-called "Vulture Funds" that specialize in in the debts of near-bankrupt nations, reports the New York Times.
  • About two million Venezuelans are estimated to have left since Hugo Chávez came into power in 1999 -- an exodus roughly double that from Cuba in the twenty years after its revolution, according to the Wall Street Journal. (No clarification regarding whether this statistic takes into account the relative populations of the two countries.) And, in the wake of violently repressed opposition protests this year and a looming debt default, the drain of the well-educated middle class is only likely to continue, argues the piece. 
  • A Venezuelan shipping magnate with close ties to the government is funding the defense of a former Mormon missionary jailed in Venezuela on accusations of stockpiling weapons. Joshua Holt's defenders say the bizarre case was set up to retaliate against the U.S. What is strange about tycoon Wilmer Ruperti's financial defense of the U.S. citizen is that he is also funding the defense of President Nicolas Maduro’s two nephews in a separate, politically-charged U.S. narcotics trial, reports the Associated Press. Though Ruperti is keeping quiet, sources indicate he believes both cases are politically motivated. "Ruperti’s seemingly contradictory positions offer a window into the tangled and often perplexing web of political and business connections that dominate decision making in Venezuela," writes Joshua Goodman.
  • Dominant northeast Mexican criminal organizations, the Gulf Cartel and los Zetas, have declined, but their rivalry continues to foment violence in the region, reports InSight Crime in a piece that analyzes the specific dynamics in different states.
  • Mexican foreign minister Luis Vidigaray reiterated that a poor NAFTA renegotiation outcome would affect other areas of U.S. - Mexican cooperation, including security and immigration, reports Bloomberg.
  • Costa Rica plays an important and growing role in the transit of South American cocaine headed for North America, Europe and beyond, reports InSight Crime, based on an investigation by local news outlet La Nación. Regional criminal networks have taken advantage of the country's strategic location and local conditions, according to the report, which also looks at negative impacts from the illicit trade on a country traditionally considered relatively secure and stable. "Multinational criminal groups, primarily Mexican and Colombian ones, have been known to have a presence in Costa Rica in the past. But the La Nación investigation underscores the importance of local support for the smooth operation of transnational criminal schemes. According to the report, foreign drug trafficking groups often subcontract Costa Ricans to help with local logistics. Costa Ricans will pick up cocaine shipments at strategic points throughout the country, particularly along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, then store and transport them domestically for re-shipment."
  • Brazilian President Michel Temer is planning a cabinet shakeup in order to muster up support for an unpopular and oft-delayed pension reform bill, reports Bloomberg. The move comes as major ally PSDB angles to exit the ruling coalition ahead of next year's elections.
  • Argentine online retail-service giant Mercadolibre is threatening to decamp from the country if a dispute with tax authority continues, reports the Wall Street Journal. The government is anxious to attract tech investment, and officials have said they will urge the tax agency to back off a plan to charge Mercado Libre about $28 million in tax benefits obtained through a law aimed at benefiting software companies.
  • A former Argentine football official, Jorge Delhon, appears to have committed suicide yesterday, just hours after being accused of taking bribes. An Argentine sports marketing executive giving testimony in a U.S. Fifa corruption trial accused Delhon of taking $2 million in payments in exchange for rights for broadcasting football games, reports the BBC. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Uber promised to play by the rules in El Salvador, after a high level official warned that services provided by the ride-sharing company are not covered by existing regulations, reports the Associated Press. Just six months after launching in El Salvador, the service has grown to nearly 1,000 drivers and more than 33,000 users in the country. A bill in Congress would allow for Uber-like services.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Venezuela in "selective default" (Nov. 14, 2017)

Venezuela is in selective default according to Standard & Poors, an international credit ratings agency. "Selective default" is used when a country has failed to pay one or more of its financial obligations when it came due, reports the BBC. Venezuela's state-run oil company PDVSA has also been declared in default by rating agencies Fitch and Moody's.

A meeting with creditors yesterday in Caracas was brief and lacked concrete proposals for restructuring debt, reports the Wall Street Journal. Most major investment funds skipped yesterday's meeting, some citing concern over meeting with head negotiator, Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who is blacklisted by the U.S. for alleged drug trafficking. Some bondholders stayed out of the room while El Aissami and Economy Minister Simon Zerpa, who is also the target of U.S. sanctions, were present. (See yesterday's post.)

The "short and confused meeting" offered no plan for restructuring or refinancing the country's $60 billion in debt, though investors were gifted boxes of chocolate, notes Reuters.

Venezuela continues to divide the international community. (See yesterday's post.) Yesterday, the U.S. denounced Venezuela as a global threat in an informal U.N. Security Council meeting yesterday on the deteriorating situation in the country, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Russia, China, Egypt and Bolivia refused to attend and said the body should stay out of the situation, related to the country's domestic affairs, reports Reuters. Venezuela's U.N. ambassador denounced the meeting as "hostile act" in violation of Venezuela's sovereignty, reports the New York Times. Uruguay sent a representative, but clarified that it does not believe the situation in Venezuela is a threat to international peace and security.

Julio Henríquez, representing local rights group Foro Penal, spoke at the meeting about the dramatic increase in political prisoners and use of force against anti-government protesters. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein also mentioned abuses against protesters, documented by his office, and voiced concern that human rights violations in Venezuela could have a destabilizing effect on the region, according to Efecto Cocuyo.

Venezuela aside: There are all kinds of medicine shortages affecting the country. A woman who gave testimony about lack of medication to prevent rejection of her transplanted kidney died shortly after, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

News Briefs
  • Candidates for promotion in Colombia's army include five officers linked by strong evidence to extrajudicial killings that are under criminal investigation, denounced Human Rights Watch. Four colonels and one army general on the list of 22 have been credibly linked to “false positive” killings and other abuses under their watch, according to HRW. The Colombian Senate is set to decide the promotions in the next few weeks, but resumes released by the Defense Ministry were incomplete about these officers' records. "False positives" refers to the systematic killings of innocent civilians between 2002 and 2008 to boost body counts in the country’s long-running armed conflict. "Human Rights Watch research has shown that patterns in false-positive cases – including their systematic nature and the implausible circumstances of many of the reported combat killings – strongly suggest that commanders of units responsible for a significant number of killings knew or had reason to know about them." 
  • Human Rights Watch has reported on a military directives linking honors and advancement to enemy combatant deaths. Most recently the organization discovered a 2003 formula requiring 150 enemy combatant deaths and another 500 captured in order for a brigade captain to receive a medal for distinguished services, reports Semana.
  • A soda tax aimed at reducing consumption of sugary beverages in Colombia became a fierce battle between rights groups and soda corporations, reports the New York Times in a feature piece that goes in depth on the threats faced by activists and pressures on media outlets.
  • About 90 percent of cases of child rape remain unpunished in El Salvador, where judges have leeway to pardon the crime even when its proved. Magistrates often appeal to character traits or try to force the victim and aggressor to form a home together, reports El Faro.
  • "Online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including the United States," according to a new Freedom House report. In Latin America, Venezuela was "among 30 countries where governments were found to employ armies of 'opinion shapers' to spread government views, drive particular agendas, and counter government critics on social media." 
  • U.S. prosecutors accused three former South American football officials of taking millions of dollars in bribes as part of a broad corruption network within Fifa, reports the Guardian. The former heads of the football federations of Brazil, Paraguay and Peru denied the charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. It's the first trial since a high profile arrest of football officials in Zurich in 2015. The trial will focus on how marketing and sponsorship rights were sold for two major South American tournaments, the Copa América and the Copa Libertadores, as well as the Brazilian domestic tournament Copa do Brasil. US Assistant Attorney Keith Edelman told jurors the evidence will show abuse over 20 years, reports the BBC.
  • A German court granted a Peruvian farmer's demand to sue energy giant RWE for damages related to climate change threatening his Andean home. Though the victory is small -- the case will be permitted to proceed -- it is significant, reports the Guardian. It could potentially grant precedent for plaintiffs around the world.
  • The "Weinstein Effect" is spreading around the globe, as women and men emboldened by reports of sexual harassment come forward with stories of their own. Nearly half of the “#metoo” mentions since the movement has been launched have come from outside the U.S., reports the Associated Press, referencing Peruvian beauty contestants decision to cite gender violence statistics instead of their body measurements. (See last Wednesday's briefs.)

Monday, November 13, 2017

EU sanctions Venezuela, debt talks starting (Nov. 13, 2017)

The European Union agreed to a range of sanctions against the Venezuelan government earlier today, including banning arms sales, setting up a system for freezing assets and imposing travel restrictions on some government officials, reports the Financial Times. EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels announced the measures in response to regional elections last month, which they say worsened the country’s crisis, reports Voice of America. They referred to "numerous irregularities" in last month's vote. (See last Friday's briefs.)

U.S. sanctions have focused on corruption, while the EU is focusing on human rights violations. Aiming to avoid pushing Venezuela closer to collapse, the EU has not targeted individual officials yet, reports Reuters. In a joint statement, all 28 EU ministers said the legal basis for individual travel bans to the Europe Union and the freezing of any Venezuelan assets in the bloc "will be used in a gradual and flexible manner and can be expanded."

Later today the U.N. Security Council will have an informal meeting on the situation in Venezuela, organized by the U.S. and Italy, reported the Associated Press on Friday. Speakers will include U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, Organization of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro, Joseph Cornelius Donnelly who heads Caritas International's U.N. office, and Julio Henriquez, international coordinator of the Foro Penal Venezolano.

A former Venezuelan diplomat living in the U.S., Diego Arria, accused the MUD opposition coalition of unsuccessfully trying to postpone the Security Council meeting in order to avoid derailing talks with the Venezuelan government to be held in the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, according to EFE.

The E.U. decision comes as investors are in Caracas for a meeting on restructuring about $60 billion in foreign debt. It comes the expiration of a grace period for three interest payments the government and PDVSA owe, altogether worth $199.6 million, explains Americas Quarterly. 

U.S. sanctions are a significant obstacle in the talks, as the two men in charge of leading the negotiations are on a list prohibiting U.S. citizens from doing business with them, notes the BBC. Nonetheless, Maduro said 91 percent of the country's bondholders are gathered in Caracas, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

And the sanctions might even help dialogue in Venezuela, according to an interview with debt expert Russ Dallen in Americas Quarterly. "... the Treasury Department in recent days has said that the U.S. would consider licensing new bonds if they are approved by the Venezuelan National Assembly, which Maduro has been thwarting at every opportunity. This gives the opposition something to go to the government with and say, "If you recognize the national assembly and treat us with respect we might be willing to do this." Interestingly, it’s turned the sanctions into a great negotiating tactic. It’s a great flanking maneuver from the U.S. government."

Yesterday Maduro insisted his country would "never" default, and emphasized talks with debtor nations Russia and China, reports Deutsche Welle.

All the leading ratings agencies forecast a Venezuelan default as highly probably, differing only on when it might occur, according to France 24

However, the case of Venezuela's inability to pay debt differs from that of other countries in similar situations because of its oil sector and need for food imports. Venezuelan oil would be blocked internationally by a default, leaving the country unable to pay for vital food and medicine imports, analyst Luis Vicente León told the BBC.

But some analysts quoted by the BBC feel Maduro could be helped in the short term by a default that would free up funds. (See last Friday's briefs for more analysis.)

Venezuela's state electricity company was declared in default on Friday, a potential harbinger of unravelling to come, reports the New York Times. Corpoelec was unable to make a $28 million payment on a $650 million bond.

News Briefs 
  • Guatemala's judiciary threatens to reverse the significant advances in prosecuting corruption made by the CICIG and the Public Ministry in recent years, according to a new Human Rights Watch report."Running Out the Clock: How Guatemala’s Judiciary Could Doom the Fight against Impunity, documents a pattern of repeated and unjustifiable delays in criminal cases brought by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office. The report comes in the midst of a showdown between the CICIG and President Jimmy Morales' government. HRW documents how cases against powerful defendants "have been bogged down in pretrial proceedings, some for more than five years." Though "Guatemalan law sets clear limits on the amount of time courts have to address these appeals, but the courts routinely fail to comply with those limits," notes HRW. The delays will help perpetuate corruption in Guatemala,  Daniel Wilkinson, managing director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch told El Periódico.
  • As the Trump administration evaluates terminating an immigration program shielding about 300,000 Temporary Protected Status recipients from deportation, Canada fears a flood of asylum seekers, reports the Washington Post. In the meantime, a bill in Congress would allow all TPS recipients to apply for permanent residency, reports the Miami Herald. The ASPIRE Act would require applicants to demonstrate they would face extreme hardship if they were forced to return home.
  • The Miami Herald profiles some of the Nicaraguan citizens who were told last week that they have 14 months to prepare to leave the U.S.
  • El Salvador has already received hundreds of thousands of deportees from the U.S. since the 1980s. Last year the violence plagued country received 50,000 deportees, many of whom face a stigma of delinquency, though most are not criminals, reports Univisión. Decades ago, U.S. deportees famously included members of the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 LA gangs, contributing to the rise of street gangs in Central America, and tainting future deportees' reps. The current generation of deportees include few criminals, and face difficulties integrating in a country many have hardly lived in. "In an attempt to destigmatize deportation, the governments of Central America now use the term retornado, or “returnee,” instead of “deportee,” to refer to this population."
  • Puerto Rican journalist Ana Teresa Toro muses on the "revelations" of Hurricane Maria's destruction on the island in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • Brazilian politician and potential presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro is a known dictatorship apologist. But the religious nationalist is also anti-gay and pro-gun. Though it's too soon to tell if he actually has a shot in next year's presidential race, his current popularity shows the difficulties centrist candidates will face in wooing a skeptical electorate, according to the Economist.
  • Brazil is set to start receiving crude oil from a large offshore field -- but the government lacks the infrastructure to store the oil, transport it and even process it. The "offshore oil dilemma" faced by Brazil means the dividends from the field might be less than originally predicted, and demonstrate the pitfalls of nationalist oil policy, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A controversial plan to save an endangered Mexican porpoise by capturing the few dozen remaining in the wild and breeding them in captivity was shut down after one died after being caught, reports the New York Times. The piece looks at the difficulty of protecting a species decimated as a collateral effect of an illicit trade that sustains fishermen of the area. Conservationists point to the need to crack down on illegal fishing, but also that corruption diverts financial compensation aimed at reducing fishermen's impact on the Vaquita porpoise.
  • Rehearsals for a documentary play about the Falklands/Malvinas war took longer than the 74-day 1982 conflict itself. "Minefield," by Argentine artist and writer Lola Arias, is "not a play that explores the rights and wrongs of that conflict or, indeed, any other. What it does is look at the human experience of war and in particular what happens to those who go through it when they return to “normal” life," reports the Guardian.
  • The Chilean city of Valdivia aims to become a senior-citizen paradise, with urban infrastructure and public policies aimed at supporting elderly people and providing them with opportunities, reports the Guardian. The city's "Gerontological Hub project" could be relevant for countries around the world faced with aging populations. 
  • An elephant found on a ranch owned by drug dealers in Colombia had a successful root-canal operation on a cracked tusk in Baranquilla, paid for by crowdfunding, reports the BBC.
  • It's a Black Thing: Black Brazilians have reappropriated a disparaging quip by a television newscaster to highlight the achievements of Afro-Brazilians, reports the New York Times.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Kelly pressured DHS to expel TPS Hondurans (Nov. 10, 2017)

The White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, tried to pressure acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Elaine Duke to expel thousands of Honduran migrants earlier this week, reports the Washington Post. On Monday the DHS decided to end a provisional residency program for about 2,500 Nicaraguan migrants, but postponed determination for a far larger group of about 57,000 Hondurans. (See Tuesday's post.) 

According to the Post, Kelly called Duke on Monday, who was angered by the pressure to expel the Honduran recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS). She reportedly told Kelly she would resign.

Kelly reportedly said the decision to end the program keeps "getting kicked down the road," and said the extension for six more months was contrary to the administration's wider immigration objectives. Duke was also pressured on the other side by former U.S. diplomats who urged her to consider the case carefully, given that many of the people in question have lived in the U.S. for twenty years. Last week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent Duke a letter essentially green lighting termination of TPS for both groups of citizens. (See Monday's and Tuesday's posts.)

Kelly was reportedly concerned that the decision will now rest with the administration's nominee for DHS secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen, who had a Senate confirmation hearing this week. The Post notes that she was not asked what she plans to do with the approximately 300,000 TPS recipients of several nationalities who will be deported if the program is not extended. Their families include an estimated 275,000 U.S.-born children.

Newsweek looks at some of the potential U.S. impacts of terminating TPS. It would result in the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) taking a $164 billion hit over the next decade, according to the Center for American Progress. And would also result in a $6.9 billion reduction to Social Security and Medicare contributions over a decade, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

News Briefs
  • The U.S. State Department stopped accepting new applicants for a program aimed at Central American youths fleeing violence. The Central American Minors (CAM) program, which allowed children in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to apply for refugee status before leaving their home country, will now be phased out, reports Reuters. The program, started in 2014 by the Obama administration in response to a flood of unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S., had permitted 1,500 children and eligible family members to enter the U.S. as refugees, as of August of this year. More than 13,000 people have applied for the program since it began.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales is attempting again to find a path for a fourth reelection. This time supporters are petitioning the Constitutional Tribunal to eliminate the constitutional presidential term limit, saying the statute discriminates against Morales and limits his right to participate in politics. The move makes a mockery of the American Convention on Human Rights' establishment of political rights, argue Human Rights Watch's Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco and HRW lawyer Juan Pappier in a New York Times Español op-ed. Additionally, the Morales administration's invocation of human rights is hypocritical, they say, as the government has always vehemently sustained that sovereignty trumps international human rights principals. They call on regional leaders to denounce the move.
  • The U.S. imposed new sanctions against ten more Venezuelan officials, accusing them of undermining democracy through their use of corruption and censorship in support of the government, reports the New York Times. At least half were accused by the U.S. Treasury Department for their role in recent regional elections, which have been accused of irregularities. (Though many analysts say these do not explain the opposition's loss in most states, see Oct. 19's briefs, for example.) The latest sanctions bring the total of Venezuelan officials targeted by the U.S. government up to 40, including President Nicolás Maduro, reports the BBC.
  • Venezuela's increasingly cash-strapped government named a six-person committee to negotiate debt restructuring with bond holders. But the composition of the group -- which includes two targets of U.S. sanctions and nobody with significant economics or finance training -- suggests the Maduro administration is instead angling to blame an eventual default on U.S. sanctions, according to the Wall Street Journal
  • "Perhaps the government has an objective that should not be overlooked: a search for allies in Washington, DC, to try to loosen U.S. sanctions in order to move forward with a refinancing (not restructuring) of Venezuela’s debt," writes Luis Vicente León at Prodavinci (in English at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights). Few, if any, bondholders are expected to show up for a Caracas meeting next week. The commission's head, Vice President Tareck El Aissami, is on Washington’s drug kingpin list, which means anybody attending risks breaking U.S. law and facing a 30-year jail-term. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Venezuela's newly passed anti-hate law -- "Ley contra el Odio, por la Convivencia Pacífica y la Tolerancia" -- could punish a wide variety of actions considered hatred incentives with stiff jail penalties. This includes political manifestations and even newspaper covers, reports El País. (See yesterday's briefs.) The law also targets political parties that "promote fascism" and social media users.
  • Harsh anti-defamation laws in Peru are having a chilling effect on reporting of corruption and organized crime, according to InSight Crime. Prominent media outlets are facing lawsuits over their coverage of a suspected drug trafficker, based on official documents detailing an investigation by Peru's counternarcotics police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Miguel Arévalo Ramírez, recently filed criminal defamation lawsuits against half a dozen news outlets, four journalists and a counternarcotics official and is demanding $210 million in fines and several years of jail time for the journalists involved.
  • Last weekend Nicaragua's ruling party won in municipal elections around the country, carrying 135 mayoralties out of the 153 up for grabs, reports Prensa Latina. Officially the the FSLN won 1,321,067 votes, followed by the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista with 315,132 votes. The elections were plagued with irregularities and sparked protests that left five dead and dozens wounded this week, reports El País.
  • Testimony given in three Texas courtrooms shows how the Mexican Zetas cartel coopted Coahuila state officials and politicians, who permitted the killings and disappearances of hundreds of civilians, reports the Guardian. The cartel carried out a string of massacres, including a 2011 rampage through the town of Allende which left about 300 dead. (See June 13's post.) Witnesses report atrocities such as forced recruitment of teenage hitmen and hundreds of incinerated bodies, reported the BBC earlier this week.
  • Cartel violence is hardly restricted to that state. The Mexican Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH) has documented forced internal displacement in ten states, including Guerrero, where even military intervention has not succeeded in protecting local communities, reports Animal Político.
  • A Mexican citizen was executed by the state of Texas, a moved condemned by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto who said it violated a U.N. ruling on the treatment of Mexican prisoners in the U.S., reports the BBC.
  • Al Jazeera profiles an indigenous community struggling to regain historic land in Argentina's Formosa province. 
  • A new Global Witness report exposes how major Peruvian timber exporters know they are dealing with illegal products, but shield themselves with falsified documents used to launder illicit timber. The environmental watchdog has footage showing timber exporters acknowledging that documents are often falsified, giving insight into the scale of the problem. The case highlighted in the investigation "demonstrates the slow, painstaking and highly specialized work required to prove illegality, which, two years later, has yet to yield prosecutions. The case also shows how the difficulty of combating forest crime stands in stark contrast to the quick and easy fraud and corruption that hides it," according to InSight Crime.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

U.S. restricts trade, travel to Cuba (Nov. 9, 2017)

The U.S. government announced new restrictions how citizens can travel to and trade with Cuba. The new rules, which take away permission for most individual travel to the island and bar citizens from staying patronizing a long list of hotels and restaurants linked to the Cuban security forces, represent a roll-back from the Obama administration's focus on normalizing relations. Most U.S. citizens will have to travel to Cuba as part of organized groups.

They are in line with U.S. President Donald Trump's promises five months ago to reverse his predecessor's policy, reports the Washington Post. The regulations aim to cut off cash from President Raul Castro's government and pressure it to move towards "greater political and economic freedom for the Cuban people," Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement.

In recent months then the U.S. has also pulled out a significant part of it's diplomatic staff and  in the wake of alleged "sonic attacks." Cuban officials have accused the U.S. of lying about the attacks as an excuse to unravel relations. The bilateral relationship has now slumped to its lowest point since the George W Bush presidency, according to the BBC.

After Trump's June speech about Cuba, analysts noted that the changes were not nearly as profound as they could have been, and largely left in place the fundamentals of the Cuba-U.S. rapprochement. (See June 19's post.) These new regulations are in keeping with that stance, according to the Miami Herald. Nor is it clear how closely the U.S. government will enforce the new regulations that include bans on specific stores.

The new rules have been criticized for not going far enough to rollback Cuba normalization, notes the Financial Times. Marco Rubio, Republican senator for Florida, accused State Department "bureaucrats" of refusing to fully implement Trump's policy.

Though the new regulations are applicable starting today, they are not retroactive, and companies that already have contracts on the island -- including John Deere and Caterpillar -- will be allowed to proceed. A new Sheraton hotel in Havana, carried out with a Cuban military-linked entity, will also be grandfathered in, a move criticized by Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

More than 180 entities, including dozens of hotels and the new  Manzana de Gomez luxury shopping mall are on the list, reports NPR. So is the Zona Especial de Desarrollo Mariel (ZEDM).

The Post cites Engage Cuba, a national business coalition that supports lifting the embargo and expanding trade and travel, which called the new regulations a "more convoluted, confusing and counterproductive approach to Cuba policy."

News Briefs
  • The European Union is set to impose an arms embargo on Venezuela and will consider further sanctions, reports Reuters. The measures, in response to Venezuela's political crisis, bring Europe more in line with the U.S. stance. Sources say the turning point for the EU, which had resisted a tougher approach until now, were last months regional elections, in which pro-government candidates won in almost all the races.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri urged the U.S. to impose a full oil embargo, and said the move would enjoy widespread support in Latin America. He made the comments in an interview with the Financial Times, which notes he is the first Latin American leader to advocate such a tough step.
  • In the meantime, Russia agreed to restructure roughly $3 billion in loans to Venezuela, a lifeline for the country on the brink of default, reports the New York Times. (See last Friday's post.)
  • The U.S. Treasury has warned Venezuelan bondholders that dealing with the country's chief debt negotiators could lead to stiff penalties under U.S. sanctions, as both are blacklisted by the U.S. Last week President Nicolas Maduro invited bondholders to a meeting next week in Caracas, a proposal many are resisting due to concern over U.S. sanctions and a deteriorated local security situation, according to Reuters.
  • Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly (ANC) passed a law yesterday punishing the the spreading of messages instigating hatred toward people or groups due to their race, class or political ideology punishable. The punishment is up toto 20 years of jail, and media outlet found to be promoting these types of crimes will have their licenses revoked, reports EFE.
  • A Brazilian congressional committee voted to ban abortion in all cases, including rape or danger to the pregnant woman's life. Abortion is available only in limited circumstances in Brazil, where more than a million clandestine abortions are carried out each year, leading to thousands of hospitalizations due to complications. The move to totally ban the procedure has been led by the growing Evangelical caucus in Congress, but will have to be approved by a two-thirds majority of lawmakers in both chambers to pass, reports Reuters.
  • The Mexican government reaffirmed its commitment to human rights and said it has already started on reforms that address impunity for violations committed by security forces, highlighted in a WOLA report this week, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Independents are technically allowed to run for president in Mexico for the first time this year, but would-be candidates are forced to use a smartphone app that critics are calling "faulty at best, and downright racist at worst," reports the Associated Press. Problems collecting signatures using the application are particularly acute for candidates in the country's rural areas. Maria de Jesus Patricio is the country's the first independent indigenous candidate -- her support base is in Chiapas, where many communities lack phone lines, much less good cell coverage. "Our campaign is being run primarily in the 'deep Mexico,' where no other candidate goes, where there is no cell coverage, where there are no copy machines, where there often isn't even electrical power," the campaign supporters wrote.
  • Haiti topped the list of countries worst hit by extreme weather last year in the Climate Risk Index, published annually by research group Germanwatch. The report noted that some countries, including Haiti, are repeatedly hit by extreme weather, leaving them with little time to recover in between catastrophes, according to Reuters. About 46,000 Haitian migrants in the U.S. have Temporary Protected Status, granted after a 2010 earthquake. The Trump administration is evaluating whether to prolong the immigration program. (See Tuesday's post.)
  • Ecuador's attorney general's office said it plans to charge Vice President Jorge Glas with criminal conspiracy in connection with the bribery case involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, reports EFE. Glas has been in jail since Oct. 2, in preventive detention pending a possible indictment. If the trial proceeds, Glas will become the highest-ranking politician to face justice in the Odebrecht case. But critics say the judicial onslaught is part of a political persecution in relation to a power struggle between President Lenín Moreno and his predecessor, Rafael Correa.
  • Earlier this week the prosecutor's office also announced it will press tax fraud charges against Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht, reports AFP.
  • Uruguay's landmark cannabis legalization public policy experiment is barely up and running, but it already provides important lessons for activists seeking more human drug policies around the world, argues Sebastian Sperling of the Friedrich-Eberts-Stiftung in International Politics and Society. He highlights the importance of regulating the entire value chain, as well as a focus on "responsible regulation" rather than "careless liberalization."
  • Human rights organizations in El Salvador are supporting a push for reparations for victims of the country's civil war. The project proposes the creation of a Reparations Fund, a registry of victims and various measures for symbolic and material reparations, including preferential access to the public education system and a free psychological support program, reports Inter Press Service.
  • Upside Down World interviews eco-feminist Vidalina Morales and her struggle against mining in El Salvador. In the wake of activists' success in banning metallic mining, The National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador (MESA), which she leads, will focus on defending the new law. "In addition, MESA is advocating for water protection laws to protect the vulnerable water basins. There are still many communities that do not have water. MESA hopes to combat water privatization efforts. Private powerful industries are against such water protection laws in El Salvador, as they seek to profit from bottling water for sale as is currently being done."
  • Colombian police have seized more than 12 tonnes of cocaine from the Gulf Clan, the country's largest drug trafficking cartel, reports Reuters. The U.S. market value would be approximately $360 million according to President Juan Manuel Santos.
  • Bogotá neighborhoods are officially classified into six strata, denoting housing quality as a proxy for income. But the system, intended to charge wealthier people more for municipal services and thus subsidize poorer citizens, "now stands accused of fueling social segregation," reports the Guardian. Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, along with U.N.-Habitat and the utility companies proposes replacing strata and using new technology to assess individuals, rather than properties.
  • A new film from the tiny Colombian outpost of Old Providence is the first ever written and produced in San Andres-Providencia creole, the distinct variant of Caribbean English spoken on Providence and its larger sister island, San Andres. Colombian director Samir Oliveros, hopes "Bad Lucky Goat" -- about a brother and sister who accidentally kill a goat with their parents car -- can serve as a testament to the island’s language and culture, reports the Guardian.