Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Helicopter fired at Venezuelan government buildings (June 28, 2017)

A police helicopter, possibly manned by a former police intelligence officer, fired shots at Venezuela's Interior Ministry and lobbed four grenades at the country's Supreme Court building yesterday. No injuries were reported. President Nicolás Maduro called it an act of terrorism, and said the arms failed to detonate, reports the Guardian.

Venezuela's political opposition questioned the attack, saying Maduro had orchestrated a diversion from attempts to intervene in the opposition-controlled National Assembly, reports the Wall Street Journal. Yesterday soldiers surrounded the congress building, and clashed with lawmakers who said troops were carrying equipment to be used in a government takeover of the building.

The alleged attack on government buildings took place shortly after Maduro said his supporters would be willing to take up arms if his government is toppled. Speaking at a rally to promote a 30 July vote for a constituent assembly, Maduro seemed to threaten to fight unfavorable electoral results with weapons, reports the Guardian separately.

Venezuelan media describe an exchange of fire between building guards and the helicopter, and pin the attack on Oscar Pérez, a former captain in the CICPC, Venezuela’s intelligence and investigative body. In a video released on social media, Pérez speaks directly to a camera flanked by four masked men wielding what appear to be assault rifles. He said he represented a coalition of military, police and civilian personnel who opposed what he called "this transitional, criminal government," reports the New York Times. (Footage of attack and video.)

The helicopter used in the attack flew a banner reading, "350 Libertad," apparently a reference to the article of the Venezuelan constitution which says citizens will not recognize regimes that run counter to democratic values. In the video Pérez  says his allegiance is to "the truth and to Christ," reports the Guardian separately. The NYT reviews some mysterious elements of Pérez's past, such as an appearance as a police officer in a 2015 film.

The incident could indicate growing dissent within the security forces against the Maduro government.

The incident occurred in the wake of the worst incidents of looting since a wave of daily protests against the government began over two months ago, notes the Guardian. Some 68 businesses, including supermarkets, liquor stores, bakeries and food shops were ransacked in a wave of lawlessness that began Monday night in the city of Maracay, 100km west of Caracas. And residents of a middle-class gated community shot at national guard members to prevent them from entering the neighborhood, in eastern Caracas.

Yesterday the Maduro-loyal Supreme Court published a decision that gave investigative powers to the human-rights ombudsman, an ally of the president, usurping powers of Attorney General Luisa Ortega who has been increasingly critical of the regime, reports the WSJ.

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Brazilian politics reeling -- again, even more

Bribery charges filed against Brazilian President Michel Temer bring the country's leadership close to a potential ouster, for the second time in little over a year. (See yesterday's post.) Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot accused Temer of accepting about $150,000 in bribes and agreeing to take about $11.5 million more. He is expected to bring additional charges for obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy in upcoming days, and requested permission from the Supreme Court to investigate the president for money laundering. Each of the charges must be evaluated by the lower house of Congress, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in order to put Temer on trial before the Supreme Court. If that happens, he will be suspended for 180 days. 

Though analysts say he currently has enough support from lawmakers to duck a trial, that could change as new evidence comes to light or successive charges are filed and evaluated by Congress, reports the Wall Street Journal. The longer the process takes, the more his support could wear thin, and eventually it might come down to whether ruling party legislators consider him a liability ahead of next year's elections, according to the Guardian.

Calls for Temer to resign and call early elections before his mandate finishes next year are multiplying -- he is resisting and insists on his innocence. He has said the charges against him are politically motivated, and that Janot's supporters are against the national interest, reports the Guardian. Ironically, his supporters say the anti-corruption push by prosecutors is undemocratic and denies power to elected officials. In the meantime, the opposition is making much of the fact that Temer is the first sitting president charged with corruption. 

While Temer supporters insist it is vital he remain in office and complete a series of economic reforms aimed at pulling the country out of recession, the current political scenario makes that unpopular legislation unlikely to pass, notes the WSJ. (The Wall Street Journal has a handy summary of how the charges will wend their way through the system -- there is no timeline for when the House of Deputies will vote on the case.)

News Briefs
  • Colombia's FARC rebels turned over the last of 7,132 weapons yesterday to U.N. monitors. The U.N. has also destroyed also destroyed 77 of hundreds of the guerrilla group's secret arms caches throughout the country. "Goodbye to weapons, goodbye to war, hello peace," said FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño. The FARC plans to become a political party, likely launching in August, reports the Guardian. A ceremony yesterday in a transition camp where fighters prepare for civilian life was attended by President Juan Manuel Santos. He gave Londoño a gold shovel made from an old machine gun, and white butterflies were released, reports the Financial Times. The weapons handed over by former fighters will be melted down and used to create monuments to peace. Now comes the challenge of implementing the rest of the complex peace agreement that promises special tribunals for war crimes and extensive rural development programs, reports the New York Times. That will be the hard part, Cynthia J. Arnson, the director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told the NYT. The peace process has polarized Colombia, and next year's presidential election promises to become a second referendum on the issue, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Colombia's top anticorruption prosecutor was arrested in Bogotá, after U.S. DEA agents said they had recorded him in South Florida at meetings where a former Colombian governor was asked to pay bribes in exchange for favorable treatment and names of witnesses, reports the New York Times. It is another blow for Santos' administration.
  • Peru's public prosecutor has opened an investigation in the wake of a fire that killed four people in Lima, apparently working in virtual conditions of slavery. Two may have been locked into a container on the roof of a building where they worked. The case draws attention abysmal working conditions in a country where 70 percent of the work force is in the unregulated labor sector, according to the Guardian.
  • Gang warfare has spurred incredible violence in Honduras, where the homicide rate in San Pedro Sula is among the world's highest. Clashes between the dominant MS-13 and 18th Street gangs are motivated by conflicts over specific drug trafficking routes and local representation of Mexican cartels, according to a Fusion piece by Douglas Farah
  • A Honduran-Guatemalan customs union could boost economic growth in both countries by one percent, reports Reuters.
  • Argentina is unlikely to make headway with economic reform ahead of October's midterm elections, which have paralyzed Congress, warned treasury minister Nicolás Dujovne according to the Financial Times.
  • Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is constructing a massive new urban intervention in Mexico City -- a  $13.4 billion airport project. "The stakes are high, and not just for Slim," reports the Guardian. "Should this project be a success, it will be his crowning glory, a symbol of his role in shaping Mexican modernity and a great gateway for the country’s global ambitions. Should it be a fiasco, future generations will see it as an ostentatious monument in an era long on mathematics and short on wisdom, in which natural resources existed to be consumed, megaprojects were a way to keep the poor fed and occupied, and the future was an afterthought."
  • Mexico City's mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera is harboring presidential ambitions for next year. But his plans for a major mass-transit bus line have been paused by complaints from ecological groups who say it will require chopping back trees along Reforma Avenue, reports the Financial Times.
  • Miss Escobar, El Patrón del Mal? Netflix has now released a new series about Mexican drug cartel kingpin, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. But not for the faint of heart. According to the Guardian review, it sounds like another Hollywood-version of a narcocorrido: "El Chapo traces the Scarface blueprint of a young buck with a big idea who butts up against the established order and prevails thanks to clever alliances and chilling ruthlessness. If you’re expecting carnage, the show will not disappoint. Explosions, decapitation, torture, unimaginable cruelty, slaughter of innocents and coke-induced psychosis pop up with the reliability of a drug dealer who always comes through."
  • Yay parrots! A rare new species discovered in Mexico and no birds were harmed in the DNA testing to identify their ancestry, reports the Guardian.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Temer indicted (June 27, 2017)

Brazilian President Michel Temer was accused by the country's prosecutor general of taking a $152,000 bribe via an intermediary, reports the New York Times. Rodrigo Janot said Temer had accepted a payment from the owner of a meatpacking giant, Joesley Batista in exchange for helping resolve a problem that a Batista company was having with a power plant it owned. He said the act "helped to compromise the image of the Federal Republic of Brazil," and said the president should pay $3 million in moral damages. According to the charges a further $11 million were promised. 

Janot's 64-page decision said that in general Temer showed a total disregard for the office, reports the Associated Press.

It's the first time since the return of democracy that a Brazilian president has faced criminal charges, reports the Financial Times. Temer denied the charges and said he would not resign.

Batista alleges that Temer led a group of politicians that acted as a criminal syndicate, charging bribes in exchange for financing from state banks and favorable regulatory actions, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Congress must now decide whether to accept these charges of corruption and any that might follow -- a two-thirds vote in the lower chamber and Supreme Court agreement would lead to Temer's suspension for 180 days while he is put on trial. (See last Wednesday's post.) Should Temer be suspended, House leader Rodrigo Maia would temporarily replace him, reports the Associated Press. Maia himself is facing 

Nonetheless, analysts say Temer continues to have enough votes in Congress to duck the charges, though he is increasingly unpopular and support for the administration is wavering. A recent poll found that 7 percent of Brazilians approved of Temer's government, 76 percent thought he should resign, and 47 percent felt ashamed to be Brazilian.

His increasing unpopularity could affect the government's ability to pass economic reform legislation through Congress, notes FT.

Former finance minister Antonio Palocci was sentenced to 12 years in prison yesterday, a major success for the sprawling anti-corruption Operation Car Wash probe. Palocci served as finance minister to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and chief of staff to his impeached successor, Dilma Rousseff. The sentence means Palocci could agree to a plea bargain that could lessen his sentence in exchange for providing information on other officials' crimes, reports the Financial Times. A deal is expected to be announced by September, reports Reuters.

Palocci's testimony could serve to widen the scope of Operation Car Wash even more.

The WSJ has an interesting summary of the unsettling impact of Operation Car Wash, which "has expanded from a narrow money-laundering probe into Brazil’s most significant anticorruption push ever. In a country where the rich and powerful historically faced few consequences for wrongdoing, the investigation has led to the jailing of scores of high-profile businessmen and politicians, yielded more than $7 billion in settlements and stirred broad hopes for a fairer society. But it hasn’t magically given Brazilians a new roster of honest politicians, something even the most optimistic political scientists say would take years. Instead, the investigations have fueled a state of nearly constant political turmoil, contributing to Brazil’s deepest economic downturn in more than a century and leading to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016." The question being, whether the costs of cleaning up corruption are worth it, asks the piece.

Investors are carrying on as usual, despite the presidential indictment, reported the Financial Times this morning. It's a marked contrast from the violent reaction in May, when news of evidence of Temer's collusion with hush-money payments first surfaced. (See May 18's post.) "The lack of a so-called “Temer tantrum” could in part be explained by the fact that the market has already priced in most of the shock from the corruption scandal in May."

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U.N. lacks funds to fight cholera in Haiti

Already scarce funding for the U.N.'s cholera fighting efforts in Haiti are drying up, and current intensified efforts will not be able to continue through this year and the next if money is not procured, reports the New York Times.

The current outbreak of the disease was introduced in Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers in the wake of a 2010 earthquake, a fact only recently acknowledged (somewhat) by the organization's authorities. It has claimed over 10,000 lives since then. (See post for Dec. 2, 2016.) Last year, outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon outlined a comprehensive approach to battling cholera in the country and compensating victims, but fundraising efforts have fallen far short the $400 million the project would require. 

And while U.S. courts have so far shielded the organization from lawsuits by asserting it has diplomatic immunity, on Friday the lead lawyer for Haitian victims challenged a request for dismissal of their case by the Justice Department.

On Saturday the United Nations Security Council wrapped up a visit to Haiti, in which the issue of cholera victim compensation came up, reports the Miami Herald. The 15-member council heard other concerns in two days of discussion ahead of the withdrawal of the 13-year U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti or MINUSTAH. Haitian officials discussed with them the lack of independence of the judiciary; the abandoned children of peacekeepers; and the desire for a new, smaller mission to be Haiti’s last.

Haitian authorities said citizens would be better served if aid funding -- much of which is channeled through NGO's -- goes through the government, reports Reuters.

MINUSTAH is scheduled to end in October, and leaves a complicated legacy of cholera and sexual abuse, notes the Herald. A proposal dedicate about $40.5 million left over from the peacekeeping efforts towards cholera has been opposed by several countries. (See June 15's briefs.)

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the mission's base ahead of the Security Council visit, calling for reparations and an end to U.N. missions.

The outgoing MINUSTAH will transition to the UN Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH), aimed at supporting institutional development, according to the organizationMINUJUSTH will work with the Haitian Government strengthen rule-of-law institutions, further develop and support the Haitian National Police and engage in human rights monitoring, reporting and analysis.

Last week U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced the appointment of a high-level envoy to focus on fundraising for the cholera plan. (See last Wednesday's briefs.) She will be the third special envoy so far in relation to the cholera crisis, notes the NYT.

Guterres is backpedaling on his predecessor's promise of retribution for victims, argues Stephen Lewis in a CNN piece. About half of the $400 million program was to be directed towards communities and victims' families -- but last week Guterres said the aim was never individuals, but rather communities.

Haiti aside: Haitian textile workers protested demanding higher wages yesterday, as factory managers threatened to leave the country if the government doesn't clamp down on demonstrations, reports Reuters.

News Briefs
  • Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López's family says he's denouncing torture -- in a shouted message from the Ramos Verde prison where he has been held in isolation from his lawyers since April and where his family has not been permitted entrance for the past 20 days. Authorities say he is alright, but in an interview with Deutsche Welle, Amnesty International's Carolina Jiménez points out that his fundamental rights are being violated. "Isolation is a cruel, inhumane, and degrading form of treatment. That is torture." She emphasizes that cases of torture in Venezuelan jails are piling up, and that authorities are not following up on AI's denunciations. 
  • Colombia's FARC guerrillas handed over the last of their weapons yesterday, reports the AFP. But Colombia is not celebrating the end of fifty years of armed conflict, writes La Silla Vacía's Juanita León in a New York Times Español op-ed. In fact, pessimism and disapproval of President Juan Manuel Santos have reached record levels according to a recent poll. She reviews possible reasons for the indifference to peace, including Santos' lack of a charismatic narrative, and the country's largely urban population which escaped the worst impacts of conflict. "Now that the FARC have kept their word about disarming, it is possible that with time the Colombian government will keep its part of the accord and make a mega investment to develop rural areas and democratize politics. This would help eliminate many motives for the current lack of confidence [in the peace process]. The problem for President Santos is that he has very little time to recover the faith of his country. In 2018 Colombia has presidential elections, and former president Uribe's pre-candidates have already started to campaign on the promise to modify the accords if they win," she warns. She calls on civil society to help lead the country to a lasting peace, noting the difficult political situation the president finds himself in. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • "The opponents’ ability to tip the political balance against the accord is likely to grow as Colombia prepares for its presidential election in May 2018.  The Santos government, the left, and center-left have already looked weak while trying to make even modest reforms necessary to create conditions for a lasting peace and facilitating a transition from a war system political economy to a different one," writes The opponents’ ability to tip the political balance against the accord is likely to grow as Colombia prepares for its presidential election in May 2018.  The Santos government, the left, and center-left have already looked weak while trying to make even modest reforms necessary to create conditions for a lasting peace and facilitating a transition from a war system political economy to a different one," writes Nazih Richani at the AULA blog.
  • When it comes to Latin America, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has U.S. President Donald Trump's ear, reports the Miami Herald. He is well positioned to take advantage of the vacuum in the State Department, as the administration has yet to appoint dozens of high-level State Department employees, including the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. And Trump has shown distaste of following the advice of career diplomats, according to the piece. Rubio was key in drafting last week's Cuba policy change. (See June 19's post.)
  • The remains of a missing Mexican journalist were discovered earlier this month, making Salvador Adame the seventh journalist murdered in the country so far this year, reports the Guardian.
  • Mexico's chief prosecutor's office said it will ask the FBI for help in investigating allegations that government-owned software was used to spy on activists and critical journalists, reports AFP. Mexico's special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, Ricardo Sanchez, announced a new "technical support" group to aid in the investigation. Alleged victims, such as the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center's executive director, rejected the proposal, noting it falls short of the independent international group they demand. (See last Wednesday's briefs.)
  • At least two U.S. citizens were among those wiretapped on former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli's orders, reports Univision, based on a witness affidavit in the Miami extradition case against Martinelli.
  • Guatemalan migrants deported back to their country from the U.S. find themselves ostracized and unable to integrate upon their return, writes Anita Isaacs in a New York Times op-ed. "In fact, many Guatemalans want the migrants to go back. Their return spells an end to remittances that constitute about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. And returning migrants are flooding an already depressed job sector, where three-quarters of the labor force works off the books." Such treatment ignores the valuable skills many have picked up in their time abroad -- important resources the government should try to tap into, she argues.
  • Peru's government made access to water a constitutional right this month, and is taking steps to vastly increase water and wastewater coverage, reports Bloomberg.
  • Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno pardoned five people imprisoned after participating in violent protests in 2015, reports TeleSUR. He is reportedly considering the release of others on the 20-name list delivered by Ecuador's main Indigenous organization CONAIE.
  • Brazil's recession has hit the Paulista helicopter industry, but some enterprising city residents are finding alternate uses for idle helipads, reports the Financial Times.
  • Why did the Galapagos tortoise cross the road? Or rather plod alongside it? A New York Times photographer writes about capturing the shy creature on film.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Guatemalan president questioned over U.S. lobby firm contract (June 26, 2017)

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales is under growing pressure over contracts with a lobbying firm closely linked to U.S. vice president Mike Pence, reports the Guardian. Anti-corruption activists are calling for an urgent inquiry in Guatemala and the U.S. over the origins of the $80,000 contract. 

The Indiana firm was apparently hired to improve relations between the U.S. and Guatemala, an arrangement apparently designed to avoid the U.S. State department and the Guatemalan foreign affairs ministry. The agreement aims to undermine the CICIG, according to Nómada

News Briefs
  • Morales allegedly gave orders that kept teens trapped in a public institution for abused children, in which 41 youths were killed in a fire in March, reports Nómada. (See March 9's briefs.) A Guatemalan judge charged five more people over the deaths, including two police officers and three government officials who were arrested earlier this month, reports the BBC.
  • Venezuelan protesters broke down a metal fence around the La Carlota airbase, before being repelled by security forces firing tear gas on Saturday, reports the Associated Press. Last week a protester was killed there, after being shot point blank by a security office, reports the Washington Post. Interior Minister Néstor Reverol tweeted to confirm the death of a protester and said a police sergeant had fired an "unauthorised weapon." The victim's father made a personal plea to President Nicolás Maduro, who he worked with in the Caracas transportation system, reports the BBC.
  • Reports of mistreatment of political prisoners and arrested protesters are increasing, reports the Washington Post, which recounts harrowing experiences including beatings and electric shocks. Over the past 10 weeks of protests in Venezuela, security forces have detained more than 3,200 people, with over a third of them remaining in custody, according to Foro Penal.
  • Whither Venezuela? The Center for Strategic and International Studies put together a report with four potential scenarios. These range from a "soft landing" -- in which opposition forces oust the government in fair elections, but coexist with remaining Chavista forces -- to the grim "civil conflict and national collapse -- "this is the “worst-case scenario” because the existing internal polarizing factors of instability lead to armed conflict, a complete national collapse, total chaos, and high loss of life. High pressure from the international community combines with Maduro’s erosion of power and desperate attempts to hold on."
  • The FARC will formally finish disarmament this week -- yet the country remains "awash with weapons" and an increasing gloom about the peace process, according to the Financial Times. Demobilized FARC fighters are handing in their weaponry, but about 900 arms caches remain around the country in difficult to reach terrain. The U.N. is supposed to find and dismantle them by Sept. 1, but some experts fear they could be located by paramilitaries or criminal groups before. Opinion polls about the peace process and President Juan Manuel Santos are increasingly negative. Nonetheless, the piece notes, the country's murder rate is lower than at any point in decades and infringements on the peace accord have been "negligible." Tomorrow Santos and the FARC leadership will hold a ceremony to mark the end of disarmament.
  • Two Dutch journalists captured by ELN were freed, reports the BBC.
  • Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner formally launched her senate bid this weekend, joining a mid-term race that will determine how the current administration will be able to carry out economic reform, reports the Guardian. She is running independently from the Peronist party, a break that divides the opposition and could strengthen President Mauricio Macri's hand. Fernández will be running for the Buenos Aires province, which has nearly 40 percent of the electorate and is traditionally a Peronist stronghold. However in the 2015 elections the governorship was won by Maria Eugenia Vidal, of Macri's party, notes the Financial Times.
  • Mexican activists have found an ally in Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour leader. While the Conservative government has forged close ties to President Enrique Peña Nieto's government, Corbyn has, in parliament, condemned Mexico’s media censorship and human rights abuses, and led demonstrations against Nieto’s state visit in 2015 while the British government was signing controversial oil deals, reports the Guardian.
  • A widely cited report that Mexico had the world's second-highest homicide rate last year -- following Syria's -- has been retracted by he International Institute for Strategic Studies, which said there was a methodological flaw in its data, reports the Washington Post.
  • Officially a Russian complex in Nicaragua is a Glonass (Russian GPS) station. But speculation is rife over what is really going on in there, along with Russian investment in capital Managua, reports the BBC.
  • Trump's anti-Nafta stance has American natural gas companies concerned -- but industry leaders believe they can count on Energy Secretary Rick Perry to stand up for the trade that provides Mexico with more than a quarter of its electricity, reports the New York Times.
  • Haitian migrants stranded in Tijuana have received an outpouring of sympathy, resources and effort from locals -- demonstrating how refugees can be put in distinct hierarchies by different societies, reports the Christian Science Monitor.
  • A Brazilian human rights specialist has been granted special protection measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights due to threats he has received in the process of investigating human rights violations committed by Uruguay's last dictatorship, reports Radio Uruguay.
  • At least six people died yesterday when a tourist boat carrying 150 people sank near Medellín, reports the Guardian. A major rescue effort involving Colombia’s air force and firefighters from nearby cities was looking for survivors at the Guatapé reservoir, reports the Associated Press.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Homicides in LatAm will continue to rise without intervention - Instinto de Vida (June 23, 2017)

Latin America's average homicide rate is already the highest in the world -- but if nothing is done, projections have predict a climb from 21 homicides per 100,000 to 35 in 2030, according to a new Instinto de Vida campaign report, based on Igarapé Institute's Homicide Observatory. But the violence is distributed unequally. Seven countries -- Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, México and Venezuela -- concentrate about a third of the world's homicides. Certain cities -- 120 in the region specifically -- similarly concentrate higher homicide rates, and within these, certain blocks and streets further concentrate violence. 

Furthermore, violence begets violence -- in general each new homicide in Latin America means another 0.66 the following year. The causes for all the violence however are far from homogenous, and often have a heavy local component, notes the report. Yet certain common factors include: inequality, youth unemployment, impunity, and arms trafficking. 

The campaign is a call to action, for evidence based and results focused policies. They call for citizen participation, access to justice and due legal process -- as well as containing violence and considering citizen protection and security a public good. (See yesterday's briefs.)

News Briefs
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto admitted yesterday that his government purchased the sophisticated software apparently used to spy on critics and human rights activists. He said the government had not ordered that surveillance, and promised an investigation into misuse. However, he also threatened to investigate those who “have raised false accusations” against his administration -- a group which would presumably include the victims themselves, reports the New York Times. Hacking victims reacted with shock, but a spokesman said the president was not threatening the group nor the NYT which broke the story earlier this week. Civil society groups said his statements were inappropriate and threatening, reports Animal Político. Peña Nieto said he himself has received suspicious messages (presumably akin to those used by the Pegasus software to infect victims' electronics) and is careful about his phone conversations, reports Animal Político.  (See yesterday's briefs and Wednesday's.)
  • A lack of agreement at the OAS foreign ministers' meeting this week in Mexico appears to have strengthened the Venezuelan government, according to David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. "...The domestic opposition is on its heels, Luisa Ortega is isolated, and the countries of the region have broken into finger-pointing and excuses." However, he also notes that support for the Maduro government itself was lackluster, instead opposition to a resolution condemning the administration focussed on procedural issues. "But beyond the actual votes and resolutions, these meetings deepen countries´ knowledge, develop their commitment to the issue and prime them to act. When the Maduro government, less than 48 hours later tried to use the SupremeCourt (TSJ) to grab what power the National Asembly had left, they were taken aback by the chorus of criticism from the region. The OAS is in permanent session regarding Venezuela, suggesting they may take up the issue again. It is not clear that this would be helpful. Venezuela has stated clearly that it would not accept any sort of solution or initiative coming from the OAS and it is clear they are serious about that. Turning around now and accepting an OAS solution would clearly amount to a loss of face and it is unlikely they will do so."
  • Speaking of intervention: The U.S. treats no other country in the world as it does Cuba -- "What makes Cuba different from countries such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or Iran, where systemic human rights violations prevail," asks Ted Piccone at the Brookings Institution's Order from Chaos blog. The answer is not related to national security, but rather national politics, he argues. "What really makes Cuba exceptional is that it faces an organized, well-financed political machine of angry exiles in vote-rich Florida that extracts certain demands from political leaders for its votes." The blog gathers several other reactions to Trump's Cuba announcement. (See Monday's post.)
  • For now U.S. companies are not sure what the Cuba policy change implies, as regulations won't begin being drafted for another month. In the meantime "Don’t expect a rush by U.S. companies that have proposals pending before the Cuban government to get deals inked before the new rules go into effect," reports the Miami Herald.
  • Also a reaction from last week's Miami meetings: the U.S.'s shift in attitude towards Central America is a swing back to "war on drugs" type of policies, according to InSight Crime. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said that Washington assigns a large part of the responsibility regarding the war on drugs to Central America, and that such remedies are needed to strengthen public order. "In a nutshell, US policies in the region are going backwards. Washington has done nothing more than return to its outdated foreign policy doctrines, first used in Central America following the Cold War; those involving combatting drug trafficking via the one-size-fits-all approach of police and military intervention and the deportation of undocumented persons as a US national security strategy."
  • Central American gangs are playing an increasingly active role in trafficking cocaine and laundering money, in part through the use of the dark web, reports InSight Crime.
  • Though the White House is apparently pushing Colombia to resume aerial fumigation of illicit coca plants, U.S. officials speaking to InSight Crime tried to backtrack a bit on the issue. (See June 15's briefs.)
  • Mexico City authorities failed to properly investigate the murder of photojournalist Rubén Espinosa, activist Nadia Vera and three other women in a Mexico City apartment in July 2015, said the president of the city's human rights commission, reports the Guardian.
  • Bolivia is wandering in an authoritarian direction -- and keeping it on track will be a test case for the region's commitment to democracy, argues Oliver Della Costa Stuenkel in a piece for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He nods towards President Evo Morales' success as the country's first indigenous president, and notes his relative moderation, despite unflinching support for Venezuela. "Morales brought social inclusion, relative stability, steady economic growth, and falling poverty levels. Even opposition figures readily recognize his remarkable capacity to get things done in a country that has seen far too many economic crises to count and more than 150 changes of leadership since it gained independence in 1825. ... However, other recent trends threaten to undo Morales’s otherwise positive legacy. He is exerting tighter control over the judiciary and the opposition media. And even more significantly, he has chosen to ignore the result of a 2016 referendum that should have prevented him from seeking a fourth presidential term."
  • InSight Crime examines why Colombia's government has tried and failed to capture Urabeños leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," for two years. Despite the extensive manhunt, and the capture of thousands of its members, the powerful illegal organization is still growing, and seeking to capture former FARC territories.
  • Shortages are spurring Venezuelans to take on increasingly dangerous occupations, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The United States has suspended Brazilian meat imports over "recurring concerns about the safety of products intended for the American market," reports the BBC.
  • "South America is a hotbed of potential viruses that could be the next major threat to the world's health, according to "danger maps,"" drawn up by EcoHealth Alliance in New York, reports the BBC.
  • Nazi week in the Southern Cone: Newly released archives from the Chilean police document how Nazi supporters in the country supplied information to the Third Reich and planned to bomb mines in Chile, reports Reuters. Earlier this week Argentine police uncovered a trove of Nazi paraphernalia hidden behind a Buenos Aires bookcase -- the New York Times has lots of pictures for WWII history buffs.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Alliance for Prosperity efforts could create more rights violations, displacement (June 22, 2017)

The Alliance for Prosperity, a key U.S. policy aimed at improving conditions in Central America in order to stem the flow of migrants headed north, could trample the rights of the local population and cause even worst displacement, reports Reuters

In 2014 the U.S. committed $750 million to create jobs and cut murder rates and corruption -- under Trump the focus has shifted to supporting policing efforts and increasing investment. The result could be reduction in regulation and investment in infrastructure megaprojects, which often foster violent displacement. 

Billy Kyte, a campaign leader for rights charity Global Witness, said the Alliance's silence on the property rights of regular people means more could be driven from ancestral homes. And Amnesty International and Oxfam said the strategy sticks to a model based on private investment that has failed to stem migration for four decades, and voiced concern that human rights abuses might follow.

News Briefs
  • Four National Civil Police officers and 15 soldiers participated in death squads that killed 36 people in El Salvador, between 2014 and 2016, according to the national prosecutors office. Arrest warrants were issued for the government agents and nearly three dozen civilians who allegedly participated in the killings, reports the Associated Press. Some of the victims were alleged gang members, and others appeared to be targets of contracted killings. National Civil Police Director Howard Cotto says the squads began killing gang members, but branched out to make money.
  • El Salvador -- where government officials cynically congratulated themselves for security success in 2016, despite having the highest national homicide rate in the world -- is basically a model of how not to put together a country, writes Óscar Martínez in NACLA. "The persistence of repression is one of the primary features of this manual. Repression at the center of the security strategy. The unchallenged idea that violence can be solved with bullets. ... But then El Salvador became illustrative of other key elements in the manual on how not to assemble a country: the inability of a country to learn from its own past and the cowardice of leaders, who give preference to votes instead of lives."
  • Murders in Mexico topped records in May -- surpassing even those for the same month in 2011, the previous monthly high. (See yesterday's briefs.) Analysts point to various reasons for the increase, including increased cultivation of heroin to meet US demand and the legalisation of marijuana in some U.S. states, which has caused cartel profits to plummet and prompted criminal groups to diversify into crimes such as kidnap and extortion, reports the Guardian. Others question the efficacy of the government's kingpin strategy, which targets cartel leaders.
  • On that issue, Instinto de Vida presented a report at the OAS foreign ministers' meeting in Mexico this week. The seven most dangerous countries account for around a third of the world's homicides, with violence in some cities on a par with war zones, according to the report. Over thirty organizations from the region have gathered to propose halving Latin America's homicide rate over the next decade. They advocate focusing on the worst-hit countries - Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Honduras, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala – which need to cut homicides by 7 percent a year to halve murder rates and save up to 365,000 lives over 10 years, reports Reuters. Regardless of what country the homicides occur in, they are hyper-localized in cities, notes Robert Muggah in Animal Político. The costs -- in terms of policing efforts impacts to the economy -- are large, and could be better applied to targeted policies, he writes. (See May 12's post.)
  • The Mexican government announced an investigation into whether prominent critics and journalists were subjected to illegal electronic surveillance with government-owned software. (See yesterday's briefs.) But activists say the promise falls short of their demands. For example, the investigation will be carried out by the prosecutor general's office, which is among the government agencies that purchased the software in question, reports the New York Times.
  • The mainstream media narrative regarding Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is that he has failed to fulfill his campaign promise of a revamped, modern PRI. He promised a pro-business and contemporary approach that has been discredited by a series of corruption scandals, human rights violations and record levels of homicides. (See yesterday's briefs.) But that narrative ignored Peña Nieto's troublesome history as governor of Mexico State, where in 2006 he sent 3,500 members of the stat police to crackdown on disturbances generated by the eviction of 40 flower sellers on the street. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, and dozens of women were sexually abused by police in detention. "The question that pursues me and which I find pertinent to ask not only with regards to Mexico, but in general, is why pro-business reforms ... are interpreted by so many people as something that promises modern democratic values and respect for rule of law? Why, in contrast, was the history of a candidate who had violated human rights as well as those of security and individual dignity, especially women, not interpreted as a warning of anti-democratic values and a failure of the rule of law," asks Francisco Goldman in a pointed New York Times Español op-ed. The revelations this week that government owned software was used to illegally spy on journalists and critics of the administration confirms what many already knew to some degree, he says. And the question remains, he writes: who is the Mexican government working for?
  • Mexico's new medicinal marijuana law will not lead to dispensaries on every corner, explains the Washington Post. Rather to draft and implement regulations and public policies regulating the medicinal use pharmacological derivatives of cannabis. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Several army generals were promoted to key posts in Venezuela, as President Nicolás Maduro reshuffled his cabinet to allow top officials to run for seats on a polemic Constituent Assembly, reports the Associated Press. Gen. Antonio Benavides, who headed the national guard, which has been accused of abuses during the crackdown on anti-government protests will lead an agency created to oversee Caracas. And Gen. Carlos Osorio, who had been serving as the armed forces' inspector general and is allegedly linked to the food black market, is taking over as Maduro's chief of staff. Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez is among the cabinet members who quit in order to run, reports Reuters.
  • OAS foreign ministers failed to even reach an agreement on creating a mediation group of friends for Venezuela, reports the Associated Press, though it might be approved at a later date. Earlier this week the ministers failed to pass a resolution criticizing the Maduro's push to rewrite the national constitution. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Lost in much of the Cuba debate, the issue of how the U.S. continues to occupy an area of Guantanamo bay for an overseas naval base is quite relevant argues Ernesto Londoño in the New York Times. "Is it legally defensible to hold on to the territory in perpetuity? Have we become squatters in paradise?" The continued U.S. presence on the island is illegal under international law, and has long been "a thorn in the Cuban psyche, a reminder of an era of American domination that is taught early and often in Cuban schools."
  • Brazil's increasingly weak government coalition relies on the PSDB partner to maintain the ruling alliance. Though the party elders maintain their support of President Michel Temer, despite increasing corruption allegations, a younger faction of party members are pushing the party to break with the government, reports the Financial Times.
  • Temer is being accused of organizing the distribution of about $6 million of public funds into Brazil’s election campaigns, reports the Associated Press. The latest in a slew of allegations of corruption comes from fundraiser Lucio Bolonha Funaro in testimony made public by Brazil’s top court late Tuesday.
  • The next environmental battle in Brazil will be proposed legislation that would end a nearly 40-year ban on foreign-owned mining companies operating on land near the roughly 16,000-kilometer (10,000-mile) border, reports Bloomberg. (See yesterday's briefs.) 
  • Workers' unions in Uruguay began a general strike yesterday demanding a higher budget for education, reports TeleSUR.
  • Thousands of Paraguayan farmers protested a proposed 15 percent tax on soy, corn and wheat exports. The measure, which will likely be voted on in the Senate this week, was proposed a leftist coalition in Congress, but is supported by President Horacio Cartes' party as part of a legislative pact, reports Reuters.
  • Peruvian Finance Minister Alfredo Thorne resigned yesterday after a vote of no-confidence by congress, in light of accusations of influence peddling, reports the Financial Times. The ouster is another hit to President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's efforts to jumpstart the economy, reports Reuters.
  • Guy Philippe - Haitian senator elect, former police commander and fugitive -- was sentenced to nine years in prison in Miami federal court yesterday for accepting bribes to protect cocaine smugglers who used the island to ship drugs to the United States, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The ELN said that it will investigate whether some of its fighters were behind the kidnapping of two Dutch journalists in Colombia, reports EFE.
  • An expedition of "ice scientists" gathered samples from a melting Bolivian glacier, and will store them for study and preservation on an Antartica base, reports the Guardian.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales joined in the celebration Wednesday of “Willka Kuti” – the Sun’s return –  marking the start of the year 5525 in Aymara culture, reports EFE.
  • Are you a former government official seeking to evade allegations of impropriety? "South Florida’s climate and waterfront condos make it a prime spot for former leaders under an investigative microscope back home," reports the Miami Herald.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Venezuelan protester shot by security forces (June 21, 2017)

A 17-year-old protester was shot dead by the national guard yesterday. The interior minister, Nestor Reverol confirmed the death of Fabian Urbina, who died Monday after security forces opened fire with handguns during clashes with demonstrators on a major highway in Caracas. On Twitter he said the cause of death was presumed to be "excessive use of force," reports the Guardian.

More than 70 people have been killed since daily protests began more than two months ago in Venezuela -- including members of the security forces and passersby -- but this is the first to have been shot dead by security forces.

Maduro fired four top military commanders yesterday, including the head of the police force, which has been accused of attacking protesters, reports AFP. He said he was also replacing the heads of the army, navy and the central strategic command body. Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez will remain in his posts. Analysts point to the vital importance of the armed forces in maintaining the government in power.

Yesterday prosecutor general Luisa Ortega Díaz, who has accused security officers of using excessive force, became the subject of investigation herself. The Supreme Court lifted her immunity from prosecution for allegedly committing "serious errors" in her role.

The step is widely viewed as an attempt to silence a prominent critical voice from within the government, reports the New York Times. Last night Ortega condemned the investigation as evidence that democracy was failing in Venezuela. "They are trying to snuff out any dissidence," she said. "It is a shame to say it, but I believe the state has dissolved."

Ortega has increasingly become a leading voice of internal criticism. Human Rights Watch notes that her legal challenges to the government "and the justice system’s reaction to them has been to create a paper trail of what is probably the heart of today’s institutional crisis in Venezuela: the absolute lack of judicial independence." (See yesterday's post.)

OAS aside: A meeting of OAS foreign ministers failed to muster enough support for a resolution condemning the Venezuelan government and calling on it to desist in efforts to rewrite the constitution. The charge in favor of that resolution was led by the U.S., along with Mexico, but the last minute abstention from several Caribbean countries left the motion short the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. Delcy Rodriguez, foreign minister of Venezuela, said yesterday that the OAS agenda had been hijacked by the United States in an "immoral" gesture, reports the Los Angles Times. Latin American leaders are increasingly angry at the regional failure to reach a consensus, reports the Financial Times, which describes how a "handful of leftist nations and Caribbean island states" thwarted the desires of large and more influential countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. (See yesterday's post.)

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Investigators claim Temer took bribes

Brazilian Federal police claim to have evidence that President Michel Temer took bribes to help businesses, again raising the possibility that he could be suspended from office for a corruption trial, reports the Associated Press.

 In report published yesterday federal police investigators said former Temer aide Rodrigo Rocha Loures directly received bribes from meatpacking giant JBS on the president’s behalf. The federal police report noted Temer has refused to answer investigators’ questions in the case.

The report was written by the Brazilian equivalent of the FBI, and made public by the Supreme Court yesterday. It examined wiretaps, testimony and other evidence from executives of the food giant JBS, who have agreed to a plea bargain with prosecutors, reports the New York Times.

If the country's prosecutor general, Rodrigo Janot, chooses to indict Temer, his decision would have to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in the lower house of Congress. Should that decision be confirmed by the Supreme Court, Temer would be suspended for six months. Analysts believe Temer has enough support to block the move in Congress, but that could change rapidly.

The report is intensifying pressure on the president as he attempts to push unpopular austerity measures through congress, notes the NYT. A Senate committee rejected a government-sponsored labor bill yesterday, suggesting reform might become harder still to pass, reports the Financial Times.

News Briefs
  • Temer paid heed to supermodel Gisele Bündchen's appeal to protect the Amazon rainforest. He responded to her Tweet yesterday, saying he'd veto a bill that would have opened up 600,000 hectares (1.5m acres) of forest to development. Conservationists and experts have been lobbying without success on the issue, reports the Guardian, but apparently Bündchen's exhortation to "protect our Mother Earth" struck a chord. Nonetheless, the pro-business government is considering other plans to reduce forest reserves and indigenous territory.
  • Reports that prominent Mexican journalists and activists were targeted by sophisticated, government-owned surveillance software has led to calls for an independent inquiry into the allegations and criminal complaints being filed. (See Wednesday's briefs.) Victims, including lawyers looking into the Ayotzinapa disappearances and prominent journalist Carmen Aristegui who has investigated corruption related to President Enrique Peña Nieto's family, say an independent group of international experts is the only way to reach the truth, reports the New York Times. The attorney general's office announced today that it is starting an investigation into the case, reports Animal Político. Worried that you might be a target? The BBC explains how the Pegasus system uses a text message to infiltrate cell phones.
  • That the government might be using the Israeli made software to spy on critics is an example of how authoritarianism continues to rule the country, for Guillermo Osorno in a New York Times op-ed. He documents the extensive dangers of reporting in Mexico, and the threats and intimidation faced by journalists covering government wrongdoing. 
  • Journalists in Mexico's Sinaloa state demanded results in the investigation into the killing of Javier Valdéz. They turned their backs to a meeting of federal security officials and carried signs demanding justice, reports Animal Político.
  • New official data shows that homicide rates are breaking records this year in Mexico, reports Animal Político. Over 2,180 homicide investigations were opened in May of this year, more than in any other month on record.
  • Medicinal marijuana is officially legal in Mexico, now the executive has 180 days to regulate how the substance will be produced and marketed, reports the Huffington Post.
  • U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced the appointment of former top State Department official and head of the United Nations’ World Food Program as a as a high-level envoy for Haiti. Josette Sheeran will be developing  a comprehensive fundraising strategy to finance the U.N.’s plan to clean up cholera in Haiti, reports the Miami Herald. The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to visit on Thursday to review how the 13-year U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is implementing withdrawal ahead of the October permanent closure of the program. Sheeran will act as Guterres’ special envoy, and will focus more broadly on supporting national efforts to reach Haiti’s 2030 sustainable development goals, as well as guide the approach to eliminate cholera in the country.
  • Just as the FARC begins its final disarmament push, a deadly mall bombing and the kidnapping of two foreign journalists remind Colombia of the difficulties it faces in finding peace, reports the AFP.
  • The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (better known by its Spanish acronym CICIG) "can be a model for other countries facing the challenge of deep-seated corruption and impunity, but donors must pay attention to ensuring that future CICIG-like bodies are politically independent, adequately funded, and assigned top priority within donors’ broader foreign policy and aid objectives," according to a new report by the Council on Foreign Relations. The success of the U.N. funded independent body in Guatemala has activists to call for similar models in other countries -- notably Honduras. "But for all its accomplishments, CICIG has not spurred widespread or lasting rule of law in Guatemala. The CICIG experience thus provides lessons for policymakers in the United States and other donor nations as they contemplate creating similar structures to fight corruption in aid recipient countries," writes Mathew Taylor.
  • A potent array of technology deployed along the U.S. Mexico border -- much brought back from Afghanistan by the Defense Department -- has allowed law officials to carry out tens of thousands of arrests. Despite Trump's ongoing defense of a border wall, "the fight against illegal immigration and drug trafficking on the United States-Mexico border has increasingly become high tech," reports the New York Times.
  • In terms of policy, Trump's announcement about Cuba didn't alter important issues -- in fact, until regulations are made in keeping with the presidential memo, nothing will change. Instead the presidential political theater impacted mood, writes Jorge I. Domínguez in a New York Times Español op-ed. In terms of negotiating, however, it's a mistake he argues, reviewing how previous concessions -- or "parallel gestures in a context of cooperation" occurred with more positive rhetoric. 
  • However, an apparently innocuous clause in Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) on Cuba could potentially upset remittances back to the island by prohibiting payments to "officials of the Government of Cuba" which the document defines extensively, write William LeoGrande and Marguerite Jímenez in the Huffington Post. "The new definition proposed by President Trump includes hundreds of senior officials in every government agency, thousands of ordinary Cubans who volunteer as leaders of their local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, and—most importantly― every employee of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR) and Ministry of the Interior (MININT)."
  • Former Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa promised to retire after handing over the reins to his successor, Lenín Moreno, last month. Instead he is actively commenting on politics, and criticizing divisions within his own party. The result is a schism in the ruling Alianza País coalition, with Morenistas consolidating in the executive branch and Correistas in the legislative, writes Soraya Constante in a New York Times Español op-ed. She compares the two leaders to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his predecessor and former boss, Álvaro Uribe. Constante points to decisions Moreno has already taken that point to a personal agenda different to that of Correa: including a technocratic cabinet, warmer relations with journalists, and a commission against corruption that could work with the U.N.
  • Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner launched a new electoral alliance yesterday, that will have her leading a list of senate candidates for the Buenos Aires province, reports the Associated Press.
  • Experts are starting to identify the remains of 123 Argentine soldiers killed in fighting Britain and buried on the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, reports AFP.
  • A landslide in a small northern town in Guatemala killed 11 people, reports the Associated Press.
  • The St. Lucia National Trust is facing budget cuts, which some link to criticisms of a scheme to build a $2.6bn resort on the island that is to be part funded by the sale of St Lucian citizenship to Asian investors, reports the Guardian. As part of the reduction in funding, the Trust has had to shutter a museum on the site of the boyhood home of the poet and playwright Derek Walcott.
  • Chilean presidential candidate Sebastian Piñera jokingly suggested at a campaign rally that all the women lie down and play dead, while the men lie down and take advantage of them. (It works in Spanish, "hacerse los vivos.") His take on gender violence played less well once it started circulating on social media, reports the BBC. It's not the first time Piñera has come under fire for sexist jokes, in 2011 he quipped that the difference between a a politician and a woman was that the former meant "No" when he said "maybe", while a woman meant "maybe" when she said "No".