Friday, January 19, 2018

Venezuelan talks postponed (Jan. 19, 2017)

Venezuela's opposition refused to sit down yesterday for the latest round of peace negotiations. In part this was in response to a government official's allegations that opposition leaders helped track down Oscar Pérez, an isolated rebel opponent who was killed by security forces this week, reports the Washington Post.  (See Wednesday's briefs.)

Nonetheless, the talks being held in the Dominican Republic will likely continue, according to Efecto Cocuyo, which says Mexican and Chilean foreign ministers' not being able to attend was a more likely reason for the opposition's absence. It's not clear when the ongoing talks might resume. Earlier this week, Geoff Ramsey reviewed the ongoing negotiations between the opposition and the government at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The talks are accompanied by Dominican Republic president Daniel Medino and the foreign ministers of Chile, Mexico, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The opposition is angling to ensure free and fair presidential elections this year, as well as permit humanitarian aid for Venezuelans and free political prisoners, while the government seeks to ease international sanctions.

The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference (CEV) said the police operation that killed Pérez earlier this week as a massacre, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Some rights groups and members of the opposition have characterized the encounter as a summary execution, in response to social media videos uploaded by Pérez saying he wished to surrender. The bodies of Pérez and the six people killed along with him on Monday have not been released to their families, and will be cremated, against regulations, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

And the Minister of Communications said Pérez was planning to assassinate President Nicolás Maduro as well as several other government leaders, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

News Briefs
  • Venezuela's drop in oil production over the past year is massive -- but there's some debate over just how bad it is, reports Bloomberg. While secondary sources estimate a 14 percent drop over the past year, Venezuela says the reduction was of 29 percent. Official estimates for production decreased particularly dramatically in December, which could be strategic, explains Liam Denning. In November the government named Major General Manuel Quevedo to head state-oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA. The drop could soon revert and be chalked up to his success, according to analysts. A sad corollary? The increase in world oil prices is in part due to Venezuela's troubles. (See yesterday's briefs for the WSJ's take on the situation.)
  • The EU agreed to add Venezuela's interior minister and six other senior officials to its sanctions blacklist yesterday, reports the AFP.
  • Two former FARC fighters were killed in Colombia while campaigning for a congressional candidate for former guerrillas' political party, reports the Associated Press. The FARC said the men are just two of 30 ex-fighters who have been killed by people hoping to destabilize the peace process, according to Reuters.
  • Colombia's FARC guerrillas have indeed disbanded, but the FARC Mafia days are just beginning, writes Jeremy McDermott at InSight Crime. He is discussing dissidents, groups within the FARC that have chosen not to disarm and are focused on more economic than political goals. Specifically they are involved in illicit economies, largely drugs. He delves into the issue of the FARC's hidden "militiamen," believed to outnumber the guerrilla fighters themselves by about three to one. Most of these former fighters remain firmly entrenched in the illicit economy, he argues. "We believe that well within 20 years from today the drug trade will be dominated by a mafia run by former members of the FARC."
  • Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández invited defeated opponent Salvador Nasralla to dialogue, after a much questioned electoral process observers say was tainted by irregularities. Nasralla however said he would only participate if electoral fraud is included in the points of discussion, reports La Prensa.
  • OAS member states will wait until after Hernández is sworn in for his second term to ratify an Observer Mission report pointing to "grave irregularities" in the election, reports TeleSUR. Secretary General Luis Almagro has sought to have member states approve the report, putting foreign ministries in the region that have already recognized Hernández in a tough position, reports EFE. These include Mexico, the U.S. and Colombia.
  • The Mexican town of Tancítaro appears to be an island of peace in the violence torn Michoacán state. Militias paid for by avocado growers keep cartel violence out of the town, but essentially form a sort of warlord state, write Amanda Taub and Max Fisher in the New York Time's Interpreter column. "Mexico is neither a failed state nor close to becoming one. But in some pockets of the country its institutions have broken down enough to reproduce conditions that partly resemble state failure. That includes the area around Tancítaro, which is rich is natural resources. The people who have access to those resources used them to achieve a monopoly on violence, creating enough stability to sustain their access to those resources. They became warlords."
  • The PRI outsider candidate for this year's presidential elections, José Antonio Meade, was supposed to help Mexico's ruling party shed the taint of corruption. But instead Meade finds himself struggling to avoid accusations of misuse of government funds at ministries he headed, reports Bloomberg. Meade is polling third, behind leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador and left-right coalition candidate Ricardo Anaya.
  • The wall just never seems to go away: U.S. president Donald Trump insists his views on a proposed (and largely rejected) border wall between the U.S. and Mexico have never changed. This directly contradicts his own chief of staff, who earlier this week said the president's perspective had changed, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazil's House Speaker, Rodrigo Maia, said the popular Bolsa Familia social program "enslaves" families who receive financial aid in exchange for ensuring their children attend school and are vaccinated, reports Folha de S. Paulo. (The program has been credited with halving Brazil's extreme poverty.)
  • Pope Francis accused sex abuse victims of slandering a bishop they accuse of shielding a pedophile priest. The slander accusation threw off his efforts to repair damage from the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked Chile and marred his visit there this week, reports the New York Times.
  • Pope Francis married two members of a cabin crew in a flight between Chile and Peru this week. The two had been married in a civil service but had to cancel their religious ceremony in the wake of a 2010 earthquake, reports the Guardian.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

U.S. makes Haitians ineligible for temporary seasonal work visas (Jan. 18, 2018)

  • The Trump administration has slammed Haitian immigrants again -- as of today Haitians will not be eligible for temporary seasonal visas, reports the Miami Herald. The decision follows an internationally condemned episode in which U.S. President Donald Trump allegedly characterized Haiti as a "shithole" country in the context of a debate about migrants. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • Venezuela's oil output is collapsing, a situation likely to push the country's ongoing crisis into a full blown humanitarian disaster, according to the Wall Street Journal. Oil prices are rising, but a production decline over the past year of 29 percent means the country won't be able to take advantage of them. Venezuela relies heavily on oil exports, which means the decline in production will further press the government.
  • The killing of Venezuelan rebel Oscar Pérez this week by security forces could help lead to an International Criminal Court investigation of the Maduro administration, writes Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. He says the OAS could present a formal case in the ICC within the next three weeks, and dramatic footage of Pérez accusing security forces of not letting him surrender, could contribute to the argument of human rights violations.
  • Pieces on Russian and Chinese influence in Venezuela have been cropping up recently. Benjamin Gedan and Michael McCarthy warn against "hysteria" about Chinese and Russian "meddling" in Real Clear World. "Caracas’ relationships with Moscow and Beijing are often exaggerated, including by the governments themselves. ... In truth, Maduro is increasingly isolated and as his country’s economic problems metastasize, his support from Beijing and Moscow falls." Russian and Chinese support for Venezuela is based on self-interest, not ideology, they argue. And thus their support is likely to falter as the crisis worsens. "Overstating the likelihood of a bailout has serious implications. That common misunderstanding leads to foreign policy positions that assume Maduro’s regime will survive, deflating international efforts to compel a democratic transition and discouraging the domestic opposition from unifying and mobilizing."
  • In the Conversation, Miguel Angel Latouche argues that Venezuela is no longer a democracy.
  • Pope Francis warned Chile's indigenous Mapuche tribe against violent protest, in a mass celebrated at a former military base that not only lies on contested Mapuche land but was also a former detention center used during Chile’s military dictatorship, reports the Guardian. His warning against violence came in a region where protesters have been burning and bombing targets in defense of their ancestral land. Indigenous groups in the area accuse the state and private companies of encroaching on their territory and using strong-armed enforcement against their communities. The region has experienced conflict for centuries. Issues include ancestral land ownership and legal recognition for the Mapuche language and culture, reports the BBC. The mass included many indigenous themes, including one speaker who spoke Mapuche and participants dressed in traditional garb, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • In Peru indigenous groups hope the papal visit draws attention to illegal mining environmental impacts, reports the Miami Herald. A Miami Herald investigation into illicit gold found that much of Peru's illegally mined gold winds up in the U.S. where it is used for money laundering. 
  • U.S. border patrol agents routinely vandalize water supplies left in the dessert to aid migrants trying to cross the border, as well as destroying other supplies and harassing volunteers who work with migrants, reports the Guardian. The accusations stem from a report published by two U.S. based humanitarian groups, who say "the practice of destruction of and interference with aid is not the deviant behavior of a few rogue border patrol agents, it is a systemic feature of enforcement practices in the borderlands."
  • Mexican views of the U.S. have dropped dramatically since 2015, reports the Washington Post. Over the past two years, Mexicans have gone from mostly holding favorable views of their northern neighbor to mostly negative, according to polling data collected by the Mexico-based firm Buendia & Laredo in collaboration with the Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
  • Carlos Domínguz, the latest journalist to be killed in Mexico, was stabbed 21 times in front of his family over the weekend, underscoring the profession's risks in the country, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • A poll by El Economista in Mexico found that leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador maintains the lead for this year's presidential elections, reports Reuters.
  • Over the past few years, more firearms have been seized in Guatemala than homicides committed with guns. But, though Guatemalan police seized 47,340 firearms between 2007 and 2017 -- an average of 12 every day, one every two hours -- guns remain widely available, reports Plaza Pública. (InSight Crime has the piece in English.) Police authorities say guns are used in about 80 percent of the country's murders, but have less information on how arms are entering the country and where they are coming from. Reports indicate that Guatemala is a transit country for arms, being transferred between Mexico and Central America. And authorities believe many of the country's illegal firearms belong to gang members.
  • The head of Brazil's army is concerned that deployment in anti-crime efforts could lead to corruption and politicization of troops, reports InSight Crime. "The high-level warning over the increasing use of the military in public security roles, including the rising potential for the forces’ corruption and politicization, should be considered a wake up call for a shift in the country’s approach to rising insecurity."
  • Will Brazilian TV celebrity Luciano Huck be a potential centrist presidential candidate this year? Bloomberg is touting him as a potential investor dream option.
  • The World Bank said it had not politically targeted Chile in a now questioned annual economic report, rather officials say the country's fluctuating ranking had to do with a changed methodology, reports Reuters. (See Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Women will be key in adapting agriculture to climate change in Latin America, said the head of FAO. He decried that women are too often left out of development schemes, reports Reuters. "They have fundamental roles in the spiritual, social and family arenas and are seed guardians - critical carriers of specialized knowledge," saidJose Graziano da Silva, head of the U.N.'s food organization.
 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Pope criticized for sex abuse scandals in Chile (Jan. 17, 2018)

Pope Francis apologized to Chileans for priest abuses of minors. "Here I feel bound to express my pain and shame at the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the church," he said.

Activists say the pontiff's greatest failure is not taking enough action protect children from clerical sex abuse and punish priests for perpetrating it, reports the Wall Street Journal.


The pope aims to contain fallout from a series of sexual abuse scandals that have contributed to the decline of Catholicism in several regions. But immediately after his speech with President Michelle Bachelet at the presidential palace, Francis celebrated Mass in Santiago alongside Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, a city in southern Chile. Barros has been accused of covering up for priest who abused teenagers, reports the New York Times.

The scandal centers around Father Fernando Karadima, a Santiago priest found guilty by a 2011 Vatican inquiry of sexual and psychological abuse in 2011, 27 years after the first complaints about him were made. He was forced to retire, and sentenced to a lifetime of "penance and prayer." Critics were angered when the the Pope appointed Barros bishop of Osorno, though Barros denies accusation that he knew of Karadima's abuses.

Three churches were firebombed on yesterday, the first full day of the pope’s visit to Chile, bringing the total of churches attacked since Friday to nine. Nobody has been injured in the attacks. The pontiff had hoped to make environmental concerns the centerpiece of this Latin America tour, which will also take him to Peru. But has instead encountered anger about sexual abuse scandals and accusations of clerical elitism, reports the Guardian. A poll carried out by a Santiago radio station before the pope’s visit found that 90 percent of Chileans wanted Francis to meet survivors and condemn Karadima.

"Chileans of all kinds see the way the pope addresses the Karadima case as a litmus test," wrote Ariel Dorfman in a New York Times op-ed last week. "Pope Francis will be welcomed in Chile as a reformer, as an important voice for the vulnerable and the neglected. The faithful and the nonbelievers alike respect the Catholic Church because some of its most prominent leaders championed human rights during Pinochet’s dictatorship, defying threats, death squads and persecution."

"And yet the daring Chilean church is now scarred and discredited by Father Karadima’s depredations, by the fact that he was sheltered by those who should have judged and punished him. A criminal case was opened, as in almost 75 other cases of priestly abuse, but the judges indicated that the statute of limitations barred them from indicting Father Karadima."

"Pope Francis needs to deal with this lack of accountability and justice in the next few days."

Yesterday Francis met privately with a group of victims of sexual abuse by priests in the Vatican's Santiago mission, reports the BBC. No further details were provided.

Other critics focused on the cost of the papal visit, estimated at $17 million.
 
News Briefs
  • Later this week, Pope Francis will visit Peru’s epicenter of illegal gold mining, Madre de Dios. His visit will help draw attention to an increasingly acute problem in the region -- pushing deforestation, environmental devastation, and exploiting workers in the region, according to the Miami Herald. "To stop the unrelenting environmental and human devastation, an array of competing interests will have to collaborate to extract gold in a more humane way, according to workers’ rights advocates, environmentalists and industry experts." Its the kind of sweeping change that pushed to clean up the diamond industry.
  • As Catholicism falls in Latin America, Evangelicals are on the rise, and now account for 20 percent of the population, writes Javier Corrales in a New York Times op-ed. "Evangelical pastors embrace varied ideologies, but when it comes to gender and sexuality, their values are typically conservative, patriarchal and homophobic. ... The rise of evangelicalism is politically worrisome. Evangelicals are fueling a new form of populism. They are supplying conservative parties with nonelite voters, which is good for democracy, but these voters tend to be intransigent on issues of sexuality, which feeds cultural polarization. Intolerant inclusion, which is the classic Latin American populist formula, is being reinvented by evangelical pastors." Evangelicals are helping Latin American conservatives overcome their most significant handicap, he writes, their lack of non-elite voters.
  • B-movie actor and Venezuelan rebel Oscar Pérez was killed in a shootout with government forces yesterday, along with seven other members of what the government has characterized as a "terrorist cell." Rights groups are questioning the use of force, after Pérez said in a series of videos on social media that he was seeking to surrender, the New York Times has a compilation. Pérez reportedly told an ally that special forces had orders not to take anybody alive, reports the Miami Herald, which says the deaths may have been extrajudicial executions. Rights advocates say special forces used excessive force and didn't permit the dissident group to surrender, reports the Wall Street Journal. Opposition lawmakers are calling for a transparent inquiry into the deaths, reports the Associated Press. Ousted attorney general Luisa Ortega, who seeks to have Maduro administration officials tried in the International Criminal Court, seized on the episode as an example of rights violations. "The world could see in real time how this guy wanted to surrender and manifested his will to turn himself in," she said. Pérez had been on the run since last year, when he stole a helicopter and launched grenades at a government building. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Some Venezuelan officials say tourism could help rescue the country from a deep economic crisis. But realists point to scarcities that have led some hotels to ration toilet paper, alongside high crime rates and hyperinflation, and are more skeptical, reports the Washington Post.
  • The U.S. Treasury Department warned that Venezuela's planned cryptocurrency could violate sanctions against the government, reports Reuters.
  • Separately, the E.U. will likely hit seven senior Venezuelan officials with sanctions next week, in a bid to push the government to resolve an ongoing political crisis, reports Reuters.
  • Homicides in El Salvador have dropped, along with rates in the rest of Central America's "Northern Triangle." Violence continues to be sky-high, but nonetheless, preventive programs implemented in these countries offer lessons to policy makers, argue Robert Muggah and Katherine Aguirre in Americas Quarterly. Though El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras all run the risk of deepening "mano dura" policies, and have entrenched corruption, "there are signs of a gradual turn to softer approaches to security, partly as a result of outside pressure from international and bilateral partners. After years of quiet investment, some of the benefits of this approach are becoming more apparent." The article was written ahead of the Urban Security Exchange (USX), to be hosted by the Igarapé Institute, USAID and Foropaz next week in San Salvador.
  • Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales shuffled his cabinet yesterday, changing his ministers for the environment, the economy and social development, reports Reuters.
  • There are indications that the Colombian government could aim to use military pressure against the rebel group ELN in order to gain the upper hand peace negotiations, reports InSight Crime. The strong military response to attacks in the wake of an expired cease-fire last week could also be related to elections in Colombia later this year, notes the piece. On the side of the guerrillas, it's not clear whether they indicate divisions within the group or whether its a strategy to gain the upper hand in the negotiations.
  • The WHO said yesterday that Sao Paulo state, is at risk for yellow fever and recommended foreign travelers get vaccinated before visiting, reports the BBC.
  • Market jitters at former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's popularity are unwarranted, Workers Party leader Gleisi Hoffmann told Bloomberg. Lula leads polls for October's presidential election, though its not clear whether a criminal conviction will prevent him from running. Nonetheless, Lula's history is not radical and he is committed to fiscal responsibility, said Hoffmann. The former leader is working on a letter to the public regarding his economic program.
  • Argentina's inflation drastically overshot targets last year, closing at about 25 percent. The results raise questions about the pro-business administration's ability to tame the country's perennial scourge, reports the Wall Street Journal. And the government announced yesterday it will delay a planned labor reform bill until March, reports Reuters. The government had planned to call extraordinary sessions of Congress to approve the plan, which aims to lower costs for employers and formalize the situation of unregistered workers. A pension reform passed in December triggered violent protests.
  • A bridge under construction in Colombia collapsed, killing 10 workers, reports the New York Times.
  • Across the region this year, political corruption and uncertainty will fuel organized crime, writes Jeremy McDermott in InSight Crime. "Tackling organized crime requires stable governments with purpose, strategy, strong security forces, healthy democracy and transparency, along with international cooperation. These currently seem in short supply around the region."

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

World Bank assessments of Chile were politically biased (Jan. 16, 2018)

News Briefs
  • An influential World Bank economic report may have been biased politically, particularly in the case of Chile. World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, told the Wall Street Journal he would correct and recalculate national rankings of business competitiveness in the report called “Doing Business” going back at least four years. Repeated changes in methodology allowed World Bank staff to influence the results of the report, which ranks countries by the competitiveness of their business environment. Some of these changes had the effect of sharply penalizing Chile’s ranking under the recent term of Chile’s outgoing president, Michelle Bachelet. Methodological changes that precipitated large swings in Chile's ranking appear to have been politically motivated according to Romer.
  • Bachelet criticized the World Bank over the weekend, and demanded a complete investigation, reports the New York Times. The governing leftist coalition was defeated in elections last year, a race in which economic policy played a key role.
  • The OAS denounced irregularities in Honduras' recent presidential election, in which incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the official winner, despite significant questions regarding the vote count. OAS member states' failure to embrace the OAS call for new elections, however, could undermine "the credibility of OAS democracy protection instruments," writes Stefano Palestini Céspedes at the AULA blog.
  • A Guatemalan congressman of the ruling FCN party was arrested this weekend, on charges of masterminding the killings of two journalists in 2015. Prosecutors and investigators with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala accuse Julio Juarez Ramirez of involvement in the murders, though he says he is innocent, reports Reuters.
  • Guatemalan chief prosecutor Thelma Aldana told reporters that President Jimmy Morales "is not an ally" in combating corruption, reports AFP. Her comment was in response to a presidential address stressing transparency as a top government priority.
  • Venezuelan security forces took down a rebel group, officially characterized as a dangerous terrorist group, in a Caracas firefight yesterday. The band was led by Oscar Pérez, the mysterious former action film hero and helicopter pilot that starred in an alleged coup attempt last year. (See post for June 29, 2017) Special forces apparently captured five members of the rebel group, reports the Associated Press. Venezuelan officials report seven dead members of the group, including Pérez himself, according to Efecto Cocuyo.  Officials say two officers were killed and five wounded in the shootout. Diosdado Cabello tweeted that Pérez had opened fire on police, reports the BBC. Pérez himself made the assault public with a a series of videos on Twitter in which he is bloodied and under siege, reports the Miami Herald. In one video he said there are civilians with him and they wanted to turn themselves in, but that authorities sought his death. The episode had Venezuelans glued to social media as events unfolded yesterday, reports the New York Times. Though Pérez's calls for an uprising against the government have not been heeded in practice, he has tens of thousands of followers online, notes the AP. Members of the government posted negatively about Pérez yesterday, reports Reuters. "What a coward now that he’s caught like a rat!" tweeted Prisons Minister Iris Varela. The National Assembly might create a commission to investigate the episode, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • Talks between the Venezuelan government and the opposition advanced well, but did not reach a final deal by Saturday. Talks will resume once more on January 18, reports Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Nevertheless, Dominican President Danilo Medina, who led the negotiations, expressed optimism about the progress made during the round, reports Reuters. The MUD opposition coalition is angling for improved electoral conditions in a presidential election year. They are also seeking to push the government to permit humanitarian aid to enter the country, release of political prisoners, and recognition of the opposition-led National Assembly as a legitimate constitutional authority. The government, in turn, is seeking to ease international sanctions, and recognition of a supra-congressional National Constituent Assembly, which was chosen in questioned elections last year but has no international recognition.
  • Talk of military intervention in Venezuela keeps coming up, but "a military strike against Venezuela would be folly," warns David Smilde in a New York Times op-ed. "Venezuela in 2018 is not 1989 Panama, and an invasion would not be a surgical strike. ... Venezuela has 115,000 troops, in addition to tanks and fighter jets. It is a country of 30 million people, about 20 percent of whom still support the Maduro government. These supporters have an ideology — anti-imperialist socialism — which serves to coordinate their efforts and helps to explain Mr. Maduro’s resilience."
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced a new subsidy to pregnant women -- amounting to a total of $3.83 per month, reports CNN.
  • As the U.S. becomes increasingly hostile to Latin American migrants, Canada is working to disuade them from heading north in hopes of refuge, reports the New York Times.
  • Salvadoran deportees face dangers in their home countries. Women in particular are in danger, reports the Guardian. "As with most hostilities, women are routinely caught in the crossfire. Around 10 a day are subjected to violence and sexual assault, with many afraid to speak out. Others are silenced forever. El Salvador ranks among the world’s deadliest countries for women. During 2016, 524 were killed, one in every 5,000, although such figures document only bodies taken to morgues and not those discovered in hidden dumping grounds."
  • Clandestine transfers of capital -- "illicit financial flows," like those exposed in the Panama Papers investigation last year -- have an outsized impact on women and girls that often goes unnoticed, write Virginia Rodríguez and Corina Rodríguez Enríquez of  Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) in Open Society Foundation's Voices. A recent report from DAWN "shows how illicit financial flows from Latin America and the Caribbean undermine gender justice in a region that already suffers some of the world’s worst levels of economic inequality. The amount of capital that illicitly flows out of this part of the world is huge: at least $150 billion per year, or 14 times more than the official development aid that comes in to the region."
  • Pope Francis opened a three-day Chile trip by asking forgiveness for a local priest abuse scandal that has aroused tensions in his host country, reports NPR.  The pontiff is the target of anger for appointing a bishop accused of covering up sexual abuse by a priest. On Friday, ahead of the trip, several churches were targeted by firebombs, reports the New York Times. No organization immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks. Other hot-button issues during the Pope's visit include the Mapuche indigenous group which has been struggling to reclaim ancestral land.
  • Catholics in the Pope's native Argentina feel snubbed, as he once again sidesteps country in a visit to the region, reports the New York Times. Analysts believe he has avoided Argentina since being named pontiff in an effort to stay out of the country's polarized politics.
  • Former Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou was freed from pre-trial detention on Friday, after an appeals court ruled that he was unlikely to interfere in a corruption case against him. Boudou, who was arrested in November, was one of several former cabinet members detained in recent months, reports Reuters. Critics have said there is a judicial vendetta against the political opposition to the current government. Former Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman was also released from pre-trial detention last week -- in a case regarding an alleged coverup for a 1994 terrorist bombing -- for humanitarian causes.
  • Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, a Mexico City suburb, has had remarkable latitude to experiment with security reform because of its relative freedom from Mexico's most established (and corrupt) political parties, argues a New York Times Explainer column. "Neza, as it is known, is gritty and working class, a sprawl of short concrete buildings. But it is a quiet success story. As crime and corruption skyrocket nationally, especially in surrounding areas, they’ve remained stable or even declined here." The secret lies not in the reforms themselves, which aim at increasing ties between police officer and the community, and rewarding good performance, but rather in freedom from corrupt party structures, argues the piece. But the lack of an institutional framework also makes the gains fragile, according to authors Max Fisher and Amanda Taub.
  • The UK’s judicial committee of the privy council (JCPC) has far-reaching jurisdiction in more than 30 overseas territories, dependencies and Commonwealth states, for which it serves as the ultimate court of appeal. The five British judges of the council will evaluate whether a prisoner who may be mentally ill should remain on death row, in response to a case in Trinidad and Tobago. Their decision comes as a spiraling homicide rate on there has reinvigorated calls for the death penalty, reports the Guardian.
  • A Mexican journalist was killed in Nuevo Laredo over the weekend, the latest victim of attacks on the press, though authorities are trying to determine whether the attack was related to his work, reports the Guardian.
  • A magnitude-7.1 earthquake of Peru's southern coast on Sunday killed one person and injured a dozen, reports Reuters.
  • In light of Trump's disparaging remarks about Haiti, the New York Times recommends several books that give insight into the country’s history of struggle and resistance. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • In the Conversation, Chantalle F. Verna discusses how "Trump’s statements and policies reflect not just disrespect for Haiti but also a profound ignorance about how migration occurs." ... "Outsiders head to the United States in times of crisis not at random but because historic ties point them in this direction. When nativists like President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions refer to immigrants as “criminal aliens” – perpetuating the idea that foreigners are “invading” the country – they ignore this key fact."
  • "Without Haiti, the United States Would, in Fact, Be a Shithole," writes Amy Wilentz in The Nation.
  • In a statement, WOLA profoundly rejected the remarks about Haitian, Salvadoran, and African immigrants. "They represent a profound affront to human dignity and human rights. It is this type of rhetoric and derogatory categorization of groups and countries that fuels societal divisions, pits people against each other, and leads to violence and conflict. Such sentiments coming from the highest level political official in the United States are extremely dangerous. They undermine the credibility and moral authority of the United States throughout the world."
  • A form of salmonella was likely responsible for wiping out 80 percent of the Aztec population in the 16th century, according to new research, reported by AFP.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Intercept: Haitian police working with U.N. mission massacred 9 civilians (Jan. 12, 2018)

A Haitian police raid in Port-au-Prince last November led to at least nine suspected summary executions of civilians, reports The Intercept. The police officers were working with the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti, which in October replaced the long-running U.N. peacekeeping mission. 

In late December, a U.N. spokesperson confirmed to The Intercept for the first time that the mission had helped plan the raid on a school campus in the Grand Ravine area, though it distanced itself from the civilian deaths. 

"Nearly two months after the massacre, no one has been publicly held responsible. The police inspector general has completed an investigation and passed it on to a judge, who could order the arrest or dismissal of officers involved. One police officer accused of involvement is already missing, according to the inspector general. Families of nine victims, including those of the two police officers, received a one-time payment of about $1,500 for funeral expenses. But none of the intellectual authors of the botched raid appear to have been identified or questioned."

News Briefs
  • U.S President Donald Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as "shithole countries" in a meeting with U.S. lawmakers, reports the Washington Post. The president singled out Haiti, telling lawmakers that immigrants from that country must be left out of any deal, according to the Post. Reactions on social media were swift, with many users posting pictures of beautiful scenery in their countries. Haiti's ambassador to the United States condemned the statements and said that the country had asked for an official explanation of Trump’s comments from American officials, reports the Washington Post separately. 
  • U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is heading to Colombia this weekend to support peace efforts, reports the Associated Press. His visit comes amid concerns about the implementation of the peace pact with the FARC and stalled negotiations with the ELN guerrillas. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Colombia's forests are under double assault: the demobilization of the FARC has lifted protections they imposed on jungle they used for cover, while killings of social activists are leaving environmental movements without leadership, reports la Silla Vacía, focusing on San Vicente del Caguán in Caquetá.
  • Ecuador’s state oil company has begun drilling the first of 97 planned wells inside a new field of the Yasuní national park. The reserve is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Conservationists accuse president Lenín Moreno of backtracking on promises to protect the environment, reports the Guardian.
  • Ecuador granted Julian Assange citizenship last month, reports the BBC. The news transcended after the U.K. refused to grant the WikiLeaks founder diplomatic status as an Ecuadorean agent. Ecuador is seeking a way out of the legal impasse that has stranded Assange in its embassy for over five years, reports the New York Times. Ecuador's foreign minister said that Assange would not leave the embassy without security guarantees that he won't be deported to the U.S., has also indicated that the current situation is untenable, reports the Washington Post.
  • The United States is the largest source of guns entering Brazil that end up in the hands of armed bandits and drug traffickers, according to Reuters, based on a Brazilian Federal Police report. Roughly 1,500 guns originated in the United States out of a study of more than 10,000 arms seized by police since 2014, mostly in Rio de Janeiro. 
  • Venezuela's opposition is angling for a presidential election to be held in the first half of this year, reports Bloomberg.
  • Venezuelan Constituent Assembly member Tomas Lucena was murdered this week, reports EFE.
  • A teen was killed in Venezuela's Guarane city, in the midst of a mass looting of food trucks, reports AFP.
  • A boat with 30 Venezuelan migrants sank en route to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, reports the BBC.
  • Thousands of Peruvians against rallied against a pardon for former President Alberto Fujimori, convicted of human rights violations, reports the BBC.
  • Amid increasing rumors that U.S. President Donald Trump will trigger a six month withdrawal process from NAFTA, Mexican negotiators say they will leave the table if the U.S. pulls out, reports Reuters.
  • Building on a report earlier this week on Mexican cities that have effectively taken security into their own hands, the New York Times report on how Monterrey's business elite took over the city's policing. "Monterrey’s business leaders had tried to install their corporations as replacement institutions. But they fell victim to the same institutional weaknesses they’d tried to fix. With little in the way of a civil service, a simple change in governor destabilized everything," write Max Fisher and Amanda Taub. "That might seem like a technical or abstract lesson, but it’s one that should concern everybody, and not just in Mexico. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the health of our institutions; they’re boring, opaque and largely unseen. But maybe we should think about them."
  • "If all the Salvadoreans in the TPS programme were to come back, which is highly unlikely, the country’s population would swell by 3 percent," reports the Economist on the end of the U.S. provisional residency program for nearly 200,000 Salvadoran migrants.
  • Pope Francis will be in Chile next week, and will meet with victim's of the Pinochet dictatorship, reports Reuters. But preparations for the pontifical visit only show the increasing irrelevance of the Catholic church in Chile, according to the Economist.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri announced a series of measures to eliminate outdated regulations in a bid to attract reticent foreign investment, reports Reuters.
  • The Peruvian government is evaluating a $2.4 billion railway project to transport mineral concentrates from the country's Andean region to the Pacific, reports Reuters.
  • A smartphone game seeks to educate Colombian children about their country’s endangered indigenous cultures, reports the Guardian.
  • The U.S. State Department implemented a new numbered classification system in order to warn travelers of dangers. Level 4, which advises travelers not to go to the place in question, largely reserved for war zones, and Mexican states where drug cartels have a very active presence, reports the Washington Post. Flaws in U.S. policies aimed at buttressing security in the region can be spotted in U.S. State Department travel warnings against certain destinations in Latin America, according to InSight Crime. "The United States has long worked with many of the countries for which advisories were issued in attempts to bring down their persistently high levels of crime and violence. But the new warnings against traveling to these nations serve as a type of admission that US-backed security policies have often fallen short of their goals."

Thursday, January 11, 2018

"Fake news" or censorship -- is that the question? (Jan. 11, 2018)

Alleged Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election has led to a spate of accusations in other countries. But the Russian excuse is also used as justification for a disturbing trend of government efforts to censor so-called "fake news," reports The Intercept

The Brazilian Federal Police announced this week that a specially formed working group, together with representatives from the judiciary, will combat "fake news" during this year's electoral process. Conservative Supreme Court justice Gilmar Mendes will be participating.

There is no current legislation permitting such extreme censorship, notes the Observer. Proponents of the new internet censorship program said they will seek a new law in order to define their functions, but without it, they plan on using a dictatorship-era law penalizing people who "spread rumors that caused panic." 

"That 1983 legal framework was used by Brazil’s military dictatorship to arrest dissidents, critics, and democracy activists. That they are now eyeing a resurrection of this dictatorship-era censorship law to regulate and censor contemporary political expression on the internet — all in the name of stopping “fake news” — powerfully symbolizes how inherently tyrannical and dangerous are all government attempts to control political expression," notes The Intercept. The piece delves into the extremely vague nature of "fake news" and the difficulties inherent in trying to control it within a framework of freedom of expression.

A law Congress approved last year also aims to fine internet users who publish content aimed at influencing the election under a false identity.

Hypothetical Russian intervention and questionable censorship efforts aside, Brazil's voters -- passionate users of social media and in the midst of intense political polarization -- are at unique risk for misinformation, according to Bloomberg. Brazilian fact-checkers have been worried about fake news since it plagued the controversial impeachment of former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, notes Poynter.

With that in mind, Facebook announced last week that it will partner with Aos Fatos, part of the International Fact-Checking Network, to create a chatbot for the company’s messenger service.  Aos Fatos director Tai Nalon told Poynter that the short-term goal of the bot — tentatively named “Fátima,” shorthand for “fact machine” — is to enable Facebook users to be their own fact-checkers.

However, such a mechanism cannot be applied to WhatsApp. Brazil is WhatsApp’s second-largest market, with 120 million users -- more than half the nation’s population.

Facebook will also be supporting an online course developed by Brazilian researchers to help young people and educators avoid falling for hoaxes.

Several dozen Brazilian organizations of civil society, including Instituto Update and App Civico, have launched #NãoValeTudo, an initiative aimed at responsible use of technology in elections. They recognize the "hyper-connected" nature of the world today, and how reality is increasingly mediated by new platforms. Technologies "are tools that can be used in different ways," they warn. "There are unethical and dishonest uses that can manipulate the debate in order to disinform public opinion and make noise in the democratic political arena." These techniques, which are negative for democracy, are multiplying, and have been present recently in important political proceses, like the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, the referendum regarding the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, or in the debates about the peace accords in Colombia. ... We, the signatories of this letter, believe that technology can improve democracy. Because of that, we commit ourselves to make ethical use of them, according to the principles in this letter, during the 2018 elections."

News Briefs
  • Colombia's ELN guerrillas carried out three bomb attacks yesterday, immediately after a temporary cease-fire expired, reports Reuters. Bombing against the country's second most important pipeline forced the suspension of pumping operations. The ELN also staged a grenade attack on a naval base in Arauca province, injuring two soldiers.  In response, the Colombian government recalled negotiators from a peace round due to start yesterday in Quito, reports the BBC. "The government was always willing to extend the ceasefire. Inexplicably, the ELN refused," said President Juan Manuel Santos. Later in the day ELN representatives urged the government to reopen negotiations. Talks, which started in February of last year, have suffered numerous setbacks. The group's negotiator in Quito said said the attacks occurred in "complex situations" of war and that the group maintained its intention to negotiate a new ceasefire. "The attacks underscored the steep challenges Colombia faces as it tries to negotiate a peace deal with the ELN similar to the one that it signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 2016," according to the New York Times.
  • The ceasefire itself had disparate impact in different regions under ELN control, reports Silla Vacía. While Arauca residents had a peaceful holiday season for the first time in 50 years, in Pacífico numerous violations occurred -- at least two in relation to skirmishes over former FARC territories and drug trafficking routes.
  • Political maneuvering could impact the selection of Guatemala's new attorney general, reports InSight Crime. In fact, machinations to impact a commission that would select the next head prosecutor have already begun on the part of powerful elites seeking to thwart anti-corruption efforts. Nómada details how fifteen lawyers will select six candidates that President Jimmy Morales will choose between.
  • Mexico may be on the verge of a perfect storm, argues Jorge Castañeda in a New York Times op-ed. "Three dark clouds threaten Mexico’s future in 2018: Donald Trump’s tax overhaul, the possible end of Nafta and a presidential election that may introduce an era of turmoil and uncertainty for the economy and Mexican society at large." He makes the interesting point with regard to the presidential election, that it's not so much whether front-runner leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador will actually win, but whether investors believe he will. They do, and they are either delaying projects in the pipeline or postponing new ones until after the election, writes Castañeda. "What these three clouds imply for Mexico is a protracted period of insignificant growth after a long period of mediocre growth. They probably entail more drug production, migration and violence. Poverty and inequality, which have both shrunk slightly over the past 15 years, will rise again."
  • The U.S. state department has warned Americans to completely avoid five Mexican states plagued by crime and drug cartel violence, putting the regions on the same level as war-zones such as Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, reports the Guardian.
  • The Washington Post has a briefing on what TPS, after the Trump administration canceled the provisional residency program for about 200,000 Salvadorans this week. (See Tuesday's post.)
  • And Canada is apparently fearing a huge influx of Salvadoran migrants crossing the border in search of asylum, as occurred last year when Haiti's TPS was cancelled, reports the Washington Post.
  • The Vatican has taken over a Peru-based Catholic movement whose founder was accused of sexual and psychological abuse, just days before Pope Francis starts a trip to Chile and Peru where the sexual abuse scandal is expected to play out on the sidelines, reports the Associated Press.
  • Argentine military Bishop Santiago Olivera said yesterday that he has in his power a previously undisclosed book of baptisms carried out in the ESMA chapel between 1975 and 1979. The ESMA (Navy Mechanical School) was the site of a clandestine maternity ward for illicit captives of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina at the time. Many of the infants born there were given in illegal adoption and their mothers were subsequently killed. The book apparently contains records of 127 baptisms, some of which could correspond to children of military officers, but some may provide clues regarding the still-missing children of the disappeared, reports Página 12. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Decision to terminate TPS will worsen situation in El Salvador (Jan. 10, 2018)

The Trump administration's decision to terminate a residency program for approximately 200,000 Salvadorans who have lived in the U.S. for at least 16 years will be yet another example of how Washington policy affects the fate of El Salvador, according to the New York Times. (See yesterday's post.) 

"The nation that these Salvadorans will be returning to is far deadlier than the one they left. In the capital, the streets have been converted into urban killing fields that, as recently as 2015, registered a homicide every hour during moments of peak violence," write Gene Palumbo and Azam Ahmed. "The government itself has also become an agent of violence. Police officers are granted an open license to go after the gangs under the government’s iron-fist policy, sometimes sweeping up innocent people."

El Salvador's violence-plagued society is intimately linked to U.S. policy, and residents fear the new influx of returnees -- most of whom have lived most of their lives in the U.S. -- will once again worsen conditions on the ground. Returnees will be virtual strangers, and could face additional dangers from entrenched street gangs who might consider them targets. Additionally, they could worsen the unemployment rate. On a broader level, the end of remittances will worsen poverty in communities around the country. Remittances account for 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and a staggering 80 percent of economic growth, according to Inter-American Dialogue research.

The Trump administration's decisions to end protections for certain groups of Latin American migrants who have lived long-term in the U.S. is counter to U.S. interests, and could well foster a new cycle of illegal immigration, warn Michael Shifter and Ben Raderstorf in a New York Times op-ed

Separation of immigrant families could also worsen violence in El Salvador, which is of course what pushes migrants to try to reach the U.S., said Celina de Sola, the vice president and founder of the El Salvador-based NGO Glasswing International, in an interview with Americas Quarterly. "Family disintegration is a huge risk factor for violence. You have people who have lived in the U.S for two decades. They’re participating in the labor force and have kids who are productive U.S. citizens. Ultimately what we want is to reduce crime by reducing vulnerability. But separating families makes people vulnerable whether they’re in the U.S. or El Salvador. And since returned migrants also have a much smaller social and familial network, that also increases the risk factors that lead to crime."

Florida members of Congress -- including Republicans -- branded the decision as "cruel" and "senseless," reports the Miami Herald. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, warned that the “cruel decision” will have "a terrible impact on our communities on 200,000 people, their relatives and the United States."

News Briefs
  • Undocumented Latin American migrants hoping to enter the U.S. are surging again along the border with Mexico. Border apprehensions reached an all-time low, touted by U.S. officials as a "Trump Effect," in which migrants were deterred by the U.S. president's tough talk on immigration issues. (Though experts warned last year that the chilling effect would be temporary. See post for July 3, 2017.) Across the Southwest, border officers are stopping more than 1,000 people a day, reports the New York Times. New data from the Homeland Security Department shows that would be migrants seeking to enter the U.S. surpassed 40,000 along the Southwest border last month, more than double the amount from last spring.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is opening a formal inquiry into mysterious symptoms suffered by U.S. embassy workers in Cuba. The U.S. has alleged "sonic attacks" that affected 24 people working in the embassy. But in a hearing yesterday, Senator Marco Rubio said the State Department “did not follow the law” in failing to set up a review board months ago, reports the New York Times. US investigators are looking at a range of theories – including the possibility of a "viral" attack, reports Reuters.
  • Ecuador's comptroller will open an investigation into debt contracted during the Correa administration, reports Reuters.
  • Ecuador is seeking to find a way for Julian Assange to leave its London embassy. The WikiLeaks founder has lived there since 2012, when he was granted political asylum, but Ecuador officials said it was unsustainable for him to live there permanently, reports the Wall Street Journal. They will be seeking international mediation to reach a final settlement with the UK, reports the Guardian.
  • Paraguayan Attorney General Javier Diaz Veron insists he will not resign from his post, in the midst of an investigation for illicit enrichment, reports EFE. Opposition parties in Congress have called for his ouster in response to allegations of Veron's "unethical and outrageous behavior," reported TeleSUR in December.
  • Argentine social activist Milagro Sala called for an end to judicial harassment towards her. Last week her home was raided by officials seeking evidence in a case alleging money laundering, reports Clarín. It is the fourth such raid, notes Cohete a la Luna.  Horacio Verbitsky reports that her lawyers' offices in Buenos Aires were robbed and vandalized. Sala has been in preventive detention for two years, and was transferred to home arrest last month in response to an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decision and pressure from rights organizations.
  • The Bolivian government negotiated an end to a 47 day doctors' strike, in response to a presidential decree creating a Supervision Authority for the National Health System and sanctions for professional negligence and medical malpractice, reports TeleSUR. Earlier this month, the Bolivian government and Bolivia’s Doctor’s Association agreed to end the nationwide medical strike and protests while the Bolivian government agreed to revoke the controversial articles of the Penal Code. However medical services were not immediately reestablished.
  • Honduras and Belize are under potential threat of a tsunami after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in the Caribbean sea yesterday, reports the Guardian.
  • Casa Xochiquetzal in Mexico City provides a haven for retired prostitutes, reports the New York Times.
  • Rio de Janeiro favela Rocinha was "once the showcase shantytown in Brazil’s showcase city." But the community has seen a drastic increase in killings this year, as confrontations between drug gangs and police turn the favela into a war zone, reports the Washington Post.