Thursday, April 26, 2018

Que se rinda tu madre! (April 26, 2018)

Unrest in Nicaragua appeared to subside yesterday amid renewed calls for dialogue from the government, the release of protesters detained over the past week, and the reestablishment of suspended television channels. (See yesterday's briefs.Schools yesterday reopened, after being suspended during the protests, and Managuan streets were relatively calm, reports AFP

But the protests, which started over changes to country's social security system, have turned into the biggest uprising in the country since the civil war ended in 1990, reports the New York Times. Tensions over the past week boiled over as a heavy handed security response to demonstrations led to an estimated 34 deaths.

Protesters are now calling for President Daniel Ortega's resignation, though yesterday students at Managua's Polytechnic University -- a focal point in the protests -- agreed to join a dialogue with the government mediated by the Roman Catholic Church.

The protests "represent a national rejection of President Daniel Ortega’s blatant aspiration to perpetuate himself and his family in power at any cost," argues Mateo Jarquín Chamorro in a New York Times op-ed. "The people on the streets have shown that their indifference has come to an end. The government has been unable to stop them from tearing down the ubiquitous propaganda billboards and some of the garish, tin-metal “trees of life” erected on hundreds of streets and roundabouts by the first lady as symbols of her government’s supposedly divine mandate. Nicaragua will never be the same again."

NYT has a video of the disturbances that have suddenly changed the country's course.

"The violence was particularly jarring in a country that has been a relative bastion of calm in a volatile region," according to the Economist, which links Ortega's new fragility to lack of funds in the wake of allied Venezuela's economic crisis.

News Briefs

Homicides set to keep increasing
  • A new Igarapé Institute study warns that the region's dramatic rates of criminal violence and homicide are likely to continue rising if nothing is done. “The overall trend right now in Latin America is one of increasing homicides and deteriorating security,” Robert Muggah told the Guardian. The report also notes the large role of guns in the region's violent crime.
Migrants have become unrecognized refugees
  • Univision News and El Faro received the 2018 Hillman Prize for Web Journalism for their coverage of the dangers faced by Central American migrants in a special feature: From migrants to refugees: the new plight of Central Americans. "The migrant shelters that were once pit stops for people pursuing a better future have now become refugee camps, filled with people often narrowly escaping death and experiencing profound trauma. In contrast to the plight of refugees in other areas of the world, very little has been told here about the struggles, fear, stress, and desperation that are experienced by refugees from Central America."
Mexico
  • Inter-American Court of Human Rights starts hearing a landmark human rights case regarding three cousins who were disappeared in 2009 by soldiers deployed within Mexico as part of the country's "war on drugs" policy. The court is expected to rule that Mexico is guilty of human rights violations for failing to bring justice in the case and require the government to make reparations to the victims' family, reports the Los Angeles Times. But more broadly, the case is a trial of Mexico's use of armed forces for internal security, a policy criticized by human rights organizations and formalized recently by a new law. Rulings issued by the Inter-American Court, based in Costa Rica, are legally binding in Mexico, and the court's opinion on the law could influence the Supreme Court. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The tragic deaths of three cinema students -- apparently killed by a criminal gang that mistook their identities -- has drawn attention to the massive enforced disappearance problem in Mexico, where about half of the country's 34,000 missing were under 29 years of age, reports El País.
  • Mexico's Senate passed a bill regulating government ad spending. But critics -- including Artículo 19 and Fundar -- say the so-called Ley Chayote only institutionalizes discretional spending that impacts media freedom, reports Animal Político. (See April 16's briefs.)
  • Independent presidential candidate Jaime "El Bronco" Rodríguez suggested cutting off the hands of corrupt public officials in a debate on Sunday. He later doubled down on the proposal, saying "It’’s something we have to do to end corruption in Mexico, which is a cancer." Hours later, a drug cartel dumped a dismembered corpse in Acapulco with a sign saying that they were already enforcing the punishment, reports the Guardian.
  • Buzzfeed profiles Tatiana Clouthier, the campaign manager who might help perennial presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador win office in July.
Venezuela
  • Opposition presidential candidate Henri Falcón accused President Nicolás Maduro of violating electoral rules in his reelection campaign, reports EFE. Falcón pointed to promotion of Maduro on official government websites, state media support for the incumbent, and government pressure on private media to provide Maduro with coverage. He asked electoral authorities to enforce both legal regulations and the accord signed by presidential candidates in March, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Falcón also challenged Maduro to a public debate.
  • Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to irregularities, which are of such magnitude that the country's major opposition parties have called for a boycott on the upcoming May 20 vote. Efecto Cocuyo lists the top 10 irregularities.
  • The only other challenger to Maduro, little known evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci said he'd be open to supporting Falcón's bid, but that he is also considering stepping down due to electoral irregularities, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • The U.S. consulate in Caracas called on the government to allow humanitarian aide to enter the country. Vía Twitter, the consulate said this could include medicine for preventable diseases, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights Geoff Ramsey analyzes the status of international sanctions against Venezuela. He notes the particular significance of Panamanian sanctions against officials announced in late March, as its the first time a Latin American country has joined efforts to isolate the Maduro regime. "Panama’s announcement may be a sign that other Latin American countries could join in applying sanctions in the future, and this does not appear to be lost on Venezuelan officials."
El Salvador
  • "Becoming an active member of a religious community remains virtually the only way someone can leave the notorious gang Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, alive," writes InSight Crime co-director Stephen Dudley in a New York Times op-ed. And that is a clue into how to best diffuse the threat posed by the criminal organizations, he argues. "The gang carries out horrific crimes, but after spending three years studying MS-13, my colleagues and I concluded that the best way to diminish the gang’s appeal to vulnerable young men is to think of it as more of a social organization than a criminal enterprise."
Colombia
  • A witness in a case against former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe was killed earlier this month, and others have bene threatened, denounced Human Rights Watch today. The Colombian Supreme Court's criminal chamber is investigating whether Uribe with witnesses linking him and his brother to paramilitary atrocities in the 1990s. 
  • Colombia's new ambassador to Seoul is a former commander of the country's military, accused of participating in war crimes and supporting cyberespionage against human-rights activists, reports the Washington Post.
  • Tumaco bishop Orlando Olave Villanova told EFE that the Colombian city near the border with Ecuador is suffering government neglect and the rise of armed criminal groups in the wake of FARC demobilization. The situation is such that some citizens long for the days when the guerrilla group dominated the Nariño area, he said. 
  • Alleged Colombian drug-lord "Don Mario" was charged with leading a continuing criminal enterprise in the U.S., reports the Associated Press.
Brazil
  • Brazil's Supreme Court undercut crusading anti-corruption Judge Sergio Moro this week. Magistrates accepted an appeal by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's lawyers that would take Odebrecht plea bargain testimonies from Moro's hands, giving them to Sao Paulo justices instead, reports Folha de S. Paulo.
  • Former Brazilian finance minister Antonio Palocci has struck a plea deal with federal police. Palocci served under Lula, and as chief of staff of former president Dilma Rousseff. His testimony could lead to new investigations and arrests in the landmark Lava Jato corruption investigation, reports Reuters.
  • The United Nations’ environment chief called for an investigation into the killings of three environmental activists recently, and said the escalation of violence against environmental defenders in Brazil is of "deep concern," reports Reuters.
  • A bill in Brazil's congress could totally ban abortion in Brazil, where already restrictive clauses push most women into illegality to terminate pregnancies. As many as one in five women in Brazil are estimated to have had an abortion, and some estimates say as many as four women die from unsafe abortions each day, reports the Guardian.
Cabinet shuffles
  • Haiti's government shuffled its new cabinet, named earlier this week, in response to pressure from lawmakers who support President Jovenel Moise, reports AFP.
  • Peru's new president lost his first minister to scandal already -- Production Minister Daniel Cordova resigned yesterday after a local TV channel revealed he had offered to fire his deputy minister to avert a strike by fishermen, reports Reuters.
Argentina
  • Argentina's government said it received over 30 bids in for six road projects to be built through public private partnerships (PPPs). It's the starting point for a total of $26.5 billion in PPP investment planned through 2022, reports Reuters.

Stay out of our backyard!
  • A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a resolution calling on Russia not to interfere in Latin American elections happening this year, reports the Hill. Though there have been allegations and rumors, no substantial evidence of Russian interference has been presented. Mexico particularly rejects the accusations.
Fishy
  • Mexican authorities arrested a Chinese airline passenger transporting 416 swim bladders from the endangered totoaba fish. They were tipped off by the strong smell emanating from his suitcases, reports AFP.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take?  Let me know ... 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Paraguay election results questioned (April 25, 2018)

The second-place finisher in Paraguay's presidential election demanded a recount yesterday. Efrain Alegre said he had evidence of fraudulent voting in Sunday's election, in which ruling party candidate Mario Abdo was declared the winner. The race was closer than expected. With 97.67 percent of ballots counted on Sunday, the tribunal said Abdo won 46.44 percent to Alegre’s 42.74 percent. (See Monday's post.)

International observers who monitored Sunday’s election reported no major irregularities, reports Reuters. The head of the European Union's electoral mission said the elections were carried out well, but in a context of "institutional weakness," reports EFE.

Alegre said on social media that the country’s official elections tribunal was too quick to announce the results on Sunday.

The allegations come as Abdo said he may seek to reform Paraguay's constitution in order to permit presidential reelection -- though he promised not to seek a second mandate himself.

The issue is controversial. Last year protesters set Congress on fire in response to President Horacio Cartes' plan to seek reelection.

The tight results spell trouble for governability in Paraguay though, according to El Pais. The emboldened left will likely have more seats in Congress (final results aren't expected for a couple of weeks) which could be challenging for the ruling Colorado party. Analysts expect the Colorados to lose a majority in the Senate, and possibly in Congress outright, reports Americas Quarterly.

News Briefs

Mexico
  • The migrant caravan that U.S. President Donald Trump singled out as a national security threat (see April 2's briefs and April 4's post) has started to arrive at Mexico's northern border. Two buses carrying about 130 migrants, most of them women and children arrived in Mexicali yesterday, a month after the group started out from the country's southern border with Guatemala, reports the New York Times. More contingents of the original group were expected to arrive soon. Many of the Central Americans are fleeing violence at home and caravan organizers estimated that between 100 and 300 would apply for asylum in the U.S. The mass migrations are an annual rite around Easter, and are intended to provide migrants with safety in numbers from criminals. On Monday Trump said on Twitter that he had instructed the Department of Homeland Security "not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country."
  • Three Mexican film students who were killed and dissolved in acid have become the latest emblems of the country's crisis of violence, reports the Los Angeles Times. Protesters and human rights organizations gathered yesterday to demand an investigation into the deaths of Jesús Daniel Díaz García, Marco Francisco García Ávalos y Javier Salomón Aceves Gastélum, reports Animal Político. Authorities say the three students were abducted on March 19 in a Guadalajara suburb and later tortured and killed in a case of mistaken identity stemming from a rivalry between two criminal gangs. Demonstrators in Guadalajara called for the resignation of Jalisco Gov. Aristoteles Sandoval, a member of the ruling PRI party.
  • This week for the first time the Inter-American Human Rights Court will hear a case regarding human rights abuses committed by the Mexican military in the course of carrying out national security operations. WOLA presented an amicus curiae emphasizing abuses committed in Chihuaha state during military operations there. The case is particularly relevant as the Supreme Court is in the process of evaluating the constitutionality of a new national security law that would maintain the military in a national security role, said the organization.
  • With Mexican leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador firmly in the lead for July's election, his opponents have abandoned policy proposals in favor of attacking him directly. In a debate on Sunday, most of the candidates tried to weaken AMLO, reports the Washington Post. And a campaign ad by the conservative PAN party seeks to spook potential AMLO voters by comparing him to the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, reports Animal Político.
War on Drugs
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said the war on drugs has not been successful. Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly, he called for a different international focus and said drug trafficking is a major threat to peace in Colombia, reports EFE.
Nicaragua
  • Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sought to diffuse street protests against his government by releasing dozens of protesters arrested in demonstrations over the past week. Student protesters were dropped off along a highway in the outskirts of Managua. And all the television channels blocked for showing anti-government protests were back on the air by yesterday, reports the Associated Press. The Roman Catholic Church agreed to act as a mediator in a national dialogue. Nonetheless, the situation remains tense after at least 27 people were killed in clashes with security forces over the past week, reports AFP. (See yesterday's post and Monday's.) Yesterday the White House accused Nicaragua's government of "repugnant" violence and repression against protesters.
  • Salvadoran police detained the husband of a journalist killed earlier this month. He is accused of killing La Prensa reporter Karen Turcios, reports EFE.
Militarized security failures in Jamaica and Brazil
  • Jamaican authorities had to redeploy security forces to a neighborhood where murders spiked after the recent withdrawal of a joint military-police occupation, reports InSight Crime. More broadly, the crackdown is likely worsening violence by splintering gangs.
  • Violent deaths increased by 24 percent last month in Rio de Janeiro over February's statistics. Police killings of suspects increased 34 percent last month, in the first full month of army intervention in the city's security, reports Reuters
  • Reuters interviewed leaders of Rio de Janiero's rival street gangs -- the Red Command and Pure Third Command -- who said the military intervention in the city won't solve Rio's pressing violence problem.
Venezuela
  • President Nicolás Maduro lambasted rival presidential candidate Henri Falcón's proposal to dollarize Venezuela's hyper-inflation plagued economy, reports EFE.
Guatemala
  • The arrest of a Guatemalan army colonel on charges of laundering money for MS-13 shows how street gangs are becoming more sophisticated in how they operate in the country, according to InSight Crime. (See Monday's briefs.)
Peru
  • Official statistics released this week show that poverty in Peru increased by one percent last year, a reversal after a decade in which poverty was reduced by over 20 percent, reports EFE.
Bolivia
  • Bolivia's government launched a Danish funded wind farm initiative that could soon have the country exporting electricity to its neighbors, reports EFE.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take?  Let me know ... 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Nicaraguans demand Ortega's resignation (April 24, 2018)

Tens of thousands of Nicaraguan protesters marched yesterday demanding the resignation of President Daniel Ortega. The demonstrations, which characterized Ortega and his wife, vice president Rosario Murillo, as dictators, came after six days of protests in which human rights organizations say 27 people died. (See yesterday's post.)

Today the United Nations called on Nicaragua's government to investigate the crackdown on protests, saying that a number of the killings may have been "unlawful," reports AFP.

The protests started in relation to social security reform last week, but are now tapping in to wider discontent with the president, now in his third term since being elected in 2007. Though Ortega announced a reversal in the policy which would have decreased pensions and increased payments by workers and employers, the streets show no signs of quieting down. In an editorial the opposition La Prensa said it's the first time the FSLN party has lost control of the streets.

Yesterday's protest, which occupied seven kilometers in Managua, was ignored by government supporting news channels, but broadcast by independent organizations, some of which have been censored since unrest began last week, reports EFE. Yesterday's march, called by the country's largest business lobby, COSEP, was however more peaceful than those of previous days, notes the Financial Times. And police stayed back from the crowds, according to Al Jazeera.

It was the largest protest so far in Managua, and was led by university students, who called for a release of demonstrators detained over the past week in addition to Ortega's resignation, reports Reuters. The Nicaraguan Center of Human Rights (CENIDH) said yesterday that 120 people had been arrested.

In an attempt to calm waters, Ortega and Murillo held a press conference promising to free those arrested, in order to create space for dialogue, reports AFP

Yesterday's march ended at the Politechnical University campus, which has become a focal point of disturbances and clashes with security forces, report the Associated Press and Univisión. Late last night police raided the campus for the second night in a row, according to AFP. At least one person was killed in clashes there on Sunday night, reports El Confidencial.

In the midst of the ongoing unrest, the U.S. State Department ordered nonessential employees and all embassy family members to leave Nicaragua yesterday, a sign that Washington sees the situation as dangerously unstable according to the Miami Herald.

Yesterday Silvio José Báez, auxiliary bishop of Managua, tweeted that the sides remained too far apart to talk. “I see no conditions for any dialogue with the government of Nicaragua,” he posted. Over the weekend Ortega invited Catholic Church officials to participate in dialogue between the government and business leaders.

News Briefs

Gender-sensitive drug policies in Bolivia
  • A new report by WOLA and the Andean Information Network focuses on the success of gender-focused initiatives to reduce prison populations in Bolivia. Together with poverty reduction and increased state support for mothers, these contributed to an 84 percent decrease in the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses between 2012 and 2017, write authors Kathryn Ledebur and Coletta Youngers. They also note that this is counter to the regional trend of increasing rates of incarceration for women on drug-related offenses.
Colombia accused of detaining social leaders
  • Human rights organizations protested the arrest of 30 people in Colombia's southern Nariño state. Authorities say those arrested have links to the guerrilla ELN group, but various social organizations said they were community leaders with links to indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, reports El Espectador.
Cuba's new president
  • Cuba's presidential hand-over was mostly focused on the theme of continuity, leading some commentators to wonder if all the excitement about the first non-Castro leader in 60 years was somewhat overblown. But the significance of the generational transition should not be underestimated, argues William LeoGrande in World Politics Review. "The new leaders take office in the face of economic distress and popular impatience that will test their mettle immediately, revealing who is up to the job and who is not."
  • Miguel Díaz-Canel's ascent marks the first time the island's government is led by somebody with no influence over the Armed Forces, and opening a potential area of dispute between Cuba's formal leaders and its economic power, argues Carlos Manuel Álvarez in a New York Times Español op-ed.
Paraguay
  • Paraguay's new president elect, Mario Abdo Benítez has expressed regret for human rights violations committed by dictator Alfredo Stroessner, but has refused to condemn the long authoritarian regime outright. But the country's young voters, who represent more than half the population don't see much relevance in that history, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's post.)
Brazil
  • Hundreds of members of Brazilian indigenous communities are camping out in Brasilia to ask President Michel Temer to request more favorable policies towards native peoples, reports EFE
  • A new report last week from rural violence watchdog Comissao Pastoral da Terra (CPT) showed there had been at least 70 killings related to land and resource conflicts in 2017, the bloodiest year on record since 2003, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Corruption investigations affect at least 15 of the 20 potential presidential candidates for Brazil's October elections, reports Folha de S. Paulo.
Mexico
  • Mexico's presidential debate on Sunday was a wash, and demonstrated the disconnect of the country's leading politicians from reality on the ground, argues Emilio Lezama in a New York Times Español op-ed. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • There were few ideas of substance in relation to insecurity and homicides in the debate, reports InSight Crime.
  • The Mexican peso has plummeted as investors fear that leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador will win July's election, reports Bloomberg.
  • Mexican authorities said they detained the alleged killer of Veracruz journalist Javier Valdez, reports AFP.
NAFTA
  • U.S. President Trump said that forcing Mexico stop undocumented migrants traveling towards the U.S. border could be a condition for a new NAFTA deal, reports AFP.
 Rectifying colonial canards
  • Archeologists in Antigua hope say early colonial accounts of savage cannibal tribes in the Caribbean are false, based on new evidence from excavations, reports the Guardian.
All that's fit to print
  • A group of transgender Bogotá sex-workers are publishing a newspaper, focused on security, health and local issues, reports the Guardian. The most popular edition? The one taped up to street corners for sex-workers to read while waiting for customers.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take?  Let me know ... 

Monday, April 23, 2018

25 dead in Nicaraguan protests (April 23, 2018)

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega backtracked a social security reform on yesterday, after days of protests in which over 20 people died. Human rights groups say 25 people have been killed since last week, including a reporter presenting a live broadcast, reports the Guardian. At least 67 people have been shot by the police with live rounds or rubber bullets, or beaten by members of pro-goverment groups. A further 43 people were reported to have “disappeared” over the weekend. There were reports of looting in some areas of Managua yesterday. Last week the government took several channels off the air for broadcasting the protests. (See last Friday's post.)

The pope, the U.S. government and business leaders all urged Ortega to stop the violence, before he made the announcement to reverse the reform yesterday, reports Reuters.

Ortega asked the Roman Catholic Church to participate in dialogue between the government, the private sector and workers unions, reports El Confidencial. The reforms would have lowered pensions and increased payments by employers and workers. The move was a bid to rescue a social security system that the IMF has said could run out of cash by next year, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Ortega offered to negotiate on Saturday, but the announcement inflamed protesters, who are now targeting the government more broadly, reports the New York Times. Ortega's accusations that demonstrators are manipulated by right-wing parties with U.S. funding only brought out more protesters. Leading business associations said over the weekend they would not enter talks until the government ended repression of protests and guaranteed freedom to demonstrate, reports El Confidencial. A leading business lobby, COSEP, which has been allied with the administration since it came into power in 2007, called for renewed protests today. Experts told La Prensa that the COSEP's leadership is at a turning point, and that the crisis will require a multilateral negotiation.

The move breaks the "dialogue and consensus" model that has characterized the regime's relationship with the business sector, explains Carlos Fernández Chamorro in Nómada

Critics say Ortega's statements show a cynical divorce from reality on the ground, reports El Confidencial separately. Ortega said those detained would be brought to trial, and made no mention of lifting restrictions on broadcasting, notes the Wall Street Journal.

Protests that started last week become more violent as of Friday afternoon, with police using teargas and live rounds against protesters armed with stones, according to the Guardian. Some protesters in Managua took refuge in the city's cathedral, and the army reportedly deployed snipers to shoot at them. Angry protesters pulled down "Trees of Life" sculptures in Managua, erected by Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega's wife.

Regardless of whether protesters back down, the damage to the Ortega administration could be a watershed, argues Kenneth Coleman at AULA blog. "Mass movements can start from little sparks and grow into society-wide convulsions.  The outcome of these new confrontations with the Ortega-Murillo government cannot be foreseen at this point, but the parallels with other governments on their last legs are striking. "

Paraguay elects Colorado candidate

Mario Abdo Benítez won Paraguay's presidential election yesterday. He had 46.49 percent of the votes with 96 percent of the ballots counted, reports Reuters. The margin of victory was however tighter than predicted, his closest opponent Efrain Alegre had 42.72 percent.

Alegre declined to concede, saying he would wait for the final count, though electoral officials said there were not enough ballots left to be counted to change the result, reports the Associated Press.

Though Abdo is of the ruling Colorado party, his election represents a right-ward shift for the country, in keeping with similar conservative turns in other countries in the region, reports the New York Times. The party has held power since 1945 (in dictatorship and democracy), with only the exception of Fernando Lugo who was elected in 2008 and ousted in 2012.

Nonetheless, Abdo's platform and Alegre's had significant overlap, notes the NYT. Both promised to strengthen the country's judiciary, sought to overhaul the tax system, and opposed legal abortion and gay marriage.

Abdo is the son of dictator Alfredo Stroessner's private secretary. During the campaign, Abdo did not repudiate the abuses carried out by the region's longest dictatorship, from 1954 to 1989, but he did not "overtly pay homage to the era," according to the NYT. He visited his father's grave yesterday after voting.

News Briefs

Cuba post-Castro
  • The incoming Cuban Council of State is unusually diverse for the island: Over half of newly appointed vice presidents in Cuba are black, and three are women. The mix is even more notable considering that it's the first time a non-Castro is leading the government in 60 years. Economic racial disparities have only grown in Cuba with increased private business opportunities. The move is a reflection of the growing significance of the Afro-Cuban movement, reports the New York Times. Critics however say the new leadership is just window dressing and won't address the socio-economic difficulties faced by black Cubans.
  • Incoming President Miguel Díaz-Canel "faces the daunting challenge of providing both continuity and change to address competing social, economic, and ideological pressures as Cuba moves forward," argues Peter Kornbluh in The Nation. "To succeed, he will have to lead the country through this historic political transition toward a far more significant socioeconomic transformation."
  • While outgoing President Raúl Castro is likely to remain a major power in the country, the next generation of Castro's may have influence behind the scenes, but lies low, reports the Washington Post.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro met with Díaz-Canel on Saturday, the first foreign leader to do so. The meeting shows the importance of the Venezuelan-Cuban alliance, reports Reuters. Cuban state-run media also reported that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had spoken by phone with both Diaz-Canel and Castro, who will remain head of the ruling Communist Party until 2021.
Venezuelan campaigns officially kick-off
  • Campaigns for Venezuela's May 20 presidential elections officially kicked off yesterday. The poll is being boycotted by much of the political opposition, and is considered illegitimate by much of the international community. Maduro is running for reelection. His primary opponent is Henri Falcón, who hopes to capitalize on widespread discontent to overcome the uneven playing field, reports AFP. The candidate is a little-known evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci.

Brazil -- Lula and elections
  • Thousands of people have camped out in Curitiba and in occupations around the country in support of jailed former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, reports The Nation.
  • Lula's imprisonment seems like a turning point, but it remains to be seen whether its a momentary crackdown or "or heralds a sustainable shift in how Latin America governs and does business," according to the Washington Post.
  • Though Lula remains a favorite among voters ahead of the October presidential elections, he likely won't be allowed to run due to Brazilian legislation blocking people with corruption convictions. A former Supreme Court judge, Joaquim Barbosa might join the race with the center-left Socialist Party. The country’s first black Supreme Court justice could potentially upend the contest. He is third in voter intention, if Lula is left out of the setup, according to the most recent Datafolha poll, and his biography -- rising from poverty to become an anti-corruption crusader -- resonates with voters, reports the New York Times. It is not yet clear if Barbosa will run, however.
Colombia
  • The U.S. DEA is investigating a former undercover agent suspected of providing intelligence to Colombian drug traffickers, reports Buzzfeed. The allegations could make it more difficult for U.S. law enforcement officials to earn the trust of confidential informants related to drug smuggling, according to the New York Times.
Mexico 
  • Mexican presidential candidates held their first televised debate yesterday -- with most focusing attacks on front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador. AMLO rarely responded directly to the criticism, but about a quarter of the way into the debate focusing on security, corruption and democracy, his patience wore thin, reports Reuters.
  • The European Union and Mexico concluded negotiations for a new trade agreement that will eliminate tariffs on virtually all products, reports EFE.
El Salvador
  • A Salvadoran court absolved the late President Francisco Flores of civil responsibility in a case in which he was accused of diverting earthquake relief funds donated by Taiwan, reports the Associated Press.
Guatemala
  • A Guatemalan military colonel was detained on charges of money laundering and links to street gang MS-13, reports El Periódico. Ariel Salvador de Leon worked with the U.S. Southern Command in border security operations, according to TeleSUR.
Diplomacy
  • Six members of UNASUR pulled out of the South American bloc. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru said they will leave the bloc for a year, due to differences over how to choose a secretary general, reports the Associated Press. Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Surinam, Uruguay and Venezuela remain in the bloc created by Hugo Chávez to counter U.S. influence in the region.
  • Uruguay rejected a U.S. request to expel Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a Russian spy in Great Britain. Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa called the request "impertinent," reports the Associated Press.
Chile
  • About 10,000 people marched in Santiago yesterday demanding an end to the privatized pension system created under the Pinochet dictatorship, reports AFP.
Peru
  • A Canadian man was beaten and lynched in the Peruvian Amazon after locals accused him of killing an 81-year-old indigenous healer, reports the Guardian.
Latin America Daily Briefing

Friday, April 20, 2018

Four deaths in Nicaraguan protests (April 20, 2018)

A at least four people died -- including one police officer and two civilians -- in third day of protests in Nicaragua. Dozens have been wounded in demonstrations against social security reforms implemented by presidential decree, reports El País. Unrest spread from Managua to other cities yesterday.

Protesters both for and against the reform, which would reduce pensions in the future and increase worker and employer contributions, clashed in the streets, reports Reuters. Police repressed with rubber bullets and tear gas, and El País says Frente Sandinista militias participated in attacking opponents of the reform.

The government ordered off the air five independent channels covering the protests, reports the Associated Press. The only programs remaining on air are those owned by the Ortega family and a Mexican ally. They broadcast soap operas and "saccharine" news yesterday, including protesters in favor of the new measures, reports El País separately.

Vice President and first lady Rosario Murillo accused of the protesters of being manipulated and trying to “destabilize” and “destroy” the country.

Amnesty International criticized the "blatant and disturbing attempt to curtail" citizen's rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

Guatemala

Guatemalan prosecutors and the CICIG requested the decertification of the ruling FCN-Nación party, after presenting an investigation detailing how a group of business leaders allegedly donated over a million dollars in illicit funding to President Jimmy Morales' presidential campaign, reports EFE. The irregular contributions were allegedly used to finance party monitors for the two rounds of voting in 2015 that elected Morales.

Attorney general Thelma Aldana and CICIG head Iván Velázquez explained that the investigation was aided by two witnesses from the company Novaservicios, S.A., who came forward after allegations were initially aired against Morales last year. They said that Novaservicios channeled funds from business leaders which were used to pay for party monitors, reports Soy 502

Dozens of checks from the country's biggest businesses show the money route and demonstrate the iron-clad alliance between Morales and the business community, reports NómadaLegislators are currently considering changes that would eliminate some crimes and lessen penalties for others, changes that would potentially benefit the businessmen involved in the latest case, reports the Associated Press.The revelations also explain lawmakers haste to pass  the reforms which would eliminate the crime of illicit campaign financing, says Nómada.

The expenditures were not reported to electoral authorities, reason for which prosecutors and the CICIG are requesting the party lose official recognition. Witnesses report that Morales sought to appear independent from business financing, which is why the donations were made this way, according to Nómada.

Last year the CICIG and Public Ministry sought investigate Morales in the case of illicit campaign financing, as he was secretary general of the FCN-Nación party at the time of the campaign. Lawmakers however shielded Morales from the investigation, declining to strip him of presidential immunity. (See post for Sept. 12, 2017.) In an apparent attempt to undercut the investigation, the Morales administration attempted to oust Velásquez from his post.

The case comes as Aldana prepares to step down next month. The system to select her successor has been criticized as open to interference. (Earlier this month InSight Crime reported on how Morales was angling to undercut the fight against corruption, see April 11's briefs.) But this week the selection committee discarded the most contentious candidates to fill the post, reports Americas Quarterly

Other Guatemala news:
  • Guatemalan voters backed a decision to file a claim at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) demanding sovereignty over 53 percent of Belize. The Economist explains why this is actually a positive move.
Paraguay

Paraguayans head to the polls on Sunday, where they are expected to pick the candidate of the conservative ruling party. Mario Abdo is a former senator, and son of the private secretary of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, reports Reuters.

Abdo represents the most conservative branch of the Colorado party, according to El País. He is running on a business friendly platform in a country that has experienced good economic growth, but wide economic disparity. It is also however the most corrupt country in the region except for Venezuela, reports Bloomberg.

Abdo's relationship with the Stroessner regime is a demonstration of Paraguay's failure to grapple with its dictatorship past for the Guardian. Though the candidate was a child during the authoritarian years, he defends aspects of the regime's legacy, such as obligatory military service. Human rights activists say his accent is a result of a legacy of fear that has stopped a real reckoning with violations committed by the Stroessner regime.

News Briefs

Cuba: #somoscontinuidad
  • Cuba's new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, was formally named yesterday by the National Assembly. Díaz-Canel promised revolutionary continuity, and hinted at modest change. He promised to modernize the country’s economy and make the government more responsive to its people, according to the Guardian. He spoke little, and said outgoing president Raúl Castro would remain an important influence in Cuban policy, reports the Washington Post. Castro spoke for far longer yesterday, and described how Díaz-Canel was handpicked by the islands top Communist leadership. He also announced a constitutional reform commission to start in July.
  • The Guardian looks at the issue of internet access, and quotes party insiders that say Díaz-Canel understands the economic benefits of greater connectivity, but fears overwhelming the country's political system.
  • At Americas Quarterly William LeoGrande reviews Raúl's tenure in leadership, and the little known about Díaz-Canel's attitudes regarding unfinished reforms. "The timely and constitutionally prescribed succession of leaders signals the institutional strength of the Cuban regime. That said, Díaz-Canel inherits a formidable agenda of tough issues: fundamental economic changes that are desperately needed but still incomplete, a rapidly evolving public sphere in which Cubans are better informed and more outspoken but have few ways to hold leaders accountable, and an uncertain relationship with Washington that is likely to get worse before it gets better."
  • Though Díaz-Canel is relatively unknown, his actions aim to portray a "regular guy" persona, and show he could bring a new style of politics to the island, argues Lydia Hernández-Tapía in Americas Quarterly
Haiti
  • A month after photographer Vladjimir Legagneur disappeared in Port-au-Prince, Haitian journalists say they are afraid and that authorities have made little headway, reports AFP.
Mexico
  • Mexico’s lower house of Congress approved changes to the constitution to eliminate immunity from prosecution for all public servants, including lawmakers and the president. The move is meant to tackle deeply entrenched corruption, reports Reuters. The changes must be approved by the Senate, and would establish that defamation, libel and slander cannot be punishable with jail. The reform also allows a series of public officials, including the president, to be tried politically, reports Animal Político.
  • This campaign season has been particularly bloody for candidates, at least 82 of whom have been killed over the past seven months, reports Animal Político. The victims were mostly vying for local positions, and their deaths are attributed to criminal organizations seeking to control local law enforcement and institutions. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
Peruvian mining
  • Peruvian Prime Minister Martín Vizcarra promised not to impose mining projects on local communities, but that the government will promote mining investments, reports Reuters.
Venezuela
  • U.S and Colombian financial investigators presented new evidence yesterday that Venezuela's food importation program is besieged by fraud, reports Reuters.
  • Finance ministers from 16 countries, including the U.S., E.U. and major Latin American countries, agreed to cooperate in order to to locate and seize the proceeds arising from corruption by Venezuelan government insiders, reports the Associated Press.
Argentina
  • Thousands of Argentines protested sharp hikes in gas and electricity rates imposed by the Macri administration, reports Reuters.
Brazil
  • Militia-linked murders in Brazil is shining light on the relatively obscure criminal groups that have a long history of operation in the country, reports InSight Crime. "Rio’s militias are paramilitary-style groups rooted in a nationwide tradition of death squads that grew up in the era of the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from the 1960s to the 1980s. They are typically composed of former and current security force members that use violence and coercion to assert control over typically disadvantaged neighborhoods."
  • Brazil's prosecutor recommended that the country's environmental regulator deny a French company permission to drill for oil near the mouth of the Amazon, reports Reuters.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

AMLO leading in polls (April 19, 2018)

Two weeks before Mexican presidential candidates officially launch their campaigns, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador remains in the lead with 32 percent according to a new poll by Mitofsky, reports Animal Político. A Reforma poll from this week gives AMLO 48 percent, a 22 point lead ahead of right-left coalition candidate Ricardo Anaya, reports Reuters.

AMLO's critics have tried to compare him to Hugo Chávez. But though he has populist tendencies, the real problem is the lack of new solutions for the problems he has correctly identified, argues Foreign Policy. "His vision for Mexico is based on two fundamental ideas: that unchecked corruption by a rapacious elite has undermined much of Mexico’s potential, and that the neoliberal reforms the country has implemented under centrist governments since the 1980s have failed. As for the former, he has a point, and 80 percent of citizens agree. The latter claim requires nuanced examination." (See March 13's briefs for more on AMLO's history.)

Experts criticize that none of the candidates in the presidential race have presented an integral vision of how to combat the country's sky-high rates of violence, reports El País. A campaign on Change.org led by Causa en Común aims to have candidates in Sunday's upcoming debate respond regarding whether they'd contemplate an international anti-impunity commission, in the style of Guatemala's CICIG.

Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim hit back against AMLO's promise to scrap a project for a new Mexico City airport if he is elected. Slim, who owns companies involved in the building project, said halting the $13 billion project would be a setback for the economy, reports Reuters.

A series of viral campaign videos set to music portray fictional characters who say they will vote across class lines, reports El País. Both AMLO and Anaya's campaigns deny involvement, though the candidates are endorsed by the videos. One portraying a supposed "niña bien," (rich girl) has particularly had impact. Verificado 18, a media group dedicated to fact-checking the election campaign, found that the video was filmed under false pretenses in chapel and was not the work of a university student as initially rumored. (See Tuesday's briefs on Verificado.)

Other Mexico news
  • A year after an Animal Político and Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad reported on how the government used shell companies and fraudulent contracts to divert public funds, reporters say there have been few political or legal repercussions in relation to their revelations, reports EFE.
News Briefs

Latin America's rightward swing
  • Echoes of U.S. President Donald Trump's rhetoric seem to be increasingly surfacing in the region, where conservative governments are pushing back against immigration, and evangelical churches are pushing socially conservative policies. "But the rise of the right in Latin America is for the most part a homegrown phenomenon," argues Omar Encarnación in Foreign Policy. (See below briefs on Jair Bolsonaro's candidacy in Brazil.)
  • The old leftist axis in the region has fallen apart, but a new wave of progressivism is taking shape and will focus on the transformation "of Latin America toward a productive economy, and not one based the extraction of resources," said Colombian leftist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro in an interview with The Nation.

Cuban presidential handover
  • Cuban state media emphasized yesterday that incoming President Miguel Díaz-Canel may be a new face, but represents continuity with the Castro leadership of the past 60 years, reports the Associated Press.

Brazil
  • A Netflix series loosely (operative term) based on the sprawling Lava Jato corruption investigation has critics alleging political bias against the left at a critical time ahead of October's presidential election. But as more people watch O Mecanismo, some see a broader indictment of Brazilian politics in general, and worry that the portrayal of a hopelessly corrupt system combined with voter fury could pave the way for anti-democratic arguments, reports the Atlantic.
  • That is precisely the sentiment that's fueling the candidacy of dictatorship apologist Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing firebrand known for misogynist comments. The Guardian reports on how Bolsonaro is positioning himself as a "tropical Trump ... a pro-gun, anti-establishment crusader set on draining the swamp into which Brazil’s futuristic capital has sunk."
  • In the meantime, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's Workers' Party is rallying locally and internationally to raise support for the jailed former leader, reports Bloomberg. The Supreme Court was going to analyze whether convicts should be able to exhaust appeals in liberty, which would get Lula out of jail, but did not take up the constitutional challenge yesterday.
  • The PT insists that Lula will be its presidential candidate for October's election. But former Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad told Reuters that leftist parties are discussing a united front should Lula be barred, as is likely.
  • A campaign against child-killing in indigenous communities in Brazil has raised the question of how much the state should interfere in inhumane indigenous customs, according to Foreign Policy
Colombia's guerrillas
  • U.S. prosecutors have apparently obtained the collaboration of a key witness to provide testimony against a FARC leader accused of trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. Marlon Marin -- nephew of FARC leader Luciano Marin, known as Iván Márquez -- was flown to New York where he will testify against Jesús Santrich, who was arrested earlier this month. The case is another blow for the stumbling peace process, reports the Associated Press. (See April 10's post.)
  • Ecuador is withdrawing as mediator between Colombia and the ELN guerrillas. President Lenín Moreno blamed ongoing terrorist activities of the guerrillas, in a statement with RCN that appears to have caught Colombia's government off-guard, reports the Associated Press. Later Ecuador's government said the decision was taken as a result of the “difficult situation” on its northern border with Colombia.  
  • In another interview, Moreno said he wanted his predecessor, Rafael Correa, investigated for allegedly receiving FARC campaign contributions, reports the Associated Press.
Venezuela
  • A new visa will allow Venezuelans fleeing their country's crisis to work and live in Chile for a year. But the measure caused dismay in Caracas this week, with hundreds of Venezuelans lining up outside the consulate, worried they would be unable to enter Chile on previously purchased flights, reports Bloomberg.
  • Venezuela and Spain agreed to restore diplomatic relations after recalling ambassadors in January, after the European Union sanctioned Venezuelan officials, reports Reuters.
  • The E.U. said it would consider further sanctions if it believes democracy is being undermined, reports Reuters.
  • Venezuela's opposition-led gave a group of judges in exile permission to try President Nicolás Maduro for allegedly seeking bribes from Odebrecht. The trial by Venezuela’s "Supreme Court in Exile" started earlier this month in Bogotá, but is considered symbolic as the jurists aren't recognized by Venezuelan law enforcement institutions, reports the Associated Press.