Monday, May 18, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, May 18, 2015

Venezuela's opposition should be wary: poll numbers can be misleading

The Venezuelan 29-party opposition coalition, MUD, held primaries yesterday to select candidates for this year's parliamentary elections. 

The Caracas Chronicles celebrates a relatively large turn-out for yesterday's primaries: 550,000 people participated, according to MUD officials, out of a total of 7 million eligible votes. About 2.6 percent of the registered electorate, reports the Miami Herald. The goal was apparently to get 350,000 to show up.

The low-profile primaries to select 42 candidates were largely a show of mobilization against Maduro, according to Reuters.

Inflation, shortages and increasing divisions within the governing Socialist Party (PSUV) have fed into predictions that the opposition party could obtain a majority in the National Assembly. The government has a 65 percent disapproval rating, and under 30 percent approval rating. And this year's elections could presage a recall referendum for President Nicolás Maduro next year.

There is still no date set for the general election, which must come before the end of the year. (Earlier this month authorities, under diplomatic pressure from Brazil, announced they would be held in the last-quarter of 2015.) 

The polls favor the opposition. Datanálisis numbers show that 45.8 percent of the electorate say they plan to vote for opposition candidates in the general election, compared to 25 percent who say they plan to vote for PSUV candidates. 

But not so fast. Dimitris Pantoulas and David Smilde caution that the numbers can be misleading. On the one hand, the electoral system and district lines favor rural areas that tend to support the PSUV. On the other, the governing Chavistas have proved adept at winning elections over the past 16 years, including elections where the opposition had an advantage, like the 2004 recall referendum on Hugo Chávez and the 2013 municipal elections.

The ruling PSUV will be holding primaries in all districts, fielding over 1,000 candidates -- fomenting voter engagement -- while the MUD held them in only 33 out of 87 districts, reports the Miami Herald. Candidates for the other slots were either running unopposed or had the backing of the coalition.

The opposition benefits from anger towards the government, but comes with few concrete proposals, note Pantoulas and Smilde. "The opposition ... is distinguished by the abstract nature of its message and diffuseness of its proposals. ... When it bothers to communicate at all, the opposition tends to focus on issues of liberty that rally its base but leave most of the population flat."

Luis Vicente León, Datanálisis' head pollster, recently wrote an op-ed in El Universal, chiding the opposition for falling into the same polarized arguments as the Chavistas. Capturing the middle voters, who reject both the PSUV and the MUD will require real proposals, he says.

Hurdles for the opposition will include media communication dominated by the ruling party and last minute populist measures. 

Other potential stumbling blocks for the opposition include the effects of oil price increases -- which would give the Venezuelan government cash to alleviate some of the shortages -- as well as the popularity boost that came with U.S. sanctions for Venezuelan officials. Should too many people stay home from the polls, whenever they are, the MUD's numbers will also be hurt, say Pantoulas and Smilde.

One of yesterday's victors is Daniel Ceballos, the mayor of San Cristóbal who is in jail for allegedly inciting violent protests last year. The Characas Chronicles notes that it's still unclear whether he will be allowed out from prison to campaign.

News Briefs

  • Two candidates in Mexico's upcoming midterm elections were killed this weekend, reports theLos Angeles Times. Candidates are facing a wave of violence and intimidation, notes the piece, two others were killed earlier this year and two more were kidnapped and then released. Since 2008, 24 political candidates have been assassinated -- the majority of them in Guerrero -- and nine kidnapped during the run-up to elections in Mexico, according to the piece.
  • #Renuncieya: Guatemalan's are not content with the head of Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who resigned earlier this month in the midst of an investigation into a multi-million dollar customs fraud scandal. Protests on Saturday demanded President Otto Pérez Molina's resignation, as well as general anger over government corruption. The Wall Street Journalnotes that the march was organized through social media, and has no discernible leaders. Plaza Pública estimates over 60,000 in attendance, and notes the festive nature of the gathering, which included rock bands and piñatas of public figures in the central square.
  • Nationwide protests in Peru forced the temporary suspension of the $1.4 billion Tía María copper mining project. The Wall Street Journal reports that the two months of increasingly violent protests have challenged Peru's business-friendly government and put President Ollanta Humala on the defensive. Though the mining company says the project will use desalinated water -- and won't affect local supplies -- locals say the mine will inevitably use up scarce water resources and impact their agricultural livelihoods.
  • Gang violence in El Salvador has the Central American nation on track to become the hemisphere's most violent this year. The breakdown of a 2012 gang truce has homicide rates spiking: more than 1,800 people have been killed this year, including two dozen police officers, most slain while off-duty, reports the Washington Post. In response, authorities have beefed up their operations, arresting more than 4,400 suspected gang members in the past few months. Police say there are now more than 30,000 gang members inside and outside prison, though other sources say the numbers are double that. The piece notes that the conflict has echoes of El Salvador's brutal 1980s civil war. Human rights organizations are concerned about the aggressive posture of police and troops responding to the gang situation.
  • Latin American governments are pushing back against classic U.S. backed drug fighting policies, including prohibition, crop eradication and militarization of fights against producers, reports the New York Times. Colombia's decision to cancel a long-standing U.S. backed aerial coca field eradication program last week, citing health concerns, is only the latest rebellion in a region that's increasingly looking at alternative strategies. The piece looks at Bolivia, which obtained U.N. permission for small-scale coca cultivation, Chile which is harvesting its first crop of medical marijuana and Uruguay, which has enacted a ground-breaking marijuana legalization law. Though several other countries, like Mexico and Guatemala have toyed with the idea of legalization as a weapon against organized crime, voters in the region do not favor the approach, according to the piece.
  • Of course, none of this is particularly groundbreaking news. Reform is in the air. Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, gives an interesting overview of alternative approaches in a presentation at a Baker Institute event.
  • China is set to announce financial support for Latin American countries this week, part of a broader effort to reassure the region which has been hit by China's weakened economy and reduced demand for raw materials, reports the Wall Street Journal. A delegation to Brazil, led by the Chinese Prime Minister, is expected to focus on a trans-Andean railway, and to disclose plans to invest up to $53 billion for infrastructure projects in Brazil. 
  • Prosecutors in a Mexican border state say a group of youths aged 11 to 15 tortured, killed and buried a 6-year-old boy as part of what they considered "playing," reports the AP.
  • The Wall Street Journal takes a somewhat biased look at the investigation into Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman's death. The case has turned into a national whodunit, with everybody from President Cristina Kirchner to food vendors taking a stance as to whether he was killed or took his own life. The piece focuses on Nisman's ex-wife's separate investigation into the death and her questioning of the oficial investigation.

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