Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Venezuela briefs: Opposition leaders barred from public office and tumbling bolivar (July 15, 2015)

  • Regulatory crackdown on political opposition: Venezuelan opposition leader María Corina Machado has been barred from holding public office for a year, according to a letter she received from the national comptroller's office. The move would prevent her from becoming a congresswoman if she wins a seat in December’s parliamentary election.It was not immediately clear on what grounds she was barred and the comptroller’s office could not be reached to comment. The office has in the past disqualified candidates from holding public office for irregular use of public funds. Opposition leaders say these are excuses to sideline political opponents, reports The Guardian. But Comptroller-General Manuel Galindo said in late April that Machado, along with Henrique Capriles and Julio Borges had several "inconsistencies" in their sworn statements of assets, reports the Caracas Chronicles, which predicts more opposition candidates (and possibly dissident Chavista's). Last week, former San Cristobal mayor Daniel Ceballos (who is currently in jail) was similarly banned from holding public office. Local media said he was disqualified for not presenting a sworn wealth declaration.
  • Currency tumble: Venezuela's black-market bolivar is worth a hundred times less than the government-controlled rate, reports Bloomberg. The bolivar fell to a record 630.21 per dollar yesterday in the illegal street markets where Venezuelans go to skirt limits on foreign-exchange purchases, compared with the official rate of 6.3 per dollar, data compiled by show.
  • Pre-election crime crackdown?: Venezuelan officials say an offensive against criminal organizations in the capital has killed 14 suspects and brought 236 arrests over the past two days, reports the AP.The minister for internal affairs said Monday that several thousand soldiers and police are involved in the special operation aimed at attacking rising crime in Caracas.
  • International mediation: Venezuela said last week it would ask the United Nations to help resolve a border dispute with Guyana over an area where a new oil discovery has been made. The country will send a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requesting that a formal mediator be appointed, announced Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, reports the AP.
News Briefs

  • A bomb damaged the headquarters of Ecuador's ruling PAIS Alliance party in Guayaquil, late Monday night. It is a "message of terror" said PAIS legislator Bairon Valle who said the explosion was felt in a three -block radius, though no one was injured, reports TeleSur.
  • The trial of 13 suspects who were detained for bombing two pension fund offices in Bogota earlier this month got a weird twist on Monday when media reported the majority was indicted for unrelated issues, according to Colombia Reports. Human rights organizations already protested the mass arrest of 15 suspects last week saying the Prosecutor General's office was seeking judicial "false positives" in order to fake a quick success. The ELN, the group supposedly behind the attack on the Porvenir offices, denied any affiliation with the people who were arrested.(See Friday's post.)
  • Brazilian federal police carried out search-and-seizure requests Tuesday against several local politicians, including former President (and current Senator) Fernando Collor de Mello and Senator Ciro Nogueira in the sixteenth round of the probe dubbed Politeia, as part of an investigation into an alleged corruption scheme at state-run oil firm Petrobras. A total of 53 search and seizure operations were carried out in order to prevent evidence from being destroyed, according to statements from the police and federal prosecutors, reportsReuters. Police seized a Porsche, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini from de Mello's home, and will hold the cars until an investigation shows the exact source of the money with which they were bought. Mr. de Mello was Brazil’s president from March 1990 to October 1992, when he was impeached due to corruption allegations. He was barred from politics for almost a decade before re-entering the scene in the 2000s and winning a senate seat in 2006, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Government interference in the state-run oil firm will have to end if Petrobras wants to meet production targets said aid Roberto Castello Branco, who occupies one of the seven seats reserved for representatives of the Brazilian government on company's 10-person board. The comments were viewed as unusually frank for a board member, especially one appointed by the government. Investors have complained in recent years that Petrobras’ board largely served to rubber-stamp decisions motivated by politics rather than business needs, such as fuel subsidies that allowed Brazil’s government to meet inflation targets but cost Petrobras upward of $20 billion between 2011 and 2014, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Drug kingpin El Chapo Guzmán's escape from prison this weekend caps a spate of bad news for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and deepens many citizens' feelings that he is out of touch, reports the Wall Street Journal. His administration has struggled with the appearances of conflicts of interest affecting the president, the first lady and the finance minister—who all deny any wrongdoing. A weak economy, and growing security issues, including last year’s still unresolved massacre of 43 college students has further impacted the government's popularity. Before the jail break, Mr. Peña Nieto’s approval rating was already at a record low, with almost 60 percent of Mexicans saying they disapproved of his government. There have been no new polls since the drug lord fled, but pollsters said his rating is sure to take a hit, according to the WSJ. (See Monday and yesterday's post.)
  • The U.S. has offered everything it has — marshals, drones, even a special task force — to help recapture Guzmán. But Mexican authorities remain aloof, confounding law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border and undermining efforts to find the escaped cartel leader, reports the New York Times. Given their history of animosity, war and misunderstanding, both countries are skeptical of each other, said Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America in the NYTimes piece. "The Mexicans think we are domineering and imperialist, and we think they are corrupt."
  • New details are adding to the cinematographic quality of his escape from high security prison. The Los Angeles Times reports that Guzman had reportedly petitioned the national human rights commission to prevent surveillance cameras in his shower, claiming such intrusion was a violation of his rights. It is in the shower -- of course -- where his escape tunnel could be accessed from the cell. Government video of Guzman's final moments in his cell and media visits to the tunnel put real dimensions to a high-tech engineering feat three stories underground, where planners and builders managed to burrow through dirt and rock right to the one spot in Guzman's cell that surveillance cameras couldn't see, reports the Associated Press
  • And this escape only adds to Guzmán's folkloric legend. Already, Mexicans were penning narco-corridos, the bouncy songs that recount the exploits of major traffickers, about the escape, reports the Los Angeles Times. Though Guzmán leads a violent and illegal drug cartel, locals are inclined to see him as more of a a benefactor than criminal, reports the Washington Post. Amid the working-class neighborhoods and rolling farmlands surrounding the prison, there is support for Guzmán and fascination with his escape. But experts say twitter accounts apparently foretelling Guzmán's escape and then later saying that he'd been reunited with his sons and threatening Donald Trump are probably fake, according to a different Los Angeles Times piece.
  • As Mexico opens its oil industry to competition for the first time since the industry was nationalized nearly 80 years ago, homegrown oil Mexican oil companies hope to compete not only with Pemex, but also with global giants like Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell, reports the Wall Street Journal. Mexico will hold the first of three auctions of oil blocks this year today. The maiden auction is symbolically important to see if the oil companies are on the same page as the government on what the blocks are worth.
  • As the Colombian government and the FARC rebel guerrilla forces inch closer to a final peace agreement, deadly landmines remain a legacy of the fifty year conflict, reports the Associated Press. Colombia is the world's second-deadliest country for land mines, behind Afghanistan, with more than 2,000 people killed and 11,000 maimed or wounded by shrapnel since 1990, according to the government. About a third of the victims are civilians. Most of the hidden killers were planted by retreating members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia as part of a strategy to protect themselves from pursuit by sowing terror in the minds of their battlefield enemies. The FARC have promised to stop using land mines, something Colombia's army did in 2000 when it signed an international treaty. But though their use has decreased, the weapons continue to be part of the rebels' arsenal. Just last month, more than 400,000 people in the port city of Buenaventura went four days without electricity after rebels blew up a transmission tower and then fenced the wreckage with land mines, making it impossible for work crews to enter.
  • It's time for Cuba to join the international financial institution club if it wants to attract investments and grow it's economy, argued Former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez at an  Atlantic Council event reported on by the Miami Herald. But the most important thing investors want to hear, he said, is that Cuban policy makers understand the need for profit. "For me, this is not about ideology; it’s about numbers," said Gutierrez. "If there is a problem with the idea of profit, then this will never work, and I think what businesses need to hear from the Cubans [is] that they understand that profit is an essential part of growing a business," said Gutierrez. "I would also encourage Cuba to embrace, to allow private businesses to make a profit."
  • The Caribbean Community, Caricom is considering a proposal for the region to pursue gradual write-off of its multilateral debt as a means of economic prosperity. The debt relief strategy was put forward by Alicia Barcena from the Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), reports MercoPress.
  • Groundbreaking marijuana legislation in Uruguay was supposed to create a legal market for the substance, but more than a year after the world’s most far-reaching marijuana reform was signed into law, the government body supposed to control the legal market is underfunded and understaffed, while police continue harassing growers and the pharmacy plan has barely advanced beyond the drawing board, reports The Guardian. "The state is really slow," admitted Milton Romani, director of the Uruguayan National Drugs Council. "It's a big headache – and the cannabis smokers are also pretty useless," he chuckled.
  • But a piece in Busqueda reports that the government's Cannabis control body has distributed draft regulation for pharmacies that want to sell recreational marijuana. According to the document pharmacies would earn a 30 percent profit on the product's final cost and would have to buy cannabis from producers on a biweekly basis and have the capacity to store up to two kilos of marijuana in place with restricted access.
  • The 2015 Global Creativity Ranking combines separate rankings of what it calls the three T’s of economic development: talent, technology and tolerance. While Latin American countries are significantly behind Asian nations in education and technology, many of them rank high in tolerance, or open-mindedness, reports Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. He notes that countries such as Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, Chile, and Costa Rica rate significantly higher than more important economies, such as China and India. This is due to the region's urbanization, according to one of the study's authors, Richard Florida. Their urban populations and rapidly growing middle classes help make them more open-minded toward minority groups and people who think differently, he told Oppenheimer, who argues that Latin America's competitive advantage in open-mindedness over China, India, South Korea and other emerging economies means the region could surpass Asia if "improved its dismal education and technology standards."

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