Monday, August 17, 2015

Guatemalan politics in disarray ahead of September's presidential elections (August 17, 2015)

With less than a month to go until Guatemala's September 6 presidential elections, the political scene is very much in disarray thanks to corruption investigations carried out by the U.N. backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

The upcoming elections are the most uncertain (and illegitimate) in democratic Guatemalan history, says Martín Rodríguez Pellecer at Nomada. But protestors' demands for their delay have not been successful in court.

A series of investigations since April have revealed that officials in Guatemala’s customs agency had received millions of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for reducing import duties for companies; fraud at the Social Security Institute and that money from drug trafficking is financing political campaigns. The scandals led to the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti and ongoing protests demand the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina, whose term ends in January.

Plaza Pública, in an in-depth piece on the investigations says the revelations since April are a watershed moment for Guatemalan politics, spurring an outrage previously unseen in the country.

The scandals have enlivened the contest to succeed Pérez, reports The Economist. They forced the governing party's candidate drop out of the race and now they threaten to upset the candidacy of the front-runner, Manuel Baldizón. Baldizón's running mate, Edgar Barquín, has been accused by the CICIG of using his position as head of the central bank to protect businesses that were laundering money, and the Supreme Court stripped him of immunity from prosecution. 

It is unclear what the effect of the accusations against Barquín will be on Baldizón's candidacy. One potential result would be the invalidation of the formula -- either eliminating Baldizón's canidacy or allowing him to run unaccompanied, explains Nómada. However the legality of the case is unclear, and could reach the Supreme Court.

Another issue affecting Baldizón is overspending -- the electoral tribunal ordered him to stop campaigning two weeks ago as he had already spent beyond the legal campaign limits, reportsNómada in a separate piece.

The upset opens the field to rivals, such as comedian Jimmy Morales, and Sandra Torres, the ex-wife of a center-left former president. The two are tied for second, and would compete against Baldizón in an eventual run-off. 

Nómada reviews potential electoral scenarios, including Baldizón winning in a first round due to a high percentage (up to 25 percent) of people who say they will blank vote in protest. As percentages are calculated over the total of valid votes cast, such a high level of protest votes could transform Baldizón's 35 percent into almost the 50 percent needed to win the presidency in one round of voting.

Morales belongs to a party that has ties to former military officers from the civil war, notes VICE, and stirs up crowds with themes like God, homeland, family, and honor. He's described himself as a "Nationalist centrist Christian,". His slogan -- "Ni corrupto, ni ladrón," ("Not Corrupt, Not a Crook") is telling of the current mood in Guatemala. His electorate is urban and tired of the system, explains Nómada.

Torres, of the UNEN party, however, benefits from representing an established political party with support around the country, not just in the urban centers, according to Nómada.

But surveys of voter preferences are being complicated by a slew of fake or misleading polls quickly propagated on social media and difficulties in polling areas controlled by gangs, reports Bloomberg

Another candidate is Zury Rios Sosa, daughter of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, reports VICE. She fought against a Guatemalan law that forbids relatives of dictators from competing in elections, and won the right to compete in July. Her father  has faced a lengthy court battle over charges of genocide and crimes against humanity carried out during his term as a military president during Guatemala's civil war.

The VICE piece notes a common Guatemalan belief that whoever lost the previous presidential election will win the next one, with recent elections adhering to this pattern. Pérez was runner-up in the 2007 election, and ended up winning in 2012. His predecessor, Alvaro Colom, lost the 2004 presidential election but was elected in 2007. Baldizón lost to Pérez Molina in the 2012 election...

Guatemala's Congress declined on Thursday to expose President Otto Perez Molina to possible prosecution for corruption, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. Lawmakers were able to muster only 88 votes to support the motion, short of the 105 needed. Some opposition members sided with the governing Patriotic Party and other legislators didn't vote, reports the Associated Press

Opposition lawmaker Amilcar Pop accused Perez Molina of criminal conspiracy in connection with a $15 million scandal at the country's social security institute. In June, the Supreme Court formally asked Congress to name a committee to determine whether the president's immunity should be retired to open the door to a criminal prosecution. The congressional panel ultimately recommended that the immunity be revoked.

Plaza Pública has a fifteen-minute documentary reviewing the three months of public protests sparked by the CICIG revelations and examining where it might lead in the future.

And in another piece, Plaza Pública looks at the strategy of CICIG chief Ivan Velásquez, who decided to focus the body on combatting systemic corruption in the government's main structures. The body has prioritized investigating criminal structures that affect citizens' rights and based on the capacity of said structures to interfere with the justice system, says Velásquez in the piece. The CICIG's broader objective is to show how criminal structures have coopted the government.

On a separate Guatemala note, nearly one million people in that country are struggling to feed themselves as poor rainfall has led to drought and shrunken harvests, worsening hunger among the poor, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said, reports Reuters.

News Briefs

  • Deportations of people of Haitian descent from the Dominican Republic under a controversial migration policy finally began this weekend, according to Reuters. Five people were deported on Saturday, under the DR's Migration Act, which could potentially affect thousands of people of Haitian descent, many of whom were born or have lived in the DR for years. (See June 17th's post.) Haitian officials have warned they lack the resources to handle mass deportations, but tens of thousands of Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans have already fled the Dominican Republic with many settling in squalid camps in Haiti, reports Reuters. (See lastWednesday's briefs.)
  • Seven U.S. senators urged Secretary of State John Kerry last week to intercede in the citizenship crisis in the Dominican Republic, expressing concern that thousands of Dominican-born people of Haitian descent still are not recognized as citizens, reports the Boston Globe.
  • New York Times editorial from last week praises "discreet and pragmatic American diplomacy that in recent years has begun to alter the image of the United States as an overbearing, entitled neighbor" in Latin America. The piece notes advances with countries such as Bolivia and Brazil, with whom relations had been frosty in recent years. The editors quote Joy Olson, the executive director of WOLA, saying: "I think this is the beginning of people having different types of conversations, conversations that were impeded by this 50-year-old, stupid policy ... The potential is much bigger than anything we’ve seen so far." The shift towards cooperation is all the more important given Chinese efforts to cultivate goodwill in the region through financing and trade, explain the editors.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took in dozens of cities gathered yesterday to call for increasingly embattled President Dilma Rousseff's impeachment, reports Reuters. Protests were staged in all of Brazil’s 26 states, as well as in the capital district of Brasília, reports theWall Street Journal, which notes that "the thousands of Brazilians taking part in this weekend’s protests appeared to have little in common except their wish to see Ms. Rousseff removed from office." It was the third nationwide day of protests against Rousseff's government this year, largely organized through social media, and blaming Rousseff for a vast corruption scandal engulfing Brazil's political elite and the worst economic slump of the past 25 years. But the protests "seemed to lack some of the urgency of huge demonstrations this year calling for the ouster of Ms. Rousseff ... suggesting tension may be easing somewhat on the president as congressional and business leaders try to prevent a political crisis from intensifying," reports the New York Times. On a similar note, he WSJ piece says that over the past couple of weeks Rousseff's harshest critics have toned down their remarks, "suggesting that Brasília’s ruling elites are looking for ways to defuse the crisis without a regime change." There have also been demonstrations in recent months showing support for the embattled leader, with many claiming calls for her impeachment amount to a coup attempt, reports the BBC. (See lastTuesday's post.) Yesterday, smaller numbers of pro-Rousseff supporters held their own counter-demonstrations across the country. 
  • The Brazilian Supreme Court's did not discuss a landmark case that could decriminalize drugs in the country last week, because of its late place on the docket. The magistrates will be reviewing the case this Thursday, reports El País. (See last Thursday's post.) At the heart of the matter is a drug law that technically targets trafficking instead of users, but which has had the effect of punishing users as traffickers and led to an explosion in Brazil's incarcerated population, according to Folha de S. Paulo. The National Drug Policy Secretary Vitore André Zílio Maximiano called on the magistrates to determine an objective standard to differentiate users from traffickers, eliminating the judicial discretion that has created a series of "injustices."
  • Vanesa Barbara has an op-ed in the New York Times on vigilante justice in Brazil, where last month, a man was beaten to death by a mob after being accused of trying to rob a bar in the northern part of the country. There is at least one lynching attempt per day in Brazil. She writes: "Members of a violent mob who summarily execute a person often consider themselves good and law-abiding citizens, as opposed to deviants or delinquents who deserve to be punished. Their mottos are: “the only good thief is a dead thief” and “human rights are for right humans.” They sometimes have the perception that the law protects criminals, and that therefore it may be useless to appeal to the established channels when it comes to fighting wrongdoing. (In a paradoxical detail, a uniformed policeman is clearly visible in the footage of the lynching in Maranhão, just watching and recording it with his cellphone.)"
  • The authorities in São Paulo said Friday that they were investigating whether police officers were involved in a series of execution-style killings that left at least 18 people dead, reports the New York Times. The shootings were carried out by gunmen wearing balaclavas during a span of about three hours on Thursday night. The killings added to concern among human rights groups over a spate of similar episodes in Brazil that have left dozens dead in other cities, including Manaus and Belém. The case is refocusing attention on Brazil's history of police violence, reports the Wall Street Journal, which notes that reports of the overnight “massacres” dominated morning television and radio, sparking on-air debates about police violence and the possible existence of vigilante death squads. Vigilante death squads with links to police is a persistent phenomenon, according to the WSJ, and form "a chilling backdrop to a Brazilian police force already considered among the world’s most lethal by the measure of number of suspects killed per arrest."
  • A piece in NACLA looks at the potential environmental benefits of a peace deal between the FARC and the Colombian government, pointing out that "environmental destruction is intimately linked to the armed conflict in Colombia." Illegal mines generate funding for criminal bands (BACRIMs) and the FARC, but also exact a huge toll on the environment, according to the piece: According to some estimates, 9 out of every 10 gold mines are unlicensed and their combined production amounts to around 80% of the country’s total. Other environmental concerns include the FARC's targeting of energy production and transportation infrastructure, which in June for example led to the spilling of 400,000 gallons of crude oil into several rivers that feed into the Pacific Ocean and left 150,000 people without drinking water. 
  • Top U.S. and Cuban diplomats sparred on Friday over human rights, even as the flag raising ceremony and the U.S. Embassy in Havana signaled the greatest advance in ending the fifty-year Cold War feud between the two countries. U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry called for a “genuine democracy” in Cuba on Friday, sparking a sharp retort later from Cuba's foreign minister, reports the Los Angeles Times. "We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas and practice their faith," Kerry said. Later in the day, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez defended his country’s political system and took shots at the United States, saying his country had gender and racial equality, free education and healthcare, and doesn't suffer from the flaws of America's cash-fueled electoral system.
  • Absent from Friday's festivities were the Cuban dissidents, many of whom were in Puerto Rico for a long-planned Encuentro Nacional Cubano, a gathering that brought together two dozen dissidents with Cubans living abroad, reports the Miami Herald. While dissidents weren't included at the flag raising ceremony at the Embassy, a few were expected to meet with Kerry at the celebration at the Ambassador's residence later Friday.
  • Poet Richard Blanco, who in 2013 became the first Hispanic and the first openly gay man chosen to recite a poem at a U.S. presidential inauguration, read his new work, Matters of the Sea (Cosas del Mar), at the ceremony marking the formal reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. Blanco advocated unity, "No one is the other to the other to the sea whether on hemmed island or vast continent," in the poem which was read in English and translated on Cuban television.
  • On a more practical plane, while there might be quick resolution of some topics -- like civil aviation -- the long-standing feud between the two countries has some intractable problems, like the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay and demands for increased political freedom on the island, reports Reuters, with an interview with Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs for Cuba's foreign ministry and its lead negotiator in bilateral talks with Washington.
  • As Cuba enters a new era of fast and sweeping change, a long-taboo political conversation about race is on the table as never before, reports an Al Jazeera piece.
  • Hundreds of journalists, writers and artists from around the world signed a letter calling on President Enrique Peña Nieto "to guarantee the immediate and effective investigation of the assassination of Rubén Espinosa and the shameful number of journalists in Mexico who have met the same fate," reports El Daily Post.
  • Retired Chilean general Hernan Ramirez Rurange died in an apparent suicide days after a court sentenced him to 20 years in prison for planning the murder of a chemist who worked for former dictator Augusto Pinochet, reports The Guardian. The murder of Eugenio Berrios, whose body was found on a Uruguayan beach in 1995, was part of a scheme by Pinochet operatives to obstruct human rights investigations into the dictator’s 1973-1990 regime, according to the court. 
  • Thousands of Peruvians have lost their livelihoods to the government's campaign to destroy the plant used to make cocaine. They say officials have offered only paltry compensation, or none at all, reports the Associated Press. In 2013-2014, 55,000 hectares of coca were destroyed — dropping the Andean nation to No. 2 behind Colombia in land area under coca cultivation.
  • Inflation is a scourge that continues to affect Latin America far more than the rest of the world, reports Wall Street Journal. Barclay's estimates Latin America will post triple the average inflation for emerging markets this year. While Venezuela and Argentina have well-known issues, the piece also mentions Brazil earlier this month reported annual inflation at a 12-year high of 9.6percent in July and Uruguay, which has 8,5 percent. The piece looks at creative ways of tracking inflation in Venezuela, where economic analysts don't have official statistics to inform them. For example, Miami-based financial analyst and blogger Miguel Octavio has recorded a fourfold increase over the past nine months in what he calls his Hyperinflated Arepa Index.
  • Latin America's booming urban slums look set to continue their rapid expansion as government housing policies fail to tackle an explosion in informal housing according to a new study produced by lawyers from seven international legal firms, technology company Hewlett-Packard and TECHO, and was facilitated by TrustLaw, reports Reuters. Some 113 million people across the continent -- or nearly one in five people -- live in sprawling slums which are fuelling inequality and social exclusion, according to the report.


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