Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Guatemala's spring advances - President stripped of immunity (Sept 2, 2015)

Guatemala's Congress unanimously voted to strip President Otto Pérez Molina of immunity yesterday, in a historic vote that leaves him in office but frees prosecutors to file criminal charges against him like a common citizen.

More than 80 percent of the legislators voted to remove the president’s shield from prosecution yesterday — easily clearing the two-thirds majority needed — and the rest abstained, reports the Washington Post.

But the outcome was far from certain, write Martín Rodríguez Pellecer and Gladys Olmstead at Nómada. Lawmakers from Pérez Molina's own party and from the leading opposition party, which up until now had opposed stripping him of immunity caved to massive voter pressure ahead of elections this weekend, reports Nómada. The piece details the president's futile efforts to convince eight of his own legislators to abstain from voting against him.

The president is accused of involvement in a massive customs fraud scheme that defrauded the country of millions of tax dollars. Former Vice President Roxana Baldetti -- who was forced to resign when the scheme, and her alleged involvement came to light -- is already facing charges related to the criminal ring known as "La Línea."

His capture could be imminent according to the country's attorney general, Thelma Aldana, reports El Periódico. (Should he be arrested for pre-trial detention, he would automatically lose office. See August 24th's post.) Already a judge granted an order barring Pérez Molina from traveling outside the country, reports the Associated Press.

Still, the trial could be delayed by challenges presented by Pérez Molina in the Constitutional Court, explains El Periódico.

Pro-government activists blocked the entrance to congress to prevent lawmakers from arriving to vote, reports the Wall Street Journal, but they were later countered by hundreds of citizens who formed a human chain to allow legislators safe entry. In the Washington Post's version, riot police and political opponents of the president allowed the lawmakers entry.

Nómada explains that those blocking the entrance to congress were members of a pro-Pérez Molina union, who used women and children as human shields. Riot police and citizen protesters formed a corridor -- with white roses -- that permitted lawmakers, congressional workers and journalists to enter the building.

Presidential opponents outside of congress shouted "105 votes, so Otto leaves" the two thirds needed to strip Pérez Molina of immunity, reports El Periódico.

The mood outside of congress was a civic party, reports Plaza Pública.

It's the "culmination of a tumultuous five months since prosecutors revealed the existence of a customs fraud ring in April," notes the New York Times. Weekly protests over the past five months have insisted on holding Pérez Molina accountable for the corruption schemes, even before evidence was presented two weeks ago linking him to the customs fraud.

The corruption probe has been hailed by many as a sign that the rule of law could prevail, explains the Washington Post. "It’s very unusual for a sitting president to be held accountable," Eric L. Olson, associate director for Latin America at the Wilson Center told the Post. But he defended the timing, saying that prosecution after a leader leaves office, "then it has the smell of political vendetta."

Though several steps remain before Pérez Molina faces trial, the loss of immunity is already of major significance. "It sends a very powerful message both to Guatemalans and to other countries in the region," Adriana Beltrán, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, told the NYTimes. "That the justice system can be made to work, even against those that have been historically deemed untouchable. That you can have the rule of law and respect due process and human rights."

Presidential elections will be held in Guatemala on Sunday, despite calls from some sectors to postpone them in light of the ongoing corruption revelations that are affecting the highest political echelons of leading parties -- including the VP candidate of front-runner Manuel Baldizón. (See August 17th's post.)

The urban middle classes that have flocked to the protests have made it clear that they consider Baldizón part of the same corrupt system, shouting: "It’s your turn next."

Mary O'Grady skeptically discusses an election postponement proposal in her Wall Street Journal column. Led by a group of influential left-wing Guatemalans, Semilla proposes ousting the president and creating a new "national unity government" to finish out Pérez Molina's term, which ends January 14. She argues that following the constitution should be the foremost concern in this case.

At Nómada Alberto Fuentes questions the interests behind the groups in Guatemala urging the elections to be held as scheduled and for citizens to abstain from protest voting. He says such arguments only serve to maintain a status quo where all the potential candidates are part of the same corrupt system.

The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala tweeted in Spanish that it supported those protesting peacefully against corruption and impunity and in favor of transparency.

News Briefs

  • A Brazilian labor court convicted units of Brazil's Odebrecht Group of holding workers in conditions akin to slavery at an ethanol refinery construction project in Angola, reports Reuters. The company was ordered to pay 50 million reais ($13 million) in damages.
  • "Latin America faces the perfect storm", argues Andrés Oppenheimer at the Miami Herald. "An economic slowdown in China, falling commodity prices, a flight to safer countries by international investors, and the possibility that the U.S. Federal Reserve will raise interest rates, which will make it more difficult for countries in the region to get loans or pay foreign debts."
  • Indeed, economic pessimism is pervasive in Mexico, reports the New York Times. Salaries are stagnant, while recent studies show that inequality and poverty have increased over the past few years. 
  • At least some people are benefitting from the weakened currencies in the region though. Remittances from the U.S. overtook income from crude oil as the top source of dollar income to Mexico, reports the Wall Street Journal. The trend is unlikely to maintain itself though. Mexicans living in the U.S. tend to take advantage of spikes in the exchange rate to send more money home, explains the piece.
  • Venezuelan jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López's trial could finally conclude in upcoming weeks, reports TeleSur. The trial entered it's concluding phase on Monday. The Venezuelan Public Prosecutor's Office issued a statement charging opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez with public instigation to violence and association to commit crimes. López will have three hours to present his defense to the judge in the case on Friday, reports El Nacional. He is expected to speak in his own defense, and his lawyers plan on presenting irregularities in the proceedings that could invalidate the trial, reports El Tiempo.
  • The provincial government of Morona Santiago in Ecuador has been blamed for over 60 environmental infractions in primary Amazon forest in what has been called "ecocide," reports TeleSur.
  • Lucho Granados Ceja at TeleSur says that Human Rights Watch seems to have it out for the government of Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and questions the timing of an HRW piece on the persecution of environmentalists in Ecuador. "... private media outlets and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have all recently come out with biased, distorted attacks on the Correa government. Coincidentally, these come on the heels of a recent rash of opposition protests which have also looked undermine and destabilize a democratically elected government that still enjoys widespread support," he says.
  • A report by Privacy International details how Colombian intelligence agencies have created tools to automatically collect vast amounts of data without judicial warrants and in defiance of a pledge to better protect privacy following a series of domestic spying scandals, reports the Associated Press.

  • Venezuela's cash-strapped government announced yesterday that it signed a deal to receive a $5 billion loan from China, reports the Wall Street Journal.


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