The Miami Herald published a review of the situation last week, including measures the government is taking to tilt the playing field in its direction -- including redistricting to make winning easier in pro government areas and confusing ballot setups that feature a ostensible opposition party that critics say is a red-herring designed to capture votes from the leading MUD opposition coalition. (See Monday's briefs.)
With less than three weeks to go, the audit on the country's high-tech electoral platform began this week, reports TeleSur. Elections in Venezuela have been automated since 1998, with polling stations equipped with multiple high-tech touch-screen voting machines.
And the Union of South American Nations secretary-general, Ernesto Samper, arrived yesterday, accompanying bloc's monitoring mission, reports TeleSur separately. The electoral mission will be headed by former Dominican President Leonel Fernandez.
Last month Brazil pulled out of the mission, when Venezuela rejected Nelson Jobim, a former Brazilian defense minister and judge, from heading the group. The move dealt a blow to already questioned international mission, the only one that will be monitoring the elections. (See Oct. 21st's post.)
But all is not negative. In a new post at Venezuelan Politicas and Human Rights David Smilde and Micael McCarthy note that "there is considerable strength in Venezuela’s domestic efforts at observation and oversight." The national system operates according to a "national stakeholder" model, they say, which means national actors from political parties and civil society have moved to the fore while invited international groups lend only symbolic support. There are a number of highly-competent non-governmental organizations working on electoral issues in Venezuela and they have mobilized teams of electoral observers to places they choose. In addition Venezuela's political parties are playing an important role in observing the entire electoral process.
The New York Times has a critical editorial, saying President Nicolás Maduro "appears to be suggesting that if his ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela takes a beating at the ballot box on Dec. 6, as polls predict, he will render the legislative branch toothless. ... New leadership in Venezuela’s Congress could give the country a welcome jolt. The nation desperately needs to mend its devastated economy and rebuild the democratic institutions that have withered under Mr. Maduro’s watch."
Yet, outright fraud is unlikely say the observers at the Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog. Last week David Smilde explained how the ruling party is instead focusing on naming new judges now -- before a potentially opposition led National Assembly takes power -- and a potential push to control universities. He also thinks it's likely that there will be an "Enabling Law that will give Maduro power to decree laws for 12 or 18 months."
A piece in the Los Angeles Times looks at how budget crises are affecting Venezuela's public universities. Ten have been closed since September due to insufficient funds, leaving leaving a total of 380,000 students in limbo. In the last two years, 1,000 professors at UCV and the other public schools have quit, many leaving Venezuela for jobs in Chile, Spain, Mexico or the United States. And the failure of professors' salaries to keep pace with the inflation rate, topping 190% this year, has reduced many academics to penury.
Imperialist conspiracy theory of the week: Maduro denounced on Monday that the right-wing is working in coordination with the U.S. Southern Command to sabotage the country's electrical system and cause a national blackout ahead of the elections, reports TeleSur.
- About 126,000 primary and secondary school teachers, and 29,000 high-school teachers must take mandatory performance tests between now and December -- the first of the 1.4 million teachers in Mexico who will have to take the tests over the next three years. The evaluations are a core feature of President Enrique Peña Nieto's education overhaul. Those who don't take them face dismissal, while those who do well could have their wages increased by 35 percent, reports the Wall Street Journal. Opposition to the evaluations were a central feature in teacher union boycotts of elections earlier this year (see June 9th's post), and the threat of a potential boycott from a a leftist dissident group within the national teachers union remains.
- Guerrero State is undergoing a wave of violence that indicates that little has improved since the disappearance of 43 teachers college students last year, reports The Guardian. Since a new state governor took office last month, there have been over 50 murders. Fifty schools were forced to close down in Acapulco when criminals said they'd attack classes if they were not paid off, 12 people were killed in a clandestine cockfighting event, and a stand-off between criminals and more than 100 members of a community police force left three dead. Villagers later detained 200 soldiers sent to seize the community police members' guns. The piece quotes Alejandro Hope, who says: "What you have had since Ayotzinapa is the government pretty much disappeared from the scene ... You still have something of a power vacuum. The new governor has not yet been able to re-establish some sense of political authority."
- Brazilian entrepreneur Eike Batista lost about $30 billion in the past few years, but he's ready to do business again, he told a Congressional panel yesterday. He told legislators in a commission formed to investigate possible irregularities in loans given by BNDES -- Brazil's development bank -- to some large local conglomerates that he's nearly paid off or renegotiated his debts, reports the Wall Street Journal. Batista said he never received special favors from BNDES, and paid the same rates as other borrowers for the approximately $2.62 billion loaned to his firms.
- The collapse of two mining dams in Minas Gerais is a "slow-motion environmental catastrophe" for Brazil reports The Guardian. (See last Friday's briefs.) Nine people have been confirmed dead, and 19 more are still missing. Fifty million cubic meters of toxic mud swept away entire communities and is polluting the water supply of hundreds of thousands of residents along the Rio Duce. The presence of arsenic, zinc, copper and mercury in the river make the water untreatable for human consumption and the lack of oxygen and high temperatures caused by the pollutants has killed off much of the aquatic life along a 500km stretch of the river.
- This weekend's "Slut Walk" in Rio denounced violence against women, but also protest new abortion restrictions proposed by the powerful, socially conservative speaker of the lower house in Congress, Eduardo Cunha, reports AFP. (See Nov. 9th's post on violence against women and the proposed abortion restrictions in Brazil.)
- In a rare public display of support for a military takeover in Brazil, a demonstration of far-right wing protestors in Brasilia this weekend called for a military coup against President Dilma Rousseff. Demonstrators had a giant inflatable doll of a soldier and coffins meant to represent Rousseff's death, reports AFP.
- A U.S. State Department program that aims to reunite Central American minors with their families in the U.S. brought six teens to the U.S. last week. The Central American Minors program, which was established a year ago has been criticized for slow action: more than 5,000 children and teens just like them who have applied but are still waiting to be contacted by the Department of Homeland Security. So far, only 90 children have been interviewed, reports the Associated Press.
- The Argentine and Chinese governments signed agreements to build the South American country’s fourth and fifth nuclear power plants for an investment of $14 billion, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
- Billionaire George Soros' investment firm will place up to $300 million on an Argentine hotel company's expansion in the region -- a vote of confidence in Latin America's eventual economic rebound says the Wall Street Journal.
- Bolivians are split on the issue of permitting President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term in office, but he might have enough support to win a February referendum to determine whether to change the country's two-term limit, reports Reuters.
- The New York Times' editorial page has an interview with U.S. ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, on the issue of U.S. historic support of Plan Colombia, Washington's support of the peace process with the FARC and diplomats' decision to sit down with leaders who are under indictment in the United States.
- Earlier this week, Colombia's leftist ELN rebels freed two Colombian army soldiers held hostage for three weeks, reports Reuters.
- International organizations and foundations are lining up to form part of Colombia's post-peace accord process, reports La Silla Vacía. The United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Centro Latinoamericano para el Desarrollo Rural will be opening offices in Colombia, looking to work in the agricultural community's post-peace future. And the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations will also be opening local offices.
- Colombia's FARC rebel group said the lives of jailed fighters are at risk because of poor medical attention, and called on the government to release 81 inmates on health grounds, reports the BBC.
- Last week Peruvian President Ollanta Humala called presidential and Congressional elections for April 10 next year, reports AFP. Presidential candidates so far include Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who served from 1990 to 2000, and former president Alan Garcia (see Oct. 23rd's briefs). One candidate Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the former minister of economy, said he is renouncing his U.S. citizenship ahead of the election, reports EFE.
- In an op-ed in The Guardian, Alfred de Zayas, denounces the the little-known investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). The privatized system of arbitration, often included in investment and trade treaties, grants an investor the right to use private dispute settlement proceedings against a foreign government, yet governments cannot sue the investors. "Philip Morris sued Uruguay after it adopted a number of anti-tobacco regulations with a view to implementing the 2003 World Health Organisation’s framework convention on tobacco control, aimed at tackling the health dangers posed by tobacco. A decision from the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes is expected later in 2015, but the figures are telling: Philip Morris is claiming $25m in compensation from Uruguay. This is not only absurd: it gives me moral vertigo ..."
- The Guardian reviews Nemisis, by journalist and historian Misha Glenny, which focuses on the largest of Rio’s many favelas – Rocinha. The book tells the story of the rise of Antônio Francisco de Bonfim Lopes, known as "Nem," who rose to become the favela's drugtrade kingpin, and in the process depicts Rio's drug wars. " ... A clearly sympathetic but nuanced view that sheds light not only on Nem's individual decisions and experiences, but also the wider social forces that shape the life choices of favela residents. ... He also describes the brutality with which Brazil's different law enforcement agencies, many with roots in the military dictatorship of 1964–85, have so often treated the country's poorer citizens. Together with pervasive police corruption, this official violence has helped to entrench a deep mistrust of authority in the favelas."
- In a suprise election result this weekend, Paraguay's ruling conservative party lost the mayor's office in the capital Asuncion on Sunday. Popular TV presenter Mario Ferreiro defeated incumbent Arnaldo Samaniego of the president's Colorado party, reports AFP. The conservative party has controlled Asuncion for 15 years, and polls had given Samaniego a slight lead. The results are a setback for President Horacio Cartes.