Thursday, December 10, 2015

New Argentine President Macri swears in (Dec. 10, 2015)

Mauricio Macri swears in as Argentina's new president today, ushering in an era of economic change in a country that has been dominated by left-wing statist policies. "If he gets it right, investment could stream into the country, given its Pampas grains belt, promising technology sector, highly educated work force and some of the world's juiciest shale oil deposits," reports an optimistic Reuters piece.

Though he has already backpedalled on promises to immediately lift currency exchange restrictions, he will be giving the private sector a far larger role in his new government. The piece brings up the inevitable, tired myth of Argentina's once glorious economic horizon lost to political mismanagement.

But enacting the reforms won't be easy warns the Associated Press. Inflation is at approximately 30 percent, foreign reserves are low and he will have to resolve a long-running fight with holdout creditors in order to access international financial markets. A devaluation is likely. Macri lacks control in both chambers of Congress, and he wil have to work to win over a polarized electorate.

Former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner gave a farewell speech yesterday to a Plaza de Mayo packed with tens of thousands of supporters, and will not be attending today's inaugural ceremony after days of publicly fighting with Macri over the logistical details of the event. She will be the first president since the return of democracy in 1983 to miss her successors inauguration, where the former president usually hands over the presidential baton and sash, reports the Wall Street Journal. The tension between the two leaders could complicate Macri's efforts to pass new legislation to overhaul the economy and end a legal dispute with hedge funds in the U.S.

Cristina, as she is known locally, made it clear in her speech that she does not intend to go quietly, nor make things easy for her successor. She leaves office with approval ratings around 40 percent, and some have speculated she might try to run again in 2019, reports the Associated Press in a separate story.

News Briefs

  • In Venezuela, the opposition parliamentary election victory this weekend seems likely to deepen splintering among rival factions of the governing PSUV party, reports the New York Times. President Nicolás Maduro was praised for going on television immediately after the initial results were announced early Monday to accept his party's defeat. But since then he has done virtually nothing to suggest that he accepts responsibility for the loss or intends to work with the opposition-controlled Assembly, which is to be sworn in Jan. 5.
  • On Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Hugo Pérez Hernaíz reviews Chavismo's reactions to political defeat, including widespread blaming of the "economic war" by officials. But the independent left has pointed to a need for self-criticism and doubts about the conspiratorial explanations given by the government. Nicmer Evans, leader of the independent Chavista party Marea Socialista, said that the government should fully face its responsibility for the results. "I have heard some government officials blaming the people; instead I think the government has no one to blame but itself. To say that the economic war is completely responsible for this is quite frankly to be totally disconnected from reality."
  • On Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a media scholar at the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communications, says the Venezuelan opposition has not gotten enough credit for the landslide victory in this Sunday's elections. She lauds the role of opposition activist "that got an army of testigos y miembros de mesa educated and organized to withstand the abuses that we’ve seen in the past (and that, to be sure, weren’t totally absent this #6D)." And notes that lack of access to TV and media in general made door-to-door campaigning a key tool for the opposition. "And that, in an environment of verbal and physical intimidation as the one we saw in this campaign, takes courage. That the CNE and government conceded (yes, the CNE also concedes, given its behavior as an arm of the government), is also due to the way the opposition organized its own counting and reporting of the votes. And because previous experiences taught them the particular vulnerabilities of the country’s electoral system."
  • And there are rumors going around -- reported in ABC España and El Nuevo Herald -- that faced with an electoral route Maduro and high up government officials were considering suspending the election, but were stopped by military forces who said they would not go along with electoral fraud. There are reports that the government lost in all military voting centers, which "is confirmed by stories we are now hearing of so-and-so coronel and such-and-such general saying to their families that “of course they do not support this corrupt regime," reports Caracas Chronicles. "The government is in full crisis mode. Everything from Maduro’s crazy rants while addressing the nation from Hugo Chavez's coffin to Aporrea’s deliriously delicious coverage of the last few days says this is so. But the crisis that would really matter would be in the military and in the courts. Those are the movements we need to be tracking, because that’s where Maduro’s true power lies. The rest is just a sideshow."
  • In Honduras little headway has been made in an investigation into a scandal in which politicians have been accused of embezzling money from the country's social security system in which an estimated $400 million assigned for hospitals and medications simply disappeared. To date, some two dozen people have been detained, including the director of the country's social security agency, two deputy ministers and several businessmen. Witnesses have been attacked and the prosecutor who began the inquiry was forced to leave the country last April along with his family after the government told him it could not guarantee his safety. Most suspects are being held on a military base instead of prison due to similar concerns. Many Hondurans don't believe the nation's justice system can handle the inquiry and are demanding that an international, independent commission be named along the lines of the CICIG in Guatemala, reports the Associated Press. The piece goes into depth into the roots of the scandal, which has led tens of thousands of Hondurans to protest in the streets against government corruption.
  • A fifth attempt by the ethics committee of Brazil's lower house of Congress again failed to decide on whether to conduct a probe that could ultimately strip Speaker Eduardo Cunha of his post, yesterday. A new committee meeting has been scheduled for this morning, reports the Wall Street Journal. Yesterday's the deliberations were halted by a decision by a house leader and ally of Cunha, who decided the committee member who wrote a recommendation that the committee take up the case against Cunha wasn't eligible for the job according to the House’s bylaws. (See Dec. 3rd's post.) The move, which will force the recommendation be rewritten by another committee member, effectively bough Cunha more time. He is under fire for alleged corruption in connection with a massive investigation involving state-controlled oil company Petrobras. The ethics committee isn’t set to discuss the corruption charges, but will look into whether Cunha lied to his peers.
  • Earlier this week a Supreme Court decision provided Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff with a brief respite when it suspended impeachment proceedings against her until it rules on the validity of a secret ballot that stacked a congressional committee with opponents seeking to oust the leftist leader, reports Reuters. The decision by a Supreme Court judge late on Tuesday stopped the creation of the impeachment committee until the country's top court rules on Dec. 16 whether the secret ballot was valid.
  • Bank-secrecy protection for a company controlled by one of the sons of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was lifted as part of an investigation into whether companies bribed Brazilian tax officials, reports the Wall Street Journal. Brazilian authorities are investigating allegations that Luis Claudio Lula da Silva's company received illegal payments from a consulting firm that lobbied for tax benefits for car makers in Brazil.
  • Investigators from the OAS-backed group of independent experts (GIEI) reviewing the case of 43 missing Mexican students have revealed data that questions Mexican investigators conclusions. The official report found their bodies were burned in a garbage dump the night they were disappeared in Iguala after being attacked by police. But satellite imagery shows no signs of a blaze on the night, reports The Guardian. And apparently prosecutors also have a weather report showing heavy rain in the region that night. "This, of course, heavily punctures the official theory that the students were turned to ashes in a massive pyre the night of their disappearance, and reopens the controversy on their whereabouts," reports Alejandro Hope in El Daily Post. He notes that the "investigation has been driven from day one by political considerations. The authorities have relentlessly looked for closure, even if that meant torturing detainees, withholding evidence, and distorting facts. That behavior has been massively counterproductive: it has not only failed to obtain closure, but it has become a major source of embarrassment for the Peña Nieto administration."
  • Spanish construction giant Obrascón Harte Laín (OHL) is in hot water in Mexico, where it's accounting and ties to the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto are being questioned, reports the Wall Street Journal. A series of lucrative contracts the company won or which were extended under Mr. Peña Nieto’s term as governor of the State of Mexico between 2005 and 2011 are at the center of the scandal. Mexican securities regulators in October alleged the firm applied improper accounting practices related to a toll road outside Mexico City that boosted income and asset valuations. The company has denied wrongdoing and said its accounting was approved by auditors and Spanish financial regulators.
  • Mexican authorities approved of a new dengue vaccine yesterday paving the way for the world’s first immunization program against the mosquito-borne virus, reports the Wall Street Journal. Dengvaxia, protected two-thirds of people against dengue in those aged 9 and older in two large clinical trials spanning Latin America and Asia, involving more than 40,000 children and adolescents. It was most effective at protecting against severe dengue, the potentially fatal form of the disease, preventing 93 percent of cases, and reduced hospitalizations due to dengue by 80 percent.
  • Nuevo León state's cowboy-politician, Jaime "El Bronco" Rodríguez became Mexico's first independent state governor earlier this year. Now he has promised to pursue more than 100 case of corruption, but experts say that corruption is a structural part of political system. Specifically state governors who are akin to feudal lords, reports The Guardian.
  • Over in Guatemala columnists and civil society are debating the impact and reasons behind the closing of the Norwegian embassy there next year. The Norwegian government announced that it would be one of five embassies around the world to be closed as part of budget cuts that will free up funds for the international refugee crisis. But Norway has a forty year history of cooperation with Guatemalan civil society, explain Ingrid Fadnes and Marianne Gulli in Plaza Pública. Norwegian funding for development programs has been a sore point for Guatemalan military and business elites they say. The country became a target of a widespread smear campaign "launched from a network articulated by ideological affinities and political and economic interests that does not denounce concrete illegalities, but rather weakens and asphyxiates Guatemalan social organizations that hinder the elite's project, that is to say, a project of imposition and expansion of mining, hydroelectric, palm and petroleum companies, the fight for historical memory and the negation of genocide." Nonetheless, the strategy has failed Mariel Aguilar-Støen, also in Plaza Pública, detailing how organizations from both countries will continue to cooperate. In her piece she reviews the smear campaign against the Norwegian cooperation with Guatemala.
  • Two weeks ago the Guatemalan president, Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, was forced to backtrack on the newly appointed subdirector of Civil Intelligence, Oscar Platero Trabanino, due to widespread rejection by civil society, including that of organized university students. This is a positive step in Guatemala, and a continuation of the protests that earlier this year led to the resignation of then President Otto Pérez Molina, writes Juan Luis Font in Contra Poder. But there are many questions left as to who was behind the naming of the shadowy figure and with what intent, he writes.
  • While negotiators from around the world squabble over how to limit climate change in Paris, Uruguay announced that 95 percent of its electricity already comes from renewable energy sources. The shift took less than a decade, and prices had fallen in real terms, said the head of climate change policy – a job that doesn't even exist in many countries, reports The Guardian. It's only the latest in a long history of progressive innovation in the small country that pioneered universal, free and secular education, gave women the vote and permitted divorce decades before most of its neighbors. "We must remember that Uruguay, in contrast with most Latin American countries, has a long and solid democratic tradition, to the extent that when it was a young nation it was known as ‘the Switzerland of America’ for the strength of its civil society, deep-rooted rule of law, and for armed forces which are respectful of the constitutional government," wrote literary giant Mario Vargas Llosa in a recent tribute to former president José Mujica's initiatives on gay marriage and marijuana.
  • Also in the context of the climate talks (see last Friday's post), Mexico's government announced $23 billion in investments to modernize its refineries while sharply slashing greenhouse gas emissions produced by oil-processing facilities and gasoline, reports AFP.
  • An American man suspected of running a child-sex ring out of Lima for the past 10 years was arrested by Peruvian authorities yesterday, reports Reuters.
  • In a major diplomatic breakthrough, Cuban and U.S. met in Havana earlier this week to negotiating a possible settlement for $1.9 billion worth of American assets seized by Fidel Castro’s government in the early 1960s, as well as other claims built up over years of strained relations, reports the Washington Post. A settlement would be especially significant because it would address the chain of events that led to the U.S. trade embargo, which by law cannot be lifted until the claims are resolved.
  • Belize has rejected a Costa Rican proposal to transport nearly 5,000 Cuban migrants to that country so they can continue their route towards the U.S., reports the Miami Herald. Belize says it wants a regional solution to the impasse that has stranded the Cuban migrants in Costa Rica after Nicaraguan authorities refused to let them past the border. (See Nov. 16th's post.)
  • A year after detente between Cuba and the U.S. was announced, Cuba has undergone a whirlwind of changes that has reshaped the country's psychological landscape reports El Daily Post.

  •  A piece in The Nation looks at threats against labor organizers in Honduras, where more than thirty trade unionists have been killed since 2009. " According to labor activists, the pattern of poverty wages and exploitative work conditions, is driven by a pattern of companies establishing yellow unions to preempt independent unionization," reports Michelle Chen.
  • The bridge to nowhere: an unused bridge linking French Guiana and Brazil shows the difficulties the two countries face in overcoming regulatory hurdles to promote greater cooperation. Though the bridge was built more than four years ago -- at a cost of  about $33 million -- the two countries have not been able to come to agreement regarding insurance requirements for trucking companies and visa requirements for Brazilians, reports the New York Times.

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