Thursday, January 14, 2016

Venezuelan institutional impasse averted for now (Jan. 14, 2016)

In Venezuela, three opposition legislators gave up their seats in the National Assembly yesterday, eliminating the movement's two-thirds majority in that body and limiting the scope of its potential reforms, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The move represents a step back from a bitter institutional clash between the opposition MUD coalition and the Socialist-led government over the past week. The three legislators were sworn in last week, despite an open investigation into alleged vote-buying by the Socialist-packed Supreme Court. As a result, the court declared all decisions taken by the National Assembly to be void.

"Sometimes you have to sacrifice some things to save others," said National Assembly President Henry Ramos Allup, accepting the three legislators' resignation. They said in a letter they hoped to save the parliament from an "institutional ambush," reports the Guardian.

The opposition has accused the government of President Nicolás Maduro of fabricating the accusations against the three legislators in order to prevent a supermajority able to rewrite the constitution and possibly referendum the president's mandate.

Nonetheless, the MUD said yesterday that with a total of 109 lawmakers it retains the coveted supermajority, arguing the ratio is over lawmakers present at a session, not the total 167 seats.

The Guardian quotes Luis Vicente León, head of the Datanalisis polling firm, who said the decision was "politically correct."

"It's a strategically correct decision which causes anger because it is unfair, but it opens the game that had no other way of being unblocked," he wrote on Twitter.

The step back from the institutional clash reflects outrage on the part of Venezuelans at the National Assembly's failure to address an ongoing and increasingly critical economic crisis, according the WSJ.

The government is expected to present the National Assembly with an emergency economic package, though analysts don't expect reforms on the scale of those advocated by experts, notes the Guardian.

At the Caracas Chronicles, Francisco Toro hypothesizes it could have to do with a direct communication channel established between Ramos and newly established vice president Aristóbulo Istúriz.

Ramos' about-face, after his speech last week promising to oust Maduro in six months, reflects a politician "unencumbered by strong core beliefs that might get in the way of a quick tactical maneuver," argues Toro. But communication between the two sides might mean a modus vivendi in the upcoming months, he writes.

The Associated Press has a feature on Ramos, who maneuvered his way into leading the opposition coalition (see Jan. 4th's post). The piece focuses on his polarizing stance (unclear what the implications on this would be of yesterday's pragmatic backing down) and alignment with the opposition hard-liners who seek to oust Maduro from office, rather than the moderates who want to focus on the economic crisis.

"He makes no secret of his swanky tastes. While top socialist officials dance to salsa music on live TV and proclaim their devotion to Venezuela's rice, beans and shredded beef dish, Ramos expounded on his love for expensive whisky, classical music and haute cuisine as smoke from his assistants' cigarettes curled toward the chandeliers in his office during an interview with The Associated Press.

News Briefs

  • Television comedian Jimmy Morales will take office at Guatemala's president today. He won September's election (and October's run-off) handily, riding a wave of anger against establishment politicians in the wake of a corruption scandal that forced the president and vice president to resign last year. But little is known about how he plans to govern, raising doubts about the incoming government, reports the Associated Press. He hasn't announced a cabinet yet and, Guatemalans are worried he will tap into the discredited political class to fill posts. Activists looking for reform are anxious to maintain the wave of discontent that successfully swept out former president Otto Pérez Molina last year, and have called for a public protest on Saturday to remind the new president of his campaign slogan: "Neither corrupt nor a thief." Fusion emphasizes the increased scrutiny on the part of mobilized civil society groups. Soy 502 lists his ten campaign promises, which include quality health and education, as well as a reorganization of social programs to seek greater transparency.
  • Latin Correspondent interviewed Morales about his views on immigration and U.S. aid to Guatemala. He rather vaguely promised to invest to provide more opportunities for Guatemalans so they are less inclined to migrate, and to provide better services for undocumented Guatemalans living in the U.S.
  • Last week, prosecutors accused a close political ally of human rights violations during the country's civil war. (See Jan. 7th's post.) The capture of 18 former military officers in relation to severe human rights offenses highlights the links of the incoming administration with the army, reports Deutsche Welle.
  • The first group of 180 Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica on their way towards the United States were flown to El Salvador, where they continued their journey by bus. They reached Mexico's southern border yesterday. They are part of a wider migration from the island aiming to reach the U.S. where favorable immigration policies give them a fast-track to permanent residency, reports the Wall Street Journal
  • A surge of migrant minors and families from Central America at the U.S. border threatens a repeat of the 2014 refugee crisis, reports the Guardian. Border agents detained 21,469 people traveling in family groups in the last three months of 2015 – almost triple the number held during the same period in 2014.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced it will expand its refugee program for people fleeing violence in Central America, reports the Guardian. The office of the UN high commissioner for refugees will now conduct initial screenings to test whether people from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala may qualify as refugees eligible to move to the U.S. legally. The change comes in the midst of backlash after a wave of round-ups of migrants whose asylum claims were rejected, last week. (See last Thursday's briefs.)
  • On the subject of Central American violence, InSight Crime has an analysis of 2015 homicide stats, that show El Salvador eclipsed its neighbor Honduras as the region's most violent nation.
  • A more detailed examination of El Salvador at InSight looks at how hundreds of families have fled their government-subsidized homes because of gang violence in the last six years, a sign of growing loss of state control.
  • But not all news is bad. Colombia had its lowest homicide rate in the past twenty years last year, and Guatemala's numbers are also improving, reports James Bosworth at InSight Crime. He says the improvements are consistent and point to sustainable progress in both countries.
  • Colombia's government sold its majority stake in power generator Isagen yesterday, for $2 billion to a Canadian investment fund, reports the Wall Street Journal. The decision angered leftist activists and lawmakers, who protested on the streets yesterday, calling it the biggest privatization in a decade.
  • Ecuador said yesterday it will cooperate with Swedish prosecutors after they formally requested permission to interrogate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at his hideout in the country's embassy in London, reports AFP.
  • Argentina will propose a solution to its long-running legal battle with U.S. creditors over unpaid debt to a U.S. court-appointed mediator by the week of Jan. 25, reports Reuters.
  • A Peruvian drug kingpin released from jail after 22 years criticized Keiko Fujimori's run for president and said the Andean country became a "narco-state" during her father's 1990-2000 government, reports Reuters.
  • There is ongoing debate over the impact of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's recapture by Mexican authorities. The cartel's criminal operations will likely not be significantly affected, according to InSight Crime, which analyzes some of the effects on the cartel leadership. "Overall, however, the Sinaloa Cartel's demonstrated ability to withstand leadership turnover highlights the resiliency of its horizontal leadership structure. That is, the Sinaloa Cartel is better understood as a "federation" of various cooperating criminal groups and partners, rather than as a monolithic, top-down enterprise. This has enabled it to absorb personnel shocks  -- such as El Chapo's previous arrests -- without the fragmentation or disintegration experienced by other Mexican criminal organizations that suffered a loss of leadership."
  • At El Daily Post Alejandro Hope looks at El Chapo's lesser known partner - Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada. He's far warier, and the authorities have never even come close to capturing him. The possible third partner, uan José Esparragoza Moreno, alias El Azul, is even further off the radar: he was reported dead in 2014, but nobody knows if that's true or not, reports El Daily Post separately.
  • The Chapo soap opera keeps on giving: It looks like Guzmán had the hots for Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who was angling to produce a movie about him. His ardor might have caused him to take risks that led to authorities tracking him down, reports the Wall Street Journal. The messages also arguably relay more about the cartel leader's personality than actor Sean Penn's long and polemic Rolling Stone piece published this weekend, according to the New York Times, which notes that he seems incongruously caring in his messages with the actress.
  • For those looking to emulate the Sinaloa Cartel leader, in fashion if not actions, the Guardian has the source of his attention-grabbing, paisley silk shirt caught in his photo-op with actor Sean Penn.
  • Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for pioneering social projects in Latin America won the Pritzker Prize, the highest price in architecture, reports the Guardian. His projects reinvent low-cost housing and engage residents in the design of their own homes.

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