Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Brazil engulfed in scandal (May 24, 2017)

The corruption scandal that has engulfed Brazilian politics has spilled over into government functioning. A Brazilian Senate committee hearing on labor reform was suspended yesterday amid shouting, shoving and physical blows, reports Bloomberg. Opposition supporters vowed to obstruct a reading of the government’s bill on labor reform and eventually came to blows with government supporters.

The political crisis is threatening business interests -- just as investors were "tantalizingly close" to long-sought reforms to scale back labor regulations and overhaul pensions, reports Bloomberg separately.

"Brazilian politics have been thoroughly discredited. The revelations that have emerged since Dilma Rousseff was forced out last year have highlighted the hypocrisy of those who brought her down," argues a Guardian editorial. But persuading President Michel Temer to quit in the face of scandal -- which would allow Congress to pick his successor -- is not a way out of the current problem, according to the piece. "... Polls show overwhelming demand for an election. An already disenchanted public may otherwise sink into apathy or in the longer run, turn to an authoritarian, far-right figure such as Jair Bolsonaro playing the anti-politics card. Brazil’s politicians got the country into this mess: they should let the 143 million voters have a say in how to get out of it."

Senator Renan Calheiros, of Temer's PMDB party, said the president needs to "facilitate an exit" from the crisis, reports EFE. "I would not say that I am in favor of a resignation," the senator said, though adding that the best prospect for a rapid resolution of the crisis would be for Congress to designate a new head of state.

And the plot keeps thickening (though with too much anarchy for a Netflix narrative arc): Yesterday police arrested a close aide of Temer's, Tadeu Filippelli, for an alleged kickback scheme involving the World Cup stadium in Brasilia, reports the Guardian. He was arrested, along with two other senior politicians, and accused of deliberately inflating the cost of the Mane Garrincha stadium in return for bribes from the construction company.

Construction of the National Stadium of Brasília was originally estimated to cost 690 million reais, but the final price tag rose to 1.5 billion reais, making it the most expensive of the 12 Brazilian stadiums that hosted World Cup games, reports the Wall Street Journal.

But it's all relative: Brazilians are shocked at the case of a poor mother who stole an Easter egg for her children in 2015 was condemned to a harsher jail sentence than corporate executives and politicians who cheated the public of millions of dollars, reports the Guardian. She was kept in pre-trial detention for five months, and sentenced to over three years in prison. She has been serving time since November of last year, giving birth to her fourth child behind bars. The overly harsh sentence has drawn condemnation and comparisons to lenient plea-bargain deals for corruption convicts.


Maduro convenes Constituent Assembly

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro issued a decree to convene a constituent assembly, reports the BBC. The vote for the assembly would be held in July. He also announced that delayed state elections would be held in December, reports Reuters. But the announcements failed to appease an angry opposition that says the government is just playing for time. (Attorney General Luisa Ortega spoke out against the plan to rewrite the constitution, see yesterday's briefs.) 

The proposal submitted by the Maduro administration doesn't clarify a time frame for the new constitution, but the Constituent Assembly in 1999 had a six month deadline, notes Efecto Cocuyo. Current legislation puts the decisions of an assembly outside the purview of state organisms.

Increasing violence in Venezuela's seventh week of protests points to "spreading anarchy in Venezuela, as both the government and opposition leaders - who urge nonviolence - appear to be losing control," reports the Washington Post.

Currency exchange: the Venezuelan economy ministry announced a new foreign exchange auction mechanism the fifth such plan in four years, reports Reuters.

News Briefs
  • Salvadoran officials are worried that U.S. plans to deport gang members could further increase violence in a country already in the midst of a homicide epidemic, reports the Washington Post. Government authorities and lawmakers have already held emergency meetings to discuss responses, including proposed legislation to monitor returned gang members closely. (See May 8's briefs.) Gang members make up a small fraction of deportees, but experts are concerned that returned migrants could swell the ranks of existing street gangs and strengthen offshoot cliques. Another proposal would have deported gang members interned in centers that would function as half-way houses -- though human rights organizations have questioned the legality of holding citizens who are not charged or convicted of crimes in El Salvador.
  • Pope Francis named Salvadoran auxiliary bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez cardinal. He was close to the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed by a right-wing death squad in 1980 during El Salvador's civil war and beatified in 2015. As a papal advisor he could strengthen the role of the Roman Catholic Church in responding to El Salvador's gang violence. He has said that he would support a dialogue between the government and the country's powerful street gangs under the right circumstances, according to the Associated Press.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump's budget proposal for next year proposes a drastic reduction in  foreign aid spending in Mexico and Central America, reports Reuters. The proposal submitted yesterday foresees 2018 Mexican aid of $87.66 million, down more than 45 percent from the 2016 outlay. Aid for Guatemala would drop by 40 percent and in Honduras and El Salvador it would fall nearly a third.
  • Haitians living in the U.S. under temporary protected status face an uncertain future after the Department of Homeland Security advised them to get their affairs in order and extended the end date of the program only through next January, reports the Miami Herald. Many argue they have no job prospects back home on an island that has yet to recover from a series of natural disasters and political upheaval. And their return en-mass will also remittances, which account for 20 percent of the income of people in Haiti annually. Yesterday the Trump administration proposed cutting the $191 million in assistance it gave to Haiti in the 2016-2017 budget by $33.4 million next year. That’s on top of drastic reductions in the U.S. contribution to the United Nation’s peacekeeping operations and humanitarian programs around the globe, including Haiti, notes the Herald.
  • U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is asking member states to transfer $40.5 million in unspent funds from Haiti's peacekeeping mission to help communities and victims of a cholera outbreak that has afflicted over 800,000 people, reports the Associated Press.
  • Demobilized FARC fighters have given up armed struggle, but the danger of retribution from angry citizens is very real: According to the Colombian Agency for Reintegration, one in 10 reported cases of violence against demobilized fighters involves homicide or attempted homicide, reports the Guardian. Newly unarmed guerrillas will also face temptation from criminal gangs, which are reportedly offering good salaries for former fighters. Cali, already volatile from criminal gangs, is expected to receive up to a quarter of all former Farc combatants.
  • Mexican journalist Javier Valdez was attacked by two gunmen, who fired 12 shots at him, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office said. Valdez was killed last week. (See May 16's post.) Investigators re-enacted the hit yesterday in Culiacan in the presence of the special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, Ricardo Sanchez; the AG’s office representative in Sinaloa, Gerardo Rodriguez; and Sinaloa Attorney General Juan Jose Rios, reports EFE.
  • Mexican and Canadian officials say NAFTA renegotiations should be trilateral, and replacing the deal with bilateral pacts doesn't make sense, reports the Wall Street Journal. U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has said that the reworking of Nafta could be as the existing trilateral pact or a series of bilateral agreements with symmetrical provisions.
  • Polls say upstart leftist MORENA party could wrest Mexico state governor elections in June from the PRI, which has governed the most populous state for the past 90 years, reports Reuters. A victory there would significantly increase momentum for MORENA candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador's presidential bid next year.
  • Several Mexican organizations of civil society will pull out of a government organism dedicated to the "Alliance for Open Government," after a report earlier this year about surveillance of NGOs, announced Fundar
  • A Bolivian congressional committee approved a bill aimed at decriminalize abortion in the first eight weeks of pregnancy, easing restrictions for when the mother is in extreme poverty or doesn't have sufficient resources to support a child, reports TeleSUR.
  • Barrick Gold Corp's Veladero mine in Argentina's San Juan province could resume full operations next month, after the provincial government approved an improvement plan for the mine, following its third spill of cyanide solution in 18 months, reports Reuters.

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