Monday, July 10, 2017

Leopoldo López released to house arrest (July 10, 2017)

Venezuela's government released jailed political opposition leader Leopoldo López in a surprise move early Saturday. Authorities said they were transferring López -- who has been incarcerated for three and a half years -- to house arrest due to poor health. But his supporters take the release as a capitulation by the government, reports the Washington Post

The photogenic, charismatic politician is among the countries most popular leaders, and presents a significant potential challenge for the Maduro administration, notes the WP. However, it is unclear whether his conviction, on charges of inciting violence during 2014 protests, will affect his electoral options. A lawyer for López said he was prohibited from speaking publicly and giving interviews as part of the conditions of his release.

A statement by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López praised international mediators led by former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and said the move was a "gesture that was the result of dialogue." He said the release was unilateral, not a quid-pro-quo.

In a statement released by his lawyer, López called on supporters to maintain street protests and promised to return to jail if maintaining the struggle against the government calls for it, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Some analysts say the release could invigorate the three month protest movement, while others say it could strengthen the government's hand as a conciliatory gesture. This Sunday marked the 100th day of protests, notes the Miami Herald.

A group of opposition leaders might present a proposal for talks to Maduro today, according to the Herald.

The release of López and other political prisoners has been a central demand of the opposition and the international community, reports the Associated Press. And government officials hinted more releases might be in the works, according to the Herald.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said he "respected" and "supported" the Supreme Court's decision but called for "a message of peace and rectification" in the country, reports the BBC.

In a New York Times Español op-ed, Human Rights Watch's Jose Miguel Vivanco warns against taking the concession as a sign that Venezuela is improving. Civil society data points to more than 400 political prisoners, and many prominent political leaders are under house arrest or otherwise prevented from running in elections, he writes, calling on the international community to increase pressure on the administration.

López's family and supporters say he has been mistreated in prison, and accuse staff members of keeping him in solitary confinement for long periods and withholding food, reports the New York Times. In a statement his wife, Lilian Tintori emphasized Rodríguez Zapatero's mediation efforts and her husband's poor health as a result of prison mistreatment.

On Friday the Venezuelan Catholic Church accused the government of trying to impose a dictatorship with its plan to rewrite the constitution, reports the Miami Herald. (See last Thursday's post.)


Administrative move could hamper Brazil's Car Wash investigation

Brazilian federal police are shutting down the Operation Car Wash unit, and folding it into a larger anti-corruption unit, reports the Washington Post. Prosecutors warn that the move -- portrayed as a bureaucratic reshuffling -- could hamper the ever broadening investigation into corruption that has ensnared dozens of high level politicians and business leaders, reports the New York Times. Prosecutors involved in the Lava Jato investigation said the decision a "clear setback."

The Curitiba-based group has had significant autonomy since it started a routine investigation into money laundering at a gas station in 2014. It has gone on to 

The task force was awarded Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Award last year, for convictions "including high level politicians and business executives previously considered untouchable."

Opposition politicians have criticized the move as politically motivated -- coming as the Temer administration weathers corruption charges that could put the president on trial. If it is an administrative decision, the timing is poor.

The decision also affects the investigation into corruption at major meatpacking companies -- Operação Carne Fraca, reports the BBC

Operation Car Wash was already hit by budget cuts in May, notes the Washington Post. And this latest move may also be related to lack of resources, according to the BBC. And comes as certain public services are giving signs of faltering in Brazil. Federal police have stopped emitting passports because they lack funding to cover the costs, and the Highway police has suspended operations in certain areas also because of lack of funding even for gas, reports El País

These issues presage funding problems in most public organisms, according to El País. Officials in the environmental and indigenous affairs agencies have warned of budget shortfalls in coming months, as has the Ministry of Defense. A more popular government could probably weather the moment, but the Temer administration is unpopular and facing serious corruption charges. 

The "Rodrigo Maia" solution, handing power over to the House speaker, who is himself accused of corruption, is increasingly popular among politicians and investors, according to the piece. Rumor has it that Maia is already setting up a cabinet that would retain Economy Minister Henrique Meirelles but replace close Temer allies accused of corruption.

While Temer's approval rating is at record lows, public support for Lava Jato is overwhelming -- in a poll last December, 96 percent of Brazilians agreed that the investigation should continue "whatever the costs," notes the WP.

Congressional support for Temer is weakening ahead of the corruption vote, reports Reuters. There are reports that the PSDB party could leave Temer's coalition after Congress votes on a series of upcoming economic reforms. São Paulo state Governor Geraldo Alckmin, a senior PSDB leader and a presidential hopeful, told Estado de S. Paulo that there was no reason to participate in the government after reforms are voted through. The PSDB party is a major Temer ally, and smaller coalition members are likely to follow its lead. Party leaders are meeting today to discuss their stance towards Temer, report Reuters.

News Briefs
  • Brazilian activists say violence is increasing in the Amazon, fueled by government plans to reduce protection which they say has given farmers, loggers and land grabbers a sense of impunity, reports the Guardian. Last week two activists killed in two separate incidents. According to a local NGO, 45 people have been murdered this year in land conflicts, compared to 61 in the whole of 2016. In May 21 police officers killed people who had occupied a piece of land, an episode under investigation.
  • The group of international investigators brought in to independently investigate the Ayotzinapa disappearances in Mexico were also targeted by government-owned spyware, reports the New York Times. The main contact person for the group of investigators, and the investigators themselves, received text messages laced with the spyware that turns targets' smartphones into a powerful surveillance device. The spying could form part of a broader campaign of harassment and interference the investigators say hindered their work. The members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights appointed group were granted a status akin to diplomatic immunity, making it extremely difficult for such surveillance to be carried out legally. The software in question is the Pegasus program sold to the government exclusively for targeting criminals. However, recent reports have found that it was used against critical activists, journalists, and political opposition leadership. (See June 30's post.) 
  • U.S. President Donald Trump humiliated his Mexican counterpart in Hamburg on Friday when he repeated the claim that Mexico would pay for a polemic border wall between the two countries. He spoke in front of the press and beside President Enrique Peña Nieto, who did not challenge Trump, though Mexico has frequently and vehemently maintained that it will not finance the Trump administration's proposal. Earlier this year the Mexican government said the two sides had agreed not to publicly discuss the wall. Now Peña Nieto is under fire for failing to stand up to Trump, reports the Guardian.
  • U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly maintains that migration from Central America is about economic opportunity, rather than escaping violence. And in an interview with the Washington Post he defends a new policy targeting immigrant families that pay smugglers to bring their children into the country. Though deportations have not increased under the Trump administration, arrests of undocumented migrants have risen sharply. Mexican officials are concerned about who is being targeted, and raised the issue with Kelly. 
  • A growing group of U.S. born kids are going to school in Mexico -- where many barely speak Spanish -- after accompanying deported parents and family members, reports the Intercept.
  • The Trump administration is demanding Cuba extradite American convicts who have received asylum on the island, including Assata Shakur, also known as Joanne Chesimard, and Ishmael Muslim Ali. But the Cuban government is unlikely to meet Cold War era demands, reports the New York Times.
  • International Olympic Committee is disinclined to help Brazil pay off an estimated $40 million in Olympics related debt, reports the Associated Press.
  • El Salvador's finance ministry was gutted by a fire on Friday that killed at least one person, reports the BBC.
  • The Valongo wharf in Rio de Janeiro, where nearly a million African slaves are estimated to have landed, has been declared a World Heritage site by the Unesco, reports the BBC.
  • Uruguay is set to finally implement the final phase of its revolutionary cannabis regulation legislation: pharmacy sold marijuana for recreational use. But don't expect a stoner paradise: "Uruguay’s government has developed a legalization model whose apparent goal is to make marijuana use as boring as possible. A vast regulatory bureaucracy will determine everything from the genetic makeup of the plants to the percentage of psychoactive compounds in their flowers," reports the Washington Post.
  • Chronixx is bringing a new generation of Jamaican reggae to the world, reports the New York Times.
  • A town in Mexico's violent Michoacán state has bucked the homicide trend -- Cheran hasn’t had a slaying or other serious crime since early 2011, when residents took advantage of legislation allowing indigenous communities to set up a form of self-government, reports the Los Angeles Times.

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