Thursday, August 3, 2017

Temer safe for now, but Brazil's political crisis continues (Aug. 3, 2017)

Brazilian lawmakers against putting President Michel Temer on trial on corruption charges. The embattled president received the support of 263 members of the lower chamber, and 227 deputies voted against him. Temer welcomed the vote as "clear and incontestable," reports the BBC.

Though he won by a comfortable margin, the marathon session demonstrated the current polarized nature of Brazilian politics, reports the New York Times. Lawmakers angling to suspend Temer dragged out proceedings yesterday, and the session was punctuated by screaming matches, attempted brawls between legislators and theatrical throwing of fake money in the air, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Brazil's chief prosecutor has accused Temer with accepting a $152,000 bribe from the owner of a mega meatpacking firm, via an intermediary. (See June 27's post.) Prosecuting a sitting president in Brazil requires that two-thirds of the Chamber of Deputies vote to suspend the president for 180 days.

That is in fact, precisely what the same body did last year when it voted against then-President Dilma Rousseff on charges of budgetary manipulation, a process that eventually led to her impeachment, notes El País. Voting against Rousseff last year was accompanied by massive street mobilizations -- this year citizens seem exhausted and uninvolved, which has helped Temer. (See Tuesday's post.)

Temer is wildly unpopular however. His approval rating is at 5 percent, and recent polls show that more than 80 percent of Brazilians favored forcing him to face trial. Nearly that amount of respondents also said lawmakers who blocked the charges do not deserve reelection.

Temer's side portrayed the issue as one of stability for a country whose politics have been in flux for years, in large part due to corruption scandals affecting a broad swathe of the political elite. Most lawmakers did not bother to insist on the leader's innocence, rather focusing on arguments about the economy and stability, notes El País in a separate piece that compares such pragmatism to the appeals to god in last year's Rousseff vote.

That Temer was able to sidestep the charges despite his lack of popularity is a testament to his skillful maneuvering for the Washington Post. Temer pulled out all the stops to marshal support in the lower chamber before the vote -- including distributing funds for various projects and posts among deputies. He took the unusual step of dismissing a portion of his cabinet, in order to allow ministers to cast votes as legislators. 

In June and July, according to the government watchdog group Open Accounts, the government awarded more than $1.3 billion in discretionary funding, reports the New York Times, noting that it is an unusually high number, especially considering the government's focus on austerity measures.  However, he did lose the support of a critical ally in his coalition, the PSDB, which recommended its members vote against the president, notes El País. (See Tuesday's post.)

Many lawmakers are themselves facing allegations of corruption. "... Compounding the sense of farce, according to research by Congress in Focus, a political site, at least 190 of the 513 deputies able to vote face criminal processes at Brazil’s supreme court," reports the Guardian.

Yesterday's vote does not mean Temer is safe until the end of the current mandate in 2018 -- chief prosecutor Rodrigo Janot is expected to file more corruption charges soon, which would force deputies to vote once more on whether to suspend the president. Though Temer will likely finish out his mandate, the scandals have had the effect of paralyzing politics and stalling the economic reforms the government believes are necessary for the country's economy, notes the WP.

And a deeper analysis of yesterday's vote shows a loss in Temer's congressional support since last year, reports El País in another piece. This could well affect the ongoing economic reforms.

O Globo criticized the legislators' decision in an editorial, saying ethical considerations trump pragmatism. And because the stability argument is an illusion -- the vote merely prolongs the political crisis.

On that note, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will face a sixth trial on corruption charges, reports Reuters. Lula has repeatedly denied the charges.

News Briefs
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is considering a career diplomat to be the new assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. William Brownfield, a career diplomat who currently leads the State Department’s law enforcement and anti-narcotics efforts, is a top pick, reports Foreign Policy. The post is key given U.S. President Donald Trump's focus on stemming migration from Latin America and renegotiating NAFTA -- as well as the ongoing Venezuelan crisis. Brownfield has served as U.S. ambassador to Chile, Venezuela, and Colombia.
  • Brazil and Argentina's top prosecutors are accusing their governments of  interfering in the creation of a joint anti-corruption task force to investigate bribes paid by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, reports Reuters. "The main authorities for international legal cooperation -- Brazil's Justice Ministry and Argentina's Foreign Ministry -- have placed obstacles and made requisitions that are an undue interference in carrying out agreements signed by prosecutors of the two countries in the Odebrecht investigation," said Brazil's Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot in a joint statement with his Argentine counterpart, Alejandra Gils Carbo.
  • U.S. immigration policy has spurred changes in migration patterns from Central America -- increasingly people fleeing violence are applying for asylum in Mexico. "But Mexico is no migrant paradise. The government needs to work out how to deal with and respect the rights of the burgeoning number of new arrivals," warns the Economist. The piece cites a recent WOLA report that characterizes the violence suffered by undocumented migrants in Mexico as "chronic." (See July 3's post.) "More money is needed for counselling, shelters, staff training and for COMAR, the commission responsible for the welfare of asylum-seekers. And Mexico needs to show this largesse while retaining focus on the longer-term goal: economic development. Violence and poverty in the region are intimately linked with migration. Strengthening local economies would reduce the human flow too."
  • Mexican migration advocates denounce human rights violations by immigration authorities, including threats to force undocumented migrants to accept voluntary deportation, reports Animal Político.
  • María Teresa Rivera is billed as the world's first abortion refugee in an profile with Elle. In 2011 she was sentenced to 40 years in prison for 'aggravated homicide' following a miscarriage in El Salvador, one of dozens of women imprisoned for obstetric complications under the country's draconian abortion law. She was exonerated four years ago, and this year the Swedish Migration Agency granted Rivera and her 12-year-old son political asylum after a prosecutor tried to appeal the judge's decision to a higher court. Rivera notes the disparity between the poor women who are prosecuted under the country's blanket abortion ban, and their wealthier counterparts who can afford private doctors or trips to countries where abortion is legal.
  • Venezuela's opposition has called for mass protests to block the inauguration of a polemic constituent assembly, which would have the power to revise the country's government. Both the start of sessions and the protest were postponed until tomorrow, reports Efecto Cocuyo. As many as 40 countries have said they would not recognize the new assembly, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Venezuela's dissident chief prosecutor said she will investigate allegations of fraud in last weekend's election of a Constituent Assembly, reports the BBC. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro accused the international company that supplies the country's electronic voting system platform of succumbing to imperial pressure in making allegations about turnout rate manipulation, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's post.)
  • "It’s hard to pinpoint when democracy died in Venezuela," writes Christopher Sabatini in a Guardian opinion piece that provides a useful overview of the past couple of years of institutional erosion. Sunday's vote however was a point of no return, and "the international community needs to realise that it’s been played. ... Now, finally, those countries need to step up," he argues. "Responding to the accelerating downward spiral in Venezuela requires credible but scaled threats. The past has shown that naive exhortation doesn’t work, but nor does the nuclear option of all-out sanctions and an embargo. The US going it alone isn’t enough. The regional failure to act collectively and decisively to threaten costs and present carrots will accelerate the path that Venezuela is on. It’s time to step up, collectively and selectively."
  • Indeed, given the scale of the crisis, international response has been tepid, argue Robert Muggah and Adriana Erthal Abdenur in PRI. "If Venezuela is to avoid a downward spiral into civil war, neighboring countries and regional institutions must step up with preventative diplomacy. Some tentative steps are being taken. The Ecuadorian government recently called on CELAC and UNASUR to start mediation in Venezuela, but progress has stalled. Efforts to prevent conflict should not be abandoned and history suggests the region has the tools to manage it."
  • Last week David Smilde argued in a New York Times op-ed that the U.S. should not lead such diplomatic efforts, and that negotiations must be backed by consequences. "Countries in the region need to coordinate and speak with one voice, saying they will not recognize as legitimate Mr. Maduro’s Constituent Assembly, the Constitution it writes, nor the government it creates. This will make it difficult for Venezuela to get financing and make clear to the Maduro government’s leaders that they are better off negotiating. Any sanctions to be considered must be collective, if not from within a multilateral agency then from a significant group of countries in the region."
  • Evidence of sanctions working internationally is week, notes the Washington Post in an analysis that mentions Venezuela.
  • Outside of the region, China has spoken out in favor of the government and the election, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • For those who supported Chávez, both in Venezuela and out, this moment is one of more difficult evaluation, writes Asa Cusack in a Guardian opinion piece that grapples with the Bolivarian revolution's mixed legacy and the political opposition's flaws.
  • With increasing numbers of dissident Chavistas, Maduro continues to try to channel his predecessor as much as possible, reports the Washington Post.
  • On the other hand, former London mayor Ken Livingston has blamed the crisis on Hugo Chávez’s unwillingness to execute "oligarchs" after he came to power, reports the Guardian.
  • Over at Slate Joshua Keating criticizes Trump's selective nature when it comes to opposing dictators.
  • The crisis on the ground: the Gallup 2017 Global Law and Order Index found that just 12 percent of Venezuelans felt safe walking after sundown and only 14 percent expressed confidence in their police, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Panamanian prosecutors have announced a deal with Odebrecht, reports the Associated Press. The Brazilian construction giant has agreed to pay Panama a $220 million fine and provide information about Panamanians who received bribes.
  • The Colombian government's proposed budget for next year includes a 5 percent cut to social programs, in a bid to retain credit agency ratings, reports Reuters.
  • An Argentine court has ruled that the country's Supreme Court should take up a case related to a government request to suspend operations at Barrick Gold Corp's Veladero mine, reports Reuters.
  • Stanley Francis Rother has become the first U.S. martyr approved for beatification. The Oklahoma priest was killed while serving as a missionary in Guatemala in 1981, a victim of the country's bloody civil war, reports Sojourners. "Amid political and military unrest in the late 1970s, parishioners began disappearing, their bodies found dumped on roadsides. By 1981, Rother knew that he was on a “hit list,” according to the Oklahoma City archdiocese. Several other Catholic priests — at least 13 — were killed during the war, branded as communists in collusion with left-wing revolutionary guerrillas. But after a final trip home to visit his family early that year, the 46-year-old priest returned to Guatemala in time for Holy Week." 

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