Friday, September 15, 2017

Guatemala's impunity tug-o-war (Sept. 15, 2017)

Guatamala's Constitutional Court provisionally suspended a polemic penal code reform that would have let corrupt politicians off the hook, yesterday evening. But not before the "national emergency" laws passed Wednesday by lawmakers generated anger in a wide swathe of citizens -- from conservative business groups to students. Hundreds of citizens gathered yesterday to reject "corruption deal," reports El Periódico.

The reforms gutted campaign finance rules, and would have permitted many criminals to get out of jail in exchange for a small fine. Guatemalans largely interpreted their aim as a way to protect hundreds of political and business leaders accused of corruption by the Public Ministry and the U.N.'s  International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) notes the New York Times.

Even before the court's ruling, legislative leaders were trying to find a legal way to backtrack the reforms they had considered a "national emergency" just the day before, reports El Periódico. Legislators might gather today to vote back the laws before they are sent for the president's approval. Social pressure played a large part in spurring their repentance, reports Plaza Pública.

Several human rights organizations -- including Acción Ciudadana and la Fundación Myrna Mack -- presented requests to suspend the reforms, reports El Periódico separately.

The court reacted quickly in an escalating political crisis that has been building for weeks, since the CICIG requested permission to investigate President Jimmy Morales -- along with other leading politicians -- in relation to illicit campaign financing. (See Aug. 28's post.) Morales responded with an attempt to oust CICIG head Iván Velásquez, a move met with international condemnation and also blocked by the Constitutional Court. (See Aug. 30's post.) Legislators defended Morales, and decided not to lift his immunity from prosecution earlier this week. (See Tuesday's post.)

Experts say the battle between the anti-impunity commission and Guatemala's politicians is far from over, according to the NYT. The CICIG's new focus on electoral financing -- which Velásquez has called Guatemalan democracy's "original sin" -- means a broad sector of politicians and business elites are affected by the investigations. 

And this week's reforms were just the tip of an impunity iceberg, that could have included measures to further institutionalize corruption, reports Plaza Pública. A measure that was missing from the "Impunity Wednesday" was a proposal to give the president the power to oust the attorney general Thelma Aldana without just cause, reports El Periódico. It is unclear whether such a measure is under consideration. 

The CICIG has strong U.N., U.S. and international support. And also has broad popularity among citizens. Manfredo Marroquín, president of the board of Acción Ciudadana, Transparency International’s Guatemala branch said the protests that helped oust former President Otto Pérez Molina on corruption charges two years ago could start again.

Regret and apologies aren't good enough though, argues an angry Plaza Pública editorial. It's time to take back democratic institutions and rebuild. "Let's leave aside the formalities, that is to say, the masquerade, the capitalizations: Patriotic Fathers, Legislators, Popularly Elected Representatives. We know the Fraude on which they are founded. Lets stop pretending we believe they're politicians: the vast majority are criminals, delinquents, truants, thieves: tricksters and pretenders. They approve laws and gifts with the gesture of an assassin sharpening his knife. They are the shipwreck of history."


Janot's parting shots

Outgoing Brazilian attorney general Rodrigo Janot has filed charges of racketeering against President Michel Temer and six party allies, three of whom are already in jail, reports the Guardian. Temer and two others are also accused of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors accuse the group of PMDB politicians of receiving $188m in bribes in return for public contracts, since 2006. Temer is accused of leading the criminal organization since he took over the presidency in May of last year. Though he is also charged with influence from before, a sitting president can only be judged for crimes committed while in office, reports El País.

Temer denied the charges, and Congress must again decide whether to lift his immunity from prosecution and force him to face the charges. 

Last month Temer mustered up enough support in the lower chamber to avoid facing previous charges of corruption. (See Aug. 3's post.) Critics noted that Temer engaged in extensive dealmaking with legislators before the vote, and distributed millions of dollars in federal money for local projects.

Though these charges are more robust, it is expected that lawmakers will also discard them, reports El País. Signs of economic recovery in Brazil could strengthen his hand with legislators, according to the Guardian. However, though legislators may be wary of subjecting the country to further political upheaval, the charges will also likely weaken Temer's ability to pass unpopular economic reforms that form the centerpiece of his agenda, report the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Janot's term ends Sunday, and his hand has been weakened after a plea bargain from which he obtained evidence against Temer has been questioned. (See Sept. 6's post.) The Supreme Court is currently evaluating the validity of the testimony. This week the Supreme Court rejected Temer's request to have Janot removed from cases against the president, reports El País.

Janot is definitely going out with a bang -- in ten days he's accused the last three presidents of serious corruption charges, notes El País in a separate piece.

Temer is scheduled to have dinner with U.S. President Donald Trump and give the opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, notes the WSJ.

News Briefs
  • A day after meeting with Democratic leaders for dinner, Trump said he'd back a deal to protect young, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children in exchange for a “massive” border security upgrade, reports the New York Times. The polemic and oft-discussed border wall with Mexico need not be part of the package, he said. Last week, Trump said he would phase out the Obama era the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and gave lawmakers six months to replace it with legislation. (See Sept. 6's post.)
  • "A rabbit is not a pet; it’s two and a half kilos of meat that is high in protein, with no cholesterol," argues Venezuela's urban agriculture minister, Freddy Bernal. His vision is not shared by members of 15 communities where the government handed out baby rabbits as part of a pilot plan to counter chronic food shortages. Bernal later returned to the communities to find them bedecked in bows, reports the BBC. "A lot of people gave names to the rabbits, they took them to bed," he said. The minister urged Venezuelans to start seeing rabbits "from the point of view of the economic war." The opposition has dismissed the plan as nonsensical, reports Reuters.
  • El Helicoide, a modernist Caracas building initially planned as a luxury shopping mall, has become a prison feared by political prisoners who describe torture cells, reports the Guardian. Celeste Olalquiaga, a cultural historian who grew up in Caracas, said: "El Helicoide is a metaphor for the whole modern period in Venezuela and what went wrong." She has launched a project to document its extraordinary history and current status.
  • Trump said he considered downgrading Colombia in an annual U.S. review of global narcotics hubs. A "decertification" could affect the country's access to funding and aid, and would be the strongest criticism from the U.S. towards Colombia since the 1990s, reports the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. has been increasingly critical of Colombia's coca eradication efforts, after the country prohibited a U.S. funded aerial fumigation program and focused on crop substitution programs in a peace deal with the FARC. The Colombian government defended its drug fighting record yesterday, saying "threats are not needed to motivate us to meet this challenge." (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • More than a week after Irma, St. Martin is trying to figure out how to move forward, reports the New York Times.
  • Trump blamed his weeklong delay in offering condolences to Mexico for an earthquake that has claimed nearly 100 lives on faulty mobile phone reception, reports the Guardian. The excuse seems fairly implausible, explains the Washington Post.(See yesterday's briefs.)

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