Monday, January 8, 2018

U.S. accuses Russia of meddling in Mexico's elections (Jan. 8, 2018)

U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster said the U.S. had already seen initial signs of Russian "subversion and disinformation and propaganda" in Mexico's presidential campaign, reports  by Reforma. Elections will be held in July. "With Russia we are concerned, increasingly concerned, with these sophisticated campaigns of subversion and disinformation and propaganda, the use of cyber tools to do that," McMaster reportedly said in previously unreported comments at a December event at at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC. "As you've seen this is a really sophisticated effort to polarize democratic societies and pit communities within those societies against each other and create crises of confidence ... 

In November Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray said the country had no evidence of Russian interference. But the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) voiced concern over the existence of misinformation campaigns on social networks about the electoral process, notes Reforma.

Interfering in Mexico's election is a good opportunity for Russia to complicate the U.S., argued Shannon O'Neill, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a November Bloomberg piece. 

Speculation is that Russia would back leftist outsider candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a front runner for this year's elections, according to Business Insider. Russian media has been supportive of AMLO, as he is called, and he has promised to demand more respect from the U.S., reports Reuters. On a broader level, Russia and China are increasingly showing interest in Latin America as the U.S. takes on an economically protectionist stance. (See below on Nafta renegotiations.)

O'Neill also notes that the elections will not just be presidential, but will also renew the entirety of the Congress, several governors and local posts. More than 3,000 positions in all. "Mexico remains extremely vulnerable to the Russian interference that occurred in the 2016 U.S. election. Facebook, Twitter and Google are important sources of information for many Mexicans. And local papers and TV stations have long run flattering or condemnatory stories in exchange for ad buys or money," she writes. 

(The New York Times recently reported on how Mexico's national, state and local governments use funding to influence press coverage, see last Tuesday's briefs. Also, see last Wednesday's briefs on how journalists are self-censoring in the face of cartel violence, and Thursday's briefs on the difficulties of carrying out reporting from Mexico.)

For what its worth, Russian media has been dismissive of the reports of meddling. Sputnik accuses U.S. officials of grasping at straws: "unable to come up with any coherent evidence proving Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential vote, Washington now seems set on implicating Moscow in interfering in Mexico's upcoming general elections." And RT ran a piece in late December in which Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov rejected accusations of interference.

And last year Videgaray warned the U.S. to stay out of its elections, reported Business Insider in April.

More broadly, "fake news" is a topic in the Mexican election. AMLO has accused the mainstream media of shielding ruling party candidate José Antonio Meade, but he cited a malicious video of Meade edited to make it seem as if he had said the street is for criminals and jail for citizens, reports Animal Político

News Briefs
  • The Trump administration will cancel Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for Salvadorans. The decision would affect the provisional residency of 200,000 people who have lived in the U.S. since at least 2001, reports the Washington Post. A Department of Homeland Security announcement sent to lawmakers today said conditions in El Salvador have improved significantly since a series of earthquakes prompted the granting of TPS in 2001. Salvadorans will have until Sept. 9, 2019 to leave the United States or find a new way to obtain legal residency. The 200,000 are the parents of an estimated 190,000 U.S.-born children. The decision was not, however, surprising. In recent months the administration terminated TPS for 60,000 Haitians who arrived after a 2010 earthquake, and for 2,500 Nicaraguan migrants protected after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Some 57,000 Hondurans were granted a reprieve by then-Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke, but the administration was angered by the move. (See post for Nov. 7, 2017.) Immigration advocates say El Salvador in unprepared for such a large influx of returnees. El Salvador has extremely high rates of homicide and violence, as well as housing and job shortages, reports the Washington Post separately.
  • The Trump administration asked Congress for $18 billion over the next ten years in order to build a polemic wall along the country's border with Mexico. Nonetheless, the U.S. president insisted that Mexico will pay for the wall, reports the Guardian. "I have a very good relationship with Mexico. But yes, in some form, Mexico will pay for the wall." (Mexican officials have repeatedly and emphatically emphasized that they will do no such thing.)
  • White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's perspectives on Latin America were forged during the three years he spent as head of U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), reports the Washington Post. Though some immigrant groups initially hoped for a favorable perspective from a leader with on-the-ground experience on conditions in the region, his time in Latin America hardened his views on border security. "Kelly’s years in Latin America left him with a view of U.S. border threats similar to Trump’s, and not only illegal immigration and drugs. Kelly repeatedly told lawmakers that terrorist organizations could be plotting to sneak into the United States with the help of Mexican criminal groups..." He also tended to forge direct links with national leaders, and strayed from the Obama administration's foreign policy when he defended Honduras' militarized internal security strategy. But other sources speak of his willingness to meet with human rights organizations and efforts to understand the region's fraught history with its militaries.
  • The New York Times profiles a dispute over who can truck Mexican goods into the U.S. heartland as an example of the multifaceted difficulties of the NAFTA renegotiation. Though the 1993 free trade agreement theoretically allowed for Mexican truckers to take their cargo anywhere in the U.S., in practise American truckers lobbied to allow only U.S. nationals to carry that transport. The Trump administration is pushing for Mexico to accept a provision that could block its drivers from delivering within the U.S. Mexico has rejected the proposal. "The dispute offers a window into the stakes involved in rewriting, or blowing up, an agreement that has become highly contentious but also extremely lucrative for all sides. It also hints at the impact that market forces — more than rules agreed to on paper — may have on the ways two nations exchange wares."
  • The New York Times' Interpreter column explores how three Mexican localities that have effectively seceded from the country in a bid to control rampant violence and endemic corruption in security forces. "Each is a haven of relative safety amid violence, suggesting that their diagnosis of the problem was correct. But their gains are fragile and have come at significant cost. They are exceptions that prove the rule: Mexico’s crisis manifests as violence, but it is rooted in the corruption and weakness of the state."
  • Thousands of protesters gathered in San Pedro Sula to protest the results of recent Honduran elections, which officials say granted incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández a second term. The march was led by opposition leader Salvador Nasralla, though he has officially conceded to Hernández, he maintains the election was fraudulent, reports the Associated Press. At least 30 people were killed in the protests that followed the Nov. 26 vote, most at the hands of the Honduran Military Police. But victims have little hope for justice, reports the Miami Herald. More than 90 percent of violent crimes in Honduras go unprosecuted, according to the Committee for the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH).
  • A three week police strike in Brazil's Rio Grande do Norte state has prompted a spike in violence and a state of emergency, reports the Los Angeles Times. Civil and military police walked off the job Dec. 19 to demand back pay and better working conditions. Officers haven’t been paid in full since November.
  • Brazilian police have requested that President Michel Temer answers 50 questions as part of an investigation into alleged corruption in port regulation, reports Reuters. Police are investigating whether Temer took bribes in exchange for shaping a decree in a way that would benefit a logistics firm.
  • On Friday Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced a temporary shutdown of air and maritime traffic with Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. He accused the Caribbean islands of running smuggling operations with Venezuelan goods -- from food to coltan, reports the New York Times. It was not clear what prompted the timing of the 72-hour crackdown, though all the islands are in fact known for black markets for Venezuelan contraband, as well as destinations for refugees from Venezuela's economic disaster.
  • Mobs gathered outside of supermarkets this weekend after a government order for price reductions. The Maduro ordered more than 200 supermarkets to cut prices back to last month’s levels, a significant change in a country with hyperinflation, reports Reuters.
  • Also on Friday, Maduro announced Venezuela would issue 100 million units of its new oil-backed cryptocurrency in coming days, reports Reuters.
  • The U.S. announced sanctions on four acting or retired Venezuelan generals for rights abuses and corruption. That brings the total up to 44 Venezuelan officials have been sanctioned to date including President Nicolás Maduro, reports the BBC.
  • Former Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori said he "Longs for a Peru without grudges, with everybody working for a superior objective." The remarks were made on Twitter, just after he was released from the hospital after obtaining a polemic medical pardon for a human rights violations prison sentence. It's not clear whether the comments auger a more active return to Peruvian politics, where Fujimori is a deeply divisive figure, reports the New York Times. Some lawyers say there is no legal obstacle preventing Fujimori from seeking public office now that he has been released from jail. But other experts say that a medical pardon should not permit him to resume a political career, reports the BBC
  • A photo shared on social media shows Fujimori in a garden surrounded by his four adult children – a sign of unity that fueled speculation he would end a political rivalry between siblings Keiko and Kenji, reports the Guardian.
  • In an op-ed in El Comercio, Prime Minister Mercedes Aráoz defended the decision to pardon Fujimori, saying it aims at reconciliation in Peruvian society as well as humanitarian concern over the former leader's ill-health. But to many observers, the decision seems to demonstrate that President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's embattled administration is now beholden to Fujimori's Fuerza Popular party, according to the Economist
  • In Nacla, Jo-Marie Burt calls the pardon Faustian and explores the new legal battle to have it revoked. "Defenders of the pardon insist that the president has the absolute right to pardon whomever he sees fit, but human rights lawyers say that in Peru, this is not true. Pardons must be clearly and logically reasoned, and must abide by the constitution and by Peru’s international obligations. Aside from the political nature of the pardon, human rights lawyers have identified a series of legal problems with the pardon and a clear strategy to revoke it."
  • María Alejandra Vicuña was sworn in as Ecuador's new vice president, reports EFE. (See last Thursday's briefs.)
  • Guaraní is widely spoken in Paraguay, but is generally relegated to homes. Now officials and intellectuals are working to promote the language, reports the New York Times. Speakers were the target of persecution under dictator Alberto Stroessner, and Paraguayans still consider it "second-class."
  • Five severed heads were found atop a taxi in Mexico's Veracruz state. The torsos of the victims were found in plastic bags inside the car, reports the BBC. Graffiti on the vehicle linked the crime to the Jalisco New Generation cartel.

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