Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega backtracked a social security reform on yesterday, after days of protests in which over 20 people died. Human rights groups say 25 people have been killed since last week, including a reporter presenting a live broadcast, reports the Guardian. At least 67 people have been shot by the police with live rounds or rubber bullets, or beaten by members of pro-goverment groups. A further 43 people were reported to have “disappeared” over the weekend. There were reports of looting in some areas of Managua yesterday. Last week the government took several channels off the air for broadcasting the protests. (See last Friday's post.)
Ortega asked the Roman Catholic Church to participate in dialogue between the government, the private sector and workers unions, reports El Confidencial. The reforms would have lowered pensions and increased payments by employers and workers. The move was a bid to rescue a social security system that the IMF has said could run out of cash by next year, reports the Wall Street Journal.
Ortega offered to negotiate on Saturday, but the announcement inflamed protesters, who are now targeting the government more broadly, reports the New York Times. Ortega's accusations that demonstrators are manipulated by right-wing parties with U.S. funding only brought out more protesters. Leading business associations said over the weekend they would not enter talks until the government ended repression of protests and guaranteed freedom to demonstrate, reports El Confidencial. A leading business lobby, COSEP, which has been allied with the administration since it came into power in 2007, called for renewed protests today. Experts told La Prensa that the COSEP's leadership is at a turning point, and that the crisis will require a multilateral negotiation.
The move breaks the "dialogue and consensus" model that has characterized the regime's relationship with the business sector, explains Carlos Fernández Chamorro in Nómada.
Critics say Ortega's statements show a cynical divorce from reality on the ground, reports El Confidencial separately. Ortega said those detained would be brought to trial, and made no mention of lifting restrictions on broadcasting, notes the Wall Street Journal.
Protests that started last week become more violent as of Friday afternoon, with police using teargas and live rounds against protesters armed with stones, according to the Guardian. Some protesters in Managua took refuge in the city's cathedral, and the army reportedly deployed snipers to shoot at them. Angry protesters pulled down "Trees of Life" sculptures in Managua, erected by Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega's wife.
Regardless of whether protesters back down, the damage to the Ortega administration could be a watershed, argues Kenneth Coleman at AULA blog. "Mass movements can start from little sparks and grow into society-wide convulsions. The outcome of these new confrontations with the Ortega-Murillo government cannot be foreseen at this point, but the parallels with other governments on their last legs are striking. "
Paraguay elects Colorado candidate
Mario Abdo Benítez won Paraguay's presidential election yesterday. He had 46.49 percent of the votes with 96 percent of the ballots counted, reports Reuters. The margin of victory was however tighter than predicted, his closest opponent Efrain Alegre had 42.72 percent.
Alegre declined to concede, saying he would wait for the final count, though electoral officials said there were not enough ballots left to be counted to change the result, reports the Associated Press.
Nonetheless, Abdo's platform and Alegre's had significant overlap, notes the NYT. Both promised to strengthen the country's judiciary, sought to overhaul the tax system, and opposed legal abortion and gay marriage.
Abdo is the son of dictator Alfredo Stroessner's private secretary. During the campaign, Abdo did not repudiate the abuses carried out by the region's longest dictatorship, from 1954 to 1989, but he did not "overtly pay homage to the era," according to the NYT. He visited his father's grave yesterday after voting.
- The incoming Cuban Council of State is unusually diverse for the island: Over half of newly appointed vice presidents in Cuba are black, and three are women. The mix is even more notable considering that it's the first time a non-Castro is leading the government in 60 years. Economic racial disparities have only grown in Cuba with increased private business opportunities. The move is a reflection of the growing significance of the Afro-Cuban movement, reports the New York Times. Critics however say the new leadership is just window dressing and won't address the socio-economic difficulties faced by black Cubans.
- Incoming President Miguel Díaz-Canel "faces the daunting challenge of providing both continuity and change to address competing social, economic, and ideological pressures as Cuba moves forward," argues Peter Kornbluh in The Nation. "To succeed, he will have to lead the country through this historic political transition toward a far more significant socioeconomic transformation."
- While outgoing President Raúl Castro is likely to remain a major power in the country, the next generation of Castro's may have influence behind the scenes, but lies low, reports the Washington Post.
- Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro met with Díaz-Canel on Saturday, the first foreign leader to do so. The meeting shows the importance of the Venezuelan-Cuban alliance, reports Reuters. Cuban state-run media also reported that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had spoken by phone with both Diaz-Canel and Castro, who will remain head of the ruling Communist Party until 2021.
Venezuelan campaigns officially kick-off
- Campaigns for Venezuela's May 20 presidential elections officially kicked off yesterday. The poll is being boycotted by much of the political opposition, and is considered illegitimate by much of the international community. Maduro is running for reelection. His primary opponent is Henri Falcón, who hopes to capitalize on widespread discontent to overcome the uneven playing field, reports AFP. The candidate is a little-known evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci.
Brazil -- Lula and elections
- Thousands of people have camped out in Curitiba and in occupations around the country in support of jailed former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, reports The Nation.
- Lula's imprisonment seems like a turning point, but it remains to be seen whether its a momentary crackdown or "or heralds a sustainable shift in how Latin America governs and does business," according to the Washington Post.
- Though Lula remains a favorite among voters ahead of the October presidential elections, he likely won't be allowed to run due to Brazilian legislation blocking people with corruption convictions. A former Supreme Court judge, Joaquim Barbosa might join the race with the center-left Socialist Party. The country’s first black Supreme Court justice could potentially upend the contest. He is third in voter intention, if Lula is left out of the setup, according to the most recent Datafolha poll, and his biography -- rising from poverty to become an anti-corruption crusader -- resonates with voters, reports the New York Times. It is not yet clear if Barbosa will run, however.
- The U.S. DEA is investigating a former undercover agent suspected of providing intelligence to Colombian drug traffickers, reports Buzzfeed. The allegations could make it more difficult for U.S. law enforcement officials to earn the trust of confidential informants related to drug smuggling, according to the New York Times.
- Mexican presidential candidates held their first televised debate yesterday -- with most focusing attacks on front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador. AMLO rarely responded directly to the criticism, but about a quarter of the way into the debate focusing on security, corruption and democracy, his patience wore thin, reports Reuters.
- The European Union and Mexico concluded negotiations for a new trade agreement that will eliminate tariffs on virtually all products, reports EFE.
- A Salvadoran court absolved the late President Francisco Flores of civil responsibility in a case in which he was accused of diverting earthquake relief funds donated by Taiwan, reports the Associated Press.
- Six members of UNASUR pulled out of the South American bloc. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru said they will leave the bloc for a year, due to differences over how to choose a secretary general, reports the Associated Press. Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Surinam, Uruguay and Venezuela remain in the bloc created by Hugo Chávez to counter U.S. influence in the region.
- Uruguay rejected a U.S. request to expel Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a Russian spy in Great Britain. Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa called the request "impertinent," reports the Associated Press.
- About 10,000 people marched in Santiago yesterday demanding an end to the privatized pension system created under the Pinochet dictatorship, reports AFP.
- A Canadian man was beaten and lynched in the Peruvian Amazon after locals accused him of killing an 81-year-old indigenous healer, reports the Guardian.