Thursday, December 24, 2015

2015 themes in Latin America (Dec. 24, 2015)

To close off 2015, a few topics that have been big this year to keep an eye out for in 2016. The list is meant to be a starting point, not an exhaustive review of every topic nor every aspect of the topics mentioned ...

  • In August UNASUR affirmed that South American countries are seeking a new "integral" approach to replace the punitive strategies against drugs.
  • Colombia took a huge step back from the U.S. backed "war on drugs" approach: see May 15th's post on the end of aerial spraying of glyphosate to control illicit coca cultivation, Oct. 1st's post on eradication programs after the prohibition, and yesterday's briefs on this week's presidential decree legalizing medical marijuana.
  • On the issue of marijuana, a Mexican Supreme Court decision might pave the way for decriminalization in that country, but it has certainly opened the flood gates of debate over what the approach to regulating the drug should be. See Nov. 5th'sNov. 17th's, and  Nov. 30th's posts. And Chile is also moving forward with it's first medical marijuana crop, see Oct. 13th's briefs.
  • But all is not rosy.  InSight Crime notes the popularity of militarization of domestic security, especially in reference to combatting drug trafficking and crime. "Evidence suggests the militarization of domestic security -- a popular choice among governments across Latin America -- is detrimental to human rights and has little overall impact on crime and violence in the long term."
Organized Crime
  • Militarized approaches are often a response to organized crime, as has happened in El Salvador, where gang violence has reached record levels this year. See April 22nd's post and August 14th's post.
  • And the entertaining story of the year, though with chilling implications for Mexico's capacity to combat it's drug cartel problem is the escape of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. See July 13th's post and July 14th's. As a result Mexico has started to extradite high-profile criminals wanted by the U.S.
Human Rights
  • One year after Mexico's Tlatlaya Massacre and the Iguala disappearances, little headway has been made on these and thousands of less known cases of summary executions and enforced disappearances. See July 2nd's and Oct. 14th's posts on Tlatlaya, where last year 22 suspected gang members were killed in a shoot-out with the army. Testimony and forensic evidence suggest that at least 15 were summarily executed. On the 43 missing teachers college students, see Sept. 25th's post and Sept. 28th's post on the issue of enforced disappearances in Mexico.
  • In Brazil there's increasing noise regarding shockingly high levels of police brutality, often aimed at poor black youths. See Nov. 4th's post, for example.
  • Much attention has been paid to the issue of refugees in the world this year, but less to the growing mass of Central Americans attempting to escape the war-like levels of homicide and crime in their countries. See Oct. 13th's post on how the migrant crisis has been outsourced from the U.S. to Mexico and the human rights costs of the policy.
  • And in the Dominican Republic a crackdown on undocumented migrants, many who have lived most of their lives in the country, has over 3,000 refugees living in camps along the Haitian border after fleeing threats of violence and deportation earlier this year after the government began a crackdown on illegal migrants. See June 17th's post on the issue and July 7th's for more analysis.
  • And a wave of Cuban migrants attempting to reach the U.S. via Central America is creating diplomatic headaches. See Nov. 16th's post.
Central American Spring
  • For corruption policy buffs, the months-long fraud scandal in Guatemala that concluded with the forced resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina and the subsequent election of political outsider Jimmy Morales was a fascinating theme this year. See Sept. 2nd'sSept. 3rd's and Sept. 8th's posts.
  • In a promising sign, demands for similar external investigation bodies for corruption, like the CICIG in Guatemala, have spread to neighboring countries, especially Honduras. See June 8th's and Oct. 16th's posts.
  • Though it's not in Central America, and it's not really (only) corruption focused either, it's interesting to look at how protests in Brazil are demanding government accountability on issues from reproductive rights (see Nov. 9th's post) to schools (see Dec. 2nd's post). In  a New York Times op-edOSF fellow Pablo Ortellado makes the case that protesting students are part of a wider problem in which Brazilian authorities are unresponsive to social demands, creating protest movements that spiral out of control as in the 2013 transportation fare protests or the 2014 World Cup eviction protests. "One begins to wonder whether it will always take a major national crisis initiated by street protest for the Brazilian people’s voices to be heard."
  • In Haiti the initially lauded October elections (see Oct. 26th's briefs) have turned into a royal mess. Opposition presidential candidates -- including the second-place finisher who should be participating in the now delayed run-off election -- are denouncing fraud and demanding an independent verification commission. See Dec. 18th's post.
And my personal favorite ... The End of the Pink Tide?
  • Writing in The Atlantic, Moisés Naím examines the potential political perils facing Latin America, where a generation of newly empowered middle classes -- a result of an unprecedented period of social spending and reductions in the region's entrenched inequality --  face a period of economic slowdown that threatens their recent gains.
  • A recent NYTimes piece looks at anti-leftwing government sentiments around the region and makes perhaps the most relevant observation of the whole "end of the pink tide" commentating going on: the region's left-wing governments came to power during a commodities boom that brought prosperity to South America in the century's first decade. They were elected in a wave of popular indignation after a period of economic stagnation -- and now they are being rejected as international prices leave governments with fewer resources to meet heightened demands. And another interesting point made by Brian Winter, vice president of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, suggests a more lasting policy shift: even many conservative politicians who hope to replace the long-running leftist governments in the region acknowledged the need to continue such policies because of lasting concerns over inequality.
  • In a great piece for the New Yorker Graciela Mochkofsky notes that the "self-declared right-wing, pro-business" leader has "put together an administration that is largely devoid of career politicians." She makes the case that he might represent the new crop of right-wing leaders replacing the left-wing governments in the region. Post-neoliberals, they have incorporated social concerns into their discourse and in some cases -- such as gay marriage for Macri -- tend to follow the polls more than a specific ideology.
NOTE: Latin America Daily Briefing will be off until Jan. 4. Very happy holidays to all!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Venezuelan government resorts to shenanigans ahead of opposition parliament (Dec. 23, 2015)

Venezuela's opposition accused the ruling PSUV of a "judicial coup" as the government seeks to block 22 lawmakers from taking office in January.

The head of the opposition coalition, Jesus Torrealba, said the PSUV had filed a request to the Supreme Court that they prevent the lawmakers from taking office on Jan. 5, when the next Congress convenes, but did not give details on what grounds the request was made, reports Reuters.

The opposition won 112 seats out of 167 in the National Assembly,  a two-thirds majority that allows it to shake up institutions and fire government appointees.
In another move opposition lawmakers say is an attempt to circumvent them, the outgoing lame duck Congress has given initial approval to the appointment of 13 Supreme Court justices. If approved they would fill the places of justices who retired early rather than risk a balancing of the staunchly pro-government high court, explains the Associated Press.

The Miami Herald also notes the creation of a "Communal Parliament," which had been on the books since 2010 but never functioned. It is intended to "regulate the social and communal life" of Venezuelans, though the government insists it won't affect the power of the National Assembly. 

In the meantime, the already desperate economic situation is growing worst, according toBloomberg, as cheap oil prices leave it potentially unable to meet a $1.5 billion debt payment in February.

In the Huffington Post Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, the former president of Bolivia, has an extremely long piece reviewing the situation in Venezuela, focusing specifically on jailed political figures, who he says are on the "right side of history."

And several Pepsi factory employees who were detained last week on charges of halting operations have been freed, reports Reuters. The company blamed the production pause on a lack of raw materials. 

In Forbes Paul Coyer becomes the lates to join the celebratory chorus of Latin America's rightward swing, saying that the Venezuelan electoral results -- and the election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina -- give "a sense that a new birth of freedom, not to mention hopefully more competent economic management, is blowing across South America. In the case of Venezuela, the fight for freedom appears to be just getting started."

On the other side of the political spectrum, at TeleSur, Michael Albert reviews the reasons for the PSUV's electoral loss and analyzes how it might make a comeback. He points to a muddled ideological platform for the PSUV, programs that failed to keep economic deprivation in check and a failure to engage with opposing viewpoints.

News Briefs

  • Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos signed a decree yesterday legalizing the growing and sale of marijuana for medical purposes. The new policy is a dramatic shift in a country more traditionally associated with U.S. backed war on drugs policies, reports the Associated Press. The measure contemplates licenses for the possession of cannabis seeds and cultivation for medical and scientific purposes, reports the BBC. Santos said the new regulatory framework was long overdue given that Colombians had been consuming marijuana and marijuana-based products in a legal void for years. The country is the latest to join a regional trend towards legalization and decriminalization, notes the AP piece, mentioning the examples of Chile and Mexico. (See Nov. 5th's post and Oct. 13th's briefs, for example.)
  • Brazil's new finance minister, Nelson Barbosa, is attempting to convince investors that the country is emerging from the economic recession and political storm battering the country. Yesterday he reiterated that the government will maintain the same fiscal policies intended to shrink the budget deficit and cut debt that were favored by his predecessor, reports the Wall Street Journal. But analysts said investors are tired of talk and want results. Barbosa is under extraordinary pressure to establish his credibility, according to the New York Times.
  • But the political situation isn't helping. "Brazil's Congress is now the chaotic center of an unpredictable and explosive political crisis," writes the Los Angeles Times.
  • An important legislator on the Brazilian Congressional budget committee has recommended the approval of the 2014 accounts of President Dilma Rousseff's government.Rousseff's governing coalition has a majority of the seats on the committee, and if they approve the accounts it could undermine her opponents' case for impeaching her, reports Reuters.
  • As if all of that wasn't enough, Brazilian health authorities have declared a national emergency as they battle the fast-spreading Zika virus, linked to thousands of cases of infant brain damage and 40 related deaths this year, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Two Cuban exile organizations published an open letter to U.S. President Barak Obama complaining that his new policy towards Cuba over the past year "has amounted to little less than a string of unilateral concessions to a totalitarian dictatorship that has tirelessly repressed the Cuban people for the past 56 years," reports the Miami Herald.
  • In The Guardian Mohamed El-Erian argues that Argentina's new government needs to act quickly to fix the economy. He points to Macri's "audacious – and highly risky – " liberalization plan and says it has been implemented in a risky sequence. Yet its success or failure could be an important example for the region. "To revive the Argentinian economy in a durable and inclusive manner, Macri’s government needs to act fast to mobilise sizable external financial assistance, generate additional domestic resources, and implement deeper structural reforms. If it does, Argentina’s bold economic strategy will become a model for other countries, both now and in the future. But if the approach falters – whether because of incorrect sequencing or a surge of popular dissatisfaction – other countries will become even more hesitant to lift controls and fully liberalise their currencies. The resulting policy confusion would be bad for everyone."
  • Illicit financial flows might conjure up images of drugs and arms trafficking, but in reality the most important offenders are more prosaic: multinationals and the import-export sector that under declares commercial income in order to increase earnings and reduce tax obligations, reports the BBC. Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela rank high among the world's top offenders, according to the piece.
  • A gay Mexican immigrant, who was deported for entering the U.S. illegally won a federal court case that would allow him to stay due to fear of persecution for his sexual orientation, reports the Miami Herald.
  • A renewed wave of unaccompanied Central American children crossing the US border has new facilities popping up to house them in southern border towns, reports The Guardian. In October and November over 10,000 children crossed the border through Mexico without their parents, more than double the amount in the same months last year and overflowing existing detention centers.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Geopolitical implications of international trade agreements for LatAm (Dec. 22, 2015)

Great series of articles from Nueva Sociedad on the subject of multilateral trade agreements, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

In a long piece Heribert Dieter analyzes the impact of the TPP and the TTIP on commercial policies, and says they represent a return to geopolitics. He laments the move towards such agreements, saying they represent a subpar solution that would be better served by free-trade, but notes that they respond to political exigencies. Such agreements led by the U.S. force BRIC countries to prepare to responde with their own agreements, he says, as they face a future with uncertain commercial and financial regulation. He warns that such preferencial commerce can only lead to commercial Balkanization, with especially risky effects for developing economies which will likely be excluded from production networks. He concludes that developing and emerging markets should learn from post-war Europe and notes that profound regional integration demands the establishment of at least customs union.

The success of the new TPP with have major impact on the integration of Latin American economies, explains Mariano Turzi who compares the east-west division the agreement creates in the region with the north-south division created in the 20th Century by the Panama Canal. The risk for Latin America, he argues, is that the division could translate into different regionalizations (in reference to non-state commercial actors) and divergent regionalisms (in reference to institutional and political dimensions). Such fragmentation is harmful for the region, he says. "Without 'regional conscience' Latin America will lose international action space and in matters of geopolitics and geoeconomy will continue to be relegated to a position functional to designs beyond its opinion and control."

Ana Romero Cano criticizes the potential impact of the TPP in Peru, where she says the agreement will shield major foreign investors and health monopolies. She reviews the process of the TPP negotiations, compared with other free-trade agreements Peru has subscribed to with other counties, and gives a negative assessment of the particular secrecy in which the TPP negotiations were carried out. In the process the "few mechanisms for transparency and information the Peruvian population could count on to know what was being negotiated in this commercial agreement" were pushed back, she writes.

In defense of the TPP agreement, Felipe Lopeandía W., Chile's chief negotiator, argues that inclusion in the TPP was a critical development for the country. He notes that Chile's economic development rests, in large measure, with international commerce, and that subscribing to rules and commercial disciplines is critical to ensure the stability of the country's international insertion.
But what will be the impact of the TPP on non-member states asks Heribert Dieter. The agreement is an exclusive club, he explains -- new members can be forced to make concessions demanded by member states, it's not merely a matter of ratifying the original TPP agreement. "For the big powers competing for power and influence, commercial regulation is becoming a race against time. The losers are the economies who can only pick between accepting far-reaching political rules and not participating, with the risk of suffering economic marginalization."

In an essay Marcel Humuza argues that classical geopolitics is being replaced by "geoeconomy."  The U.S. is betting on commercial agreements as strategic instruments to consolidate its power and organize the international system according to its interests and the European Union's commercial policy is also dedicated to assuring and expanding its area of influence. The author analyzes the TTIP as a form of exclusion for developing economies, or a way of forcing them to accept its established rules. He predicts that the current model is the beginning of a new split world order, with the U.S. and Europe facing off against China commercially.

There's an interview with Uruguayan Frente Amplio party leader Mónica Xavier who suggests the region must unite in the face of the "mega" commercial agreements, which limit sovereign capacity to act. "The potential impact of these big agreements on commercial flows influences the conditions of Latin America's international insertion. That represents challenges in two dimensions: on the one hand, the foreign policies adopted by each State and, on the other the possibilities of strengthening together the regional conditions for the increase in value added production, facing a more virtuous participation in global value chains."

News Briefs

  • In the context of student protests of a proposed educational reorganization plan in Brazil's São Paulo state (see Dec. 2nd's post), a group of parents has gone to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to denounce violations committed against the students by the Military Police, reports El País. Students occupied more than 200 schools in protest of a proposed plan to consolidate schools, which would affect more than 300,000 students and send many of them to overcrowded institutions. (See last Thursday's briefs.) Signatories of the document presented yesterday, which included the Human Rights and Prison Situation groups of the Public Defender, say the Military Police's actions agains the students represent actions against the right to protest.
  • Brazil's new finance minister, Nelson Barbosa, attempted to calm markets yesterday, but got a chilly reception from investors reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Haitian authorities postponed next Sunday's presidential run-off election, amid accusations of fraud and irregularities from opposition candidates, reports Reuters. No alternative date was provided, reports the Miami Herald. The Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) says it will wait for a report from an electoral commission charged with evaluating October's election. (See Friday's briefs.) In an interview with the Associated Press Haitian President Michel Martelly defended the elections and said the opposition allegations of fraud are aimed at strengthening its position.
  • At a Mercosur meeting yesterday, Argentine President Mauricio Macri used his speech to appeal for the liberation of jailed Venezuelan political opposition leaders. The hard-stance, a shift for Argentina after the Venezuela-friendly Kirchner administrations, was met harshly by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, who told Macri he was meddling in Venezuelan affairs, reports Reuters. During his presidential campaign Macri promised to pursue the suspension of Venezuela from Mercosur, citing a clause in the bloc's charter that seeks to punish anti-democratic governments with isolation from the group. But after the Venezuelan government recognized the opposition's landslide win in recent legislative elections he backtracked.
  • Panama's Supreme Court ordered the detention of former President Ricardo Martinelli yesterday. The multimillionaire supermarket tycoon who ruled the Central American country from 2009 to 2014 is alleged to have used public money to spy on more than 150 people illegally, one of several accusations he faces, reports Reuters.
  • A Cuba deal was an integral part of Obama's foreign policy agenda for his second term. But his achievements in the area are still fragile, and over the next year the White House will seek to safeguard them, explains the Wall Street Journal in a piece on the obstacles he faces regarding international policy. In the case of Cuba it will mean taking additional executive actions so Americans become accustomed to traveling to the island-nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida and U.S. businesses are deeply invested there, according to the WSJ. 
  • A Brazilian judge has ruled that mining giant Vale SA shares responsibility for a catastrophic dam break at one of its joint ventures last month because it was using the facility to store its own mine detritus, reports the Wall Street Journal. The death toll in the accident was raised to 17 yesterday, and BHP Billiton Ltd, Vale's partner in the Sanmarco mine, pledged to publicly release the findings of an external investigation into the cause of the disaster, reports the Wall Street Journal in a separate story. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Iguala's mayor wants to turn turn the page on his city's ugly 15 minutes of fame -- the disappearance of 43 teachers college students 15 months ago. But that seems like wishful thinking according to an Associated Press piece, which notes that there were five murders during the new mayor Esteban Albarran Mendoza's first week in office, and 25 in his first two months. "Disappearances continue, and most of the missing have not been found. For hundreds of families around Iguala there is no possibility of turning the page as long as they have no proof of death or a body to mourn."
  • A major fire yesterday gutted the Museum of the Portuguese Language in São Paulo, one of Latin America's most popular and respected museums reports the New York Times.
  • Globalization has facilitated cultural exchange between indigenous traditions and Western practices, which has led to a growing interest in the ritual, religious and therapeutic use of ayahuasca, explains a new Transnational Institute (TNI) and ICEERS Foundation report on the challenges associated with the globalization of ayahuasca, and frames issues related to psychoactive plant substances in the broader context of existing drug policies and the current drug policy reform debate.
  • Bolivian legislation allowing children as young as 10 to work has created a rift between those who support it as Andean tradition and others who condemn it as exploitation, reports the New York Times.
  • Women can climb mountains, even in the traditional skirts and shawls of Bolivian indigenous communities, reports the Associated Press in a feature piece on Aymara women mountaineers.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Abortions remain out of reach in most of Latin America (Dec. 21, 2015)

Abortion is a perennial flashpoint in Latin America (and almost everywhere else).

Amnesty International says that scores of women promoting access to safe abortions, sex education and contraception across the Americas have endured death threats, public harassment and physical attacks. 

Yet there's a seeming disconnect between the increasingly liberal LGBT laws and abortion which remains illegal in most of the region.

A piece in Americas Quarterly explores the issue, noting that same-sex marriage is already legal in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Mexico; there are civil union laws just passed in Chile and Ecuador; and the Colombian Supreme Court just ruled that same-sex couples can adopt children. Yet  abortion remains illegal in most circumstances in most of Latin America (the exceptions are Cuba, Mexico City and Uruguay).

But despite the laws, abortion is remarkably common in much of the region, and access to a safe abortion is largely based on the ability to pay, writes Danielle Renwick. And that might be one reason the issue has failed to attract broader public and political support. "A major impediment to the extension of LGBT rights was the extent to which being in the closet was a comfortable position," according to Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College who studies LGBT rights in Latin America. Corrales says LGBT rights improved as more people became open about their sexual orientation, but "the abortion closet is more comfortable than the LGBT closet – you go and have your abortion in secret and nobody needs to know."

Some updates from around the region:

  • Earlier this month the Dominican Republic's Constitutional Court reinstated a total ban on abortion, including cases in which a pregnant woman's life is at risk. "This decision takes women's and girls' human rights back to the 19th century," said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International. "Its impact will be catastrophic for women and girls in the Dominican Republic who will continue to be criminalized, stigmatized and forced to seek out unsafe abortions because they are denied access to safe and legal medical treatment."
  • The Guardian looks at what might be the worlds' most draconian anti-abortion law in El Salvador, where women who miscarry -- and are suspected of attempting an abortion -- can face murder charges with a 40-year prison sentence. If a woman encounters a severe health complication in her pregnancy that threatens her life, her doctors can’t legally terminate her pregnancy. She has no legal choice but to accept the deterioration of her health and her possible death. There are currently at least 15 women imprisoned in El Salvador for a miscarriage, stillbirth, or other obstetric emergency, according to Human Rights Watch. Of course, that doesn't mean abortions don't happen. Amnesty International said that almost 20,000 abortions between 2005 and 2008, and NGOs believe this is an underestimate. Hundreds of women are believed to die as a result of complications. Those who are caught are imprisoned. The health and legal risks of clandestine abortions are felt disproportionately by poor communities. 
  • In November, Peruvian legislators rejected a bill that would permit abortion in cases of rape, reports El Comercio.
  • Debate is raging in Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff's opposition is attempting to restrict access to abortion, specifically for rape victims, writes the Global Post earlier this month. The new legislation would erase a framework allowing rape victims access to abortions merely with their doctor’s consent. Instead, women would be required to report the rape to authorities and undergo tests by a forensic medical examiner. A piece in The Atlantic notes that about a fifth of of Brazilian women will have an abortion by age 40—either by paying exorbitant fees to secret clinics, ordering abortifacient pills, or traveling to Uruguay. The law's opponents say the measure would discourage rape reporting and traumatize survivors. A piece in PRI looks at the situation in the state of Rio, home to 16 million people, there is just one doctor in the public health system who performs legal abortions. (See Nov. 9th's post.)
News Briefs
  • The publication of final election results for Haiti's October polls resulted in violent protests and acts of vandalism in several cities, reports the Miami Herald. The Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) published the final results despite serious objections from the country's Senate, opposition leaders, human rights organizations, religious leaders and local election observers, many of whom allege that there was serious fraud in the process and are demanding an independent verification commission. (See Friday's and November 19th's post.) While the issue of the presidential race has received a lot of attention, there are serious allegations of bribery in the legislative race, which threaten to derail the installation of the country's 50th Legislature next month. Haiti has been without a functioning parliament for nearly a year after the terms of most senators expired last January.
  • Brazilian Finance Minister Joaquim Levy threw in the towel and resigned, after the country lost its investment grade credit rating last week (see Thursday's briefs) and the country's legislators approved a budget with lower surplus targets than those advocated by Levy (seeFriday's briefs). The move could benefit President Dilma Rousseff in her battle to stay in power amidst impeachment proceedings and legislative bickering, however. Levy's austerity measures have been criticized by Rousseff's leftist base and have been poorly received in Congress this year, notes the New York Times. The Senate leader of the PMDB party -- an ally of Rousseff's coalition, though it is also behind the impeachment attempt -- told Reuters that his party's senators favor the president finishing her term, if she backs growth-oriented economic policies. The PMDB has rejected what it called fiscal austerity for the sake of austerity and advocated liberalizing labor laws and reforming of the pension system instead. Rousseff named leftist economist and close aid Nelson Barbosa to replace him on Friday, reportsReuters. Barbosa, currently the planning minister, has been one of the strongest opponents of Levy's aggressive austerity drive. Markets reacted poorly to rumors on Friday that Levy would be leaving, and also to Supreme Court rulings that could favor Rousseff's fight against impeachment, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • On Friday a Minas Gerais judge froze the assets of mining giants BHP and Vale, after determining their joint venture Samarco was unable to pay for widespread damage caused by the bursting of a dam at its mine last month, reports Reuters. The accident is being characterized as the country's worst environmental disaster: it killed 16 people, destroyed the homes of hundreds more and polluted an 800 km river that flows across two states. (See Nov. 30th's briefs.) The Los Angeles Times has a piece on the catastrophic extent of the damage, which has turned a long stretch of the River Doce bright orange, affected riverside communities with diarrea and vomiting and will likely destroy entire ecosystems. 
  • The wide-ranging corruption scandal at Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras constantly grabs headlines as politicians and businessmen are caught in what seems to be an ever-widening net. The Wall Street Journal has a helpful piece reviewing the case, specifically as it relates to the business community. Prosecutors allege that for at least a decade, beginning around 2003, some of Brazil's largest construction firms formed a cartel to divvy up work and inflate the price of Petrobras contracts, explains the piece.
  • A 2006 U.S. immigration policy provides an escape route for Cuban medical workers posted overseas. The residency program has allowed thousands of healthcare workers to emigrate to the U.S., and Cuban President Raúl Castro is determined to stanch the flow, reports the New York Times
  • Castro said he's interested in deepening the diplomatic rapprochement with the U.S., but urged the American government to stop the transmission of radio and television broadcasts aimed at the island, reports the Associated Press. "The United States maintains programs that are harmful to Cuban sovereignty, such as projects to promote changes in our political, economic and social order," he said. (See last Thursday's post.)
  • A group of 10 Cuban-American businesspeople published a full page advertisement in theMiami Herald this Sunday, urging support of the thaw between the two countries, convinced that warmer ties between the two will help Cubans.
  • Venezuelan magnate Roberto Rincón was arrested in Houston on charges involving money laundering, reports El Nuevo Herald. The businessman is linked to state-owned Petroleum of Venezuela and the former Venezuelan Military Intelligence Director Hugo Carvajal. 
  • The Huffington Post has an interview with WOLA Venezuela expert David Smilde, where he discusses the significance of the recent National Assembly elections and the Chávez legacy. After the opposition landslide win earlier this month, "Chavismo is going to have to learn how to deal with an opposition and learn to be more democratic, learn how to recognize pluralism, or it's going to become a much more authoritarian government," he says. "The opposition won these elections in a system that was created by Chavismo. If Chavismo does not recognize these elections, that would be a new level of authoritarianism. Chavismo is quite exceptional, historically, in the sense that it's the one revolution that has led to socialism -- or an attempt at socialism -- through democratic means."
  • A Colombia nears a peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group, the issue of how to deal with drug production and trafficking, which have long enabled the country’s violent conflict, becomes crucial argue Vanda Felbab-Brown and Anna Newby on the Brookings' Order from Chaos blog. "Production won't disappear from the country any time soon, but sustained efforts to improve rural livelihoods can pull Colombians away from coca production in the long run, while well-designed interdiction can reduce some of the harms, including violence, associated with drug trafficking."
  • Mexican Roman Catholic Cardinal Norberto Rivera says that the church is fine with medicinal marijuana reports the Associated Press. The country is debating what the marijuana legislation should be after a Supreme Court decision last month potentially paved the way for decriminalization. (See Nov. 5th's and Nov. 30th's posts.)
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron told Falkland Islanders that he hopes to develop a "more mature relationship" with Argentina's newly elected government. In his annual Christmas message to the territory he ratified the UK's commitment to maintaining the status of the island, reports The Guardian. New President Mauricio Macri promised to develop friendlier relations, though he is not expected to drop his country's claim of sovereignty over what it calls Las Malvinas.
  • The U.S., with the support of Western European warships, has been stepping up an offensive against Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean drug transportation routes used by Mexican and Colombian cartels, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Chilean authorities and civil aviation workers reached an agreement yesterday that ended a four day strike that canceled hundreds of flights and stranded thousands of passengers ahead of the holidays, reports Reuters.
  • In security obsessed Latin America, Uber and other ride-sharing apps have become an instant hit, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Martelly names electoral evaluation commission, rejected by opposition (Dec. 18, 2015)

In the midst of thousands-strong street protests and allegations of fraud, the Haitian President Michel Martelly ordered the creation of a commission yesterday to evaluate the country's electoral process ahead of a presidential run-off vote on Dec. 27.

The five members will have three days to assess the Provisional Electoral Council and his government, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's briefs.)

It's a last ditch effort to rescue a polemic process that threatens to derail the incoming parliament (voted on Oct. 25) amid widespread allegations of fraud and a bribery scandal, reports the Miami Herald.

Martelly said his "commission of evaluation" would be tasked with recommending measures to "ensure transparency and credibility of the electoral process." The newly formed "Electoral Evaluation Commission" consists of five individuals plus an observer named by the two front-running presidential candidates.

But the opposition and the Senate have rejected the commission, reports the Miami Herald in a later piece. They say the proposal fails to address the demands of an inquiry into Oct. 25th's voting.

Led by second-place finisher Jude Célestin, eight opposition presidential candidates (dubbed the G8) say the election was marked by "massive" fraud and irregularities on behalf of first-place finisher, the government-backed cadidate Jovenel Moïse. They are supported by an ever growing list of human rights organizations, religious leaders, and local election observers.

Last week the Associated Press reported that experts watching Haiti worry that widespread allegations of electoral fraud are creating a phenomenon of voter apathy that threats the latest attempt to shore up country's democracy. (See Dec. 11th's briefs.)

News Briefs

  • As predicted, the Argentine peso's value dropped sharply yesterday after the government lifted long-standing currency controls. Over the course of the day the peso traded at approximately 14 to the dollar, a 30 percent decrease from Wednesday's official value, reports the Associated Press. It's biggest percentage decline since January 2002, following the abandonment of the peso-dollar parity, notes the Wall Street Journal. Though widely expected, the change could exacerbate what is already double digit inflation. The key in upcoming days will be whether Argentina's central bank can keep the peso under control and limit price increases, according to the WSJ. The Associated Press has a helpful feature (for those unversed in the constant economic gymnastics of Argentina) on the winners and losers of the move. Winners include exporters, real estate and international investors, while losers include consumers and tourists.
  • The dollar gained against Latin American currencies in general yesterday as the Federal Reserve lifted interest rates, reports the Wall Street Journal. The higher U.S. borrowing costs will pressure emerging market currencies, raise import prices and make their extensive dollar-denominated debts harder to service, explains the piece.
  • Brazil's eternally embattled President Dilma Rousseff got a court-mandated respite yesterday. The Supreme Court handed down two favorable rulings regarding impeachment proceedings against her. One gives the Senate the authority to review the grounds for Rousseff's impeachment even if the lower house votes to impeach her for allegedly breaching budget laws last year, explains Reuters. While the other ruled against the validity of a secret lower house ballot last week that stacked an impeachment committee with her opponents, forcing the selection of its members to be redone with an open vote. (See Dec. 3rd's post.) The decisions clear the way for the impeachment proceedings to move forward, but also increase Rousseff's chances of surviving efforts to oust her and to remain in office while the process continues, explains the Wall Street Journal. With a looming holiday recess for Congress, that will last till February, the ongoing political saga could take months to play out.
  • She also got a boost from anti-impeachment marchers, who yesterday protested what they are calling a "coup" against Rousseff. Organizers said that nearly 300,000 people marched on Wednesday, though police said the number was closer to 50,000, reports AFP.
  • Brazilian legislators approved a 2016 budget with lower surplus charges than those requested by Finance Minister Joaquim Levy. The move comes a day after the country lost its investment-grade credit rating, notes the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The messaging service Whatsapp was temporarily blocked yesterday in Brazil, after the American company refused to place wiretaps on certain WhatsApp accounts, but a judicial appeals court quickly restored access for the approximately 100 million Brazilians who regularly send messages on the service, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Presidential term limits were put in place around Latin America as an attempt to fight against the perennial caudillo (strongman) problem in the region: leaders who never leave. But in several countries, including Honduras, Venezuela and Nicaragua those limits have been lifted. But in Ecuador, which also recently lifted presidential term limits, might have a policy solution for the troubling trend, write law professors David LandauBrian Sheppard and Rosalind Dixon in an New York Times op-ed. President Rafael Correa has promised to sit out the next election, only becoming eligible to run again in 2021. The compromise could offer politicians and voters the chance for continuity while at the same time permitting democratic alternation, argue the authors. They point to Chile, where Michelle Bachelet stepped down after her term in office only to be reelected a few years after.
  • Speaking of Bachelet, her approval rating is rebounding, albeit after reaching an all-time low. The Associated Press reports that a November poll has her overall approval rating at 24 percent, up 2 points since August.
  • Venezuela's Central Bank and a prominent website publishing information on the country's currency black market are facing off in a U.S. court. Authorities are accusing Delaware-registered of engaging in cyberterrorism and manipulating Venezuela’s bolivar currency—whose value has fallen 80% in 2015, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Venezuela's lame-duck National Assembly named Judge Susana Virginia Barreiros Rodríguez as the new General Public Defender, among other measures designed to extend the PSUV's power ahead of upcoming opposition dominated legislature. (See Wednesday's briefs.) Barreiros, who this year sentenced opposition leader Leopoldo López to nearly 14 years in prison for his alleged role in inciting violence in protests last year, is only the latest in a trend of internationally controversial officials who receive government promotions, explain Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
  • Two nephews of Venezuela's "First Combatant" (ie: President Nicolás Maduro's wife) pleaded not guilty to U.S. charges that they conspired to import cocaine into the United States, reports Reuters. (See Nov. 12th's post.) A U.S. official said the evidence against the two nephews is strong and that prosecutors are hoping the defendants will provide information on drug trafficking in Venezuela in exchange for a lighter sentence, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Yesterday Cuba and the U.S. announced a deal allowing 110 round-trip flights a day between the former enemies, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's post.)
  • The deal Cuba reached with debtor nations of the so-called Paris Club forgave $8.5 billion of the island's $11.1 billion debt and restructured payments on the remainder with easy terms, but imposes severe penalties if Cuba falls behind payments again, reports Reuters. (See Monday's post.)
  • A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report says Mexican cartels now control virtually the entire U.S. drug market. They have enlisted the assistance of more than 20 street gangs as part of their operation and are using increasingly sophisticated smuggling methods. Animal Político has the scoop on the report. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A year of rapprochement with Cuba (Dec. 17, 2015)

One year after the U.S. and Cuba announced a diplomatic rapprochement, the process has yielded concrete results -- notably the reopening of embassies in each others capitals -- but has had a far more gradual result on changing reality on the ground, reports the New York Times in a long analysis piece. (See Monday's post.)

There have been important symbolic advances and expectations on both sides of the Florida Straights were high -- which is perhaps why there's a perception of failure to achieve the promised change, explains the Miami Herald. Experts say that gradual change is more realistic and is taking place.

Tens of thousands of Cubans have fled to the U.S., afraid that beneficial immigration policies will draw to a close, and critics of the process say the U.S. has made key concessions and gotten little in return. Such frustration belies the sea-change the policy represents, however, explain sources in the piece. Several experts caution against believing that the U.S. alone can or should shape Cuban domestic policy.

On that note, President Barack Obama is welcome to visit the island, but not to meddle in its affairs, said Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. affairs in the Cuban foreign ministry. She was responding to an interview Obama gave earlier this week, saying he'd like to visit the island but only if he could meet with political dissidents. (See Monday's post.)

A shared goal, however, is to ensure that the process moves far enough along to ensure its continuity after Obama's term in office ends, notes Reuters. And in about two years President Raúl Castro will also hand over power to a new leader.

Nonetheless, the trickle of stories from Cuba reflecting small changes continues on a daily basis. This week Cuban baseball stars who defected to the U.S. are teaching baseball clinics in Havana (see yesterday's briefs), a dramatic shift in Cuban policy towards the hundreds of players who have fled, reports the Associated Press in a separate piece.

Yesterday officials from both countries said they are on the verge of reaching an agreement to reestablish regular airline flights, a major breakthrough in the ongoing detente, reports theAssociated Press. It would be the biggest business development over the past year and could bring thousands more visitors a day to the island. Most of the leading U.S. carriers have said publicly that they are interested in offering service to Cuba as soon as they're allowed to do so, notes the Washington Post.

In a NACLA piece, historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr. looks at the history of U.S. relations with Castro led Cuba, noting that for fifty-five years the U.S. had committed to a policy of regime change in Cuba, "or perhaps more correctly, ... to the creation of conditions that would produce the overthrow of the Cuban government."

News Briefs

  • A Brazilian Supreme Court judge, Luiz Fachin, said yesterday that a controversial secret congressional vote that stacked an impeachment committee with opponents of President Dilma Rousseff was legitimate, reports Reuters. Today the full court will vote on the issue. If Fachin's view is adopted, the Senate will have to open an impeachment trial right after the house approves the charges. A move to trial would suspend Rousseff for up to six months, with Vice President Michel Temer taking over as Senators debate to remove her permanently or clear her, returning her to office. The impeachment proceedings are based on allegations that Rousseff's administration violated fiscal responsibility laws by using money from state-run banks to fill budget gaps and pay for government social spending. (See Dec. 3rd's post.)
  • In a parallel move, the country's top prosecutor asked the Supreme Court to remove House Speaker Eduardo Cunha from the Chamber of Deputies, for allegedly using his position to obstruct an investigation into a corruption probe in which he has been implicated, reports the Wall Street Journal. Cunha, an enemy of the Rousseff administration, began the impeachment proceedings. Earlier this week his house was among dozens raided by police looking for evidence in the corruption case. 
  • The economic and political crisis besieging Brazil took further toll yesterday when it lost its investment-grade rating after Fitch became the second credit agency to downgrade the country's debt to junk status, reports Reuters. The decision came less than a day after Rousseff moved to loosen strict budget targets in order to protect social welfare programs. Though expected, the decision raised fears that further ratings cuts could hit other developing economies, according to the Wall Street Journal. "The downgrade is nevertheless a crushing blow to a country that first achieved the investment grade status in 2008 after a long struggle for credibility in the eyes of financial markets. The loss of that seal of approval shows just how much the country’s political situation is hurting the economy, and Brazilians," notes the Wall Street Journal in a separate piece.
  • The São Paulo student protests against school consolidations and closings (see Dec. 2nd's post) have been successful to a point: Last week, officials of the state government said they would postpone the school closings for one year and the education secretary has resigned. But student protestors continue to occupy about 100 schools, and are being met with aggression by the state government, which met protests last week with riot police, writes OSF fellow Pablo Ortellado in a New York Times op-ed. But he makes the case that the situation is part of a wider problem in which Brazilian authorities are unresponsive to social demands, creating protest movements that spiral out of control as in the 2013 transportation fare protests or the 2014 World Cup eviction protests. "One begins to wonder whether it will always take a major national crisis initiated by street protest for the Brazilian people’s voices to be heard."
  • And in another New York Times op-ed, Vanesa Barbara writes about the aftermath of the collapsed Sanmarco mine in Minas Gerais. Though Brazilian authorities have vowed to make mine owners pay for the mineral-waste sludge that has caused environmental and human disaster across two states, she writes that "Brazilians have good reason to be skeptical. According to government statistics, environmental lawbreakers in Brazil paid less than 3 percent of fines levied against them over the past five years. Many people suspect that Vale and BHP will go unpunished and that safety regulations for the mining industry won’t be updated in light of the disaster."
  • A local São Paulo judge ordered a 48 suspension of the Whatsapp messaging service in Brazil, after it refused to cooperate with a criminal investigation. The measure disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of Brazilians who use the application for communicating, reports the Wall Street Journal. Roughly half of the country's 200 million people use its free text and voice messaging functions regularly and poorer Brazilians depend on it exclusively for day-to-day communications.
  • Argentina is abuzz with an anticipated 40 percent devaluation today, after the government announced the lifting of currency controls yesterday evening. The move is aimed at boosting a stagnant economy, but will likely cause hardship for Argentines as prices rise accordingly, reports the New York Times. While economists have long said the tightly controlled peso was overvalued, there has been debate regarding a sudden devaluation like the one announced yesterday, or a more gradual process. The short-term risks are great, notes the Wall Street Journal, but are balanced by potential rewards such as increased investment and improved exports.
  • Argentina's new president, Mauricio Macri, brings a technocratic bent to governance. In a great piece for the New Yorker Graciela Mochkofsky notes that the "self-declared right-wing, pro-business" leader has "put together an administration that is largely devoid of career politicians." She makes the case that he might represent the new crop of right-wing leaders replacing the left-wing governments in the region. Post-neoliberals, they have incorporated social concerns into their discourse and in some cases -- such as gay marriage for Macri -- tend to follow the polls more than a specific ideology. But Macri faces a difficult political situation, having won by a very narrow margin, lacking majority in both chambers of Congress and with a difficult economic situation ahead that will require real choices: unpopular measures that will cause hardship for locals but will prove popular for investors.
  • Haitian Prime Minister Evans Paul is recommending the creation of an electoral commission to guarantee the integrity of the upcoming Dec. 27 run-off elections to select the country's next president, reports the Miami Herald. The commission would be given 72 hours to make recommendations to the government and the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP). But amid widespread accusations of fraud, protests and the possibility that the second-place candidate won't even participate, it's not at all clear that the election will take place. Yesterday the Haitian Senate called on President Michel Martelly and the CEP to stop the release of final election results until a commission can be put together to audit the results. The request comes the day before the final results of the Oct. 25 election are schedule to be released, and amid stories from legislative candidates who say they were asked to pay thousands of dollars of bribes to electoral judges and members of the CEP, reports the Miami Herald in a separate piece.
  • Néstor Reverol, the former head of Venezuela's antidrug unit, has been accused by American prosecutors of taking bribes from the trafficking groups he was supposed to demolish. He's the latest high level Venezuelan official accused by the U.S. of drug trafficking associations, but, in a curious twist, the some of the information that led to his indictment this week in a federal court in Brooklyn (see yesterday's briefs) may have come from Colombian traffickers extradited by Venezuela, reports the New York Times. The piece quotes InSight Crime's co-director Jeremy McDermott, who says American prosecutors may be focusing more intensely on Venezuela because drug trafficking there has changed. They are moving from facilitating Colombian trafficking to buying and selling their own shipments of cocaine, he says.
  • Mexico hiked up its minimum wage by about four percent this week, but the increase is only enough for a half-pound of tortillas, reports VICE. An estimated seven million Mexicans struggle to get by on the minimum wage that is among the lowest in Latin America.
  • U.S. Treasury officials announced sanctions yesterday against a Mexican businessman and two newspapers controlled by his family, claiming they are linked to narcotics traffickers, reports the Wall Street Journal. Office of Foreign Assets Control has accused businessman Naim Libien Tella and his Unomasuno newspaper of furthering the drug trafficking activities of a cartel known as Los Cuinis, reports the Los Angeles Times. The Cuinis are aligned with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, thought to be the fastest-growing and one of the most aggressively violent criminal organizations in Mexico.
  • Colombia's Supreme Court threw out the conviction of an army colonel who had been found guilty of forcibly "disappearing" several people taken alive during a 1985 army raid on the high court after it was seized by guerrillas, reports the Associated Press. The justices ruled that there wasn't enough evidence that now retired Col. Alfonso Plazas was responsible for the disappearance of two people who were escorted alive from the building during the 48-hour standoff and never seen again. Twelve people disappeared in the episode, and this year President Juan Manuel Santos officially apologized for it, in accordance with an Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling.
  • The International Court of Justice ruled yesterday that Nicaragua violated Costa Rica's  territorial sovereignty by establishing a military camp and digging channels near the mouth of the San Juan River, and it ordered Nicaragua to pay compensation, reports the Associated Press.
  • Apparently toilet paper price-fixing is a regional issue. Peruvian antitrust regulators are considering fining Kimberly-Clark up to 12 percent of its earnings for allegedly conspiring to set prices for toilet paper and other products, reports the Associated Press. Last month Chilean authorities also denounced a decade long collusion case involving toilet paper, (see Nov. 2nd's briefs).