Thursday, April 30, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, April 30, 2015

Tweeting from the presidency

Spanish is the most tweeted language among world leaders, according to "Twiplomacy," a study by P.R. firm Burston Marsteller. Though Spanish-tweeting world leaders are a minority, they make up for their lack of numbers with frequent tweets: the 74 Spanish language accounts sent 853,503 tweets to a combined following of 36 million followers. Two hundred forty one world leaders tweet in English and have posted 737,057 tweets to a combined following of 115 million followers. The study covers 669 government accounts in 166 countries, and found that 86 percent of U.N. member states have Twitter presence.

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Latin American leaders make their impact on the twitter-sphere in a variety of ways.

The world's second most followed leader is Pope Francis (a sort of Latin American leader at-large), who posts in 9 different languages, including Latin. He's also the "most effective" world leader, according to the study, that is to say the one who gets the most retweets. Nicolás Maduro is the third most retweeted leader, averaging 3,198 retweets per tweet, which dwarfs Obama's average rate of 1,210 per tweet.

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In terms of followers, Mexico's Enrique Peña Nieto is in the lead, closely followed by Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos and Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

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Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa leads the region in responding to his followers, and comes in third at a world level. His twitter handle means "Comrade Rafael" in Quechua.

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News Briefs

  • Organized crime is further destabilizing Venezuelan democracy, according to a study by local NGO Paz Activa. Unlike its Central American neighbors, the gangs in question are not well established, but rather feed off of opportunities presented by public corruption, reports theMiami Herald. Venezuela has one of the world's highest murder rates, and over 50 percent of people surveyed for the study said there were murders near their home. The penal system is particularly problematic -- convicts run elaborate business enterprises from jail and there is a high level of internal violence.
  • Venezuela is cutting public servants' hours in an attempt to save energy, as Caracas is hit with a heat wave that has spiked energy use. Large private consumers, such as malls and hotels, will be required to generate their own electricity in peak hours, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Victims of the 1994 terrorist bombing attack of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) will receive a one-time government compensation. The measure passed by lawmakers is similar to the benefit awarded to victims of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, and a 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy, reports AFP.
  • Nicaragua's parliament authorized the establishment of a Russian satellite ground station yesterday. The base will permit the use of the Russian version of GPS for peaceful uses, such as the mitigation of natural disasters, reports the AP.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet wants to make battling corruption one of her government's legacies. She announced a series of measures yesterday to make campaign financing more transparent, including prohibiting anonymous donations to political campaigns and eliminating corporate donations to politicians, reports the Wall Street Journal. She has even proposed rewriting the constitution, though she did not provide more details. The current constitution was implemented during Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship. The initiative could impact the investment climate, according sources quoted in the piece.
  • Public support for the Colombian peace process plummeted after a FARC attack earlier this month killed 11 soldiers. Support for the government's decision to negotiate with FARC guerrillas dropped by 15 points to 57 percent, while President Juan Manuel Santos' approval rating dropped by 14 points to 29 percent, reports EFE.
  • Florida public universities still won't be able to visit Cuba for educational purposes, reports theMiami Herald, though the legal basis for the prohibition is unclear. Though national restrictions on travel to the island are being lifted, the Florida Board of Governors told Florida International University that the state's ban will only be lifted once the two countries resume normal diplomatic relations, despite a state law linking the prohibition to Cuba's place on the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism. The State Department will be removing Cuba from that list shortly. FIU unsuccessfully sued to overturn the ban.
  • A proposed mega-port in the Brazilian state of Bahia threatens an ecological corridor, according to activists who are resorting to court action to stop the 50 sq km project. The project’s environmental impact study, carried out in 2013, identified 36 potential environmental impacts, 42 percent of which could not be mitigated. Some of them will affect marine species that will be driven away by the construction work, including dolphins and whales, reports Inter Press Service.
  • The Vatican will open its files on Argentina's Dirty War disappeared. The Vatican collected large amounts of information regarding the 30,000 victims of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976-1983. Families of the disappeared often turned to the Church for assistance in locating their loved ones. The Vatican's representative in Argentina had close ties to the military junta, reports the Guardian.

  • Mexican politicians get their moves on in campaign spots that plagiarize popular music videos, reports The Guardian. Cheer up your Thursday morning with  PRI congressional candidate Antonio Tarek's version of "Happy."

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, April 29, 2015

Displacing the migrant deportations South

U.S. deportation of unaccompanied minors went down drastically this year. "Only" 12,509 thousand from October of last year to February 2015, down from 21,402 over the same period last year, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. However the drop is mirrored by a huge increase in Mexican deportations: they increased deportations of Central American children traveling without accompaniment by 56 percent during the first five months of the fiscal year.

Pushed by the U.S., Mexico has stepped up migration law enforcement, reports the New York Times, with raids on freight trains migrants use to ride north and more frequent checks on hotels and vehicles.

Animal Politico has an in-depth investigation into the Mexican migrant crackdown: "Programa Frontera Sur: una cacería de migrantes." Though the government's program is meant to "protect" migrants traveling through Mexico, on the ground its a hunt to deport undocumented migrants.  The uptick in security checkpoints, massive raids and the closing off of a freight train route popularly used by migrants has forced them to take increasingly treacherous routes that make them easy prey for criminals and police abuse, according to the investigation.

Earlier this month WOLA published a similar report on deportation rates, and observed that the Mexican policy might be sending thousands of people right back to the violent threats they were trying to escape in Central America. "The humanitarian consequences could be severe." As the report notes, making it harder to migrate does not address the reasons people have for migrating in the first place, it just makes their choices more harrowing.

News Briefs

  • Guatemala's tax authority (SAT) dismissed the customs authority yesterday, in the midst of a high-level corruption scandal that led to 21 arrests earlier this month and is threatening the government's political standing, reports EFE. Of course, the problem is not limited to politicians. President Otto Molina noted yesterday that evasion of sales tax is at 40 percent in Guatemala, while about 60 percent of people don't pay their income taxes.
  • Ecuador is battling its own tax evasion problem with a policy of forgiving interest and penalties for debt owed to its Internal Revenue service, according to the Wall Street Journal. The proposed measure aims to raise at least $500 million from the move, which could favor 1.9 million tax payers, including some large companies.
  • Colombia's Defense Minister says the country will continue to use glyphosate aerial sprayings on illegal coca plantations until the president orders otherwise, according to EFE. The Health Ministry recommended the immediate suspension of the herbicide -- cornerstone of U.S. financed eradication policies -- in light of a World Health Organization finding that it is probably carcinogenic. (See yesterday's post.) The disagreement between the two ministries exposes internal rifts over how to conduct the war on drugs, according to the Wall Street Journal's analysis. The piece quotes WOLA's Adam Isacson who says the WHO's report caused widespread concern in Colombia, where some 4.3 million acres have been sprayed with glyphosate over the past 20 years. Though coca field cultivation has fallen drastically since 2000, when the U.S. launched a broad narco-trafficking and left-wing insurgency combat initiative, critics say the fumigation has damaged legitimate food crops and made people sick.
  • Al Jazeera has a piece on journalist murders in Guatemala: six reporters have been killed since 2006 (two last month), and there are increasing reports to the prosecutors office of threats (74 last year). Local media in Guatemala are increasingly self-censoring out of fear of reprisal from drug clans and local politicians, according to the piece.
  • Despite pleas for clemency and international diplomatic pressure, Indonesia executed 8 peoplecondemned of drug trafficking yesterday, including one Brazilian citizen. The Indonesian government is applying draconian anti-trafficking laws, and facing severe diplomatic criticism from countries around the world. However, though Brazil recalled its ambassador over a similar execution in January, the country is wary of jeopardizing valuable defense contracts, according to Reuters.
  • Greece should think twice about following Argentina's debt defaulting example, argues Uki Goñi in the New York Times. He counters arguments by economists such as Nouriel Roubini, saying that the 2001 sovereign debt default was a disaster, citing pot-banging protests and frozen bank accounts. Widespread poverty and barter clubs became the norm, he writes. Oddly enough, he fails to note that all of these situations preceed the default, and are arguably the byproduct of the preceding economic policies.
  • The U.S.'s $1 billion aid plan for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (Plan for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle) is misguided and could worsen the problems its supposed to solve, argues Lauren Carasik in an op-ed on Al Jazeera. "If Washington is prepared to commit resources to ameliorating bleak conditions in the region, it should ditch past policy approaches that have only fueled inequality and violence and instead develop a comprehensive plan in consultation with the marginalized groups most directly affected by insecurity and poverty," she says. Her piece echoes the letter 80 civil society groups sent to Obama and the Northern Triangle presidents earlier this month, positing that the plan's large-scale projects in marginalized communities replicate the economic policies that have already led to vast inequality, jeopardized workers' rights and forced migration.
  • Nine Petrobras executives accused of involvement in an alleged graft scheme will be released from jail, reports the Wall Street Journal. The freed executives will be under house arrest, and must be removed from the management of companies involved in the case.
  • The Unasur Secretary General, Ernesto Samper offered official backing of Argentina's demand for territorial sovereignty of the Malvinas (Falklands) Islands, under British rule since 1833. Samper noted that the U.K. is ignoring over 40 U.N. General Assembly resolutions ordering negotiations on the subject and voiced concern regarding increased U.K. military spending in the region.
  • The Uruguayan Foreign Ministry is negotiating with four ex-Guantanamo prisoners, who have camped out in front of the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo demanding financial support from the country that imprisoned them for over a decade. The men are refusing to sign an agreement with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees that would provide housing and a subsidy for a year in exchange for a commitment on their part to study Spanish and take care of their health, reports EFE. Their lawyer says they are unfamiliar with the proposed agreement, due to social and linguistic barriers and a lack of judicial assistance when they were accepted as refugees to Uruguay.
  • A U.S. court decision last week determined that U.S. authorities who kill Mexican nationals on the other side of the border will not be held accountable in U.S. courts. Guinevere E. Moore protests in a Guardian op-ed that such a policy means "open season" on the border. 
  • Peruvian President Ollanta Humala said he received satisfactory explanations in the case of alleged Chilean spying, and that the two countries will now renew normal diplomatic relations.
  • Pope Francis might live in Rome, but he can still crack jokes about his Argentine compatriots -- namely their famous egos. In a chat with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correas, the Pope joked that his compatriots were surprised that he had chosen to call himself Francis I, since, “being Argentine, they thought I would call myself Jesus II,” reports the New York Times. Earlier this month he joked to a Mexican television reporter: “Do you know how an Argentine kills himself?” When she said no, the pope replied, “He climbs up on his ego, and then throws himself down!”

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, April 28, 2015

Honduran court ruling on reelection questioned

Perhaps if the constitutional ban on reelection in Honduras hadn't been the excuse for a presidential coup only six years ago, the decision of a Supreme Court panel (of judges appointed by the sitting president) wouldn't be such a big deal.

But the specter of reelection -- allegedly hidden in then-President Manuel Zelaya's proposal to vote on whether to convene a Constitutional Assembly -- was touted as sufficient reason to oust a democratically elected president, and ushered in a violent and politically questioned period in Honduras. Human rights continue to be a weak point, and judicial independence is highly questioned.

In fact, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court that is responsible for last week's ruling that would permit presidential reelection is the same one whose members were replaced a couple of years ago. The sitting judges were named by current President Juan Orlando Hernández or his proxies, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The five-member panel of the Supreme Court voted unanimously last Wednesday to strike down the Constitutional Amendment that would prohibit reelection. But on Thursday, one judge changed his vote, which should have sent the case to the full fifteen-member Court, according to the Times. Yet the government's official Gazette published the ruling as unanimous on Friday, making the ruling official.

Zelaya said last week that "there is sufficient indication for one to assume that National Party extorted the magistrates so that they would repeal (the ban on re-election)," according to TeleSur.

Opposition parties opposed the decision in Congress yesterday, in a session that was suspended due to lawmakers' vociferous protests. Tiempo notes that only party leaders were permitted to speak, and no motions or projects that would revert the decision were permitted. One lawmaker called for the impeachment of the judges responsible for striking down the reelection amendment.

Hernández avoided speaking on the subject in a press conference yesterday, saying he just wants to continue working on his government's economic and social policies.

The Harvard Political Review recently published a deeper examination of the ambiguous U.S. response to the 2009 coup.

News Briefs

  • Colombia's health ministry recommended the immediate suspension of the aerial spraying of glysophosate, the herbicide at the center of U.S.-financed efforts to wipe out cocaine crops, reports the AP. The World Health Organization's research arm determined last month that the product is probably carcinogenic. President Juan Manuel Santos has not yet responded to the ministerial recommendation. But U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken defended the policy: "I am a scientist and I've read with great attention the different studies on the subject. I can say that glysophate is used in all the states in my country and, believe me, we would have taken measures if there was something bad. ... We haven't seen any negative report other than the United Nations'," he says in an interview with El Tiempo.  Fumigations are the government's main weapon against the illegal cultivation of coca, according to La Semana, leaving authorities "between a rock and a hard place." About 1.5 million hectares of illegal crops have been fumigated with glysophate since 2000, estimates El EspectadorEl Tiempo has an editorial calling for the protection of the 10,000 families exposed to the aerial spraying of the substance, and for the revision of Colombia's drug policy.
  • Chile's president, Michelle Bachelet, signed a law reforming the country's electoral system. The new law establishes proportional representation in both chambers of Congress, replacing a binomial system put into place under General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship that locked out smaller parties, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazil and Bolivia are negotiating the construction of a bi-national hydroelectric dam on Bolivia’s side of the Madeira River, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune. The dam, part of a package of Brazil-funded energy investments in the border region, would apparently operate under a model similar to that of Itaipu, a Brazilian-Paraguay joint venture that is the world’s second-largest hydroelectric dam.
  • The Guardian published an in-depth look at how the U.S. and Cuba finally began their diplomatic thaw. The unlikely key to the rapprochement was the arrest of U.S. State Department subcontractor Alan Gross, according to the piece. "Gross’s arrest had helped choke off earlier progress in talks with the Obama administration. And yet without the prospect of a prisoner exchange to drive negotiations forward, it is possible that Cuba and the US may never have resolved their differences." American concessions regarding the treatment of Cuban prisoners in the U.S. paved the way for both countries to sit down to negotiations, according to the Guardian's sources. And, as has already been widely reported, Pope Francis played a critical role in moving the negotiations forward.
  • Andrés Oppenheimer has high hopes for the Pope's upcoming Cuba visit. "If Francis doesn't use his considerable leverage with the Cuban regime to to speed up basic freedoms on the island, his visit will be a failure," he says in his Miami Herald column.
  • The impact of the Cuba's removal from the U.S. State Departments list of countries that sponsor terrorism will be muted because there's still a thicket of sanctions imposed under the embargo, the Helms Burton Act and other U.S. laws that remain in effect, including provisions that require U.S. banks to block transactions with Cuba or Cuban nationals that aren't in the permitted category, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Mining companies are champing at the bit to invest in Argentina, if October's presidential elections bring the promise of eased capital restrictions, according to Bloomberg. Current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has restricted imports and repatriated export revenue for several years. 
  • Civil unions -- though not marriage -- are now an option for Ecuador's LGBT couples. Reforms to the country's Civil Code approved by the National Assembly yesterday include the raising of the legal age of marriage to 18 and the creation of civil unions as a civil status option.
  • Private-equity firm Carlyle Group LP will invest 1.75 billion Brazilian reais ($600 million) for an 8.3% stake in Brazilian hospital operator Rede D’Or São Luiz, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • China is a lender of last resort for Latin American economies in distress like Argentina and Venezuela, according to Inter Press Service.
  • A state of emergency remains in effect for a 13-mile radius around the Calbuco volcano in Chile, reports the Los Angeles Times
  • What was once the world's most dangerous road in Bolivia is now obsolete for motorized traffic, but that hasn't stopped thrill-seeking cyclists from a death-defying adventure. The Wall Street Journal reports on Bolivia's "Death Road."

  • Peru's Congress ratified Prime Minister Pedro Cateriano, avoiding a political crisis. Former Prime Minister Ana Jara was removed by the legislature after a spying scandal earlier this month. A second cabinet rejection would have permitted President Ollanta Humala to call for new congressional elections. While allowed for in the Constitution, the clause has never been used, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, April 27, 2015

"They've stolen so much from us that they've stolen our fear," Guatemalans demand presidential resignation

Thousands of Guatemalans, over 15,000 according to Nómada, gathered in the capital on Saturday, brought together via Facebook and demanding the resignation of President Otto Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti. An International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) investigation has uncovered a $130 million tax fraud scandal that involved high-ranking members of the government.

Baldetti's now-fugitive private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, has been accused of leading the corruption scheme. He fell off the authorities' radar while accompanying the vice president in South Korea last week, and is believed to be hiding in Honduras, according to the AFP.

The case which is known as “La Linea” (the line) also involved top officials from the Superintendence of Tax Administration of Guatemala (SAT). So far 20 people have been arrested on charges of taking bribes in exchange for reduced customs charges, reports TeleSur.

José Rubén Zamora details the nitty-gritty mechanics of the tax corruption scheme, which allegedly involved millions of dollars in commissions being paid to the vice president, under the leadership of Monzón. The Presidential squash court, among other unusual spaces, was used as a gathering place for the cash generated by various institutions' bribes, according to the piece in El Periódico, which is based on the testimony of three sources close to the case.

Nómada emphasizes the protesters' social and political plurality -- unified mostly by a weariness of political impunity regarding corruption. A phrase repeated on banners across the central plaza was: "They've stolen so much from us that they've stolen our fear." 

#RenunciaYa (#ResignNow) is flooding the twitter-sphere, echoing the success earlier this month of a social media campaign in support of the CICIG, reports Global Voices. The commission's continuity was questioned by the president, who wound up asking for the group's renewal for another two years.

Mobile network shutdowns on Saturday had protesters concerned that the government might be attempting to disrupt their ability to communicate. However difficulties in sharing photos and information might also be due to network saturation.

News Briefs

  • Brazilian congressional leaders, members of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party that forms part of the governing Workers' Party coalition, are taking advantage of the corruption scandal rocking President Dilma Rousseff's government to deflect attention from their own corruption accusations, according to a New York Times piece. As the executive branch reels from the Petrobras investigation into a conspiracy to funnel funds from the state oil giant into political coffers, the heads of the two Congressional branches and the vice president are thwarting the presidential agenda at every turn, forming a virtual coup, according to one source quoted in the piece.
  • The jailed opposition mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, was transferred to a private hospital for a hernia operation this weekend, reports the New York Times. He will be under house arrest for his recuperation. It's unclear whether he will be returned to jail after his recovery. Ledezma was arrested in February and has been held in a military prison awaiting trial. He is one of several opposition politicians jailed by the Venezuelan government. Last week the Inter-American Human Rights Commission called on the government to protect the right to life, personal integrity and health of several jailed politicians, saying their rights were in jeopardy, though Ledezma was not mentioned.
  • Four former Guantanamo Bay prisoners in Uruguay are demanding financial and housing from the U.S. government. They have been protesting in front of the embassy since Friday, saying such assistance would be the "least they can do", after over a decade of what they call unjust incarceration. As a humanitarian gesture, Uruguay's government took in the four and two other men in December after U.S. authorities freed them from Guantanamo. They had spent 12 years at the U.S. military prison for suspected al-Qaida ties, but U.S. officials decided they were no longer a threat and let them go, reports the AP.
  • The Washington Post has a piece on Mexico's new anti-corruption legislation, an attempt to rebuild citizen trust in government. But watchers are skeptical over whether the changes will translate to real prosecutions. The reform, which would strengthen oversight bodies and permit more frequent audits of government spending, must be approved by state legislatures. The new rules could have a positive impact for investors, especially in the context the opening up of the state oil industry to foreign investors. Coverage in the Miami Herald last week was positive. 
  • Peru might resume a policy of shooting down small aircraft suspected of transporting cocaine, reports the Los Angeles Times. Authorities are concerned over an increase in illicit air transport of the drug to Bolivia, which has become an air hub for cocaine transportation in recent years. U.S. officials estimate that currently there are more than 500 illicit flights per year between the two countries. However, the policy of shooting down small planes was suspended in 2001, after a missionary and her baby were killed in a mistaken shoot-down. U.S. intelligence played a critical role in that case.
  • Mary O'Grady criticizes Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' willingness to continue peace talks with the FARC after an encounter with the guerrilla group left 11 soldiers dead earlier this month. In her Wall Street Journal column she lambasts the ongoing peace process and criticizes the attorney general's announcement last week to pursue an investigation against 22 generals suspected of involvement in the killing of civilians in order to boost army "kill counts." "There is a growing sense that the armed forces are being hung out to dry so Mr. Santos can close on his beloved “peace agreement,” she says.
  • Brazil's health ministry announced new rules making it easier to import medication with cannabis derivatives, used to treat diseases such as epilepsy. Importation of the drugs was allowed in January, but under very restrictive guidelines. There are three proposals for legalizing marijuana in Brazil's congress; one, a popular initiative backed by 20,000 signatures, would implement regulations akin to those used for tobacco and alcohol, according to El Espectador.
  • A group of nine drug crime convicts in Indonesia could be executed this week. The group includes nationals from Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria, the Philippines and Australia. Though the Indonesian government's tough-on-drugs stance is popular at home, it has caused diplomatic problems. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Widodo on Saturday not to execute the prisoners and called on him to "urgently consider declaring a moratorium on capital punishment in Indonesia, with a view toward abolition," according to Reuters. In February Brazil and Indonesia recalled their ambassadors, after a Brazilian citizen was executed in January.
  • Last week two Mexican citizens were found guilty of production and trafficking of narcotics in Malasia, and also face the the death penalty, according to CNN México. The Mexican Foreign Secretariat said it disagrees with the death penalty in this case and will fight the sentence.
  • The AP has a feature on previously deported migrants who return to the U.S. and are hoping to one day receive legal recognition. About 43 percent of the 368,644 people deported in the 2013 fiscal year were kicked out because they had illegally returned to the U.S. after being deported.
  • At least five companies have applied for licenses to re-launch ferry service between Florida and Cuba, according to the Wall Street Journal. Though tourism is still not permitted for American citizens, operators are betting restrictions will be further relaxed. The route was popular in the 1940s and 50s, but was suspended after the U.S. imposed travel restrictions after 1963.
  • The Los Angeles Times has a piece on how Brazil's army has been called in to help fight an outbreak of deadly dengue fever in São Paulo. The disease is transmitted through mosquitos. Though the government warns citizens against creating breeding grounds by leaving still, exposed water outside, the situation has been complicated by a severe drought in the region which has led many citizens to hoard water in any way they can.
  • Vice News has a piece on accusations that Mexican authorities are behind the killing of 16 civilians in January. A journalistic investigation published in Proceso, Aristegui Noticias and Univisión last week made the case that federal police massacred unarmed civilians, in what would be Mexico's third extra-judicial massacre in a year. (See last Monday's post.)
  • The ongoing Petrobras corruption investigation could affect investments and delay works at the state oil giant, company president told O Globo this weekend. 
  • Chile's Calbuco volcano was quiet this weekend, after unexpectedly erupting last week, reports Reuters. Authorities say it could erupt again, raising concerns over potential impacts to health from volcanic ash. Ash from last week's eruption caused airlines to cancel some flights to Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

  • Fifty-four percent of Chileans believe the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will find in Bolivia's favor in a case brought before the court regarding negotiations for Bolivia's sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, April 24, 2015

Petrobras' ongoing scandal

Brazil's state oil Petróleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras) wrote off $17 billion due to losses from graft and overvalued assets. The disclosures were part of the first audited financial statements released by Petrobras in more than eight months, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Petrobras is under investigation for a widespread graft scheme that has involved members of the governing Workers' Party and battered the government. The scandal has hit the company hard, affecting its shares and impacting the Brazilian economy at large. "The events surrounding Petrobras have slowed both the construction sector and the oil industry, leading to reduced spending, thousands of layoffs and several bankruptcies," according to the WSJ. Petrobras' slashing of costs will further hurt the Brazilian economy which is expected to enter a recession this year.

President Dilma Rousseff was president of the company between 2003 and 2010, but she has not been accused of corruption in the ongoing investigation. Though she denies knowledge of the graft scheme, most Brazilians don’t believe her, reports the Wall Street Journal. In a survey by the Datafolha polling company taken in mid-March, 84% of the nearly 3,000 Brazilians asked said they believed the president knew about the corruption scheme at the oil company.

The Economist questions her ability to survive in office, saying she is "for many practical purposes is no longer in power. And the nominally ruling left-wing Workers Party (PT) no longer calls the shots in Brasília, the capital." The possible recession has her new finance minister implementing austerity measures, which go against the PT ethos, and she's lost control of Congress to a coalition partner.

Petrobras' report came only a few days before an April 30 deadline that would have permitted Petrobras debt holders to demand early repayment of billions of dollars. Petrobras has been locked out of capital markets since late 2014 due to repeated delays in its financial statements. Though company shares rallied this month in anticipation of the report, investors are still skeptical, according to the paper. They are willing to give new management a chance, however, according to The Economist, which reports that the company will save cash by cancelling this year’s dividend, slashishg capital expenditure, and selling $14 billion of assets by the end of next year.

The corruption scheme itself grew out of an agreement among some of the country’s biggest construction companies to divvy up contracts from the state-owned oil company, a witness testifying before a committee in the country’s Congress, reports the Wall Street Journal in a separate piece. The conspiracy started in 1997, according to Augusto Mendonça Neto, president of Setal Engenharia, when a group of Brazilian construction companies got together informally to try to increase their bargaining power against Petrobras. The group of companies initially had no control over who was able to bid on Petrobras contracts, but that changed after Petrobras executives joined the scheme in 2003 or 2004, Mr. Mendonça Neto alleged. Once they were on board, the group of suppliers grew to include more companies and together they were able to control which businesses got invited to bid on contracts, he said.

News Briefs

  • Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida will withdraw her opposition to removing Cuba from the State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism, saying there was no legal basis to do so. "A joint resolution to repeal President Obama's de-listing of Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list would not have the far-ranging implications that many had assumed it would," she said, according to the Miami Herald. President Obama recommended the change last week -- demanded by Cuba as a precondition for restoring formal diplomatic relations -- and Congress has 45 days to block the decision. However, analysts in the New York Times' coverage say Republicans probably didn't have the necessary votes to overrule the change.
  • The Mexican state of Michoacan must implement policies that go beyond the traditional response to organized crime, writes Jesus Perez Caballero for InSight Crime, in an analysis of the disappearance of 12 vigilantes in November. Though it's not clear who is behind the disappearances -- families are accusing the police, but the Knights Templars and other self-defense groups are also possibilities -- they are indicative of a wider problem in Mexico. With so many competing armed forces between the Knights Templar and self-defense groups, it's not clear who is and who isn't a criminal in Michoacan, explains the piece. "An important step towards getting real results -- in Michoacan and elsewhere -- will be recognizing the disappeared, as well as those displaced from their homes by the Knights Templar, and those affected by extrajudicial killings or other manifestations of the state's excessive use of force."
  • The governor of Venezuela's Amazonas state says about 4,000 FARC members are operating in his territory. They are operating gold and coltan mines and are involved in contraband and drug-running, according to a piece in the Miami Herald. Though his estimates on the amount of guerrillas is likely exaggerated, its true that illegal mining is increasingly a source of revenue for the rebels. are becoming more reliant on illegal mining as they've seen their drug routes squeezed. Organizations that study the conflict estimate that gold mining in Colombia alone might represent 20 percent of FARC income, according to the Herald.
  • Former Uruguayan president José Mujica will act as a mediator between the Colombian government and the FARC in ongoing peace negotiations being held in Havana.
  • The Honduran Supreme Court struck down an article in the constitution prohibiting multiple-term presidencies. The issue is polemic in Honduras, where President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a 2009 coup precisely for seeking to hold a referendum on revising the constitution. Proponents of the change spoke in terms of human rights, but opponents say it will allow politicians to stay in power indefinitely. The push by the governing National Party to make the change, which would permit President Juan Orlando Hernandez to seek a second term, has drawn widespread criticism from the opposition, which notes the same politicians behind it were involved in the coup against Zelaya, reports the AP.
  • Former Argentine spy chief Jaime Stiusso failed to show up for a court hearing yesterday. He was meant to testify about allegations that he and (now dead) Prosecutor Alberto Nisman had held up an investigation into a 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish community center. He is also accused of tax evasion and running a contraband operation, reports The Guardian. His lawyer said he has left the country to escape threats against his life and attempts to sully his reputation. Government officials say judicial authorities could order an international arrest if he does not return to testify.
  • Haiti's First Lady Sophia Martelly will run for a Senate seat in upcoming August elections. Haiti watchers have been speculating whether she would attempt to replace her husband in the presidency, or run for Senate, according to the Miami Herald. 
  • About 37 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean still suffer from malnutrition, according to the U.N. World Food Program, reports EFE. Yet, regional malnutrition was reduced by 11 points in the past 24 years, and 14 Latin American countries achieved the first Millennium Development Goal of reducing hunger by 50%.
  • Mexico's drug war fuels violence against women, says Angelika Albaladejo in the Security Assistance Monitor. "Violence against women in Mexico is deeply entrenched in the drug war, yet it is often perceived as a private sphere issue manifesting itself as domestic violence or sexual abuse committed by an intimate partner or family member. However, numbers show that as military deployments increased in Mexico and Guatemala, so did the number of femicides," she writes.
  • Andres Oppenheimer grudgingly approves of Mexico's new anti-corruption system in his Miami Herald column. The new system will give powers to congressional and law enforcement anti-graft agencies, an important step in battling corruption. But he is skeptical of a requirement that state legislatures approve the new measures, saying there is risk they will be watered down in the process.
  • Mexico's Congress approved a legal reform yesterday that will allow foreign immigration and customs agents to bear arms while in the country, reports Reuters. The issue has been a source of tension with the U.S. An unarmed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was killed in 2011, after his car was ambushed by drug gang members in central Mexico.
  • The rate of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. is already 45% less in the beginning of this year compared to last, when 68,000 children crossed the border alone. EFE reports that migration authorities credit U.S. and Central American efforts to stop trafficking of minors.

  • Russia and Argentina have signed a series of framework agreements on economic and energy co-operation following talks in Moscow, reports the BBC. The agreements include a defense cooperation memorandum and Russian investment in a hydroelectric plant and a nuclear power plant in Argentina. Russia is seeking to ameliorate the impact of European and U.S. sanctions in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis by boosting trade with Latin America. 
  • Gangs in El Salvador will order their armed groups to stop attacking authorities, they announced yesterday. They are willing to end the wave of violence affecting the population, in order to begin discussion on a peace agreement, reports the AP. They are responding to a proposal brought forward by a mediator of the (now-defunct) 2012 truce that brought down homicide rates. 
  • An Argentine baby was registered with two mothers and a father, the first case of triple filiation in the country and the region, authorities announced yesterday. The family said they wanted to respect their son's right to a full identity, and to mark all three parents' rights and obligations. The family's request was supported by the Federación Argentina de Lesbianas, Gays, Bisexuales y Trans. Buenos Aires provincial authorities noted that there was no explicit prohibition on registering more than two parents, reports La Nación.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was hit on the head with a mango while making a public appearance. However it turned out to be from a supporter, who scribbled her phone number on the fruit and asked him to call her. The president announced on his television show that he would accede to her request for housing.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, April 23, 2015

Papal diplomacy

Observers are excited about an upcoming papal visit to Cuba, scheduled before his September visit to the U.S. -- and speculate what other diplomatic miracles for Latin America might be up his sleeve.

The Vatican announced Pope Francis' Cuba trip yesterday. The visit will highlight his role in the thawing of relations between the two countries and will provide a boost for further reconciliation efforts. Though Obama's policy has received flak at home, the Washington Post reports that the pope's Latin American provenance might have given him more perspective on the anachronistic nature of the U.S. embargo.

The Post also notes that the Catholic Church is the "only significant independent institution" on the island and the pontiff's popularity will give him an important platform to pressure the Cuban government towards further relaxing economic and political controls.

The trip also reflects the Pope's "commitment to helping Latin America come to terms with the role the Cuban Revolution played in the region," according to the Los Angeles Times. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who would later become Pope Francis, wrote a book about the first papal visit to the island in 1998, entitled "Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro," which included topics such as socialism, atheism, liberty, democracy and the embargo.

The visit will also help break Cuba's isolation, according to a Vatican expert quoted in Página 12. Since the U.S.-Cuba talks started, the Cuban Foreign Minister has been in France and the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs has been in Havana, negotiating a cooperation agreement expected by the end of the year.

But will the papal diplomatic influence extend region-wide? Jean Louis De La Vaissiere, director de la Agence France Presse at the Vatican says it's unclear whether the trip will have indirect impact on Venezuela. "The Vatican has tried a mediating role, but sometimes President Maduro's choices are viewed with concern by Rome," he told Página 12.

A little further off the radar, in a Nueva Sociedad piece examining the Bolivia-Chile conflict over oceanic access, Sergio Molina Monasterios says the Pope's visit to Bolivia this year might impact the apparently intractable problem. Chile captured the lands that allowed Bolivia access to the Pacific Ocean in 1883, and sealed the deal with a pact in 1904. Though talks between the two countries were held under Bachelet's government, they stalled under the Piñera administration, and Bolivia opted to sue Chile in International Court of Justice in the Hague. Bolivia hasn't officially asked Pope Francis to mediate, but Molina says such an intervention would be Chile's worst nightmare, as Chilean diplomats continue to believe they got the worst end of the stick in 1978 when Pope John Paul II intervened to stop an imminent war with Argentina.

News Briefs

  • The U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala's (CICIG) should continue to operate in Guatemala for two more years, concluded a presidential commission put together to evaluate the groups' continuity. The president of the Guatemalan Supreme Court and member of the evaluating commission, Josué Baquiax, said the "utility and objectivity" of CICIG's work since its 2007 creation determined their recommendation to continue its work. President Otto Perez Molina has questioned the CICIG in terms of sovereignty, saying Guatemalan's must fix their own justice system (see Monday's post). But the group's successes -- it has helped bring 161 public officials to trial for corruption -- notably leading to 20 arrests last week in relation to a customs bribery ring -- has led to an outpouring of support for its mission (see yesterday's post).
  • The fight over the polemic Tía María copper mining project in Perú continued to intensify yesterday: a protester was killed in clashes with the police and several other protesters were wounded. Protesters, mainly farmers who grow crops for export, say they fear the proposed $1.4 billion mine will pollute nearby agricultural valleys in Peru's southern region of Arequipa, reports Reuters. Tia Maria has been stalled since 2011 after three protesters died in similar rallies. La Mula reports that the scene was "warlike" and notes that protest strikes in the province of Isay have been ongoing for nearly a month, and yesterday the broader Arequipa region joined in the strike. La Mula published background to the project last month.
  • The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the Brazil Action Plan, approved in December, is an example of migrant policy that should be exported to the rest of the world. The region-wide agreement covers new migration tendencies, and how to face new challenges, such as forced displacement related to organized crime and refugee protection, reports EFE.
  • Over 4,000 Chileans have been evacuated after the Calbuco volcano surprisingly erupted twice, after four decades of inactivity. So far only ash has been observed -- no lava or hot rocks -- but the volcano, about 1,000 km south of Santiago, is considered one of the three most dangerous in the country. 
  • Chile's Congress is evaluating a proposal to legalize up to six marijuana plants for cultivation per household, medicinal marijuana use of with prior medical authorization and possession of up to 10 grams for personal consumption. Chile would become the second country in the region to legalize marijuana, after Uruguay. The Latin Correspondent reports that the current drug enforcement system in Chile tends to catch low-level consumers rather than drug traffickers. Cannabis activists worry that personal consumption is overly penalized, and question whether the proposed law goes far enough. 
  • Animal Político sums up four proposals under debate in Mexico's Senate for a new law on forced disappearances in Mexico. Presented by the PRI, the PRD, the PAN, and organizations of civil society, all four proposals agree that authorities must act automatically in the case of forced disappearances (without needing victims' families to initiate action), and that nearly anybody can report a forced disappearance. 
  • Though the Mexican government has punished at least 101 public functionaries for corruption and imposed sanctions for over $22 million, not a cent has been paid and barely a dozen have bothered to challenge their accusations, according to an internal report accessed by El País.
  • Sixty percent of Latin America's youth work informally, according to a new International Labor Organization, reports EFE. Though unemployment is not as dramatic as in other regions, some 27 million workers aged 15-24 are informally employed.
  • Amnesty International and other organizations of civil society presented El Salvador's government -- all three branches -- with 300,000 signatures asking the country to depenalize abortion. El Salvador's abortion policy is particularly draconian, with no exceptions for rape, incest, danger to the mother's health and fetal inviability. 
  • "The political storm in the DEA is a blow to U.S. drug policy credibility," Inter-American Dialogue president Michael Shifter told EFE, in reference to Michele Leonhart's resignation in light of agents' sex scandal revelations. "The main challenge for the next director will be to reestablish the credibility of the agency and that won't be easy."
  • Argentina's Memoria Abierta released the video archive of the 1985 Trial of the Juntas, in which members of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 were judged for their role in the Dirty War that "disappeared" over 30,000 people. At the time only brief selections of the films were aired on national television, and without sound. 
  • An NBA delegation will open a four-day basketball training camp in Cuba. The athletic diplomacy trip, possible thanks to new relaxed permissions for Americans to visit the island, aims at top-level players as well as youths, reports the AP.

  • Ecuador's government is betting on abstinence for its teens, reversing course on a national family planning strategy which distributed free birth control to youths. President Rafael Correa considered that the program encouraged "hedonism," according to El Páis, criticizing health fairs where condoms are given out "like gum."