Monday, November 30, 2015

How to go about legalizing cannabis is the question in Mexico (Nov. 30, 2015)

Perhaps the most concrete effect of the recent Supreme Court decision in Mexico allowing four plaintiffs to grow marijuana has been to push the issue onto center stage and make legalization a subject of national political discussion, reports El Daily Post. The paper polled four experts on the subject -- and the debate is raging among the country's pundits and politicians.

SMART -- the Sociedad Mexicana de Autoconsumo Responsable y Tolerante, the group of four which presented the case in which the Supreme Court permitted them to self-grow on the argument of personal freedom -- developed an integral strategy to bring a case to the court that was so paradigmatic that it could change the course of the national debate, explains Lisa Sánchez, a member of the group as well as drug policy director for México Unido contra la Delincuencia, in El Universal. "We didn't do a strategic lawsuit for medicinal marijuana or for the total regulation of the market, nor did we do one from the scope of security, nor in terms of health, but rather as a human rights issue, because the conversation was less likely to emerge on its own," she said.

The court decision has President "Enrique Peña Nieto's government at bay and has shown it the urgency of discussing the issue and to begin making decisions. The Court has sent the message that action on the issue of drugs cannot be delayed, and especially in a country with so much legitimacy with respect to the war on drugs," Sánchez said.

For the decision to become law, the Court must rule similarly in at least five more consecutive cases, and at least 18 more requests to consume cannabis have been received by the relevant government commission since the November ruling. But México Unido contra la Delincuencia is also working along with other organizations to lobby for legislative changes as well, according to El Universal.

A piece from last week in El Universal looks at how the SMART case was constructed. One of the plaintiffs, Juan Francisco Torres Landa of México Unido contra la Delincuencia, said that in the wake of the decision he's had to explain to his young daughter why he's fighting for permission to use marijuana.

"I told her that the battle we're waging and winning will provoke better decisions from politicians, improve conditions, I showed her some simple numbers on how many people have died in situations related to the war on drugs; I told her that the problem of Ayotzinapa, for example, was very related to drugs," he said.

México Unido contra la Delincuencia aims for legalization as a way to reduce the illegal market for the drug, explains León Bendesky in La Jornada, in a piece that reviews the case. He notes that while drug trafficking and the violence that goes with it is an important source of citizen insecurity, more people die in Mexico from diabetes than from drug overdoses.

Much of the debate has libertarian overtones, and Bendesky says a dose of liberatarianism is right on.

Prohibition is a dead model, argues Juan Ramón de la Fuente in an interview with El Universal's Confabulario. A medical doctor who formerly presided at UNAM, de la Fuente recently published a book that scientifically examines marijuana and pushes for medical uses. He notes that criminalization has led to increased incarceration rates for possession of relatively small amounts of the drug. 

In Reforma, Jorge Volpi urges readers to imagine a hypothetical scenario where a new trend has arisen: people cutting the skin on their arms and legs. Would the answer be to forbid knives?

Also in Reforma, Pancho Búrquez argues that consumption of drugs is essentially a personal problem with impact in the individual and family sphere.
But not so fast, legalization will likely require regulation of some kind, and that is where the issues can get thornier. In Milenio María del Carmen Platas says the Supreme Court decision "launched fireworks to society that permits the venting of expressions of sympathy and antipathy for the decision." But beyond the pyrotechnics, legislating this new "right to recreation" will be laborious, she notes. The right will have to be exercised with respect for society and other human rights -- "like every human right, the supposed right to the free development of personality has limits."

In La Razón Elizabeth Galindo looking at the example of U.S. states that have legalized in recent years and notes that legalization could present an important economic opportunity. One that should be rejected according to Torres Landa, who emphasizes that SMART's goal is to end the prohibitionist model and minimize consumption from a public health perspective, not to open the doors to a for-profit industry.

El Daily Post's respondents emphasized four common themes: "a)marijuana legalization is a process, not a moment, b) creating a legal marijuana market is not easy, c) there are many regulatory options, and d) there are no ready-made answers."

A good legalization policy should not treat the industry as a "cash cow" for private companies or for state tax collectors, writes Keith Humphreys, an advisor at the U.S. White House Office of National Drug Policy and a member of California's Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana policy. Such a policy effectively creates incentives to promote marijuana use, which is a poor outcome, he says.

In a similar vein, a successful policy must balance between permitting legitimate access without excessive consumption which could have bad outcomes, argues Bryce Pardo, a former official at the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission and former consultant to the government of Jamaica on the issue of cannabis regulation.

El Daily Post's experts also emphasize the importance of keeping the marijuana industry out of corporate hands. The policy should be one of temperance in use, says Mark Kleiman, author of several books on the issue and a member of Committee of Law and Justice of the U.S. National Research Council. Prices should be kept high to discourage heavy daily use, marketing should be restricted, labeling should be accurate and the industries political power should be limited. He advocates a legislative legalization process, as it allows for more input and compromise than initiative driven processes. 

There are a number of supply options between marijuana prohibition and for-profit commercial legalization explains Beau Kilmer, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation. He advocates that states make sure they retain flexibility in the model they choose, so as to not be locked into architecture that proves suboptimal in time. 

The piece in El Universal goes into other cases in the region experimenting with marijuana legalization, especially Uruguay, and notes that prominent war on drugs former presidents are now leading calls to seek political alternatives. 

On the issue of legalization in Mexico, check out this Ciudad de las Ideas conference with former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, former Mexican President Vicente Fox, former President of the Swiss Confederation Ruth Dreifuss, the representative of the Mexican UNDOC office Antonio Mazzitelli, and Mark Keiman among others. 

News Briefs

  • An alliance of Haitian opposition presidential candidates signed a declaration demanding major changes in the country's electoral system and other agencies. If that doesn't happen, they demand a transitional government to oversee a new vote, reports the Associated Press. The signatories are led by Jude Célestin -- the second place finisher in Haiti's October presidential election. Dubbed the G8, the eight candidates said the transition government could last as long as 24 months. The candidates ended their statement which was released late last night by calling on the population "to continue to exercise its right to peacefully demonstrate to enforce its will and not to give into blackmail, intimidation and manipulation," reports the Miami Herald. On Friday Célestin said that he hasn't decided yet whether he will take part in the scheduled Dec. 27 runoff against government-backed candidate and first place finisher Jovenel Moïse, reports the Associated Press. (See Nov. 19th's post.)
  • Starting tomorrow Ecuador will require that Cubans wanting to visit apply online for a visa -- a difficult process in a country with very limited Internet access, explains the New York Times. About 200 people gathered to protest outside the Ecuadorean embassy in Havana. Ecuador was, up until now, the only Latin American country that didn't require a visa for Cubans. Thousands travel each year, and the country is now the starting off point for Cuban migrants who are trekking north to the United States, spurred on by fear that a favorable immigration policy with the former Cold War enemy will soon end. (See last Wednesday's post.) 
  • Minor-league baseball could be the next diplomatic frontier between Cuba and the U.S. in the ongoing thawing of relations between the two countries. A group of Americans are seeking to return professional baseball to Havana, where it was immensely popular before the revolution. The Caribbean Baseball Initiative, as the group is called, includes two highly regarded former American ambassadors and has obtained the necessary licensing from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, reports the New York Times. The executive behind the initiative Lou Schwechheimer, says baseball is a common denominator between the two countries, and says he has been encouraged to engage by the State Department.
  • The international community is anxiously watching Venezuela ahead of this weekend's much anticipated National Assembly elections, and worry that instead of defusing tensions, the vote could lead to crisis, reports the Washington Post. The ruling socialist party is expected to lose control of the legislature for the first time since the late Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998, and defiant government statements indicate little signs of cooperation with the opposition. Without credible international observers, anything other than an opposition win is likely to lead to accusations of fraud, argues the piece. But experts caution against expecting a sweeping opposition victory, as the electoral map favors rural Chavista districts, and the government uses it's resources to promote candidates. (See last Wednesday's briefs.)
  • Venezuelan activist, Luis Díaz, a leader of the opposition Democratic Action party in Guárico State, was killed at a campaign event on Wednesday. He was shot 10 times by men at close range, said Lilian Tintori, whose party is allied with Diaz's and who was near the victim at the time, she said in a news conference last week. Venezuela's political opposition has accused the government of a terror campaign, reports the Wall Street Journal. Opposition candidates for congress across the country have reported a rise in attacks from armed government supporters in the past week. The U.S. State Department condemned the killing and called on the government to protect all political candidates ahead of next week's landmark National Assembly elections, reports Reuters.
  • Mexico's reputation as a conservation leader is being threatened by austerity policies that have shrunk program budgets and decreased personnel at the agency that monitors environmentally protected areas, reports the Washington Post. A proposed 6 million acre desert biosphere reserve in Zacatecas has become a particular test of President Enrique Peña Nieto's commitment to environmental protection.
  • CEPR's Mark Weisbrot argues in Fortune that Argentine president-elect Mauricio Macri is bad news for Argentina and the region. He notes that poverty was reduced by about 70 percent over the past 12 years of Kirchner governments (according to independent estimates). Unemployment fell from more than 17.2% to 6.9%, according to the International Monetary Fund. He argues that Macri's tough talk on Venezuela is part of his demonstration of overwhelming loyalty to the U.S, to the detriment of other regional relationships. "In joining the effort against Venezuela, Macri showed a willingness to take steps that no other South American president would do. In the past decade, South American presidents have repeatedly joined together to defend democracy in the region when it was under attack—with Washington on the other side—not only in Venezuela in20142013, and 2002, but in Bolivia (2008), Honduras (2009), Ecuador (2010), and Paraguay (2012). Macri runs a serious risk of damaging relations in the Western Hemisphere if he continues down this road." He also doubts the end of the "pink tide," which commentators have been going crazy with lately. (See Nov. 6th's post.)
  • Argentina has some of the Latin America's most liberal civil rights legislation. Yet, advances for the LGBT community are countermanded by widespread conservative and machista attitudes in society, according to the New York Times. Over the past few months several transgender women have been killed -- dubbed transgendercide by some -- prompting a look at the challenges that remain for the community in Argentina. The piece looks at many of the reforms ushered in under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's administration, viewed as a key component of a wider focus on human rights. 
  • Last week Brazilian Senator Delcídio do Amaral and his chief of staff, Diogo Ferreira Rodrigues were arrested on charges of obstructing prosecutors in the wide-ranging investigation into corruption at state-run oil giant Petrobras. (See last Wednesday's briefs.) The evidence was provided by a cellphone recording by the son of Nestor Cerveró, a Petrobras executive convicted on corruption and money laundering charges, in which Amaral sought to dissuade  from negotiating a plea agreement. The arrest of the head of the Senate's economic committee, could further complicated things for President Dilma Rousseff, as he was considered crucial in getting the government’s fiscal austerity measures passed, reports theNew York Times
  • Rousseff's administration remains in hot water, reports the NYTimes in a separate piece on the subject. A Eurasia Group research note last week assessed that there is a 40 percent risk of Rousseff not finishing her term. The Wall Street Journal reports that her approval ratings remain low -- a Datafolha poll released yesterday shows that she has 10 percent. Still, that's a slight improvement since August, when she had 8 percent, the lowest ever approval rating since the agency began it's survey in 1990. Around two-thirds of respondents — 67 percent — rated the president "bad or terrible," down from 71 percent in August. Thirty-four percent of respondents considered corruption to be Brazil’s biggest problem, surpassing other challenges that include unemployment, crime and a poor education system. It is the first time that corruption has emerged as the top concern in the Datafolha survey.
  • Billionaire banker André Esteves resigned Sunday as chairman and chief executive of BTG Pactual, Brazil's largest independent investment bank after the Supreme Court agreed to a request by federal prosecutors to keep him in jail on charges of obstructing justice in the Petrobras investigation, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A dengue-like virus is connected to a surge of cases of babies born with small heads, a condition known as microcephaly, in Brazil's northeast, reports the Associated Press.
  • There appears to be increasing evidence that the burst Sanmarco mining dam in Brazil's Minas Gerais state caused high levels of pollution to flow into the River Doce. Reuters reports that the state Institute for Water Management found illegal levels of arsenic and mercury polluted a river in the days after a dam burst on Nov. 5. (See Nov. 18th's briefs.) And last week the United Nations human rights agency said "new evidence" showed that flood dumped mud "contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other chemicals." For the first time Vale acknowledged the presence of toxic elements in the River Doce on Friday, reports the Wall Street Journal. Brazil's government promised to sue iron ore miner Samarco and its co-owners BHP Billiton and Vale for $ 5.2 billion for the damage by the accident, reports the Associated Press. The lawsuit is expected to be filed today, reports the Wall Street Journal. The case will be the biggest government response yet to the disaster which killed at least 13 people and displaced hundreds in the wake of the subsequent floods of mud. A piece in The Guardian last week said the accident was likely one of the biggest environmental disasters in Brazil's history and looks at whether the accident was a result of government and industry negligence. (See last Wednesday's briefs.)
  • Colombia's conscription army is mostly manned by Colombia's poor, young men who are drafted because they cannot afford the escape route: college and a fee that ranges from $300 to $1,200. Many believe it fuels the inequality that is at the heart of a conflict that has lasted a half century, reports the Associated Press. The piece looks at the practise of using military dragnets to check if young men have served their time, thus filling the ranks of a military that now numbers 250,000, of which just 100,000 are professional soldiers. Last month the Supreme Court likened the practice to kidnapping.
  • An experiment in environmental public policy in Guatemala suggests that "the most effective way to protect forests is to give control of them to the communities who already live there," reports the New York Times. The piece looks at an experiment in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the northern Petén region, on the theory that local communities that survive off of logging have a very clear incentive to protect their forest livelihood.
  • Six inmates in a Guatemalan prison were killed in a prison riot this weekend. Some of the prisoners were reportedly armed with AK-47 assault rifles, according to Reuters. They were held in a facility known as the Granja de Rehabilitacion Canada, which was designed to hold 600 inmates but houses 3,092, reports the Associated Press.
  • One of the most perilous jobs in the cocaine industry is that of the mochileros (backpackers) who smuggle pure cocaine from Peru's Vraem valley. A colorful BBC feature looks at the industry in the remote valley east of the Peruvian highlands, where more than half of the country's cocaine is produced.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Cuban migrant impasse in Central America (Nov. 25, 2015)

Central American and Cuban officials met yesterday in El Salvador to seek a solution to the diplomatic impasse that has stranded between 2,000 and 3,000 Cuban migrants in Costa Rica, but failed to make headway, reports the New York Times. (See Nov. 16th's post and Monday's briefs.)

The migrants are making their way from Ecuador -- the only country in the region that doesn't require an entry visa for Cuban visitors --across Central America on their way to the United States, where they hope to make use of a beneficial fast-track asylum policy.

The number of Cubans using the overland route through Mexico has increased this year, as thawed relations between the U.S. and Cuba lead many to fear the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy will be revised.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol data published by the Pew Research Center, 27,296 Cubans entered the United States in the first nine months of the 2015 fiscal year, up 78 percent from 2014.

Nicaragua accused Costa Rica of "blackmail" in allowing Cubans to amass at their shared border, while Costa Rica said its neighbor has refused to support "any solution" for the Cubans attempting to pass through the region on the way north. Ultimately, say the experts cited in the NYTimes, the question will be between the U.S. and Cuba.

Nicaragua is a close ally of Cuba, and President Daniel Ortega's administration has complained that by issuing the Cubans with transit visas, Costa Rica has violated its national sovereignty, reports Reuters.

The Associated Press reports that the El Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez said most officials in attendance said each country should be able to decide how and whether to receive the stream of migrants. There is an element of resentment in some parts of Central America as migrants from those countries do not enjoy the incentives given to Cuban migrants, explains the AP.

The case of course remits to issues with wider migrant policy, notes the New York Times.

Yet Cuban migrants count on many benefits that their Central American peers lack, including the beneficial U.S. policies and backup funds from prosperous relatives in the U.S. 

The Associated Press reports on how many migrants are plugging into social media to avoid making use of human traffickers on the 5,500 km overland journey. There is constant flow of information between migrants starting the journey and those who have just completed it, explains the piece. 

"The metallic "zing!" of a new message arriving in the Facebook Messenger app has become the soundtrack to this year's historic migration as Cubans consult friends further along the route for tips on bus routes, border closures, even how much to bribe the notoriously corrupt Colombian police."

New Briefs

  • Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) confirmed yesterday that the top vote getters in Oct. 25th's presidential election are the government-backed candidate, Jovenel Moïse, and a former state construction chief, Jude Célestin, reports the Associated Press. The two will compete in a run-off election on Dec. 27. However the announcement set off a new wave of protests around Port-au-Prince, as opposition candidates and their supporters have already been demanding an independent commission verify results which they say are marred by massive fraud. (See last Thursday's post.) The announcement came hours after the National Offices of Electoral Litigation (BCEN) rejected opposition demands to eject Moïse from the race due to the alleged fraud, reports the Miami Herald. The judges' panel did order order that 50 problematic and fraudulent tally sheets from polling stations across the country be removed from the final results. But that did not significantly change the provisional results. Yesterday supporters of Moise Jean Charles, one of the leading candidates denounced the results and took to the streets setting fire to tires. One person was reportedly wounded at the protests, shot by the police. And two police officers were also wounded, reports the Associated Press.
  • A team of U.S. electoral observers of the Haitian election say that there is mounting evidence demonstrating systemic fraud, voter confusion and intimidation and even disenfranchisement in some cases, reports the Miami Herald. (See last Thursday's post.) Increasing doubts regarding the election have triggered the protests that make endanger the December run-off, according to the paper.
  • Washington Post editorial from yesterday looks at the upcoming 6D National Assembly elections in Venezuela, and says: "What’s unclear is whether Mr. Maduro will resort to outright fraud or violence to prevent an opposition victory — and whether the United States and Venezuela’s neighbors, after years of silently tolerating the destruction of its democracy, will use their leverage to prevent that." The piece calls on authorities, including the Obama administration, to apply pressure over the next two weeks and to be prepared to respond to electoral disruptions with "censure and sanctions." David Smilde at WOLA's Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights has an excellent and nuanced response. He points out that bystanders -- including the U.S. -- have hardly been passive, and that American sanctions earlier this year backfired. "The emphasis should be on informed, multilateral engagement in cooperation with regional stakeholders," he writes. His post also looks at a number of "inaccuracies" in the Post's portrayal of the elections, especially clarifying the rural representation bias written into Venezuela's constitution, malapproportionmant similar to that seen in the U.S. Senate.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro warned citizens not to betray the legacy of the late leader Hugo Chavez in the upcoming elections, reports Reuters. Polls show the opposition coalition has the best chance in 16 years of winning control of the 167-seat National Assembly, though the government has strong advantages in the geographical distribution of seats plus superior mobilization capacity. "You would end up alone, alone, alone," Maduro told supporters at an event.
  • After the escape of drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán from a maximum security prison this year, the Mexican government has begun extraditing high profile drug prisoners to the U.S. The policy U-turn is just one example of how Latin American governments are using outside help to enforce laws, says The Economist. The piece cites other examples such as the CICIG in Guatemala and Honduran and El Salvadorean extraditions to the U.S. But extradition can also be dangerous, argues the piece: "Outsourcing justice abroad can also undermine it at home ... To serve as more than a stopgap solution, extradition must be part of a broader strategy. That should include attacking mob finances, professionalizing law enforcement, rooting out corruption and providing jobs for potential gang recruits." (The example of the CICIG actually doesn't make much sense: though the investigation was run by outside prosecutors, together with the Guatemalan Public Ministry, the corruption cases are then dealt with by the Guatemalan justice system.)
  • The Mexican state of Quintana Roo is undergoing a wave of femicides: seven in the past three weeks and 18 this year. Authorities in the tourist dependent state are keen to downplay the issue, and are colliding with activists against gender violence, reports The Guardian. At least two of the victims were strangled, and several had been sexually assaulted before their bodies were dumped in public places. All the women were Mexican.
  • A fire at a Pemex refinery injured eight people yesterday, reports the Associated Press. The news comes on the same day that Moody's Investors Services downgraded the company's foreign and local currency ratings in the face of continued low oil prices, falling production, high taxes and an expected deterioration of its credit situation. In a statement, Pemex noted in a statement that Moody’s move brings its rating in line with those of other ratings firms, reports the Wall Street Journal. The company also listed a number of measures it has taken to improve its financial position, including nearly $4 billion in budget cuts this year, the sale of noncore assets, and the search for strategic partnerships.
  • But it looks as if Mexico's program of annual oil hedges to partially protect the federal budget from sudden shocks in world oil prices will pay off well this year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Finance Minister Luis Videgaray estimated yesterday that the December payout at $6.4 billion.
  • It looks like the collapsed mining dam in Minas Gerais will constitute one of the biggest environmental disasters in Brazil's history. (See Nov. 18th's briefs.) A piece in The Guardian looks at whether the accident was a result of government and industry negligence. Brazilian prosecutors are focusing the investigation into the massive dam failure on a series of recently uncovered issues, including a a rapid scaling-up of the dam in recent years and instruments indicating "emergency" levels of pressure and stress prior to its collapse, reports the Wall Street Journal. They are also questioning whether a contract that allowed Vale to dump waste from its nearby Alegria iron-ore mine into the Samarco dam was properly licensed and monitored.
  • The BBC reports on gruesome horrors in Brazil's overcrowded prisons -- including reports of cannibalism in a Maranhão state jail. The number of inmates in Brazil has grown 575 percent in the past 25 years. There are nearly 608,000 prisoners, crammed into facilities with a capacity for 377,000 -- an occupancy rate of 161 percent. The piece references an October Human Rights Watch report on the prison crisis in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, where "the prisons hold more than three times as many inmates as their official capacity in conditions that are dangerous, unhealthy, and inhumane." Prisoners lack even floor space to sleep on and "the prevalence of HIV infection in Pernambuco’s prisons is 42 times that of the general population; the prevalence of tuberculosis is almost 100 times that of the general population. Prison clinics are understaffed, medication is scarce, and ill detainees are often not taken to hospitals for lack of police escort." (See Oct. 23rd's briefs.)
  • A cattle rancher accused of being a go-between for illegal payments to Brazil's ruling Workers' Party was arrested yesterday by police. José Carlos Bumlai was arrested on suspicion of corruption, money laundering and fraud in connection with a $1.6-billion contract to operate a drilling ship used by state-controlled oil company Petrobras. He is said to be a close friend of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a founder of the Workers’ Party who hasn't been implicated in the investigation, reports the Wall Street Journal
  • Federal police also arrested the chief executive of Brazilian bank BTG PactualAndre Esteves, and Sen. Delcidio do Amaral, the Workers' Party Senate leader, in connection with the Petrobras corruption investigation, reports the Wall Street Journal. They were arrested for allegedly obstructing the investigation into a corruption scandal at state-owned oil company Petrobras, according to the Associated Press.
  • Brazil's Senate a presidential decree aimed at helping hydroelectric producers affected by record droughts ahead of a power plant auction scheduled for today, reports Reuters.
  • Argentine President-elect Mauricio Macri's plan to transform Argentina's economy -- including curbing currency controls and restoring investor confidence -- is welcomed by business leaders. But they are concerned that some measures, including a widely expected devaluation could cause short-term pain, reports the Wall Street Journal
  • An op-ed in The Guardian discusses how climate change -- specifically rising sea levels -- are affecting female farmers in Grenada and calls on leaders at the Paris climate change summit to commit to legally binding emissions cuts and provide assistance to help climate-change vulnerable countries.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Argentina's turn to the right (Nov. 24, 2015)

In Argentina all eyes are on the new president-elect, Mauricio Macri. After running on a platform of "Let's change," and with only two weeks until he actually assumes office, the big question is what will change.

Economic and foreign policy are the obvious targets. In a press conference yesterday, Macri promised spending cuts and free-market policies that will end the Kirchner period of protectionist economic measures, reports the Los Angeles Times.

He has also promised to ease currency restrictions that limit access to dollars and effectively fix the exchange rate. The measures represent a "tectonic rightward shift," reports The Guardian.

Economic measures will be closely watched. Macri intends to create an "economic cabinet," with seven ministries, including Treasury, Labor, Energy, Production, Transportation -- but not the traditionally powerful Ministery of Economy, reports La Nación.

He said he will declare a state of emergency against the "unpardonable" rise in violent crime across Argentina spurred by an increase in drug use and trafficking.

He will begin governing with a challenging political scenario: he won with a very slim majority (see yesterday's post) and doesn't have a majority in either house of Congress. And he will likely assemble a team drawn largely from the ranks of his conservative PRO party. "But most are from the same white, rich, Catholic, conservative Buenos Aires elite as Macri. Running a city was one thing. Representing the geographical and class diversity of a nation will be a very different challenge," cautions The Guardian.

The question is how he will enact the challenging set of economic policies intended to reduce inflation, encourage foreign investment, settle accounts with holdout creditors and reduce the government deficit, without causing a backlash in Congress and society, explains The Guardian.

However, while he inherits a complicated economic situation, it's better than the outright insolvency face by his non-Peronist predecessors, notes the Wall Street Journal.

"He may have to deal with social resistance in the form of union protests or spontaneous social unrest, or unrest intentionally generated by the more radicalized Kirchnerist groups,” sociologist Sergio Bernezstein told The Guardian. "A lot will depend on whether he applies a gradualist economic solution or goes for a shock treatment of problems like Argentina's overvalued currency, inflation and cutting back the generous subsidies for home energy bills."

Macri will meet with current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner today to begin the transition before assuming office on Dec. 10. The Guardian notes that Macri's fortunes may rest with the outgoing president -- who remains popular among Peronists, union members and her supporters in Congress. 

Since the restoration of democracy in 1983, no president has ever completed a full term of office without belonging to the main party of Peronism. 

In foreign policy he has promised to pressure to remove Venezuela from Mercosur (see yesterday's post), and that he would raise the issue of that country’s "human rights abuses." Though he has said he would seek Brazil's support in pursuing that course of action O Globo published that he would not have the support of the Brazilian government, as it considers that Maduro was democratically elected.

Macri also intends to nullify a memorandum of understanding signed with the Iranian government, intended to move forward trials against citizens of that country in relation with a 1994 bombing of an Argentine Jewish center that killed 85 people.

And he has announced plans to improve diplomatic ties with the United States, which became strained in recent years over Argentina’s international debts and Washington’s sway in the hemisphere, reports the New York Times.

The Guardian notes that he is likely to take a less strident tone regarding the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, though he is not expected to let the subject go entirely. Yesterday, just hours after Macri's victory, two Falkland Islands oil exploration firms have announced a £57m deal, reports The Guardian in a separate piece.

Human rights, specifically truth and justice policies regarding violations during the 1976-1983 military-civilian dictatorship, have been a central platform of the Kirchner governments. Under Nestor Kirchner amnesty laws were struck down and initiated a process of trials against military and civilians involved in the "Dirty War." Human Rights Watch notes that as of last year over 121 trials have been conducted for crimes against humanity originating from the dictatorship, resulting in 503 convictions. The Center of Legal and Social Studies (CELS) has reported that 42 people have been acquitted during the trials, and another 1,611 suspects are under investigation. 

But the fight to dominate the historical narrative is far from over. An editorial yesterday in the leading conservative newspaper La Nación called for an end to the policies of "vengeance," in reference to ongoing trials against perpetrators of violations in that era, in which 30,000 people were "disappeared." It revives the theory the military was responding to the threat of armed guerrilla groups -- "no different" from the terrorist groups who perpetrated attacks in Paris earlier this month. Perhaps that was to be expected of the newspaper. In a sign that times have changed, the paper's journalists gathered yesterday to repudiate the editorial, saying it doesn't represent them. Senator Norma Morandini, who was cited in the editorial and is touted as the incoming administration's possible Secretary of Human Rights, also came out against the piece, reports Página 12. In a press conference yesterday, Macri assured citizens that trials against repressors will continue. 

The episode shows that some changes wrought in the past years are here to stay. In an article in Página 12 Horacio Verbitsky notes that the episode reflects a deep change in society that goes beyond political support for Kirchner and marks a point of no-return.

But who cares what happens with the dollar and human rights? Enjoy the "dad dancing!"

News Briefs

  • Several articles about what Macri's election means on a regional level, and the potential ebbing of the "pink tide" of leftist governments in Latin America. (See Nov. 6th's post.) Economic challenges are undermining governments that "had joined forces to oppose the United States and "neoliberal" capitalism," notes the Washington Post. "While some populists, such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales, remain popular and firmly entrenched in power, others are now fading thanks to the decline in commodity prices that fuels the region’s exports, a string of corruption scandals, economic mismanagement and voters’ desire for change," celebrates the Wall Street Journal. Sources in the piece predict that left-wing governance in Venezuela will fall next, followed by Brazil in 2018. "A shift to the center could have profound consequences for the region, opening the door to a more pragmatic brand of politics, but also raising risks of instability if the poor see no benefit. Countries struggling to pay their bills amid the commodity downturn may open up more to foreign investment and trade. Ties will likely improve with Washington."
  • The abduction of 43 students from a rural teachers' college last year, by local police drew attention to a remarkable fact of life in Mexico: Police are responsible for many disappearances, reports the Associated Press. Mexico's deputy attorney general for human rights, Eber Betanzos, told The Associated Press in August that municipal police had participated in scores of abductions around Iguala during the term of Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, who faces charges in the case of the 43 students.
  • The Dominican Republic issued arrest warrants yesterday for a member of the European Parliament and two other French citizens who allegedly helped a pair of French pilots convicted on cocaine trafficking charges flee by speedboat in October, reports Reuters. (See Nov. 2nd's briefs.)
  • Most Brazilian oil unions agreed to resume work yesterday, ending a three-week-long strike that cost Petrobras some 2.29 million barrels of oil production, reports the Wall Street Journal. Workers were protesting against Petrobras’ planned divestment program. 
  • Chile's government has increased the presence of armed forces on its northern border with Peru and Bolivia in response to increased crime in the area. Criminals come in from Bolivia to assault, rob and steal, according to the Minister of Defense. Bolivian authorities say its an attempt at intimidation and say the crime is an "excuse," reports TeleSur.
  • The Guardian has a fascinating feature on an isolated hunter-gatherer indigenous tribe in Peru that has suddenly started emerging from the jungle to make contact with the outside world. The greatest immediate peril for these isolated peoples remains infection by common illnesses – such as influenza or the common cold – to which they have little or no immunity. The Mashco Piro are believed to have fled into the jungle during the Amazon rubber boom (1880-1914), and had rejected all contact with outsiders until now.
  • More than half of the Amazon's tree species are endangered, according to a study cited in The Guardian

Monday, November 23, 2015

Macri's election ushers in a new market friendly era for Argentina (Nov. 23, 2015)

Voters in Argentina voted for change after 12 years of Kirchner governments. Mauricio Macri, the conservative mayor of Buenos Aires won by a narrow margin of almost three points over the government-backed candidate Daniel Scioli, reports La Nación.

Macri garnered 51.4 percent of the votes in yesterday's run-off election, adding 17 points to his election results in October, where he came in a close second to Scioli. The relatively close results show a deeply polarized country however. Macri supporters generally emphasized the need for change (in fact, that was the name of his coalition) while his opponents worry about the impact of market friendly policies.

"Today is a historic day," Macri told supporters last night. "We need to build an Argentina with zero poverty. A marvelous phase is beginning for Argentina." Macri's speech last night was unconfrontational and light on policy, as has been his campaign in general, reported the New York Times earlier this weekend.

It marks the end of an era which rewrote the country's social contract, says the Associated Press, and ushers in a period of a more free market course with less state intervention in the economy.

The Wall Street Journal says the winner's platform resonated with an electorate weary of a stagnant economy and high inflation.

It's the beginning of a major shift in regional politics, according to the Washington Post which says the Kirchners' protectionist policies and anti-American rhetoric isolated Argentina and diminished its influence in the hemisphere. (A very debatable stance.)

The stunning opposition victory marks a major shift in Latin American politics, ending a dozen years of leftist rule, first by Nestor Kirchner and then his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a tenure marked by increasingly fiery anti-American rhetoric and protectionist policies that isolated Argentina and diminished its influence in the hemisphere.

In their victory speeches last night both Macri and the vice-president elect sought to assure citizens that they will seek to reduce poverty, responding to a key fear that the new right wing government will end 12 years of expanded social welfare policies.

The pro-business president elect promises to implement market friendly reforms however, and to strengthen the country's relationship with the United States, reports the Associated Press. But Macri inherits a complicated economic panorama. Inflation is pushing 30 percent, economic growth nearly nil and social spending is unsustainable, according to economists cited in the piece.

Macri has been vague on specific proposals but has said he would make government more “intelligent” and reduce a fiscal deficit that is expected to reach 7% this year, a reflection of Kirchner’s election-year spending, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Macri has promised to immediately lift unpopular controls on the purchase of U.S. dollars and thus eliminate a booming black market for currency exchange. Doing that would likely lead to a sharp devaluation of the peso, with serious social impact, warns pro-government economist Alfredo Zaiat in Página 12.

While the electorate might be divided, investors certainly aren't, reports Bloomberg, which says that their excitement is "tangible." Markets have been rallying in anticipation of a Macri victory, and he has said that settling outstanding debts with defaulted sovereign debt holders will be a priority. 

Macri, who won the backing of the farm lobby with a broad free-market platform, has promised to eliminate corn and wheat export taxes and ditch the quota system that controls international shipments of both crops, reports Reuters. The move would eliminate export taxes put in place to ensure domestic food supplies at cheap prices.

But things might get worst before they get better, warns the Bloomberg piece. (Isn't that what advocates of neoliberal policies always seem to say?) Tough measures such as budget cuts and a devaluation of the peso are expected, Oxford Economics says gross domestic product will likely contract the next two years before rebounding to post growth of more than 5 percent by 2019, according to Bloomberg.

Many voters expressed fatigue with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's style of governance and reports of widespread corruption among officials, reports the New York Times. Macri's bid was strengthened by a door-to-door campaign that seems to have convinced voters in key districts in October's election. (See Oct. 26th's post.)

Opposition victory in the Peronist stronghold of the province of Buenos Aires, governed by Scioli for the past eight years, was also a determining factor in tilting the election in Macri's direction, reports Página 12. He confirms a long running trend of governors of the province, Argentina's most populous, who fail in their presidential bids.

On a foreign policy Macri promises a radical change away from Venezuela, and is expected to draw the country closer to market friendly government's in the region like Mexico, Chile and Colombia. (See Friday's briefs.) This morning he already said he'd seek Venezuela's suspension from South America's Mercosur trade bloc because of accusations of rights abuses committed by President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government, reports Reuters. The Washington Post reports that Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, showed up at Macri's victory celebration.

The New York Times has a feature on Andy Tow, a statistician star in Argentina whose maps and programs aggregating electoral and political data became increasingly prominent during the long presidential campaign.

News Briefs

  • Venezuela's opposition said shots were fired at one of its candidates' campaign caravan in a poor neighborhood of Caracas yesterday. The allegations come amid rising tension ahead of the Dec. 6 National Assembly election in which the government is widely expected to lose its majority, reports Reuters.
  • A a coalition of Venezuelan NGO's has presented a new electronic platform to harness citizen monitoring of the "6D" elections: Guachiman Electoral (Electoral Watchman). The program allows people to send denunciations directly on the webpage, through Twitter, text message, or WhatsApp. If the complaint contains the required information it is registered on a map of Venezuela, which reflects if it has been confirmed or not. It is "perhaps the most important innovation in domestic observation," say David Smilde and Michael McCarthy at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. They also review a number of highly-competent non-governmental organizations working on electoral issues in Venezuela, noting that they will send observers to locations of their choosing. 
  • While Smilde and McCarthy paint an interesting and nuanced picture of Venezuelan civil society and why the government is likely to respect the results (see last Wednesday's post), other commentators are far more negative. Last Friday's edition of the InterAmerican Dialogue's Latin America Advisor asks experts whether Venezuela's election will be free and fair. Experts who responded say the playing field is already very stacked in the direction of the government and note the lack of international observers who could lend credibility to the process. It is important that the UNASUR accompaniment mission (see Oct. 21st's post) establish itself as a credible interlocutor says Harold Trinkunas, director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution. " ... There is a significant possibility that the opposition will underperform its polling numbers," he says. "In a country that is highly polarized and where only a third of the population has confidence in the electoral authorities, such an outcome, especially if the gap between polls and announced results is large, is likely to be interpreted as fraud."
  • The 6D elections will be the most undemocratic in the region, with the possible exception of Cuba, yet the opposition is expected to win by a landslide, says the Miami Herald's Andrés Oppenheimer
  • So far this year, 125 policemen have been killed in Venezuela. In many cases their vehicles, body armor and weapons make them targets of crime in a country where access to guns is theoretically highly regulated, reports the Miami Herald.
  • As a measure of goodwill, the Colombian government says it will pardon 30 Farc guerrillas who are currently serving sentences in prisons across the country. The move was intended as a confidence-building measure in its peace talks with the rebel group, reports the BBC. In an effort to speed peace talks President Juan Manuel Santos sent his brother to privately meet with FARC rebel leader "Timochenko," according to Colombia Reports. Santos has said he will face major political problems if the Colombian people reject a peace agreement being negotiated with the Farc rebel group, reports the BBC separately. A peace accord will be signed in March 2016, putting an end to more than five decades of conflict. However, the agreement will not become valid until the Colombian population has voted on it. Last week the Senate decided that citizens will have the option to approve or reject to an eventual peace deal with FARC rebels with a plebiscite, according to Colombia Reports.
  • The controversial front-runner in Haiti's presidential elections last month, government backed Jovenel Moise, defended the process in a Miami visit this weekend, rejecting opposition allegations of fraud, reports the Miami Herald "Of all the candidates, I am the only one who had a program," said Moise, a serial entrepreneur who is now in the banana exporting business. The accusations have triggered a post-electoral crisis and growing protests. (See Thursday's post.)
  • Central American foreign ministers are expected to meet tomorrow to take up the issue of approximately 2,000 Cuban refugees who are stuck in Costa Rica after Nicaragua denied them permission to travel through the country on their way to the United States, reports the Associated Press. (See Nov. 16th's post.) Costa Rica said Friday it will keep giving transit visas to U.S.-bound Cuban migrants despite the border row, reports AFP. In the meantime the backlog of refugees in Costa Rica has filled seven shelters around the country and continues to grow. VICE reports that the Costa Rican foreign minister wants to wants to negotiate a "humanitarian corridor" allowing Cubans to legally travel through the nine Latin Americans nations on their route to the U.S.: Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico.
  • At the heart of the situation are conflicting Cuban and U.S. laws, explains the Miami Herald. A few years ago the Cuban government changed its migration policy, eliminating the exit visa and permitting citizens to move more freely. In the meantime, the U.S. maintains its preferencial migration policy towards Cubans, which grants them fast-track access to permanent residency, no matter how they get to U.S. soil. Because of changes in Cuban law, Cubans who receive residency within a year of getting to the U.S. can even travel back and forth between the two countries, leading many to question the preferential treatment they receive by U.S. law.
  • Guatemala's Congress has approved reforms regarding how the government awards and issues service contracts, reports InSight Crime. The modifications aim to improve transparency in state contracting, in the wake of corruption scandals that rocked the political establishment this year and led to the early resignation of former President Otto Pérez Molina in September. The reforms limit Congressional representatives and family members from bidding for state contracts and also place restrictions upon political party and electoral campaign financiers to participate in bids. 
  • InSight Crime also has an English translation of El Faro's interview with CICIG head Iván Velásquez who says there has been a transformation in Guatemala this year. "Since April, the mobilization of society, the reaction after the customs fraud case of La Linea was revealed, led to a social awakening. At first this was expressed in almost a completely spontaneous way, and which soon began creating enough levels of coordination -- although without much preparation -- that certain actors began talking amongst themselves. ... This has been greatly beneficial for the country, having a common cause, because there has been much division within civil society and among people who view others' activities with mistrust. The issue of corruption managed to bring people together for nearly 20 weeks, leading to what you could call public manifestations en masse in a country that has experienced a lot of apathy."
  • A startling turnaround in the Dominican Republic's homicide rate -- numbers are at the lowest they've been in years -- might reflect a strengthening of organized crime there, reports InSight Crime. While the numbers might represent a success of a strategy that has deployed the military alongside police in high-crime areas, external studies say this is unlikely. Another explanation might be a "Pax Policia" (a play on Pax Mafiosa), says sociologist Lilian Bobea, who proposes that corrupt security forces have managed, for the most part, to subjugate petty criminals, resulting in less violence by authorities. It might be the calm before the storm, however, says InSight, noting that given the dominance of cocaine smuggling cartels in the area, its only a matter of time before crime starts creeping up again.
  • Lawmakers in the Parliamentary Front Against Hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean have decided to work as a bloc for the passage of laws on food security – an area in which countries in the region have show uneven progress reports InterPress Service.