Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Tensions ahead of Venezuela's 6D elections (Dec. 1, 2015)

Tensions have been high in Venezuela for ages, but commentators are heating up particularly before the National Assembly election this weekend. The opposition is leading in the polls and has a strong chance of winning control of the parliament for the first time in 16 years.

Venezuelan authorities arrested three people yesterday suspected in the murder of an opposition leader last week. The case drew international condemnation, after opposition leaders blamed last week's shooting of Luis Diaz, 44, a candidate for the Democratic Action party in central Guarico state, on the ruling Socialists, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's briefs.)

The murder has heightened fears of violence around Sunday's vote. It was the second case of armed violence last week: Venezuela's opposition said shots were fired at one of its candidates' campaign caravan in a poor neighborhood of Caracas on Nov. 22. (See Nov. 23rd's briefs.)

"... Social scientific literature on electoral violence suggests these events might not be isolated," say Iñaki Sagarzazu & Xiao Yang at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. "The research has found that incumbents are more likely to use violence when they have a well-founded fear of losing elections .... since the actual voting machines are difficult to tamper with and there is a significant gap in the polling between the government and opposition it would seem the costs of outright fraud are too high and as such electoral violence seems to be the way for confronting an unfavorable electoral situation."

The authors present a project by the Explaining and Mitigating Electoral Violence which has been following the situation in Venezuela by tracking Venezuelan social media.


A world cloud of tweets from Saturday, November 21 to Thursday November 26 show the terms dominating Venezuelan social media. The more times a word is mentioned, the bigger it is.

"Nothing is more contrary to elections than violence. Voting is a tool for citizens to change trends, chose among different options, and settle political differences in a civilized manner," notes theObservatorio Electoral Venezolano, in an official statement that calls on authorities to guarantee peace on December 6.

President Nicolas Maduro's government denies the accusations, and officials say Diaz was a well-known criminal caught in a gang dispute linked to unions in Guarico. "While some political actors wanted to give it a political motive, the characteristic of that unfortunate homicide has not been a political motive but a dispute between people tied to unions who may have had a rivalry that led to this unfortunate circumstance," said government  ombudsman Tareck Saab, reports TeleSur.

The Venezuelan electoral system is being unfairly maligned argues Lauren Carasik at Al Jazeera. She notes the secure nature of the electronic voting machines used by Venezuelans, and the strength of domestic observers. "Unsurprisingly, OAS electoral missions have a history of aligning with Washington’s interests instead of maintaining neutrality," she writes.

Yesterday the government sought to downplay security fears, rejecting the possibility of violence or a coup, reports AFP.

"Some people have tried to weave a web of intrigue around December 6. But it's going to be an electoral celebration. There will not be a coup, there will not be a 'self-coup' or a civilian-military junta. Nor will there be terrorist violence or political violence," said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino on state TV.

Padrino announced the deployment of 163,000 soldiers to provide security on election day, with another 25,000 in reserve.

Saab also announced that 614 officials from the Office of the Ombudsperson would be deployed throughout the country in order to assist in the electoral process.

Venezuela's electoral authority confirmed that 130 international observers, in addition to a 40-person mission from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), would begin arriving in the country to help ensure the election is free and fair.

News Briefs

  • In Haiti, Catholic bishops and a group of pastors joined an alliance of opposition presidential candidates who are demanding an independent commission to verify the Oct. 25 presidential vote. Led by second-place finisher Jude Célestin, the eight candidates (dubbed the G8) say the election was marked by "massive" fraud and irregularities on behalf of first-place finisher, the government-backed cadidate Jovenel Moïse, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Brazil's recession has continued into the third quarter, reports the Wall Street Journal. The economy shrank by 1.7 percent, more than expected and affecting the government's tax income, according to Reuters. "There is still no light at the end of the tunnel," Luciano Rostagno, chief strategist at Banco Mizuho in Sao Paulo, told Reuters. "In the best case scenario, there will be some turnaround in the second quarter of 2016, if fiscal issues are addressed. But the risk is that we'll keep this recessionary outlook for longer."
  • Yesterday, the Brazil government announced a spending freeze on what remains of the 2015 budget. The frozen funds amount to 11.2 billion Brazilian reais ($2.9 billion) for the executive branch and 1.7 billion reais for the judiciary and legislative branches, reports the Wall Street Journal. Exceptions include earmarked, mandatory costs such as public-servant salaries, retirement benefits, jobless insurance and the hallmark income-distribution program known as Bolsa Família. Finance Minister Joaquim Levy has asked Congress to change the target for this year's budget surplus, which could modify the freeze, but votes on the budget have been put off amid corruption scandals that have dozens of legislators under investigation. The request is scheduled to be voted on today in a joint session of both houses of Congress.
  • On the subject of Brazil's congressional squabbling, the Los Angeles Times has a feature on Jean Wyllys, the only openly gay member of Brazil's Congress, who has  met with intense hostility from a vocal right wing, including homophobic slurs and even death threats. It's emblematic of an increasingly tense, confrontational atmosphere in Brazilian politics, explains the piece, but Wyllys has particularly attracted the rancor of the congressional right.
  • Brazilian police and prosecutors said they uncovered evidence that the country's biggest independent investment bank, BTG Pactual paid a powerful lawmaker $11.5 million in exchange for political favors. Yesterday they announced that they have obtained a document showing that BTG allegedly paid the bribe to congressman Eduardo Cunha for his work on financial legislation aimed at benefitting the bank, reports the Wall Street Journal. Cunha is the House Speaker in Congress, and a bitter enemy of the Rousseff administration. He is already under investigation by authorities for allegedly stashing millions of dollars in suspected bribes in Swiss bank accounts. Cunha vehemently rejects the accusations of corruption against him, and says it's all part of a plot against him, reports the Associated Press. On Sunday O Globo reported that a document seized by investigators said that in exchange for passage of legislation favoring BTG, the institution "paid Representative Eduardo Cunha the sum of $11.7 million." BTG Chairman and Chief Executive André Esteves was arrested last week, along with Senator Delcídio do Amaral on suspicion of witness tampering and obstruction of justice. (See yesterday's briefs.) 
  • As promised, Brazil's government filed a civil lawsuit yesterday against mining company Samarco Mineração SA and its parents, Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd., in response to a massive dam failure at a Samarco iron-ore mine on Nov. 5, reports the Wall Street Journal. Public attorneys are seeking $5.2 billion over 10 years in order to finance compensation for the thousands of people affected by disaster and efforts to restore the Rio Doce river basin, which was flooded with mud and mine waste. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The Awá hunter-gatherer tribe in Brazil has been called the "world's most endangered tribe" reports the Washington Post. It's few hundred members are caught between the difficulties of surviving in the diminishing forest and the dangers posed by illness and development in the contemporary world outside.
  • The death toll from a Guatemalan prison riot was raised to 16 yesterday, including three who were decapitated, reports the Associated Press. 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.
  • A burned-out van with two charred bodies found in Mexico's Sinaloa state was registered in the name of one of two Australians who have been missing for over a week, reports the Associated Press.
  • Priests are increasingly a target for drug gangs in Mexico's Guerrero state, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said today he was confident that differences with leftist FARC rebels over reaching a peace deal can be overcome by a March deadline although talks remain tough. "We are getting closer and closer, but nothing is guaranteed until we sign," Santos told Reuters.
  • Colombian armed forces confirmed the death of guerrilla ELN chief "Tuerto Lucho" during an operative. He was behind an October attack that killed 11 troops and one police officer, reportsPágina 12.
  • Thirty-four Peruvian villagers were given a proper burial, more than 20 years after they were massacred by Shining Path guerrillas, reports the Associated Press
  • The Cuban government says it will reinstate a requirement for doctors to obtain travel permits, in an attempt to counter brain drain it blames on the U.S., reports the Associated Press.
  • American Lori Berenson, who served was jailed in Peru 20 years ago for aiding left-wing guerrillas is returning to the U.S. after serving her jail sentence. She was released on parole in 2010 but was barred from leaving Peru for good until her sentence expired, reports the BBC
  • "Mega" projects around the region are raising concerns and show the constant tension between development and protection: The polemic $50 billion interoceanic canal that was to cut through Nicaragua and compete with it's Panamanian counterpart is on hold. The Chinese Hong Kong Nicaragua Development (HKND) group announced a one year delay before the start of major works, in order to fine-tune the design according to recommendations in an environmental impact report. But the delay might also be related to issues financing the mega project, according to The Guardian. Most of the seed money has reportedly come from the personal fortune of Wang Jing, the Chinese telecoms mogul who registered the group. Up until earlier this year he was worth more than $10 billion, one of the world's 200 richest people. But a collapse in Chinese stock prices slashed his fortune by nearly 85 percent. (See Oct. 2nd's post.)
  • Plans for a 391 acre mega resort in Barbuda, led by movie start Robert De Niro and Australian billionaire James Packer is criticized by locals who say their rights are being trampled, reports The Guardian. The Antigua and Barbuda parliament passed a bill last week giving the resort brand incentives such as a 25-year tax break in return for developing the exclusive beachfront resort, which features an eco-lodge and yacht marina, and a new airport on Barbuda. But critics say the rushed law will "wipe out" sections of existing legislation. Including the right of the elected Barbuda Council to "consider and approve" large-scale property deals on the island, and the population’s shared ownership of its land.
  • The Guardian has an in-depth look at a mega hydroelectric dams project in Patagonia. Announced in the waning days of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's presidency, the dams that will flood an area the size of Buenos Aires could well become her defining legacy. Critics worry that environmental concerns haven't been adequately considered in the rush to get the project started. And the geopolitical implications are also important: Chinese banks are financing most of the $5.7 billion project, in exchange for a 20-year operation concession. It is the biggest of several huge investments that were agreed last year in a summit between Fernández and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

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