Thursday, December 22, 2016

Closing 2016 (Dec. 22, 2016)

Summarizing a year is never an easy task -- momentous news from the region this year included the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, Colombian voters' rejection of the FARC peace deal and its subsequent rescue by legislators, regional uncertainty over U.S. president-elect Donald Trump (especially in Mexico) and, of course, Fidel Castro's death, which bookends a turning point for the region's left.

A smattering of topics to round up 2016 and to look out for in 2017:

The upcoming year promises more upheaval for Venezuela, where hopes for a recall referendum seem ever more distant and threats of popular unrest ever more constant. The currency chaos of the past two weeks and dismal outlooks for a cashless Christmas close off a year that started with a strong show from the political opposition, a complex chess game regarding the referendum -- which had to be held this year in order to trigger a new election -- and a brief moment of optimism with Vatican mediated dialogue.

In Brazil political upheaval overthrew President Dilma Rousseff. Though she was technically impeached over budgetary maneuvering, the lengthy machinations reveal more about the country's entrenched elite interests and popular anger at political elites more than anything else. Her successor, Michel Temer, already finds himself embroiled in his own political scandals and popular rejection -- though he's successfully passed a raft of austerity measures. (See Dec. 16's briefs, for example.)

Colombia experienced its on Trump/Brexit style political upset, demonstrating once again the fickle nature of polls. But President Juan Manuel Santos -- with the strong backing of the international community, and picking up a Nobel Peace prize along the way -- managed to rescue the FARC peace accord, which is currently on a congressional fast-track to implementation. (See below.)

Haiti was hit by another humanitarian disaster: Hurricane Matthew destroyed a broad swathe of the country's southwest. Nonetheless, the interim government successfully held oft-postponed presidential elections, which resulted in the election of Jovenel Moïse -- the winner of last year's discredited election. The U.N.'s outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon apologized for the cholera epidemic introduced in 2010 by U.N. peacekeepers, and promised to raise $400 million to invest in combating the epidemic and its impact over the next three years.

In Mexico 2016 brought a marked increase in homicides -- of nearly 20 percent -- the highest rate of President Enrique Peña Nieto's six years of government, reports Animal Político. A new WOLA report this week emphasized continued impunity for human rights abuses, which the government seems unwilling to address. (See Tuesday's briefs.)

Mexican politics has been marked this year by the U.S. election, which resulted in the country's "worst nightmare" coming true. (See Nov. 9's post, for example.) Though it ultimately remains to be seen whether Trump will follow through on promises to tear up NAFTA, build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, and deport millions of (criminal?) migrantsMexico is already taking steps to respond.

But the migrant flow towards the U.S. is now composed mostly of Central Americans, who are massively fleeing rampant gang violence in the Northern Triangle countries. "Violence from gangs and organized crime, sexual based violence, and internal displacement are a few of many root causes pushing families and children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to leave their home countries," notes a Latin American Working Group report from earlier this year. A 23 percent increase in migrants detained at the U.S. border this year is comprised largely of families from Central America. (See Nov. 14's briefs, for example.)

And Central American countries have urged the U.S. to review its policies on Cuban migrants, who have been traveling through the region in an attempt to reach the U.S. where they have preferential status. Fears that the détente will end the "wet foot, dry foot" policy allowing Cubans to stay if they reach the U.S. have dramatically increased migration, leading tens of thousands of Cubans to transit dangerous illegal routes said a group of foreign ministers earlier this year.

Of course, what will occur with U.S.-Cuba policy is another great question mark with regards to the incoming Trump administration, which has promised to seek a "better deal."

Trump's promised antipathy towards the region and China is pushing the two together -- with China using the moment of uncertainty to enter into warmer discussions over trade. 

News Briefs
  • Colombia's congress is set to approve an amnesty for approximately 4,000 jailed FARC guerrillas, who would join their comrades in demobilization as part of the recently approved peace deal. This week two committees approved a bill set for approval in early January, the first to use the "fast track" mechanism recently approved by the country's highest court for legislation required by the FARC peace deal, reports the Associated Press. The bill would pardon fighters for political crimes -- rebellion -- but not human rights crimes, which will be tried in a special tribunal, reports TeleSUR. The implementation of fast-track, considered critical to implement the peace accords within a reasonable window of time and guarantee the effective demobilization of the FARC, seems to be working well, according to la Silla Vacía. Legislators can and did modify the bill -- meaning it's not a mere thumbs up or down as the opposition had argued, and the bill is indeed moving quickly through the legislative process. However the Centro Democrático continues to question the constitutionality of the peace accord, and though it participated in the bill's debate, it did not vote. It was also the first time FARC representatives in Congress, who do not have the power to vote but can speak, participated, and defended the amnesty bill.
  • Not even the Nobel peace prize lifted Colombian President Juan Manuel Santo's rating, reports la Silla Vacía. Disapproval for his administration remains at about 60 percent, while positive is at about 35 percent.
  • Brazilian construction giant Oderecht signed the largest anti-corruption settlement in history yesterday, reports the Wall Street Journal. The construction company agreed to pay between $2.6 billion and $4.5 billion to authorities in Brazil, the U.S. and Switzerland. The the U.S. Department of Justice, had brought suit against the firm under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Over the course of 15 years, Odebrecht paid nearly $800 million in bribes related to more than 100 projects in 12 countries, including Angola, Venezuela and Mexico. It received $3.34 billion in ill-gotten "benefits" from the myriad bribery schemes, the U.S. Department of Justice said, according to the WSJIt's a landmark moment for the sprawling Operation Car Wash investigation into corruption at Brazil's state-run oil firm, Petrobras. Odebrecht had been cut off from public contracts for the past two years, exacerbating the country's economic recession. Prosecutors put the firm at the center of a scheme to overcharge Petrobras for contracts, paying off high level politicians and executives along the way.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski will seek to obtain information from prosecutors abroad after Odebrecht admitted to paying $29 million in bribes to local officials over the course of three presidencies, Reuters.
  • Odebrecht SA admitted to paying $98 million in Venezuela between 2006 and 2015 to government functionaries, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • The tragic explosion in the Tultepec fireworks market outside of Mexico City killed at least 32 people, but locals fear closure of the emporium that provides livelihood, reports the New York Times. Though accidents have repeated themselves over the past decade, officials are shying away from casting blame regarding the accident. The town is known around the country as the premier destination for fireworks, a key component in celebrations (explains Animal Político), and thousands of families depend on the industry for their living. The market was especially well stocked in the lead up to Christmas, and several children were among the dead, reports the Guardian. The death toll could keep rising, and the cause of the accident is still unknown, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Mexico will be loosening gasoline price controls next year, a move that will lead to a jump in gas prices and could result in backlash against government efforts to liberalize the country's energy market, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Mexican attitudes towards cannabis legalization are loosening up, and may be further spurred by legalization in U.S. states, according to the Economist.
  • A publicly funded seed accelerator -- Startup Chile -- has been the inspiration for more than fifty programs in other countries, reports the Guardian. Entrepreneurs from 79 countries have been involved in the program which has worked with more than 1,300 small businesses since 2010.
Note: The Latin America Daily Briefing will be off for the next week and will resume Jan. 3. Very happy holidays to all!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Evidence links former Colombian military head to extrajudicial killings - HRW (Dec. 21, 2016)

New evidence strongly suggests the former head of Colombia's military knew about hundreds illegal killings carried out under his watch, and failed to take steps to stop them and punish perpetrators, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.

HRW called on Colombia's attorney general to move forward with a stalled prosecution against General Mario Montoya Uribe, regarding the "false positives" extrajudicial executions, in which troops killed civilians and passed them off as guerrilla combatant casualties. 

The scandal broke in 2008 when it was revealed that thousands of civilians were killed between 2002 and 2008 to inflate body counts on which bonuses and vacations were based, reports the Associated Press.

In October HRW reviewed hundreds of pages of transcribed testimony which "strongly suggests that General Montoya failed to take steps to prevent the false positive killings."

"It's time for the prosecutor to use this important evidence it has on hand to advance in the case," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch.

HRW is further concerned that the cases will eventually fall under the jurisdiction of special tribunals set up under the new peace accord with the FARC to try crimes committed in the context of the conflict.

"The justice portion of the peace deal dictates that the Special Jurisdiction will rely upon a narrow definition of command responsibility – the rule that establishes when superior officers can be held responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates – that does not conform with international law. The definition could require authorities to prove commanders actually knew about and had control over the actions of their subordinates at the time they committed the crimes.

"Such a narrow definition of command responsibility would mean that commanders who were not present at a crime scene to exercise control over their troops’ actions at the time, but had effective control over the troops implicated in abuses and should have known about their actions, could escape accountability, although they bear criminal responsibility for their troops under international humanitarian law.

A recent Financial Times op-ed by HRW's Daniel Wilkinson denounces the last minute change to the accord that exempts the armed forces from command responsibility. (See Dec. 15's briefs.)

News Briefs
  • At least 31 people were killed in a series of explosions at a fireworks market outside of Mexico City yesterday, reports Reuters. The destruction was kicked off by six separate blasts. Seventy-two people were reported injured and 53 still missing as of today.  It's the third such explosion at the popular market place in the past decade. But nobody was injured in the previous blasts in 2005 and 2006, reports the New York Times. Just last week the head of the state’s pyrotechnical association was quoted saying that the San Pablito market was the safest in Latin America, notes the Wall Street Journal.
  • Venezuela reopened its border with Colombia abruptly, after a decision last week that it would be closed through Jan. 2, reports the Miami Herald. President Nicolás Maduro and his Colombian counterpart, Juan Manuel Santos, also agreed to have discussions over the "currency mafias" allegedly attacking Venezuela's bolivar.
  • The chaos spurred by the Venezuelan government's decision to suddenly withdraw nearly 80 percent of its currency has been clear. What has been harder to understand is the rationale behind the move which has, predictably, led to rioting, looting and general unrest. In Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights David Smilde analyzes some of the possible motivations, including a genuine belief that currency was being hoarded, but also improving the government balance sheet ahead of emitting higher currency notes. The Maduro administration likely overestimated its administrative capacity, he writes. They "likely thought that they could pull this off without too much of a problem, and that those hurt would be big operators with truckloads of cash. But of course, the people who are most affected are the poor who work in the informal economy, and those in rural areas of the interior. It should be no surprise that the most significant protests have happened in far-flung places in Apure, Trujillo and Bolívar. More affluent sectors operate mainly through electronic transactions and have been less affected, hence the relative calm in Caracas." At the same time, the move has kept the opposition off-balance, forcing it to discuss this instead of central dialogue points. (See Monday's post.) Last week the Wall Street Journal noted that the move affected Colombian border currency traders who got stuck with piles of cash from people buying supplies. (See last Friday's post.)
  • Venezuela is already paying the price of a sovereign debt default -- such as lack of access to international credit -- though it is religiously paying debt on time, at catastrophic cost to its population, argues Joe Kogan in a New York Times op-ed. The government should immediately default and use the freed up funds to alleviate shortages at home and enact economic reforms, he writes.
  • Environmentalists are denouncing Brazilian government initiatives that would roll back environmental and indigenous territory protections, reports the Guardian. They include a bill that critics say would dismantle environmental licensing laws and a draft government decree campaigners say threatens existing and future indigenous territories. Approval would make it impossible for the country to meet its significant Paris Climate Change Agreement commitments, according to experts. The government wants to improve licensing procedures in order to be more competitive for businesses looking to set up shop. But activists say a streamlined process could increase the odds of environmental disasters like the Samarco tailings dam burst last year. 
  • Brazil's congress passed a bill that would provide debt relief for federal government loans to states, but removed some of the austerity measures the federal government wanted to demand as a counter-weight, reports the Wall Street Journal. The result has been criticized by some economists who say sustainable economic growth cannot be achieved without more orderly public finances.
  • Uber has grown significantly in Brazil -- since launching two years ago, the country has become the ride-sharing app's third largest market in the world. But local governments are angling to regulate the industry, and taxi unions aim to outlaw it entirely, reports the Associated Press.
  • Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, who opposed the systemic torture of political prisoners by Brazil's military dictatorship died last week. He helped develop “Brasil: Nunca Mais,” or “Brazil: Never More,” a voluminous investigative document that chronicled the military government’s torture of political opponents, reports the New York Times.
  • Trump's presidency is unlikely to be a high point for international human rights, but it will have the positive effect of countering arguments that human rights groups promote Washington interests, argue James Ron and David Crow in Open Democracy. Nonetheless, their research has found that while governments around the world have used this thesis to slam rights groups, people on the ground are less likely to subscribe to the belief. "Our data show that people believe either that human rights groups are geopolitically neutral from the United States or that they tilt against Washington. We found no evidence that many people suspect rights groups of serving as secular missionaries for a Western point of view that paves the way for US political hegemony."
  • Bolivia's government is blaming the crash of a charter flight to Colombia that killed 71 people on the company that owned the aircraft and the pilot, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A new Creole-language, Sesame Street inspired television program for kids in Haiti aims to provide children with an educational program they can relate to, reports the Miami Herald.
  • In the holiday spirit: the Guardian profiles a group of Veracruz women who give food and water to migrants riding La Bestia freight train north. They stand by the side of the tracks and hold out offerings to migrants who grab the needed nourishment.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Guatemalan spring threatened by entrenched corruption (Dec. 20, 2016)

A new report by Guatemalan La Hora suggests that former President Otto Pérez Molina and former VP Roxana Baldetti continue to control criminal structures from behind bars. Analysts consulted by La Hora compare the ex politician' reach to that of the mob and that structures in question, like those of criminal organizations, have the capacity for reorganization. If so, it's another reason to lament the short reach of the "Guatemalan Spring," reports InSight Crime

"The cases of Pérez Molina and Baldetti also illustrate how efforts to tackle criminal structures in Guatemala may have simply led to their re-accommodation rather than their dissolution. As long as corrupt structures maintain power within state institutions, there are worries that Guatemala's recent achievements against impunity -- largely spearheaded by the United Nations-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala -- will not result in long-term improvements to the status quo," according to InSight. 

CICIG head Iván Velásquez recently referred to the fragility of advances, and the need for justice reforms to ensure their continuity, reported InSight last month. 

(See last Tuesday's briefs on Congressional pushback against vital justice reforms.)

News Briefs
  • Nómada reports on rumors that Guatemalan businessmen lobbied in Washington against ambassador Ted Robinson's work in support of the CICIG and against corruption. While the Guatemalan ambassador in DC categorically denied that this was their goal, she confirmed that the group, which included some of the country's biggest players, attempted to meet with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and succeeded in meeting with Mario Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's staffers.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski met with right-wing opposition leader Keiko Fujimori at the behest of Catholic Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani. They prayed together and promised to cooperate for the good of the country, a week after Fujimori's party, which holds a Congressional majority, ousted PPK's education minister. (See last Thursday's briefs.) It was their first meeting since they faced off in a June election in which PPK narrowly beat Fujimori. But the peace overture toward's Fujimori and the religious leader's intervention angered some of the leftists who rallied behind him in the election, reports Reuters.
  • The differences between PPK and Fujimori come down to rule of law against authoritarian, corrupt maneuvering argues Alberto Vergara in a New York Times español op-ed. Though they share an economic world view, Fujimori's party will continue to sabotage efforts by the administration to reform key areas of government, he writes, criticizing the government's weak response to the education minister's ouster.
  • New York Times editorial cautions U.S. president-elect Donald Trump from "getting drawn into a war of words with [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro. Venezuela’s flailing leader would happily use any excuse to claim foreign intervention to justify even greater repression of his people."
  • The withdrawal of Venezuela's 100 bolivar bill -- which caused currency chaos, and provoked looting and rioting over the weekend -- was justified by the government as a measure to tackle criminal gangs. (See yesterday's post and Friday's post.) But past experience shows that move, and the related border closure with Colombia and Brazil, will actually strengthen criminal smuggling operations, according to InSight Crime.
  • Crowds gathered yesterday outside the few Ciudad Bolivar supermarkets that survived the weekend's looting, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's post.) Venezuela's borders with Colombia and Brazil will remain closed through Jan. 2.
  • Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen announced a visit to Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador next month. But China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, has called on the U.S. to not permit her to transit through the U.S. en route, reports Reuters. Taiwanese media has speculated that she would try to meet with Trump in a U.S. transit stop.
  • A meeting between Mexican businessman Carlos Slim and Trump left the telecoms billionaire with a a very good vibe for Mexico," according to Slim's spokesman. The two met in Mar-a-Lago at Trump's behest, reports Reuters. Trump called the encounter "a lovely dinner with a wonderful man." The meeting follows a history of hostility: Trump accused Slim of orchestrating a media conspiracy against his election campaign, while Slim once scrapped a TV deal with Trump, saying he was a racist, reports the Guardian.
  • Head of Honduran NGO Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ), Carlos Hernández, called on U.S. legislators to maintain bilateral cooperation with Honduras on security and justice issues, despite differences the incoming U.S. administration might have with its predecessor, reports La Tribuna. Hernández, who travelled with Omar Rivera of the special commission to purge and transform the national police, met with U.S. legislators on a trip to Washington last week. In it's seven months of operation, the commission has evaluated 2,237 members of the force, and separated 67 percent of the cases, of which 364 were officers. This month alone 419 officers were separated and last week another member of the commission survived an assassination attempt in Tegucigalpa, reports InSight Crime. (See Friday's briefs.) Commission members have become targets particularly for their focus on police top brass, according to InSight.
  • A new WOLA report on Mexico's human rights and security situation comes to the sad conclusion that widespread abuses continued unabated in 2016. "The past decade in Mexico—marked by the start of the "war on drugs"—has been fraught with alarming levels of violence and crime and a dramatic increase in human rights violations by Mexican security forces. As 2016 comes to a close, it’s clear that this year has been no different: homicide numbers are on the rise and the government has been unwilling or unable to curtail the impunity that prevails for human rights violations ..." The situation is indeed dire: in the first ten months of this year, there were an average of 56 homicides reported per day. And other violent crime rates also remain high. More than 186,000 people have been killed during the ten years of the "war on drugs." The report examines: police reform and militarization of public security; criminal justice system reform; torture; disappearances; extrajudicial executions and excessive use of force; attacks against human rights defenders and journalists; and the suggestion that future U.S.-Mexico relations prioritize rule of law.
  • Chile's role as a drug trafficking transit nation has increased in recent years, reports InSight Crime.
  • Puerto Rico will run out of money to pay public employees by February, said the U.S. territory's governor-elect, reports the Associated Press.
  • Cuban rum and cigar sales are booming, and appear to be the tourist souvenir of choice following easing of U.S. regulations regarding their purchase, reports the Miami Herald. (See Oct. 24's briefs.)
  • InSight Crime has an interesting review of a new book that looks at the political ambitions of organized crime.  Hidden Power: The Strategic Logic of Organized Crime, by Australian strategist James Cockayne looks at the wide range of political strategies employed by criminal organizations around the world. He cites the Zetas cartel in Mexico as an attempted example to carve out criminal autonomy in a region.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Cash shortages provoke riots and looting in Venezuela (Dec. 20, 2016)

On Friday Venezuela's move to withdraw its largest denomination bill -- with banks out of cash to replace them -- caused protests and outbreaks of looting in several cities, reports the New York Times. The government sent troops to control rioting, according to the Associated Press. And hundreds were arrested, reports the Guardian. Over 400 establishments were looted in Ciudad Bolivar over the weekend, leaving 1,200 people without work, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

The cash crisis and delays in delivery of new, higher denomination bills, led the government to postpone the withdrawal of the notes, worth about 4 U.S. cents, reports the Financial Times. (See last Monday's post.) President Nicolás Maduro accused saboteurs of preventing the delivery of new bills needed to replace the old ones.

Yet rioting continued over the weekend, and some business are reportedly refusing the bill, though it now remains legal tender, according to BBC.

Over the past few days, many business had already stopped accepting the bills, leaving Venezuelans without bank accounts scrambling to pay for food. (See Friday's post.) ATM's continued to dispense 100 bolivar bills, creating a scarcity of cash that affected transportation use and street sales, reports Efecto Cocuyo. And the lack of cash hit especially hard in the lead up to Christmas, fomenting popular anger, reports the Wall Street Journal.

And about 40 percent of citizens don't have bank accounts and cannot use electronic transactions to replace scarce cash, reports Reuters.

The sudden cash shortage is an abrupt change in Venezuela, where rampant inflation had rendered the bills almost worthless anyway, notes the Washington Post. In fact, the bid raised the black market rate by 40 percent. Experts say it's not really a viable way to control inflation, however.

Yet, for Maduro the policy has been an economic triumph over the country's enemies, reports the AP.

News Briefs
  • Gang extortion of bus companies around El Salvador tally up to annual payments of around $26 million a year, according to an industry estimate. Usually it's directly charged to the driver by gang members, but Revista Factum profiles one company which pays off the gang and deducts it from drivers' payrolls with the label "Extortion Mara 18." (InSight has the English translation.) A counterpoint piece in El Faro recently profiled a Salvadoran transportation businessman who refuses to pay off gangs -- though it's cost several of his employees their lives. (See Dec. 9's briefsInSight Crime has the English translation.)
  • Last year the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that restricting marriage to heterosexual couples was discriminatory. But gay rights activists find themselves fighting back against well funded Christian groups determined to rollback gains, reports the Guardian. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's support for a nationwide equal marriage law has led to backlash from evangelical Christian and Catholic to mobilize in "defense of the family."
  • Ten years after then Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared a war on drug traffickers, the costs have been enormous and the gains few: more than 186,000 homicides, 35,000 displaced by violence, and about 30,000 disappeared, argues a Daily Beast piece. The piece explores U.S. support for the decade long militarized effort as well as the impact of illicit flows of U.S. weapons south across the border.
  • Mexico's experience should serve as a cautionary tale for Argentine President Mauricio Macri, according to InSight Crime. The president's militarized approach to citizen security has had some payoff: official homicide statistics across the country went down by 19 percent in the first half of the year, and the gains were even more pronounced in the Province of Buenos Aires and the capital city. "Packing drug offenders into jails may make for good headlines, but such practices can exacerbate the underlying incentives pushing people into the drug trade, and thereby increasing the scope of the challenge. Similarly, militarized federal police units may seem like a welcome departure from ineffectual and corrupt local police, but high-impact tactics may only encourage gangs to be more aggressive, thereby encouraging violence."
  • Haiti will be a top development aid priority for France, promised Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, reports the Associated Press. France has donated about $1.1 million since Hurricane Matthew ravaged parts of the island -- the U.S. has donated about $81 million of the $130 million total, according to U.N. data.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales said he may seek a fourth term, though earlier this year voters nixed a constitutional reform that would have permitted him to run again, reports Reuters. His Movement for Socialism party proclaimed Morales its candidate for the 2019 elections. Possibilities to enable him to seek another term include changing the constitution through the legislative assembly or a signature-collection drive or having Morales step down six months early, reports the Associated Press. The decision is sure to set off political polarization and fears that Morales is following the path of Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, according to the Financial Times. Nonetheless, he has the support of about half the population.
  • Mexican indigenous Huichol communities and ranchers are "locked in tense confrontation" over how to exploit land in the country's western Sierra Madre mountains, reports Reuters.
  • Cuernavaca mayor Cuauhtemoc Blanco ended a hunger strike in defense of his position after the Mexican Supreme Court issued a stay against impeachment efforts against him, reports the Associated Press. The state congress has accused the former soccer star of violating election procedures and accepting irregular donations. But the city government argued the impeachment process was unconstitutional.
  • Former Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was indicted on Friday on  of money laundering and influence peddling reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazil's Minas Gerais region is slowly losing its traditional mining industries, leading some to worry one day resemble the U.S. Rust Belt or Appalachian coal country, reports the Financial Times.
  • The Financial Times profiles Argentine Education Minister Esteban Bullrich and lauds his Kellog MBA "human focus" for improved test results in the city of Buenos Aires. (The previous administration's Minister of Education, along with education union leaders have denounced that the government requested improved PISA results for the rest of the country be discarded, reports Página 12.)
  • The Obama administration quietly celebrated the two year anniversary of rapprochement efforts with Cuba. What was to be a signature foreign policy is now in doubt due to U.S. president-elect Donald Trump's opposition. Obama plans to remain involved in Cuba matters as a private citizen, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Yet one of the most significant effects of the détente has not been the warming of relations between the two countries, but rather stopping the "pink tide" in the rest of Latin America. That is the message the White House is pushing anyway in an attempt to convince Trump against rolling back executive orders relaxing regulations on trade with Cuba, according to another Miami Herald piece.
  • Over 90 Cuban migrants landed in the Florida Keys over the past week, reports Reuters. Over the past year there has already been a surge in migration from the island, as Cubans are concerned that warming relations between the two countries will lead to the end of favorable U.S. policies allowing them to stay if they reach U.S. territory. Now there is added uncertainty over what approach will be adopted by Trump. (See Aug. 31's post, for example.)
  • A U.S. human rights lawyer representing dissident artist Danilo "El Sexto" Maldonado was arrested in Havana, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Turcs and Caicos will be led by its first female premier, reports the Miami Herald, after an opposition party electoral win.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Venezuela's currency chaos (Dec. 16, 2016)

The combined withdrawal of the 100 bolivar note in Venezuela, and the brief border closure with Colombia that coincided with the period citizens were given to trade in their bills, has left currency traders in Colombia with piles of now-worthless cash, reports the Wall Street Journal. While Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro referenced transnational gangs seeking to destabilize the economy as rational for this week's surprise currency switch up, Colombian currency traders say their only crime has been helping Venezuelans obtain goods that are scarce on their side of the border. (See Monday's post and Wednesday's briefs.)
The move left Venezuela largely without cash yesterday, reports Reuters

Higher denomination bills, which will replace the now invalid 100 bolivar note, had not arrived at banks and ATMs yesterdays, leaving people dependent on credit cards and bank transfers. Yesterday some people withdrew money from ATMs, only to receive 100 bolivar notes that they had to queue up to redeposit, reports the BBC.

The measure is particularly harmful for people living in more remote communities which are dependent on cash, reports the Financial Times

And some enterprising Venezuelans are turning to bitcoins, seen as a safer alternative in a country with strict currency controls and now officially in the throws of hyperinflation, reports the Guardian. (See Wednesday's briefs on the issue of hyperinflation.)

News Briefs
  • Outside mediation is the only way out of the political impasse between Venezuela's government and opposition, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group. "If Venezuela is to save its democracy, negotiation over the terms of transition is needed, mediated by outsiders since no domestic institution commands the respect of both sides. An abrupt transfer of power, even if possible, might lead to serious instability and violence." (See Thursday's post on the breakdown of dialogue.)
  • Increasingly unpopular Brazilian President Michel Temer announced a raft of measures yesterday aimed to boost productivity and reduce red tape, reports the Wall Street Journal. Measures could include more credit for small businesses, faster import authorizations, and reducing paperwork for new hires.
  • A new Ibope poll found that Temer's approval rating has sunk to 13 percent, while the number of respondents who considered his government "bad" or "terrible" rose to 46 percent since early October, reports Reuters.
  • Folha de S. Paulo reported that another Odebrecht SA former exec has given testimony that Temer made illegal campaign donation requests of the construction firm, reports Reuters.
  • Temer has already lost seven cabinet members to corruption allegations in the six months he's governed, notes the Financial Times. The allegations, many stemming from plea bargain testimony with Odebrecht executives, combined with his plunging approval ratings, raise questions over his government's ability to survive, according to the piece.
  • Earlier this year there were hopes that the fetal malformations provoked by the Zika virus would push countries in the region towards a broader acceptance of abortion rights. In El Salvador, one of the world's most draconian countries when it comes to punishing pregnancy termination, that has not been the case, reports The Nation. Women are persecuted for natural complications leading to still births, and doctors are afraid to intervene even when the woman's life is at risk for fear of being accused of aborting. Entrenched opposition to abortion means FMLN attempts to soften the prohibition -- for example for cases of rape or risk to the woman's life -- have little chance of passing congress.
  • Four prominent land rights activists in Honduras have received death threats, denounced a monitoring group. The report comes amid growing international criticism of Honduras' failure to protect environmental activists and calls from U.S. Democrats to withhold more than $18 million in security aid to Honduras, reports Reuters.
  • An unwritten rule across the vast web of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in El Salvador prohibits gang members from being gay -- the punishment is death. Revista Factum has an in-depth report based on testimony from a gang member collaborating with authorities.
  • When Orlando Marquéz moved back to El Mozote, years after U.S. trained death squad massacred about a thousand townspeople, he sought to rebuild a home. Digging the foundations he found the skeletal remains of his family and neighbors, a grisly reminder of the ravages of the civil war in El Salvador, reports Sarah Maslin in a "Lives" piece for the New York Times magazine. (See Tuesday's briefs for more on the El Mozote anniversary last weekend.)
  • An assassination attempt against Jorge Machado, an evangelical pastor and advisor in efforts to purge Honduran police, killed a member of his security detail, reports La Prensa.
  • An internal review by the Mexican attorney general's office shows how investigators ran roughshod over suspects' and victims rights while seeking to solve the case of the missing 43 students of Ayotzinapa, reports the New York Times. The government has refused to release the 177 page report, which "depicts a series of violations, including the government’s top investigator’s taking a suspect to identify the supposed crime scene without a defense lawyer present," according to a copy obtained by the NYT.
  • The Mexican government's creation of four vast new nature reserves -- covering large tracts of sea and coast -- are laudable, but are unlikely to be implemented in a meaningful way, argues Adán Echeverría-García in the Conversation. Among the complications are cartels operating in reserve areas and how to include locals displaced by conservation areas. "... in practice, these schemes often simply force locals off their land while limiting traditional economic activities, such as fishing, and compel people to migrate."
  • Brazilian prosecutors filed new corruption charges against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his wife, reports the Wall Street Journal. He already faces trial in three criminal cases linked to the Car Wash probe into corruption at state-owned oil company Petrobras.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his political rival, former president Álvaro Uribe, met with the Pope yesterday, reports Reuters. Santos appealed for his support for a peace deal with the FARC, which Uribe has opposed saying it offers insufficient punishment for crimes committed by the guerrilla group. Pope Francis met with each separately and then with both together. The arrangement was unusual, in that it seemed to grant equal status to Uribe and Santos, a current head of state, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Ecuador's government sent security forces to Morona Santiago province and declared a 30 day state of emergency after a violent protest against a Chinese mine resulted in the death of a policeman. The government said "illegally armed groups" protested against the copper exploration project, reports Reuters.
  • Cuba's history of support for radical Puerto Rican independence militants deserves renewed scrutiny argues a piece in Foreign Affairs. U.S. President Barack Obama is being asked to to commute the sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera, the alleged leader of the FALN (a militant Puerto Rican separatist group). Over the years, Cuba has been accused of supporting the actions of violent Puerto Rican separatist groups operating in the U.S. and on the island. 
  • The Cuban government offered to pay off a multimillion dollar debt with the Czech Republic with rum, reports the BBC
  • Populism has a corrosive effect on democracy, writes Carlos de la Torre in a New York Times op-ed that compares U.S. president-elect Donald Trump with Latin American populists such as Juan Perón and Hugo Chávez. He compares the Latin American movements' railing against economic and political elites to Trump's hate mongering towards Mexicans -- a faulty proposition, in my opinion -- but makes the valid point that democracy in Venezuela and Ecuador has been eroded by a steady attack on civil liberties.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

FARC expels commanders who refuse to demobilize (Dec. 15, 2016)

The FARC is showing signs of division. The guerrilla group's leadership announced the expulsion of five mid-level commanders for refusing to demobilize and follow the peace deal with the Colombian government, reports the Guardian

Experts calculate, using other demobilization processes as a reference, that about 10 percent of the 6,000 FARC troops could go rogue. In the communication the group's high command warned other fighters not to follow "a futureless path of adventure," and rather to remain with the FARC through the demobilization, reports la Silla Vacía

The demobilization process is a moment of deconstruction of myths regarding the FARC. The dissidents (both these and previous ones over the past year) show that the organization does have elements that favor drug trafficking over revolution, while fighters' movement towards concentration zones is also demonstrating the key social and political role the guerrillas played in certain regions, according to la Silla Vacía.

News Briefs
  • The Colombian government pardoned at least 110 FARC rebels, the first of an estimated 300 pardons that will be issued for "political crimes," but not more serious offences such as killings, rape and torture, reports Al Jazeera
  • The revised peace pact approved by Colombia's Congress purportedly improved the issue of transitional justice for human rights crimes committed during Colombia's five decade conflict. But a last minute change at the behest of army commanders would exempt the armed forces from "command responsibility," meaning officers in charge of troops who committed human rights crimes would not be held criminally responsible, writes Human Rights Watch's Daniel Wilkinson in a Financial Times op-ed. The issue is all the more shocking considering that FARC commanders expressly rejected such an exception for their own chain of command, he notes. At stake are prosecutions of 14 army generals under investigation for the so-called "false positives" cases in which the military lured civilians to remote areas, then killed them and presented them as guerrillas, to inflate body counts. (See post for June 25, 2015, for example.)
  • Colombian senators approved a referendum to ask citizens whether they believe gay couples should be permitted to adopt, reports El País. Voters will be asked whether they would like to modify the constitution to stipulate that only a couple constituted by a man and a woman could adopt -- a measure that would leave out single parents, divorcees, and widows/ers as well as same-sex couples. The country's highest court determined that adoption agencies could not discriminate against same-sex couples last year. (See briefs for Nov. 6, 2015.) Opponents say the measure is discriminatory, and sends the message that families differing from a heterosexual married norm are less desirable. But the measure was presented with the signatures of 2 million Colombian voters, notes CNN.
  • A heavy handed approach to citizen security is one of the few points of agreement between Venezuela's government and political opposition. InSight Crime analyzes new data showing a significant increase in deaths associated to clashes between security forces and alleged criminals. 
  • Venezuelan foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez scuffled with security guards who blocked her attempt to enter a Mercosur meeting in the Argentine Foreign Affairs Ministry, reports Página 12. Venezuela was ousted from the trade bloc earlier this month. (See Dec. 2's briefs.) Rodríguez later managed to meet with Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, but did not gain access to the Mercosur meeting of foreign ministers, reports Reuters.
  • Venezuela's push to withdraw the 100 bolivar bill, currently the highest in circulation, threaten to leave citizens cashless just before the Christmas holidays, reports the Financial Times. Though the government planned to replaced them with higher denomination notes to be released this week, so far they have not entered circulation. (See Monday's post and yesterday's briefs.)
  • Hondura's supreme electoral tribunal accepted the candidacy of President Juan Orlando Hernández for reelection, reports El Heraldo. (See Nov. 10's post.)
  • A massive security deal between Honduras and Israel -- for more than $200 million in military contracts -- could be nixed by Washington opposition, reports the Jerusalem Post. (See Tuesday's briefs.) The U.S. opposes an Hernández administration policy allowing the air force to shoot down suspected drug planes flying through Honduran airspace, according to the JP. 
  • Fears that the U.S. could rollback the detente with Cuba has further weakened the island's economic forecast for next year, reports the Financial Times.
  • Brazilian President Michel Temer received another corruption related blow yesterday when an advisor resigned yesterday amid reports he had accepted illegal payments from construction company Odebrecht SA, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A Brazilian chemical company agreed to pay fines and damages of about $957 million as part of a leniency accord with prosecutors investigating a corruption scheme centered on Petrobras, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazil's lower chamber of congress voted early today to debate a bill that would increase the minimum retirement age by about a decade. Left-wing parties used stalling methods for 10 hours before the proposal was accepted by lower house's constitutional affairs committee, reports Reuters. The Temer administration is carrying out broad austerity measures, aimed at curbing public spending and restoring investor confidence in the economy. This proposal in particular would set the minimum retirement age at 65, in a country where most people work until 54. It is fiercely opposed by labor unions.
  • Economic activity decreased in Brazil in Oct for the fourth straight month, reports Reuters.
  • The tenuous ties between Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's government and Keiko Fujimori's right-wing party which dominates congress are fraying, reports Reuters. Though Fujimori's legislators initially helped him pass raft of reforms, they are now angling to oust PPK's education minister.
  • Ten year's of militarized fighting against criminal gangs in Mexico has been a mistake, according to the chairman of the U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances, reports TeleSur.
  • A standoff between a gang and vigilante group in Mexico's Guerrero state had a relatively happy ending. Residents of Totolapan released the gang leader's mother, who they had kidnapped, in exchange for a businessman captured by "los Tequileros," reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • New York Times español op-ed by Patricio Fernández analyzes the roots of a massive discontent in Chile with traditional politicians. And points to the growth of a new middle class that demands less economic inequality. "Chile has experienced an unprecedented political dispersion in the last decades A new order to replace the Concertación, now called Nueva Majoría, has not yet emerged. And the political class does not seem to have found the way to translate into compelling discourses and proposals the prevailing dissatisfaction," he writes. A generation raised without fear of a democratic failure is now demanding far more of its leadership.
  • Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's widow is accused of embezzling public funds through a not-for-profit women’s group in order to fund her husbands fight against extradition from Britain in the 1990s, reports AFP.
  • Nicaragua hired a U.S. lobby firm at $35,000 per month for the next year, reports the Hill. President Daniel Ortega recently won his third consecutive presidency and has been criticized for authoritarian tendencies. (See Nov. 7's post, for example.)
  • A joke gift to Chile's minister of economy -- an inflatable sex doll with a note saying "to stimulate the economy" taped over its mouth -- has caused a furor. President Michelle Bachelet weighed in on Twitter, calling the joke misogynist and an affront to her government's goal of promoting respect for women, reports the Associated Press.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Venezuela's political schism heating up again (Dec. 14, 2016)

Tensions between Venezuela's government and the opposition seem to be heating up even further, after a brief pause for Vatican mediated dialogue.

Yesterday MUD opposition coalition's legislators made a declaration ruling that the socialist president bore "political responsibility" for the crisis and urged state attorneys to investigate him with a view to prosecution, reports Reuters. The move had been suspended as a gesture of goodwill towards negotiations between the opposition and the government last month, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Government supporters argue that the legislative move itself is not supported constitutionally.

And the Supreme Court ratified two members of the national electoral council, who were supposed to have been replaced by National Assembly candidates, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Yesterday the government released four jailed activists, but opposition leaders say the gesture is insufficient and demand the release of 100 people they say are political prisoners, reports Reuters.

In Latin America Goes Global Christopher Sabatini slams the dialogue efforts, comparing the opposition to a battered wife seeking mediation with an abusive husband. "While necessary to cool the tensions, what the Vatican/UNASUR and their enablers in the U.S. State Department did was effectively get the opposition to give up their one remaining democratic channel and a democratic right to get no rights restored in return."

News Briefs
  • Venezuelans rushed to exchange 100 bolivar notes at banks yesterday, ahead of its withdrawal from circulation today, repots the Wall Street Journal. (See Monday's post.) The measure, ostensibly aimed at curtailing transnational gangs, has paralyzed the county. People have been standing in long lines at banks to deposit stacks of the about-to-be obsolete bills, worth about 3 U.S. cents on the black market. And in remote areas of the country businesses have opted to close rather than accept the bills in these days. The accumulation of bills across the border in Colombia speaks to the hoards of Venezuelan's crossing to buy basic goods they can't obtain at home, explain experts.
  • In the meantime, Venezuela has officially crossed the hyperinflation threshold, reports the Miami Herald. Though the term is often tossed around, it technically indicates that monthly inflation has passed fifty percent for over 30 consecutive days, and is quite rare. Prices double in about 18 days in Venezuela, which is actually a "mild" case of hyperinflation, according to experts.
  • Washington Post piece that got left out of yesterday's post on China's bid for closer economic relations with Latin America minimizes the potential impact. Latin Americans are mostly interested in China's economic opportunities but don't seek deeper cultural or political ties, writes Luis Schenoni. However, there is some evidence that as developing countries become more dependent on Chinese trade, they side with the country in multilateral organization votes on human rights and other issues.
  • Trump's nominee for U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has accrued a formidable amount of experience dealing with international governments as Exxon Mobil chief executive. Of course, his agenda as head of U.S.'s largest oil company has often clashed with that of the country, reports the New York Times. In Latin America, the standout is Venezuela -- where the Chávez administration expropriated the company's assets in 2007 after Exxon refused to cooperate with government demands for renegotiation.
  • The outgoing U.S. administration hopes to convince the incoming one to maintain the Cuba engagement policy, reports Reuters. Security advisor Ben Rhodes said the administration has sought to make the policy "irreversible," and that a rollback, such as the one Trump has threatened, "would be very damaging."
  • Cuban-American business leaders supporting the engagement policy were divided by a U.S. government request to work directly with Cuban state-run enterprises, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The union between Venezuela and Cuba -- based on the exchange of Venezuelan oil for Cuban doctors -- is fraying Venezuelan oil exports fall, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The recently approved peace accord in Colombia aims to end five centuries of armed conflict in the country -- but it also comprehensively seeks to address root social and economic causes behind the fighting, writes United States special envoy to the Colombian peace process Bernard Aronson in a New York Times op-ed. "More than in any previous conflict negotiation, Colombia put victims at the center of the process," he writes, arguing that the U.S. interests in the region would be best served by continuing to support the peace process by approving $450 million in funding for Obama's "Paz Colombia" plan.
  • Colombia's constitutional court green-lighted a legislative fast-track for peace accord related reforms, giving the process a critical piece of support, reports La Silla Vacía. The judges determined that Colombia’s elected lawmakers possess the requisite “democratic legitimacy” to approve the deal without the need for a new referendum. The ruling clears the way for the FARC to officially start demobilization and laying down of weapons, explains the Washington Post. Had the court ruled otherwise, the reforms would have had to take a slower route through Congress, a risky proposition for a fragile cease-fire, according to President Juan Manuel Santos.
  • Yet the demobilization effort is already delayed, reports La Silla Vacía, thanks to logistical issues that also relate to how the former fighters will reorganize after laying down arms.
  • In the meantime, negotiations with the second largest guerrilla force in Colombia, the ELN, will likely be hindered by the group's increasing demobilization rate, which suggests the leadership is incapable of controlling troops, reports InSight Crime.
  • Legislation aimed at strengthening the United States’ engagement with the Caribbean region unanimously passed the U.S. Senate, reports the Miami Herald. The bill, sent to Obama for approval, would create a multi-year strategy on issues of concern to the region such as security, energy, diplomacy and increased access to educational opportunities.
  • Trump Hotels announced it will remove its name from a Rio de Janeiro luxury hotel after prosecutors announced a criminal investigation into investments in the property, reports the Washington Post. The decision comes after president-elect Trump tweeted that his sons, who will manage the company's overseas investments while he is in office, wouldn't launch new deals in that term.
  • Demonstrators in cities around Brazil protested yesterday after the senate passed a 20 year government spending freeze. Dozens were arrested in Brasilia and in São Paulo they attacked the iconic Federation of Industries headquarters, reports the New York Times. The Temer administration has defended its austerity measures as critical to lifting the national economy out of a deep recession. Nonetheless various senators from his coalition refrained from voting, notes the NYT. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Former Odebrecht SA chief executive Marcelo Odebrecht told prosecutors that that Brazilian President Michel Temer asked for a $3 million political contribution from the company, reports Reuters.
  • Mexico's Senate overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana bill yesterday, reports Reuters. The measure, which now passes to the lower chamber, would permit use of products with both CBD and THC chemical components, and would also allow for production of marijuana for scientific and medicinal purposes. The initiative was proposed by President Enrique Peña Nieto in April of this year, but postponed by senators in July due to lack of consensus, reports Animal Político. Senators removed a measure in the bill that would have increased the amount of cannabis considered for personal use, and legislators in favor of legalizing recreational use say this is only a first step.
  • A vigilante group in the Guerrero state town of Totolapan kidnapped a local gang boss' mother, along with two dozen suspected gang members. They demand the release of several inhabitants of the town who were kidnapped by the "Tequileros" last week, reports the Associated Press.
  • Feminist activists in Peru are fighting against a government decision to shelve claims by thousands of women who say they were forcibly sterilized in a mid-90's program promoted by then-President Alberto Fujimori. Last week the government's public prosecutor closed its investigation into complaints by 77 women, while another investigation into more than 2,000 other women was closed this past summer, reports Reuters.
  • A Médecins Sans Frontières obstetrical hospital in Haiti can be the difference between life or death in the country with the region's worst rates of death in childbirth and neonatal mortality, reports the Financial Times in a holiday appeal piece.
  • Archeologists are challenging long-held beliefs that human society in the pre-colonial Amazon was limited to small nomadic tribes. Discoveries including giant land carvings, remains of fortified settlements and even complex road networks have some experts hypothesizing larger, more complex cultures, reports the New York Times.
  • The Guardian has an in-depth piece on "Latin America's Schindler," Roberto Kozak who saved thousands from General Augusto Pinochet's secret police.