Monday, February 29, 2016

Human rights briefs from around the region:

  • Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights has an interesting analysis of a proposed amnesty law in Venezuela's National Assembly. (See Feb. 17's post.) Keymer Ávila looks at a lot of specific details of the bill, and compares it to other amnesty laws passed under Chávez, as well as those passed internationally in Chile, Spain, Argentina, Guatemala and Peru. While these aim at cooling down extremely tense political conflict, they are very questioned from a human rights point of view, he notes. He especially emphasizes that the law should only include offenses of a political nature, and that political will on both sides is fundamental if the tool is to work. 
  • Chile has been investigating human rights abuses committed under military rule. But progress is slow. More than 1,370 military, police and civilian agents have been indicted, charged or sentenced for human rights crimes. Of these, only 117 people have been imprisoned, reports the New York Times. Conscripts have not been incarcerated yet, and judges have treated them benevolently, hoping to encourage them to cooperate and share information about abuses.
  • The search for the bodies of unidentified victims of the Colombian conflict is part of the peace agreements between the FARC and the government, and it is hoped the efforts will contribute to a healing process and help reestablish faith in rule of law. In October the two sides agreed to establish a high-level agency to search for the bodies of the estimated 45,000 people who were believed to have been killed by one side or the other and whose bodies were discarded without record during the conflict. An additional 220,000 people are confirmed to have been killed, reports the Associated Press. (See Friday's post.)
  • Last week a Guatemalan court sentenced two former soldiers to 360 years in prison for crimes that included the sexual enslavement of women in 1982, during the country's civil war. "The Sepur Zarco trial was groundbreaking for three reasons," argues Catalina Ruiz Navarro in the Guardian. "Unlike other trials involving sexual violence during armed conflicts – such as the cases in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia – the proceedings were conducted entirely by a national court. The verdict has set a precedent for treating domestic and sexual slavery as war crimes – something that is crucial for the advancement of transitional justice in many Latin American countries. And it seeks to build a standard of proof based on the testimony of survivors – important because, in a case like this, where the events occurred more than 30 years ago, little physical evidence is available."
  • Estela de Carlotto, head of Argentina's Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo rights group, said she will petition U.S. President Barack Obama to declassify documents related to the country's last military dictatorship when he visits next month, reports AFP. His visit will overlap with a mass demonstration marking the 40th anniversary of the coup that led to Argentina's 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
News Briefs
  • The populist leaders of Latin America's so-called "pink tide" may be failing at the ballot boxes, but their policies have taken a lasting hold in the region, argues a piece in the New York Times. "No leader in Latin America today can afford not to focus on inequality and go back to the neoliberal formulas of the 1990s," Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, told the paper. "Whatever criticism you might have of the leaders of the left, they put their finger on the legitimate grievance of Latin Americans: that they had been excluded from the political system." (The NYTimes has an accompanying photo series focused on Cobija, the Amazon Basin town favored by Bolivian President Evo Morales.)
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he'd consider seeking another term in office in 2018, though his poll ratings have declined, reports the Associated Press. His comment was made at an event to mark 36 years of the governing Workers' Party. Lula said he would put himself forward as a candidate "if necessary."
  • Gabriela Zapata, the ex girlfriend of Bolivian President Evo Morales, has been arrested in an influence-peddling investigation. She's a manager at a a Chinese group that recently won a bid for a major railroad expansion project, reports AFP. The case was part of a series of scandals that affected Morales' popularity just before citizen's narrowly rejected a referendum proposal that would have permitted him to run for a fourth term in office. (See Feb. 22's post.)
  • A U.S. judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Venezuela's central bank against a prominent website that publishes information on the country’s currency black market, reports the Wall Street Journal. is registered in Delaware, and the Venezuelan government accused the site and the three U.S.-residing Venezuelan nationals behind it, of economic sabotage and "cyber-terrorism."
  • The mistreatment of a provincial Peruvian cop who actually pursued drug traffickers is an example of the difficulties faced by the country's poorly paid, notoriously neglected police force, according to the Associated Press.
  • Mexico City prosecutors say police have rescued 87 women, including three minors, who were being forced to work as prostitutes at illegal bars in a densely populated, poor district of the capital, reports the Associated Press.
  • U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump's inflammatory comments about migrants and promises to build a wall on the Mexican border could threaten twenty years of closer ties and economic integration brought about by the North American Free Trade Agreement, reports the Guardian. Even if the candidate's promises are never fulfilled, many in Mexico fear the discourse could lead to a more draconian border policy. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has rejected the views expressed in the Republican campaign and two former Mexican presidents have compared Trump's rhetoric to Hitler's, reports the Guardian. Many fear the campaign expresses sentiments that are shared by millions of Americans, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán says he'd be willing to accept extradition to the U.S. and to plead guilty to charges there if he can get an "unelevated sentence" in a medium security prison, according to his lawyers. He is trying to negotiate this course of action due to what he describes as rough treatment in Mexico's Altiplano prison where he is currently being held. He is being woken up every four hours to make sure he hasn't escaped and the stress and sleeplessness are giving him headaches, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Authorities in northwestern Mexico say eight adults and two children were killed when a bus carrying a group of evangelical Christians went off a mountain road and crashed down about 45 meters into a ravine, reports the Associated Press.
  • Mexican hibernating monarch butterfly population rebounded last year, indicating a possibility that the species might survive threats such as dwindling supplies of food, erratic weather patterns and illegal logging, reports the New York Times.
  • More from InSight Crime analyzing the MS13 gang. Gang expert Juan Martínez D'aubussion. He says the gang, and it's main competitor, Barrio 18,"are less vertical than before and during the truce. The unquestioned power of prison groups has given way to a greater degree of autonomy at the local level, at the level of cliques." (See last Friday's briefs for more analysis.)
  • Former Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was summoned by a judge, along with former members of her administration, to face questions about her government’s handling of the futures dollar market, reports the Associated Press.
  • Brazilan Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardoso plans to quit in response to pressure from his Workers' Party over a police probe into the activities of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, reports Reuters based on Brazilian press.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Probable delays in Colombian peace deal, "Peace Colombia" plan analysis (Feb. 26, 2016)

The Colombian peace negotiations were supposed to be wrapped up next month, according to an agreement from last year. But a face-off between the Colombian government and the FARC last week makes it increasingly unlikely that the Colombian government and the FARC will meet the March 23 deadline, reports the Washington Post.

Last week FARC leaders held a sort of political event in Conejo, a town near the Venezuelan border. Pictures and video footage show leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia interacting with townspeople with heavily armed guerrillas standing by, reports the Associated Press. (See last Friday's briefs.) The Colombian government said the event is a violation of the safe passage granted to FARC commanders to promote the peace deal among their 7,000 troops.

The episode shows the divergent views over the peace process, according to the Post. "The government wants the guerrillas to make amends, recognize wrongdoing and help bring law and order to rural Colombia. But FARC views the process as a runway to electoral politics, and nothing like a capitulation."

On that note, Silla Vacía has an interesting piece on the FARC's political platform, which includes the idea that the peace accords are the fruits of 52-years of armed conflict. A pamphlet distributed at the Conejo event says the group is advancing in the construction of socialism and how each social group wins with the peace agreement. The pamphlet urges each community to create an implementation and verification committee for the accords.

On Wednesday Cuba and Norway, the "guarantors" of the peace process, said the two sides had reached an agreement to "set aside their recent differences and normalize the talks," reports EFE. They did not specify, however, when Bogota and the FARC would return to the negotiating table.

A more realistic date for a final peace agreement and signing ceremony would be closer to mid-June, according to the Post. The U.N. envoy to Colombia also said a bit more time might be needed and that the first half of the year might be a feasible time-frame, according to Colombia Reports.

Colombia and the FARC have yet to agree on the details of disarmament and the manner the final accord will be ratified. President Juan Manuel Santos wants to put the peace deal to a popular vote, but the FARC wants it passed by a constituent assembly.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday he may be meeting with participants in the Colombia peace talks within the next few days, reports Reuters.

And Amnesty International slammed the accord that establishes the outlines of a transitional justice system for victims of the fifty-year conflict. In its annual report that was published this week the organization said deal doesn’t meet international standards when it comes to granting truth, justice and reparation to victims, according to Colombia Reports.

Meanwhile, analysis of the revamped Plan Colombia -- "Peace Colombia" -- looks at the new priorities and how different they really are.

Obama's $450 million proposal means a 32 percent boost in aid over this year, but much of the funds will still go to military and counternarcotics programs rather than projects to build a sustainable post-war society, according to analysis by Colombia Reports.

"From the information we have available now, “Peace Colombia” appears to be an important and necessary step, and an improvement over past U.S. approaches in Colombia. But it is also a smaller, and more military-focused, program than it should be. The new package is different than what came before, but not radically different," writes WOLA's Adam Isacson.

While the new funding is an increase over current spending, it's still far less than what the U.S. government was providing a decade ago. "This sends the unfortunate message that Washington is more generous in times of war than in times of consolidating peace. Still, for the first time, the majority of U.S. aid will go to non-military priorities: to Colombians who do not wear uniforms and carry weapons," explains Isacson.

In a NACLA piece, Winifred Tate looks at the history of Plan Colombia and argues that it failed to address the roots of the Colombian conflict. The counternarcotics efforts failed to stop drug trafficking and impunity for violence has continued over the past twenty years, she says. "After 15 years, the hollow triumphs of Plan Colombia have created a nation of victims where impunity still reigns supreme."

News Briefs
  • There's ongoing concern that a successful peace deal in Colombia could push many demobilized guerrillas towards criminal organizations, as occurred when right-wing paramilitary groups were disbanded, reports Bloomberg. (The Washington Post had a similar piece earlier this month, focusing specifically on the country's most powerful crime syndicate, Clan Úsuga, see Feb. 5's post.)
  • Haiti's provisional president has appointed reputable economist Fritz Jean as the new prime minister, reports Reuters. Jean's job will include helping create a balanced election council supported by Haiti's fractious rival political parties, a key step needed to hold the election set for April. The U.S. educated economist once headed Haiti's central bank and the YMCA, reports the Miami Herald. He will be sworn in later today. His name was put forward by human rights organizations. Some interpret the technocrat's appointment as a sign that provisional president Jocelerme Privert, views his caretaker government as having a wider mission than organizing April's presidential and partial legislative run-off elections. He believes it should prevent the total collapse of the country's economy, according to the Herald.
  • Jamaican voters narrowly chose the opposition in yesterday's general election. Voters tired of years of tough IMF-mandated austerity measures chose the Jamaican Labour Party's promises of job creation and tax cuts, reports Reuters. Preliminary results from the Electoral Commission showed the Jamaica Labor Party capturing 33 spots in the 63-seat Parliament, enough to form a government. Jamaicans are also discontent over rising levels of crime, notes the Associated Press. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Testimony in Brazil's ongoing "Operation Car Wash" investigation into corruption at Petrobras led to several search and seizure warrants in several states yesterday focused on suspected bribes and over billing in two large railway projects, reports Reuters.
  • Brazilian police raided the offices of the country’s biggest steelmaker and questioned the company’s chief executive yesterday as part of an investigation into suspected tax fraud of about $380 million, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A proposed bill to open Brazil's offshore oil fields to private investment received Senate approval this week (see yesterday's briefs), but faces fierce resistance from opponents who say the resource should stay under national control, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • President Dilma Rousseff's approval ratings have increased, despite the ongoing recession and massive corruption scandal. Nonetheless, a majority of Brazilians still want to see her impeached, reports Reuters. The number of Brazilians who favor Rousseff's impeachment has slipped to 55.6 percent from 62.8 percent in July, while 40.3 percent now oppose impeaching her, compared with 32.1 percent in July, the poll said.
  • In his most recent book, "Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America," Ioan Grillo explores "the move from the Cold War to a chain of crime wars soaking Latin America and the Caribbean in blood," reports InSight Crime. Looking to explain the wave of violence that has engulfed the region, Grillo points to the collapse of military dictatorships and guerrilla forces in the region, and weak emerging democracies, plagued by corruption, which have failed to establish working justice systems and the rule of law.
  • An interesting piece by journalist Carlos García on InSight Crime debunks common myths about the MS13 gang. "While it is true that the MS13 is extremely violent, their aggression does not make them by extension a multidisciplinary criminal group. The simple fact that an individual belongs to a gang does not make him a drug trafficker, kidnapper, pimp, or in the most extreme case, an ally of Islamic terrorism. Compelling evidence exists that refute these accusations."
  • A series of raids yesterday in Honduras targeted assets from extortion rings that include MS13 and government officials, reports InSight Crime. A focus on the financial side of extortion networks could signal a new type of crackdown against the gang, that could be more effective than "mano dura," according to the piece.
  • Former Salvadoran President Tony Saca will face a civil trial "for illicit enrichment," reports EFE.
  • The BBC has a feature on landless peasants who were given small plots to farm from expropriated land in Venezuela. Venezuela's parliamentary opposition says the expropriations were arbitrary and lawless; it has proposed a new law which would allow former owners to claim back expropriated land. Many of the smallholders are die-hard Chávez supporters, and pro-government candidates swept the board in the rural area of the Maizal commune, on the plains and mountains of two states, Lara and Portuguesa.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Cuba gives some political dissidents one-time travel permission (Feb. 25, 2016)

The Cuban government has given some prominent political dissidents permission for one trip overseas, ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit, reports the New York Times

Members of a group of 11 dissidents imprisoned in 2003 said yesterday that officials have told seven of them that have a one-time travel permission as a reward for good behavior. Four, more politically active members of the group remain unable to travel, reports the Associated Press.

The move is an apparent overture towards Obama, who has expressed concern regarding the government's human rights record, reports Deutsche Welle. The move serves several purposes, explains the BBC: it is both an example of fairer treatment of political dissidents, and could lead them to permanently relocate. 

The 11 dissidents were imprisoned during the 2003 crackdown known as the Black Spring, in which 75 people were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The dissidents were freed in 2010, under pressure from the Catholic Church and from Spain, Cuba freed the dissidents on the condition that they leave the country permanently. The 11 decided to stay anyway.

But one of the dissidents emphasized to DW that the overture is nothing concrete, when the dissidents return they'll still be in legal limbo. Another told the AP that it could be an attempt to spur them to move away.

When the diplomatic rapprochement began in Cuba and the U.S. about a year ago, the Cuban government released 53 people considered by Washington as political prisoners.

But, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (an independent human rights organization considered illegal by the Cuban government), Cuba has resumed detentions, reports the BBC. The Commission says on average more than 700 people were detained temporarily each month in 2015.

Ben Rhodes, Assistant to Obama and Deputy National Security Advisor, told journalists that Obama will be meeting with dissidents during his visit to Cuba next month. Counterpunch reviews a Feb. 18 Press Briefing by Rhodes and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in they say there will be no change to the Wet Foot-Dry Foot policy that gives Cuban migrants a fast-track to legal U.S. residency. (See post for Nov. 25, 2015.)

Rhodes also expresses that the Obama Cuba policy is part of a wider goal of improving relations with Latin America: "The Cuba opening also has to be seen as part of an effort by the United States to significantly increase our engagement in the hemisphere. This is a region that had long rejected our Cuba policy. Our Cuba policy had, in fact, isolated the United States more than it had isolated Cuba in the hemisphere."

Yesterday Obama renewed a 20-year-old state of national emergency to enforce a blockade that prohibits U.S.-registered vessels and aircraft from entering Cuban waters or airspace without authorization, reports USA Today. However the administration softened the language used by previous administrations to justify the emergency, and expressed a desire for "a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Cuba."

Even as the thaw continues between the two countries, the U.S. continues to enforce the economic embargo against Cuba with fines levied against companies, reports the Miami Herald. The U.S. Treasury says about $5 million in fines have been imposed since rapprochement began a year ago. But the Cuban government says the number is $2.84 billion and says it shows the extent of the embargo's deterrent effect on business with the island.

News Briefs
  • The Chinese spurred commodities boom that has created economic growth across Latin America has been accompanied by protests by locals affected by mega projects. Clashes that have led to deaths in Honduras, Ecuador and Peru, which is the focus of a Los Angeles Times piece that looks at resistance to Chinese owned La Bamba mine.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto visited Iguala yesterday, 17 months after 43 teachers' college students disappeared following their abduction by local police. He avoided meeting with missing students' families though, and made only brief references to the case, reports the Guardian. Since the attack and probable massacre, Peña Nieto's aloof response to the tragedy has generated widespread anger and sent his popularity plummeting. Yesterday, Peña Nieto said those events showed the necessity for Mexico to continue advancing on a road pegged to the rule of law and institutions and said that the government has sought justice "through a deep, transparent and open investigation, including with the collaboration of international entities," reports the Associated Press. But international experts continue to question the official investigation into  the case and earlier this week denounced difficulties in conducting a probe in collaboration with authorities. (See Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Mexican journalist Moisés Dagdug Lutzow, media company owner and former politician, was stabbed to death in his home this weekend. Though police believe he was the victim of a robbery, colleagues say he had previously received threats and that he'd been critical of the Tabasco state government and its governor, Arturo Nuñez Jimenez, reports the Guardian. Earlier this year a report by the International Federation of Journalists put Mexico in third place world wide for murdered journalists. About 2,300 journalists have been killed in the past 25 years, reports the Associated Press.
  • Jamaicans head to the polls today. The ruling party is widely expected to be re-elected, after a successful economic austerity plan restored growth to the heavily indebted country, reports Reuters. Nonetheless, unemployment is high, especially for youth, and the incumbent People's National Party must fight off opposition promises of job creation and tax cuts. The election comes months early and in the midst of rising violent crime, reports the Miami Herald. The campaign has been marred by several shootings that have killed two people and left dozens injured at campaign events.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales conceded defeat yesterday in a referendum that would have allowed him to run for a fourth term in office. He said he would use the four years left of his current mandate to advance his Socialist-inspired agenda, reports the New York Times. Articles earlier this week pointed to the result as part of a broader ideological shift in the region. But the Guardian says it probably has more to do with specific scandals, voter fatigue, rising expectations and deteriorating economic prospects. (See Monday's and Tuesday's posts and yesterday's briefs.)
  • World Health Organization head Margaret Chan praised the Brazilian government's respond to the Zika virus outbreak. She emphasized the government's commitment, transparency and willingness to collaborate at both national and international levels, reports the Associated Press.
  • Moody's Investors Service became the third major firm to downgrade Brazil's sovereign-credit rating to junk status, yesterday, reports the Wall Street Journal. Though the move was widely expected, it adds to a desolate political and economic scenario for the country, reports the Guardian.
  • Urban unemployment in Brazil increased last month and wages continued to drop, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The arrest earlier this week of a prominent electoral consultant associated with President Dilma Rousseff (see Tuesday's briefs) means a new turn for the worst for Brazil's political and economic crisis, argues Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. Specifically it raises more possibilities for Rousseff's impeachment or an early election, he says.
  • A new bill passed by Brazil's Senate yesterday could open up oil exploration off the country's coast, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A planned $250 million submarine cable linking Brazil directly to Europe aims to avoid U.S. electronic espionage. Google and Facebook have already expressed interest in using it, according to the Brazilian Communications Minister Andre Figueiredo, reports Bloomberg.
  • Hundreds of young Salvadorans seeking refuge from rampant gang violence volunteer in a long-standing EMT group, the Comandos, reports the Wall Street Journal. The Nobel Peace Prize nominated group was established during the country's civil war and won respect from all sides by treating soldiers, guerrillas and civilians. Now it gives youths an alternative to gang recruitment.
  • A coalition of U.S. Latino organizations will release a set of policies they recommend for politicians seeking to court the growing group of voters, reports Reuters. They will recommend policies on everything from economic security, education and comprehensive immigration reform to the environment and health.
  • The scientific quest to determine the cause of Chile's Nobel laureate poet Pablo Neruda continues. An international team of genomics experts and forensic specialists will study the bones and teeth of Neruda, reports the Associated Press. The poet was exhumed in 2013, but tests showed no toxic agents in his bones. He died in 1973, after a military coup by Augusto Pinochet. Foul play has long been suspected, though he ostensibly died of natural causes.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Mexican legislators pledge to propose marijuana reform (Feb. 24, 2016)

Last week the Mexican Congress wrapped up a series of public audiences on alternative options for marijuana regulation. The nine sessions analyzed the effects of cannabis on the health of the consumer, regulation of consumption in relation to public health, preventative public security, relation to the penitentiary system, and relation to criminal policy and relation to addiction treatment, explains Laura Rojas in Exelsior

In January she noted that legal reform, with a focus on avoiding the criminalization of consumers and human rights, is pertinent after last year's Supreme Court ruling that could potentially pave the way for judicial decriminalization. (See the post for Nov. 17, 2015.)

Legislators closing the debates said they were in favor of a change in marijuana regulation and committed to propose bills on the issue, taking the Supreme Court ruling as a base, reports Televisa.

The president of the Human Rights Commission noted in particular a grave problems stemming from prohibition that were presented in the hearings, reports La Razón.

Legislators noted that crimes against health are the leading cause of incarceration of women (80 percent), that most of them have no criminal record and were not carrying arms at the time of their detention, that 98 percent of those women are mothers, poor and with low levels of education.

And the governor of Morelos state, Graco Ramírez, proposed a national consultation for a new marijuana regulation framework. He emphasized the earnings of drug dealers, which are estimated at $39 billion and said the federal government could save more than $10.5 billion by legalizing cannabis.

Mexican Times reviews the debate.

Expert opinions presented to the Congress include Jorge Javier Romero, of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), who said the prohibitionist model has failed and brought along with it a high cost in social violence, reports Sputnik Mundo

The war on drugs has failed, and Mexico risks being left behind its allies if it doesn't work towards regulating cannabis, former said the former Minister of Foreign Relations Jorge Castañeda.

The former rector of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Juan Ramón de la Fuente, emphasized the need to discuss legal possession of the subject considering that two-thirds of the people in prison for illegal possession of drugs were incarcerated for marijuana, reports Proceso.

In fact, the main reason for legalizing cannabis is to get thousands of users out of the penal system, argues CIDE's Catalina Pérez Correa in El Universal.

While there is excitement about potential marijuana legalization paving the way for broader acceptance of alternative drug policies, Alejandro Hope cautions against over-enthusiasm in his El Daily Post column.

News Briefs
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales officially lost a constitutional referendum which would have allowed him to run for a fourth term. With 99.7 percent of the votes counted, the motion lost by 48.7 percent to 51.3 against the amendment, reports La Razón. Morales did not concede defeat yesterday however, and could still appeal the results before they become final, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's post and Monday's.) The loss shows the limits of Morales' popularity -- its his first significant loss at the ballot box, util last fall his approval ratings were at 75 percent, reports the Los Angeles Times. He was also unfavorably impacted by plunging commodities prices and allegations of influence-peddling that arose this month. The Wall Street Journal puts the loss in a context of the decline of left-wing leaders in the region over the past year. "It is less an ideological shift than just a sense of fatigue with governments in power for a long time that are no longer delivering the results that they did before," Michael Shifter, the president of  the Inter-American Dialogue told the WSJ. "The slowing economy is a big factor that has led voters to be frustrated and reject the status quo and look for alternatives."
  • Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, head of a Mexican drug trafficking cartel pleaded guilty in a US federal court, admitting that he helped ship tons of cocaine from South America to the United States, reports the Associated Press. He was captured in Mexico in 2008 and extradited two years ago. Prosecutors say that Beltrán Leyva had sold drugs to US gangs in exchange for weapons, commanded squads of hitmen who tortured and murdered rivals, and paid bribes to Mexican government officials.
  • Meanwhile the wife of recently recaptured Sinaloa Cartel kingpin, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán," spoke to the media to relay an urgent message: she fears her husband won't survive his stint in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison, reports the Los Angeles Times. She says he is constantly watched, not allowed to sleep and without privacy to use the bathroom, conditions she describes as "slowly being tortured."
  • Subcomandante Marcos, the charismatic leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, is formally free of 20 year-old charges of rebellion, terrorism and possession of illegal firearms. A judge ruled that the statute of limitations of the charges against Marcos has expired by this month, reports the Associated Press.
  • El Daily Post reports on the soaring numbers of private security guards in Mexico, who operate without a reliable registry that tracks who they are and how many there are. Estimates compiled by the National Confederation of Private Security Agents suggest that the total number of security personnel is twice the number of state and federal police officers in the country.
  • Nicaraguan Rev. Fernando Cardenal died yesterday. He was one of four priests steeped in liberation theology who joined the revolutionary Sandinista cabinet in the 1980s and defied Pope John Paul II's order to quit. He was expelled by the Jesuits and suspended from the priesthood by the pope. As culture minister from mid 1984 to 1990 he oversaw a sweeping campaign that local officials credited with reducing illiteracy to 13 percent from 51 percent, reports the New York Times.
  • InSight Crime has an excerpt from journalist Ioan Grillo's new book "Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America," in which he goes into Antares, a Rio de Janeiro favela dominated by the Red Command drug gang.
  • The president of the Samarco mining company and six other people have been charged with aggravated homicide over the deaths of at least 17 people after a dam burst in November in Brazil, reports the Associated Press. The police say the catastrophic dam failure was the result of mining company's attempts to expand the structure too quickly without proper monitoring, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • El Faro reports on the links between Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes and João Santana, the Brazilian electoral consultant who was arrested yesterday in Brazil on charges of international money laundering in relation to the Petrobras corruption scandal. (See yesterday's briefs.) Santana and his wife, Mónica Regina Cunha Moura (who also surrendered to police yesterday) worked on Funes' campaign in 2009 and have done publicity for the government since, according to El Faro.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a possible Cuba trip to discuss human rights ahead of a scheduled visit to the island next month by President Barack Obama, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. (See last Thursday's post.)
  • Ramón Castro, older brother to Fidel and Raúl, died in Cuba yesterday. The 91-year-old was a lifelong rancher and farmer, reports the Associated Press. He was a founding member of the Cuban Communist Party. But, though he aided the guerrilla movement led by his brothers, and was jailed by dictator Fulgencio Batista, he never took up arms, reports Reuters.
  • U.S. and Brazilian health workers are seeking to determine if there is a link between the Zika virus and a surge in birth defects in Brazil. But the eight teams of "disease detectives" ran afoul of traffic and logistics problems on their first day in Paraiba, one of the areas where the dual problems of Zika and microcephaly are concentrated, reports the Associated Press
  • Finding a definitive link between Zika and microcephaly will be difficult and could take a while, reports Reuters. It took a decade to prove the link between rubella and congenital defects. Case controlled studies, which will provide proof, could take months at least. Nonetheless, the World Health Organization is promising more answers in weeks.
  • Yesterday the head of the World Health Organization met with Brazilian government officials to discuss ways of combating the mosquito-borne Zika virus. New microcephaly figures released yesterday confirmed an additional 75 cases, a total of a total of 583 since October, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The end of international sanctions against Iran could trigger a flurry of trade deals, including negotiations for Brazilian Embraer airliners, taxis, buses and trucks, reports Reuters. The deal could be an important boon for ailing Brazilian industries.
  • A three-year drought in Haiti has devastated local agricultural production and is affecting a significant portion of the population's access to food. About 3.6 million of its 10.4 million people can't afford the minimum daily calories, and almost half of those are in urgent need of assistance, meaning they're getting significantly less nutrition than what they need and are so underfed they become weak, reports the Associated Press. The World Food Program is seeking $84 million in donations to distribute cash and food to roughly 1 million drought-affected Haitians. (See Feb. 10's post.)
  • A national public sector strike planned for today in Argentina will test President Mauricio Macri and the government's new anti-protest protocol. (See last Friday's post.) Unions representing hospital and government office workers, among other public sector employees, are staging a one-day walkout across the country, reports Reuters. In a bid at fiscal discipline, one of Macri's first moves since taking office in December was to fire thousands of public employees, along with a long-predicted devaluation of the peso and elimination of energy subsidies. While the moves are lauded by international investors, they've already taken a toll on the 60 percent approval rating he had upon taking office, notes Reuters. It's not clear what will happen with the new anti-protest protocol today, as unions have challenged it in courts, reports La Nación.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Bolivian president insists on waiting for final results in referendum vote (Feb. 23, 2016)

Bolivian President Evo Morales refuses to accept defeat in Sunday's constitutional referendum on whether to modify presidential term limits. While exit polls suggest a failure of his motion to permit a second reelection, Morales insists that a final recount could bring a victory to the "yes" votes, reports the New York Times.

But a partial count issued yesterday afternoon by the electoral committee showed 59 percent of voters rejecting the measure and 41 percent supporting it. With 80 percent of the ballots counted just after midnight Monday, the "no" vote stood at 55 percent, reports the Associated Press

Polls indicated a single digit margen of victory, and Morales said yesterday that votes are still being counted in rural areas where he has a lot of support. The president blamed what he said was a dirty social media campaign by his political opponents for the poor showing, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's post.)

News Briefs
  • The group of international experts for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission who are investigating the case of 43 disappeared teacher's college students say they have run into serious obstacles, reports the Associated Press. In a press conference on Sunday, they voiced concern about being given limited access to new information uncovered by government investigators and criticized leaks of statements from some of those arrested in the case that the panel said "don’t correspond to the truth." They also said authorities had not allowed them be present for statements by military personnel who were witnesses to the disappearance.
  • "Authoritarian leadership, stifled dissent, limited freedom of assembly, and endless violence, are the hallmarks of Mexico under Peña Nieto. It's time for Washington to pull the plug," argues John M. Ackerman in Foreign Policy. "The real problem is at the top, not the bottom, of the Mexican political system. And the key obstacles reside within the Mexican federal government."
  • Venezuela's government announced a decrease in gas subsidies and a devaluation last week, but much more needs to be done to stabilize the crisis-hit economy. Steps towards improvement include creating a system to ensure food and medicines at reasonable prices for citizens, stabilizing the currency, eliminating price controls and diversifying the economy away from oil, argues CEPR's Mark Weisbrot in Fortune.
  • Given the magnitude of Venezuela's crisis, the modest policy changes announced last week won't be enough, according to Michael McCarthy and Fulton Armstrong at the AULA Blog. They report on the modest measures taken since the Supreme Court decision reaffirming President Nicolas Maduro's authority to declare an "economic emergency."
  • The campaign strategist behind Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's two electoral victories, João Santana, surrendered to police this morning, reports Reuters. A federal judge issued arrest warrants yesterday for the temporary detention of Santana and his wife in relation to the ever-widening Petrobras corruption scandal. Federal prosecutors accuse the couple of receiving payments of about $7.5 million in offshore accounts from key figures involved in the large corruption scheme, reports the New York Times. The latest twist in the investigation harms Rousseff's case of staying out of the scandal, according to the Wall Street Journal. The development occurs just as impeachment proceedings against Rousseff were losing steam. Santana is suspected of money laundering and corruption in connection with at least $3 million in suspected illegal payments he allegedly received from Brazilian building giant Odebrecht SA. Santana and his wife turned themselves into the police upon their return this morning from the Dominican Republic, where they were working on the re-election campaign of President Danilo Medina, reports the Wall Street Journal in a subsequent piece.
  • Colombian authorities are making efforts to identify about 28,000 victims of the country's fifty-year civil war who were found in unmarked graves, reports the Associated Press. Prosecutors say the process can be sped up thanks to an agreement between the government and the FARC in the course of ongoing peace negotiations between the two sides. The two sides are quarreling over restrictions imposed on FARC leaders' visits to Colombia last week. (See Friday's briefs.)
  • Last week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos urged FARC leaders to respect a March 23 deadline for a peace agreement, warning time was short as tensions rose over the negotiations, reports AFP.
  • The conservative former Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe, announced an anti-government march for April 2, in order to object to the ongoing peace talks with the FARC, according to Colombia Reports. The Democratic Center party says the government has been too soft in the negotiations and given too many concessions. 
  • The average daily violent death toll so far this year in El Salvador is 23.5, more than double that in the same period last year, reports EFE. The increase is due to the rise in the number of gang members killed in clashes with police and the army, according to authorities.
  • Al Jazeera has a feature on the forensic anthropology investigations in Guatemala's Military District 21, where 558 bodies were found in pits. (In January authorities arrested 18 former military officers in relation to massacres and disappearances carried out from the detention center. See Jan. 7's post.)
  • Three-thousand barrels of crude oil have been spilled in the Peruvian Amazon from ruptures in the country's main oil pipeline, reports Reuters. Two rivers relied on by indigenous villages for water have been affected.
  • Keiko Fujimori, the center right candidate who is the daughter of discredited former president Alberto Fujimori, remains the front-runner for Peru's April presidential elections. But she is losing ground to technocrat Julio Guzman, whose candidacy faces legal questions, reports the Associated Press. The latest Ipsos survey from this weekend points to the possibility of a tight run-off vote. (See last Thursday's briefs.) 
  • A new effort to control the spread of Zika-carrying mosquitoes in Brazil involves sterilizing them with gamma rays, reports the Guardian.
  • In Cuba, President Raúl Castro has deployed 9,000 troops in the battle against Zika. Though there hasn't been a single case detected on the island yet, the officers will clean up potential environments for the mosquitoes reports Reuters.
  • The downturn in commodities prices has affected copper prices in Chile, where small and medium-sized mines could be forced to shut-down, reports Reuters. Mass closing of mines would be a disaster for President Michelle Bachelet. Copper makes up half of the county's exports and lost about 10 percent of its jobs last year.
  • U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to visit Argentina in March shows the country is mending its diplomatic ties after years of tension, Argentine President Mauricio Macri told AFP yesterday..

Monday, February 22, 2016

Bolivians narrowly reject Morales' bid for further reelections (Feb. 22, 2016)

A constitutional referendum in Bolivia which would permit President Evo Morales to run for a fourth consecutive term in office appears to have been narrowly rejected by voters yesterday. Final counts are not yet in, Ipsos predicted the "no" side won by 52.3 percent, while the "yes" is estimated to have obtained 47.7 percent, reports La Razón.

Another estimate, by Mori, has a virtual tie: 51 percent no to 49 yes, reports El Deber.

Preliminary results given by the electoral tribunal at midnight yesterday  had a slightly wider margin in favor of those who voted against the amendment: 56.5 percent to 43.5 percent. The proposed change would allow for a third consecutive term. Morales would be allowed a fourth on a technicality, a court determined that his first term doesn't count as it occurred under a previous constitution. 

Despite the close call, opposers of the proposal celebrated in plazas in Santa Cruz, Tarijas and Cochabamba. 

Vice President Álvaro García questioned the rapid celebration, noting that the race is close and within a margin of error, notes La Razón. He said the opposition had waged a "dirty war" in it's campaign against the reforms, reports the Guardian.

The government considers the result a technical tie, and is calling on the population to await the final count, reports El Deber.

Of course the results reflect regional disparities: "no" appears to have triumphed in Potosí, Chuquisaca, Beni, Santa Cruz, Tarija and Pando, reports Página 7. On the other hand, voters in El Alto, adjacent to La Paz, heavily supported Morales' proposal, notes Página 7. La Paz and Cochabamba also favored the "yes" camp, while there was a tie in Oruro, reports El Diario.

In any case it's a far cry from the 61 percent Morales obtained in his 2014 reelection, and the 70 percent approval he had predicted for the referendum.
The president's approval rating has been hit by a scandal after revelations about an ex girlfriend who holds an influential position in a Chinese company that has benefitted from lucrative government contracts (see Friday's briefs), the revelation that the vice president doesn't hold a college degree and charges that the ruling party is involved in the deaths of six people in a fire resulting from a protest last week, according to El Deber. (See Thursday's briefs.) (The New York Times gives more details on all of the allegations.)

(Argentina's La Nación has an interesting interview with the ex girlfriend, Gabriela Zapata, who rejects the accusations as demeaning to her as a woman.)
The president rejected corruption allegations as "a hoax by the US embassy" to discredit him, and insists that he has "nothing to hide," reports AFP.
The results show a wearing down of the government, in the face of allegations which also include rumors of corruption at the Fondo Indígena, according to El Día. Analysts also point to an active citizen campaign against the referendum, with widespread use of social media, and an unfavorable international economic context that is starting to impact the country.

The mixed results show a divided country, and should entail a change of attitude from the government, according to Página 7. Morales still has four years of presidency left to go, but many analysts are looking at what the defeat could mean for the ruling MAS party, and who Morales' successor might be and how he'd be selected. Facing a divided opposition the party could very well win elections again in 2019, according to some analysts.

The results could presage a bitter political battle in the ruling MAS party to become the next candidate. El Día has more analysis. It is the beginning of fractures inside the party, but only the beginning, according to an expert quoted by the New York Times.

But Morales has plenty of time before the next election to pick a successor and otherwise influence Bolivia's future, said Michael Shifter, head of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank told Reuters.

Analysts are pointing to a tactical error on the part of the government calling such a referendum at the beginning of the current mandate, reports El Día, which also notes that yesterday's results are the worst for Morales since the beginning of his presidencies.

Analysts had expected Morales to easily win the vote after calling for the referendum last year, reports the Wall Street Journal. But he was hit hard by the recent scandals. 

Morales, who is Bolivia's first indigenous president, has been credited with slashing poverty by spending a natural gas windfall on welfare programs and new infrastructure since taking office in 2006, reports Reuters.

Economic growth over the past eight years has averaged 5.1 percent, the highest South America, and per capita income has tripled, social programmes have expanded and inflation has fallen along with poverty and inequality, according to the Guardian. However, conservationists are angered by the spread of extractive industries and policies opening up natural reserves to oil and gas companies.

Despite impressive results, critics accuse him of an authoritarian streak and of favoring his own Aymara majority over other indigenous groups, reports the Guardian.Voting took place in relative calm around the country, though there were reports of irregularities in Santa Cruz, reports El Diario. International observers say the incidents were isolated cases and that the voting was generally peaceful, reports El Día.

Morales has been abandoned by his once-loyal constituents, coca growers, peasants and indigenous organizations who say he no longer represents them, according to the New York Times in a piece from yesterday (before the results). 
Morales is already the longest serving democratic leader, notes AFP, "a rare accomplishment in a country known for military coups and shaky, short-lived governments." Yet voters were uncomfortable with extending the president's term in office, according to the Guardian.

In an interview with the Guardian Morales claimed his latest move to stay in office is a response to popular pressure. "Before I promised to stop, but now the communities obliged me to modify the constitution," he said. "I have to respond to the people. It is not the power of the Evo, it is the power of the people."
El País has another interview with Evo from yesterday, in which he blames erosion of support on "machismo, corruption and internal divisions in the MAS party."

The referendum was seen as the latest test for Latin America’s leftist governments, according to theWall Street Journal. The results appear to be another nail in the coffin of the region's pink tide, though, as in other cases, the bigger takeaway is deeply divided electorates. 

News Briefs
  • An elite Honduran SWAT team is attempting to crackdown on gangs that make the country one of the most violent in the region. The U.S. Special Forces trained operation is part of a global security campaign around the world, in which U.S. commandos usually train foreign armies, reports the Wall Street Journal. In Honduras they are supporting the Tigres, at the request of the Honduran government, and in an attempt to bolster security and stem the flow of migrants escaping the rampant violence.
  • Miguel Díaz-Canel is widely expected to succeed Cuban President Raúl Castro when he steps down in two years. A meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on his upcoming visit to Havana would be a strong sign that he will actually succeed the Castro brothers. But what would that mean in "a Marxist dictatorship run not by voters but by the military and the Communist Party," asks the Miami Herald. Some answers might start to emerge at the Communist Party congress in April, and most observers seem to believe that Díaz-Canel will replace Castro when he steps down, according to the piece. 
  • Steven Rattner extols the virtues of capitalism and decries the failure of socialism in Cuba in a New York Times op-ed. "... while our embargo didn't succeed in reforming the country, the slow, steady infiltration of capitalism just might."
  • And, in the Miami Herald, Andrés Oppenheimer argues that if Obama doesn't meet with peaceful opposition leaders during his visit, he will have helped legitimize "the longest-running dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere."
  • Senator Delcídio do Amaral of Brazil's ruling Workers' Party was ordered released from jail on Friday. He's been held on charges of obstructing a federal investigation since November, when he was arrested with Brazilian billionaire investment banker André Esteves, reports the Wall Street Journal. The two were accused of conspiring to pay millions in bribes to a witness in the investigation into corruption at the state-owned oil company, Petrobras. Do Amaral will be able to return to the Senate and will remain under house arrest during evening hours and days off.
  • Venezuelans facing the first gasoline price increase since 1995 fear it will feed into what is already predicted to be 720 percent inflation for this year, reports the New York Times. President Nicolás Maduro announced the increase last week, a touchy subject in Venezuela, where in 1989, there were riots when the government tried to raise gas prices. (See Thursday's briefs.) The gas prices, virtually frozen for the past 20 years and virtually free due to inflation, costs the government an estimated $12 billion per year reports the Los Angeles Times. As much as 10 percent of Venezuelan gasoline is sold as contraband in Colombia and Brazil. The savings from the price increase announced last week will be of about $2 billion and will be applied to food, according to Maduro. 
  • Zika exemplifies inequality, is exacerbated by gang warfare and now, some scientists are linking the outbreak of the mosquito-borne virus to climate change. The epidemic, along with the related spread of dengue, should be interpreted as warnings they say, according to the New York Times
  • Conspiracy theories and rumors abound regarding Zika. The New York Times has a feature on those which should be doubted, including that it is spread by genetically modified mosquitoes and or that vaccines are to blame for the microcephaly uptick in Brazil.
  • Zika is spreading fast in Colombia, where more than 26,000 men and women have contracted the disease since October, and up to 600,000 could be infected by June, according to health authorities. While there have not yet been any cases of Zika-related microcephaly in the country there is a fear of an upcoming wave of the birth defect as women who fell ill during pregnancy come to term, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Desperate for cash, Puerto Rican public agencies are cracking down on widespread theft and cheating that went unpunished in the past, reports the Associated Press.
  • The New York Times has an interesting graphic on the evolution of Mexican cartels since the 2006 "decapitation" strategy by the President Felipe Caldrón, targeting cartel leaders. Violence quickly shot up and cartel turfs were reconfigured.
  • Mexico's fastest growing drug trafficking gang, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, has reached Tijuana and is fighting to expand its influence, reports the San Diego Union Tribune. The group's presence coincides with an increase in homicides since last spring.
  • Heated debate regarding the Argentine government's new protocol for security forces facing protests continues in Argentina's media. (See Friday's post.) The protocol, which allows security forces to break up unauthorized protests that cut-off streets aims to disuade manifestations in general, according to CELS director of Justice and Security, Paula Litvachky, interviewed in Página 12. Other human rights groups have also spoken out against the new system, which allows security forces to use rubber bullets to disperse unauthorized protests, reports Página 12. A lawyers' group, on the other hand, complimented the new policy, saying it walks a line between protesters' rights and those of others, reports La Nación. The Ministry of Security announced a new unit to supervise the execution of the protocol, which is to meet later today with representatives of government worker unions which are planning a protest for Wednesday, reports La Nación.
  • Uncontacted tribes in the Amazon -- in Brazil and Peru -- are suddenly coming out of reserves, creating a conflict for governments which want to protect them from germs that could wipe them out and from threats to their way of life. In the Guardian, filmaker Angus MacQueenwrites on his experiences filming a group that came into contact in Brazil two years ago