Thursday, March 31, 2016

El Salvador cracks down on gangs, as leaders order homicide stop (March 31, 2016)

Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén announced new measures to combat gang violence, yesterday, including reinforcing troops deployed on the streets to combat rampant violence.

Officials plan contract a thousand reserve soldiers to reinforce existing troops in controlling chunks of territory taken over by gangs, known as maras, reports Reuters.

The government will also ask Congress to approve 14 measures to increase prison controls, as incarcerated leaders are still able to order killings and extortions.

Homicides in the first two months of this year have already increased by 118 percent compared to the same months in 2015, reports TeleSUR. Already last year homicides had increased by 70 percent, after the unravelling of a gang truce the previous year, reports Deutsche Welle. (See posts for April 22, 2015June 22, 2015, and Jan. 28.)

"Faced with this irrational violence, we are forced to take urgent measures, of an extraordinary character, in order to guarantee security (and) peace for all Salvadorans," Sanchez Ceren said in a national broadcast.
Earlier this week, El Salvador's government declared a state of emergency at seven prisons -- instituting a lockdown and suspending family visits for 15 days. (See yesterday's briefs.) 

Some 299 high-ranking gang members were transferred to special jail unit aimed at keeping them in total isolation, part of a an attempt to definitively cut-off communication between gang leaders and "clicas" operating on the ground, reports El Faro. The incarcerated leaders are in wings separated by gang, in small cells without any wiring to permit them to charge cell-phones or other communication devices.

Telecommunications access will be cut in areas where the seven prisons under emergency administration are located, notes Deutsche Welle.

And it's just the beginning, promise authorities.

El Faro notes that the prison emergency measures include new supervision of security issues by the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC).

But the move comes as leaders of the three main gangs -- MS-13 and two factions of Barrio 18 -- promised a 72 hour cease-fire. (See yesterday's briefs.) During those three days, the average daily murders dropped 9.3, significantly below the 22.8 averaged in rest of March, reports El Faro. That's nearly a 60 percent decrease. This speaks to a real capacity to control the gangs by their leadership, according to El Faro.

Gang leaders held a far smaller press conference, in which they assured journalists from El Faro that the homicide freeze will continue indefinitely, pending lack of police interference. But it's also possible that the government moves to isolate imprisoned gang leaders could lead to a loss of control over gang members on the ground.

An earlier statement from the gang leaders had conditioned the cease-murder to the government backing off on emergency measures, setting the stage for a standoff between the two, reports InSight Crime. The two sides are testing each other's limits and resolve.

According to the government, the decline in killings is an attempt to hold the government hostage, reports InSight Crime.

"What [the gangs] are doing is putting a gun to the population's head and saying: either negotiate with us or we'll keep killing...that is why the only solution is full combat," presidential spokesman Eugenio Chicas said.

In the midst of a crackdown, it's worth looking at an interview by El Faro's Roberto Valencia with an unidentified gang leader who discusses how a 2003 bout of "manodurismo" strengthened gangs. He also says the country's political parties have offered gang leaders special benefits in exchange for votes.

"... When we were organized, we became politicians. [The government] made us politicians, do you understand me?" the gang leader told Valencia. (From InSight Crime's translation of the piece has the piece.) "They secretly went into prisons before each election and found our leaders and told them: when we win, we will change certain things; we won't give you everything, but we will loosen up some of the tough stuff, and this and that. I'm telling you that certain officials have something to do with the growth of gangs."


End of Colombia's guerrillas?

Colombia's second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and government leaders confirmed yesterday that they will begin negotiations for peace, another step towards finally ending the country's fifty-year armed conflict, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's briefs.)
The two sides spoke in a Caracas press conference yesterday, and said talks will start in Ecuador. They could then continue Venezuela, Brazil and Chile and Cuba, which along with Norway, will be sponsoring the process. Negotiations will be formalized around a six-point agenda, including justice for victims, disarmament, and reintegration into society, reports the Associated Press
The ELN is estimated to have as few as 1,500 fighters left (compared to about 7,000 for the FARC).
The announcement is likely to give the FARC peace negotiations new momentum, and, in turn, those could give a preview of how the ELN talks could go. (See last Thursday's and Tuesday's posts for more on the FARC talks.)

Yesterday President Juan Manuel Santos said that though the talks between the two groups will remain separate, there will be some "coordination mechanisms" between the two, notes InSight Crime. He emphasized that some points already agreed on in Havana, such as the establishment of a post-conflict infrastructure to judge war crimes, will not be open for renegotiation with the ELN. He also said the dialogue would be contingent on the ELN giving up all of its kidnapping activities.
Should the government succeed in finishing both peace negotiations, it would mean the end of Latin America's Cuba inspired guerrilla movements, reports the Miami Herald.
The opposition, though, criticized the move, saying it was inopportune begin negotiations with the ELN while still in discussions in Havana with the FARC, reports the Wall Street Journal.
The three year process with the FARC should caution observers against expecting a rapid resolution with the ELN, according to InSight Crime. Already preliminary talks to reach this point have taken two years. 

News Briefs
  • A new Human Rights Watch report denounces that Mexico is not complying with its own laws of how to treat unaccompanied child migrants. "By law, Mexico offers protection to those who face risks to their lives or safety if returned to their countries of origin. But less than 1 percent of children who are apprehended by Mexican immigration authorities are recognized as refugees, according to Mexican government data." The report notes that the amount of children apprehended by Mexican authorities is on the rise: more than 35,000 children were detained in 2015, nearly 55 percent more than in 2014, and 270 percent more than in 2013. Less than 1 percent of children detained in Mexico are accepted as refugees, notes the Guardian in its coverage of the report, even though about half are running away from criminal gangs in Central America's violent northern triangle.
  • The family of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, who died of a heart attack days after he was shocked with a Taser and hit by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents has asked Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the human rights record of U.S. officers, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • There's been plenty written about the political ramifications of the Operation Lava Jato corruption investigation in Brazil. But an in-depth report by IDL-Reporteros, Caretas, and La Prensa, looks at how bribe money was actually laundered by corrupt Odebrecht SA officials. InSight Crime has the English translation: "To be effective, bribery should seek to be undetectable and, above all, unprovable. As Brazilian federal investigators discovered, those involved in the Odebrecht case did this via a multi-layered system of international money laundering," write Gustavo Gorriti and Romina Mella.
  • Brazil's Vice President Michel Temer is inching closer to the presidency, reports the Wall Street Journal, in a piece focused on the PMDB leader who has been compared to the "butler in a horror movie." (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • As a change of government seems increasingly likely in Brazil (see yesterday's briefs), many are now questioning the role of the judiciary in the fatal weakening of President Dilma Rousseff's administration, according to the Guardian. Should she be replaced this year, "the role of the judges – who have played such an influential role over the past year – will come under scrutiny. The test will be whether they continue their corruption investigations with as much alacrity into the new administration as they did into the old."
  • Zika grabs international headlines, but Dengue, an older, deadlier mosquito-borne virus is setting record infection levels in Brazil, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Argentina's Senate put the final seal of approval on a deal with hold-out debt creditors, ending a decade long dispute that has kept the country out of international financial markets and complicated foreign investment, reports the Associated Press. It's President Mauricio Macri's first big win in an opposition dominated Congress, notes the Wall Street Journal. A settlement would bring almost immediate relief to cash-strapped provincial governments and companies that for years were effectively cut off from international credit markets. 
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro promised to block a an amnesty law passed by opposition lawmakers earlier this week. The bill, which he must sign in 10 days or defer to the loyalist Supreme Court, aims to liberate 77 politicians, students and military officers jailed by Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez, and who the opposition considers to be political prisoners, reports the Wall Street Journal.(See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Peru is a hotbed of counterfeit dollar production, reports the Guardian, which takes an in-depth look at the sophisticated processes that mass produce fake $100 bills using labor intensive artisanal methods.
  • Mexico city is stepping up it's car control in an attempt to reduce smog in the midst of an air-quality crisis, ordering all cars in the city to spend one idle day a week, reports the Guardian.
  • Expression that promotes violence: The Mexican government is urging broadcasters, websites and social media users to avoid distributing a music video by singer Gerardo Ortíz that it says promotes violence against women, reports the Associated Press.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

CICIG in-depth (March 30, 2016)

If corruption is the new bogey man of Latin America – think protests across the region and against otherwise disparate governments -- the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) could be considered a sort of superhero that promises potential salvation from evil.

The U.N. office, mandated to independently investigate and prosecute under Guatemalan law starred in last year's revelation of a massive customs corruption scandal that wound up implicating the country’s vice president and president and forcing their resignations. (See post for Sept. 2, 2015, for example.)

The commission's success over the past eight years is a result of civil society demands and accompaniment, and has other countries demanding similar international cooperation. (See post for Oct. 16, 2015.)

An Open Society Justice Initiative report, reviews the first eight years of CICIG's work, looking at the commission's history, organizational strengths and weaknesses, and how it could work moving forward.

"CICIG's success in shedding light on the structures and practice of political corruption has overshadowed organizational challenges, questionable strategic choices, case management mistakes, and commissioner resignations across eight years of work. But CICIG's overall results have been remarkably positive, primarily as a result of the 2014-15 cases," according to the report.

"The cumulative pressures of CICIG’s interventions, often in collaboration with the newly dynamic Public Prosecutor’s Office, and a citizenry sufficiently fed up with corruption to take to the streets, have helped Guatemalans reach a juncture where major political reform has become a real possibility for the first time since the signing of the Peace Accords 20 years ago."

That being said, the report is also acknowledges criticism towards the commission "for excessive zeal in criticizing judges and for uneven management of its cases, lost visibility and dynamism during periods of strategic drift, failed to organize coherent capacity building programs, and endured the forced departure of two of its three commissioners."

A tantalizing possibility is that of exporting the CICIG model, which the report is cautious about. Actors in Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, have expressed interest in a CICIG equivalent (see Jan. 20's post on the OAS mission to Honduras), and the U.S. and several Central American governments have discussed a regional CICIG to deal with organized crime, notes the report. 

"The Guatemalan experience, however, suggests caution, and a need for realism in assessing the conditions necessary for a CICIG-like entity to contribute to significant change. The CICIG model emerged out of five years of difficult negotiations across two government administrations, its final contours shaped by the confluence of local political, constitutional, and historical events. Once established, the Commission faced blockages at every turn. Only its ability to take advantage of fortuitous political events, and the support of the United States allowed it to work effectively."

Over at InSight Crime, Steven Dudley reviews the OSF report, together with another by the International Crisis Group. He argues that neither report really looks at the role of the U.S. in sustaining the CICIG financially and politically. Nearly half of the CICIG's $15 million annual budget is funded by the U.S. and it has diplomatically backed up the commission's work, he writes.

And the work is far from done, Dudley notes. Two cases from this year – one of which connects 16 military officers to important human rights violations (see Jan. 7's post) point to more work for the CICIG.

(InSight Crime will soon publish an investigation focusing on the difficult relationship of the CICIG with the very same elites it's investigating.)

The ICG report characterizes the CICIG as a crutch to catalyze institutional change in Guatemala. It emphasizes that the commission "is not a permanent fix, however. Guatemala will lose its opportunity unless national leaders assume the fight against impunity as their own, approve stalled justice and security sector reforms and muster the financial resources to strengthen domestic institutions."

Citizens exhausted of corruption have given the commission, and public prosecutors, broad public support, notes the ICG report, and in turn, their investigations have inspired a broad civic movement demanding reform and political change.

But, "anger over government fraud holds this movement together, rather than any clear agenda for change. Elected leaders should channel discontent into positive action by initiating a national debate on the reforms needed to strengthen justice and encourage accountability." And agenda the current President Jimmy Morales, a television comedian who campaigned as an anti-politician, seems ill prepared to move forward.

News Briefs
  • Venezuela's National Assembly passed legislation late yesterday that would amnesty activists considered political prisoners by the opposition. The new law, which promises to be a point of contention with the ruling PSUV, would free dozens of people, reports the Associated Press. The legislation was a key campaign promise for opposition legislators elected last year. President Nicolás Maduro said yesterday it was an attempt to protect terrorists and criminals, and reiterated his determination to veto it, reports Reuters. Maduro aides have said the law will be sent to the Supreme Court, which is staffed by the government loyalists, reports the Wall Street Journal. The National Assembly took up the bill and approved it hours later, a sneaky fast track accuses Maduro. The legislation would benefit high-profile government adversaries, such as Leopoldo López. Though the new law is unlikely to free activists from jail immediately, opposition lawmakers hailed it as a message of change, notes the WSJ.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Venezuelans think President Nicolás Maduro’s term should be prematurely ended this year, as the political opposition pushes to do exactly that, reports Reuters. (See March 9's post.) Some 63.6 percent of Venezuelans say Maduro should quit this year or be removed via a recall referendum, versus some 29.3 percent of Venezuelans who want him to keep governing until 2019, when his mandate ends, according to the poll seen by Reuters on Saturday.
  • Ruling PSUV party members in the western state of Tachira are accusing Colombian paramilitaries of shooting a supporter on the two countries border, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • El Salvador's government declared a state of emergency at seven prisons -- instituting a lockdown and suspending family visits for 15 days -- as well as transferring 299 high-ranking gang members, reports the Associated Press. It's the beginning of a series of "extraordinary measures" aimed at combating street violence. Additional measures, to be presented today in the legislature, could include deploying more soldiers in a security role and declaring states of emergency in conflict zones.
  • A video circulated over the weekend in El Salvador, shows purported gang leaders of the country's main street gangs, saying they had ordered a stop to homicides. In exchange, they demanded that the government not proceed with the measures to combat the gangs, reports the Associated Press. It's not clear, however, if the gangs possess the organizational cohesion to adhere to the orders, reports InSight Crime. El Salvador's government responded said it will not negotiate with criminal organizations, however, reports thAssociated Press
  • Colombia will announce formal peace talks with its second-largest rebel group, the ELN, reports Reuters. Cuba, Norway, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil and Ecuador will act as guarantor countries, according to a source from Colombia's peace commissioner's office. The talks will be separate from the ongoing FARC negotiations. The Colombian government and the ELN called a joint press conference for tonight, reports the Miami Herald. The two sides have been in exploratory talks for over a year, but have been stalled by obstacles that include the guerrilla group's continued use of kidnapping.
  • Brazil's Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) pulled out of President Dilma Rousseff's ruling coalition yesterday, removing crucial support that makes her impeachment more likely and could deepen the country's ongoing political and economic crises, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's briefs.) The move could lead other, smaller, parties to defect from the coalition, according to the Guardian. The six year coalition ended with mutual accusations of betrayal and blame for Brazil's economic woes, reports the Wall Street Journal. Several PMDB members who are serving as ministers in the cabinet were asked to step down, a move which could increase already notorious political paralysis, according to the NYT.
  • Internal dissent in Cuba's Communist Party, regarding new levels of secrecy on the future of social and economic reforms, has reached unusual levels.Complaints among party members have become so heated that the official newspaper, Granma, addressed them in a lengthy front-page article Monday, reports the Associated Press. The paper called the public discontent, "a sign of the democracy and public participation that are intrinsic characteristics of the socialism that we're constructing." But some party members are not assuaged, and are calling for a party congress next month to  be postponed to allow public debate about the government's plans to continue market-oriented reforms.
  • Haiti is taking significant steps to resume last year's interrupted presidential elections. Late yesterday interim President Jocelerme Privert named nine new members to the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), charged with organizing the runoff vote for president and some members of parliament, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's briefs.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Colombia's elusive peace - analysis of specific issues (March 29, 2016)

A much awaited peace accord between Colombia and the FARC wafts tantalizingly within reach, though it failed to materialize by last week's deadline. (See last Thursday's post.)

A series of articles by WOLA look at specific issues within the peace negotiations. Gimena Sanchez writes about the need to integrate Afro-Columbian and indigenous groups, make up a disproportionate number of the victims and displaced communities of the conflict, into the process.

A specific problem is also that it seems likely that the FARC "concentration zones," where they relocate to disarm, will overlap with the territorial rights of these communities, explains Adam Isacson in another article. (See last Thursday's post for more on the debate regarding the demilitarized areas.)

In a separate post Isacson reviews the role of the U.N. mission to Colombia to oversee the eventual agreement. (See Jan 26's post.) "It will be charged with monitoring and verifying the FARC's 'laying down of arms.' The guerrillas will not be handing over weapons to Colombia’s government. This would be seen as symbol of surrender. Any such proposal would run contrary to the spirit of the negotiations, and would have been rejected by the FARC."

And though the military has historically opposed an agreement with the FARC, support has somewhat improved, writes Isacson in a third post

"However, our reading of Colombian media, and numerous recent interviews with officers and experts, lead us to conclude that a majority of officers do share three concerns that could dampen their support for post-conflict consolidation at key moments. These are misgivings about transitional justice, the likelihood of a deep cut to their personnel and budgets, and uncertainty about their new roles in a post-counterinsurgent Colombia."

On the other hand, Human Rights Watch continues to criticize the transitional justice aspects of an eventual agreement. "The justice agreement between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) could allow members of the armed forces responsible for the systematic execution of civilians to escape justice," Human Rights Watch said yesterday in a new analysis of the agreement.

The analysis makes specific reference to the so-called "false positives" extrajudicial killings decade ago, in which innocent civilians were presented as guerrillas killed in combat. (See post for June 24, 2015.)

"Under the justice agreement announced with FARC, a newly created Special Jurisdiction for Peace would handle most – if not all – false-positive killings," writes HRW. "Provisions in the agreement allow authorities to waive some criminal prosecutions. Other provisions could be interpreted to narrow the scope of commanders’ responsibility for crimes committed by their subordinates. People the Special Jurisdiction convicts could avoid spending any time in prison, and those already convicted by the ordinary justice system could be released."

Meanwhile, Colombian authorities arrested an army general for his role false positives killings. Gen Henry Torres is the highest-ranking military officer to be detained for the crime, reports the Guardian

News Briefs
  • But violence will still be an issue of concern in Colombia. "Last year, according to the Resource Center for Conflict Analysis (CERAC), there was a huge spike in the murder of social leaders, political party activists and union members compared to the year before. Thus, such murders jumped 35 percent from 78 in 2014 to 105 in 2015," writes Dan Kovalik in the Huffington Post. "Specifically, the rate of union murders more than doubled from 2 to 7; the rate of political leaders and activists killed increased 66% from 15 to 25; and the murder of public officials, teachers and journalists jumped 31% from 29 to 38. In terms of the murder of political activists/leaders, moreover, most were from opposition, left-wing parties. Indeed, 6 leftist political leaders have been killed already in 2016."
  • Yesterday the Brazilian Bar Association filed another impeachment request against President Dilma Rousseff, or obstructing justice, fiscal accounting tricks and granting international football body FIFA tax-exempt status during the 2014 World Cup, reports Reuters. The group is well respected and the fact that it has joined the charge against the government is bad news for Rousseff's administration, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva affirmed to foreign journalists that he believes Rousseff can fend off impeachment proceedings in Congress. Silva said he will seek the cooperation of the Democratic Movement's president and the country's vice president, Michel Temer, reports the Associated Press.
  • But today the Democratic Movement (PMDB) will likely decided to break from Rousseff's floundering coalition, reports Reuters. "A formal rupture appears inevitable and will increase the isolation of the unpopular Rousseff, freeing PMDB members to vote for her impeachment." The relationship between the two parties has long been conflicted, notes the WSJ. Should impeachment be approved in the lower chamber, which could occur early in May, Rousseff would be temporarily suspended and replaced by Temer, who is viewed as more business friendly. Brazilian media reported over the weekend that a team of Temer aides is drawing up a plan for his first weeks as president.
  • It's interesting to note that the commission of legislators in charge of determining Rousseff's impeachment are hardly squeaky clean themselves. Of 65 members on the impeachment commission, 37 face charges of corruption or other serious crimes, according to data prepared for the Los Angeles Times by the local organization Transparencia Brasil. Rousseff herself, on the other hand, has never been formally investigated or accused of corruption. Temer himself is allegedly linked in an illegal ethanol-purchasing scheme according to claims that emerged in Car Wash investigations.
  • An unnerving "reassurance": The military has promised to abide by the nation's constitution and laws, despite the severe ongoing "political, economic and ethical-moral" crisis, army commander Gen. Eduardo Villas Boas said yesterday, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Yesterday, Silva also accused the judge in charge of investigating corruption at state-owned oil company Petrobras of releasing tapped phone conversations in order to tarnish his image, reports the New York Times. He has claimed he is the victim of a Big Brother-style investigation that is turning the judicial process into a reality game show, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's briefs and Friday's post.)
  • The judge in question, Sergio Moro, who is overseeing Brazil's Car Wash anticorruption probe said yesterday that he has sent the country's Supreme Court a spreadsheet found in the home of a former Odebrecht SA executive that is reported to contain information on payments to more than 200 people, including many politicians, by the construction company, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazil should be treating the mosquito-borne Zika virus as an STD, according to health organizations, who point to mounting evidence that sexual transmission is more common than previously believed, reports the Guardian.
  • Haiti might be moving closer to finally holding those often-postponed presidential run-off elections, reports the Miami Herald. The interim government said it will release the names of a new electoral commission today.
  • A Haitian midwife writes in the Guardian on the challenges faced by birthing mothers in the country.
  • In Peru, Keiko Fujimori maintains her lead in the upcoming presidential elections. A new Ipsos poll pegs her at 32 percent, more than double that of her closest competitor Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who had 16 percent, reports Bloomberg. Veronika Mendoza had 12 percent and Alfredo Barnechea had 11 percent.
  • Mexican toll-road operator OHL got slapped with close to $3.5 million in fines for accounting practices that boosted its income and asset valuations, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Argentina's pro-business Macri administration is cutting funding to Telesur, an alternative regional television network started by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez in 2005. It aimed to provide an alternative to mainstream media, reports the New York Times. The government says the broadcaster blocks alternative viewpoints, reports the Associated Press. Argentina's exit could be a major blow for the network which has the support of Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Uruguay, reports the Miami Herald.
  • In the New Republic, Steven Cohen explores "declassification diplomacy," in reference to the Obama administration's decision to declassify previously undisclosed U.S. government files documenting the extermination of political leftists carried out by the Argentine regime between 1976 and 1983. (See last Wednesday's post.) "What we know already is damning enough. We know about the rapes and tortures," he writes. "We know about the instruments used to perform them. We know about the babies born in captivity and given away to their parents’ murderers. We know about the midnight helicopter rides over the Río de la Plata, and the icy plunge to the waters below. We know that, in 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Argentine foreign minister, "If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly." And we know that, despite all the U.S. government came to know about those "things," it continued to protect and support the people and institutions carrying them out." But of course, U.S. collaboration with human rights violators was hardly limited to Argentina, and the release of records on a country-by-country basis is a cynical exercise in strategic publicity, argues Cohen.
  • But the focus on the past shouldn't distract observers from the series of agreements Obama and Macri signed during the U.S. president's state visit last week. (See last Thursday's post.) Página 12 columnist Horacio Verbitsky lambasts the secrecy they are shrouded in, the Argentine government only gave headlines such as: cooperation in security, and to combat grave crimes. They include U.S. assistance in drug trafficking with the Brazilian and Paraguayan border, as well as FBI assistance in creating "national fusion intelligence centers" to combat terrorism and organized crime. They also agreed on a series of measures to facilitate trade between the two countries, though Verbitsky argues this mainly will involve easing U.S. exports to Argentina. In exchange, Macri hopes for a flood of foreign investment in Argentina.
  • The United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf sided with Argentina and expanded the country's maritime territory in the South Atlantic Ocean by 35 percent to include the disputed Falkland/Malvinas Islands, reports the Associated Press. There is an ongoing unresolved diplomatic dispute over the islands with the UK. The British government said it had not yet seen the full report, and stressed that the commission was merely an advisory body, reports the Guardian.
  • As the border-wall debate continues in the U.S., families on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border meet in a tiny stretch of the Tijuana-San Diego border where families are sanctioned to touch fingertips through a steel-mesh fence, reports the Guardian.

Monday, March 28, 2016

From baseball diplomacy to rock and roll: The Cuban times are a changing? (March 28, 2016)

Closing off a week of firsts for Cuba, on Friday Mick Jagger addressed a crowd of nearly half a million at the Rolling Stone's first concert on the island where their music was once forbidden, reports the Wall Street Journal. "We know that years ago it was difficult to hear our music here in Cuba, but here we are, playing in your beautiful land," Jagger said in excellent Spanish. "I think that finally times are changing. It's true, no?"

"It was the closest to an overt political statement in the two-hour concert, which some democracy activists feared would be used by the one-party state to perpetuate its hold on power," according to the Guardian.

(A separate Guardian piece has a brief history of rock and roll and the Cuban revolutionary government.)

Among the many contrasts on display last week when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Cuba, one of the most striking was the generational gulf separating him from Cuban President Raúl Castro. The divide was stark: Obama spoke of burying old wounds, the very same that are Castro's "defining grievances," notes the New York Times. Obama spoke to a younger cohort, on the island and off, who are more willing to leave behind the disputes that have kept both countries separate for over 50 years.

The stories of migration between the two countries has also rapidly changed, notes another New York Times piece. Whereas before migration was an exile, a permanent journey, now young people talk of going and returning.

Not so fast though. Fidel Castro responded to Obama's speech last week (see last Wednesday's briefs) with a long letter released to Cuban media this morning. He reviews Cuba's history, starting with Spanish colonialism up to the Bays of Pigs invasion, reports the Associated Press. He says of Obama "My modest suggestion is that he reflects and doesn't try to develop theories about Cuban politics."

Since Obama's trip, the Cuban government has released a long series of arguments countering his message of change, including a litany of complaints about what he forgot to do, such as asking "forgiveness for the crimes committed against our people," reports the Miami Herald.

"We don't need gifts from the empire," he wrote in the article published in Granma, reports El País.

Seven Cuban migrants were interdicted at sea on the way to Florida with gunshot wounds. Earlier this year, authorities said Cuban migrants desperate to reach US shores were increasingly violent and noncompliant with coast guard crews who detained them at sea, citing reports of attempted poisoning and self-inflicted wounds as rumors swirl that the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy will soon be abandoned, reports the Associated Press.

News Briefs
  • Obama's Latin America visit, could mark the start of a cycle of closer ties between the U.S. and the region, argues Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. But it has a lot to do with the changing political cycle in the region. "There is growing speculation in diplomatic circles that by January 2017 when Obama leaves office, Latin America's political map may be dominated by pro-investment, U.S. friendly governments in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and several other countries."
  • Israel backed out of a seven-month diplomatic spat with Brazil over an ambassadorial nominee to Brasilia with ties to occupied West-Bank settlements. Brazil's government, which has backed Palestinian statehood, had balked at accepting the appointment as envoy in August of former settler leader Dani Dayan, reports Reuters. Rejection of a proposed ambassador is extremely rare and had drawn considerable attention to the Dayan case, notes the Guardian.
  • Brazilian authorities have cracked down on shipments of abortion inducing drugs, sent by an international advocacy group to expectant mothers who requested them in fear of potential severe birth defects caused by the Zika virus, reports the Los Angeles Times. Such medicines are banned in Brazil, authorities say. Women on Web, a Canadian group that is based in the Netherlands, said in February that it had sent "dozens of packages" to women in Brazil but only two packages had arrived. 
  • The (fallen?) super hero judge in Brazil's Operation Lava Jato corruption investigation proved no crime by releasing wire taps of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and instead did democracy a disservice by taking a political step that threw the already embattled government into full on crisis, argue politics and international affairs professors Daniela Campello and Cesar Zucco in the Washington Post. (See Friday's post.)
  • Brazil's boiling hot political crisis is mirrored by economic woes, reports the Wall Street Journal. It appears to be headed for one of its worst recessions ever that could turn into a depression. The economy shrank by nearly 4 percent last year, is predicted to do the same this year, as unemployment rises and wages fall. (Part of the death of the BRICS bubble, reports the Guardian.)
  • But economic woes are hardly restricted to Brazil this year. The world financial crisis has affected the 15 countries of Caricom, reports the Miami Herald, slowing growth and putting financial strain on governments.
  • And U.N. ECLAC estimates for Latin America predict a mere .2 growth this year, although growth will be stronger in Mexico, Central America and some South American nations, reports the Miami Herald in a separate piece.
  • Honduran police arrested a suspect in the murder of Nelson García, an environmental rights activist and colleague of recently slain award-winning indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, reports Reuters. (See March 17's post.)
  • The lawyer representing the only witness to Cáceres' murder in early March (see March 4's post) says he might be framed, reports the Guardian. Mexican environmental activist Gustavo Castro Soto was wounded during the attack in which she was killed. Since then Honduran authorities have prevented him from returning home and he's been staying at the Mexican ambassador's residence for his own protection. Rights groups have voiced concern over his detention and the impartiality of the investigation into the murder, but the Honduran government has rejected calls for an independent international investigation.
  • Mexican authorities detained a man who allegedly laundered money for Sinaloa cartel drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, reports Reuters. Juan Manuel Alvarez, who was arrested in Oaxaca state, has ties to an international money-laundering network that spans Mexico, Colombia, Panama and the United States, Mexican police said via their official Twitter account. He was arrested on a provisional extradition warrant from the United States, where he is wanted on money laundering charges, reports in the Associated Press. "King Midas" is suspected of laundering $4 billion, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazil's political crisis is drawing frequent comparisons to "House of Cards" (see March 21's post), closer to home it's inspired a dark comic strip featuring a former soldier turned masked vigilante who kills venal politicians, reports the Guardian.
  • On the subject of superheroes, El País has a feature on several Latin American masked avengers.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Brazilian President fights back against "institutional coup" (March 25, 2016)

Has Operation Car Wash -- the all-encompassing investigation into corruption at Brazil's state-owned oil company Petrobras, which has expanded to taint all of the country's major political parties -- gone too far? 

The Economist helpfully reviews the timeline of the past 10 days of political upheaval -- which included the naming of Lula as Rousseff's chief of staff, the release by Moro of apparently incriminating conversations between the two that said appointment was intended to shield Lula from criminal investigation, and the suspension of his appointment by a Supreme Court judge. 

El País makes the case that the entire investigation walks a fine line on the edge of judicial activism. More specifically, that the judge Sergio Moro, hero of the anti-Dilma protest movement, may have overstepped boundaries with recent actions such as forcing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to testify under police custody and releasing tapped phone conversations between him and President Dilma Rousseff.

(See Monday's post.)

Rousseff and Lula went on the offensive yesterday, making the case to foreign journalists that an impeachment process wending its way through Congress is a thinly veiled "institutional coup" and that persistent rumors of her resignation are intended to push her towards that option to avoid the "embarrassment" of illegally deposing her, reports El País.

"Why do they want me to resign?" Asked Brazil's first femal president in the interview. "Because I'm a woman, fragile. I am not fragile. That is not my life," she said, according to the New York Times. She said that investigators should leave no stone unturned in examining her actions.

Her chief of staff, Jaques Wagner, gave a two hour press conference to international media in which he emphasized the distorted media coverage of the ongoing political crisis. Sectors of the media are pushing an interpretation of events, he said, according to El País.

It's not just the local media: The Economist's cover this week gives a great example of the media perspective Wagner denounced. Rousseff is pictured and it's headlined "Time to Go." Interestingly, the magazine's editorial board discounts the legitimacy of the impeachment proceedings, which focus on unproven allegations that she used accounting trickery to hide the true size of the budget deficit in 2015. Instead, the magazine basically argues she should just resign, absent any fast evidence of criminal misconduct, such as obstructing the Petrobras investigation or attempting to shield Lula from prosecution.

Thousands of Brazilians marched in defense of Rousseff last night -- in São Paulo as many as 30,000 according to organizers, focussed on the headquarters of TV Globo, which Rousseff sympathizers accuse of being partisan and pushing for the president's ouster, reports the Associated Press.

In her interview yesterday, Rousseff pointed out that the cabinet appointment doesn't eliminate legal scrutiny of Lula, but moves it to the Supreme Court, notes the New York Times.

In the meantime, Lula is leading political maneuvering in the lower chamber of Congress to ward off the impeachment proceeding, reports Folha de S. Paulo.
While disenchantment in Brazil with Rousseff is high -- 68 percent of the country favors her impeachment -- the population seems no more enchanted with any of her possible successors, demonstrating the breadth of the political scandal that has implicated wide swathes of the political class.

News Briefs
  • The Peruvian electoral court rejected allegations of vote buying against presidential front-runner Keiko Fujimori late Wednesday. (See yesterday's briefs.) El País has more details on the confusing ruling, which determined that her awarding of three cash envelopes to winners of a hip-hop contest are not in violation of electoral norms. And La Mula analyzes the law and her possible violation of it. Other candidates emphasized what they see as a double standard, after another candidate, César Acuña, was recently eliminated from the race under similar circumstances, notes La Mula. Former second-place candidate, Julio Guzmán, who was also eliminated, though for a technical procedural issue, said the ruling delegitimizes the eventual results of the April 10 vote and called for the entire process to be suspended. Protesters gathered outside the electoral board (JNE) offices yesterday, reports La Mula separately.
  • Haitian senators unanimously approved Enex Jean-Charles as the new provisional prime minister. The former presidential advisor to three previous administrations must now be approved by the Chamber of Deputies in order to move forward with the caretaker government entrusted with carrying out much delayed presidential run-off elections, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • New York Times in Spanish has an interview with Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez on the subject of "A History of Violence," his new book that is just out in English. The book covers violence in Central America -- Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala -- categorized in three central themes: Loneliness (the absence of the state in the region), Madness (which grows in these societies due to the absence of the government) and Flight (the choice of the hundreds who every day choose to flee).
  • Overcrowding and human rights violations in Central American jails are well documented issues. A Nicaraguan announcement that the government had released more than 8,000 prisoners on parole as a "humanitarian measure" over the last two years, introduced a potential new approach to the problem in the region, reports Foreign Affairs. "Given the realities of prison systems in Central America, Nicaragua's release of thousands of prisoners seems reasonable and perhaps even necessary.
  • A recent OAS report critical problems withinHonduras' prisons, where the prevalence of gang violence and deplorable conditions suggest that the penal system does nothing to rehabilitate offenders, reports InSight Crime. InSight notes that the excessive use of pre-trial detention has clearly contributed to the chaos in the Honduran prison system.
  • How will peace affect Colombia's spiking coca production? Negotiations aim at crop substitution, but if not government officials have agreed to ally with the FARC to eradicate the plant. In the meantime, experts fear the power vacuum created by demobilized FARC troops could be filled by illegal drug bands, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Deaths from political violence unrelated to Colombia's decades-old armed conflict rose 35 percent last year to 105 cases, according to a study by the Bogota-based Conflict Analysis Resource Center, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Free love in the FARC? Not so fast, cautions a Washington Post piece that criticizes a New York Times visit to a guerrilla encampment. (See Tuesday's briefs.) The reality of gender relations within the left-wing revolutionary group is far more complicated, warns the Roxanne Krystalli, a researcher on gender, violence and transitional justice. She looks at how women fit in the group hierarchy -- where they gain prominence for being sexually involved with ranking commanders, face a glass ceiling of growth, and are reportedly forced into abortions and IUDs. "Stories reporting on the anthropology of everday life during conflict and within armed groups can illuminate the full range of members' experience -- or can erase their realities. For instance, while it's important to recognize that women and girls have been part of the FARC, those who tell their stories and who craft the peace must understand their complex and diverse motives and experiences."
  • On the issue of challenging media narratives (as in Brazil, see above) a piece at the Council of Hemispheric Affairs criticizes the dominant international media coverage of Venezuela's ongoing economic crisis. The mainstream explanation is that price and currency controls have ed to stagnant production, soaring inflation and a burgeoning black market in U.S. dollars and consumer goods. The conclusion is that "socialism doesn't work," writes Peter Bolton. Yet this is only one of two competing narratives within Venezuela, the one espoused by the political opposition. The alternate explanation, that of economic war, "explains the crisis in terms of the economic and social dynamics at play outside policy and governmental action. It holds that business sectors friendly to the opposition are waging an aggressive and protracted campaign of economic sabotage to deliberately stir up social unrest to destabilize and discredit the governing Chavista bloc and in the ensuing chaos bring about an end to the PSUV government and the installation of a new one made up of opposition parties. The central pillars of the economic war thesis are that these hostile sectors have been engaging in acts such as hoarding and price speculation and have purposely generated scarcity in pursuit of calculated chaos." While these claims tend to be dismissed, Bolton makes the case that they deserve a more careful examination. "Taken in the context of this history of instigated pandemonium, the economic war thesis emerges as at least equally worthy of consideration as its major competitor."
  • The daughter of slain Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres urged the U.S. to suspend military aid to her country, reports EFE.
  • The once-forbidden Rolling Stones arrived in Havana yesterday, and will give a historic free concert there today. Foreign bands like the Stones used to be considered subversive and blocked from the radio by the revolutionary government. Cubans listened to their music in secret, passing records from hand to hand, reports the Associated Press. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans are expected to go to the concert. Street chatter centered on whether Obama's visit earlier this week or the rock legends' is a better metaphor for change, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Media favorite rehashed: The flood of tourists to Cuba aiming to get there before it changes has now expanded to include Americans who are aiming to get there before the Americans, reports the New York Times. The stampede is leading to steep price increases and even some shortages.
  • A group of 22 medical experts convened by Johns Hopkins University and The Lancet called for the decriminalization of all nonviolent drug use and possession, reports the Washington Post. Their report, which cites a growing scientific consensus on the failures of the global war on drugs, comes ahead of a special U.N. General Assembly Session on drugs to be held next month. (See March 14's post.)
  • The Guardian reviews advances with Uruguay's legal pot market, as legal sales of cannabis in pharmacies are expected to start in the second half of this year. (See WOLA's recent report on the subject.)
  • Donald Trump has had a new surge in popularity south of the border, albeit as a papier-mache "Judas" figure to be burnt ahead of the Easter holiday, reports the Guardian.
  • Happy FridayPolitico makes the case that Trump tweets like Latin America's populist leaders.