Monday, May 2, 2016

Dilma tries to rally support, Brazil's political outlook is grim (May 2, 2016)

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sought to fire up supporters at a May Day rally yesterday in Brasilia.

She denounced an impeachment drive which she likens to a coup d'état and pledged to strengthen government social programs that have raised millions of Brazilians from poverty, reports the Wall Street Journal.

She promised an increase of in the Bolsa Familia cash-transfer program and a three-year extension of the Mais Médicos program that has deployed thousands of foreign doctors to low-income areas.

She warned that her opponents would slash social expenditure if she is stripped of office, reports Reuters.

Still, her prospects are grim, ahead of a likely Senate impeachment trial this month that could force her to step down from office, at least temporarily.
The move could mean further political chaos, with the Workers' Party (PT) promising to not cooperate with a new coalition government that would be formed by Vice President Michel Temer. 

Rousseff decried her opponents' tactics, especially focusing on Eduardo Cunha, a PMDB member and speaker of Brazil's lower house, who has been charged with corruption and money-laundering in connection with the Petrobras scandal
"But many political analysts say Ms. Rousseff’s slow-motion downfall can also be tied to an autocratic persona and a go-it-alone work style that has driven away scores of political allies, former staff members and cabinet ministers, many of whom have endured searing episodes of public humiliation," reports the New York Times. The piece focuses on the disintegration of the Workers' Party coalition, and also looks at arguments that Rousseff is being judged by a double standard as a woman.

The PT is enduring its greatest crisis since its founding in 1980, reports the Wall Street Journal separately. The party has suffered high profile defections and some critics say it sold out by forming coalitions with conservative parties and adopting more free-market policies than it favored in the past.
For example, low income loans available to students have been reduced by the Rousseff administration, as part of an attempt to control the spiraling budget deficit, reports Reuters.

Not that the alternatives are appealing. In a New York Times op-ed Vanesa Barbara notes an increase in nostalgia regarding authoritarian rule in the country, despite the well documented human rights atrocities that accompanied the last bout of military rule after a 1964 coup. According to a 2014 poll, 51 percent of Brazilians think that the streets were safer during the military regime, she writes, and "there is also a widespread perception that corruption, which is undoing the current government, didn’t exist in those days."

What supporters of dictatorship might really be pining for, she argues, is "a time when the conservative elites faced few challenges, when underprivileged people — minorities and the poor — couldn’t expect more than to have to follow orders.

"In the past few decades, and especially since the Workers Party came to power 13 years ago, that reality has changed, even if incompletely. Now democracy means that every citizen is of equal status and everybody deserves a voice. Perhaps all this nostalgia for a military dictatorship is really about keeping people in their place."

News Briefs
  • May Day upheaval and announcements around the region: Tens of thousands of protesters, summoned by Argentina's major unions, gathered on Friday to demonstrate against thousands of government layoffs and sharp utility increases adopted by the government, as well as high inflation, reports the Associated Press. The protest brought together rival unions that put aside differences to protest President Mauricio Macri's policies.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales announced a minimum wage increase of about 9 percent on Saturday, reports TeleSur.
  • To help beleaguered citizens cope, President Nicolás Maduro announced a 30 percent increase in the minimum wage this weekend. It follows a 25 percent hike in late March, reports the Associated Press. The new minimum wage, effective yesterday is 15,051 bolivars a month. That is about $1,500 at the official exchange rate, but is around $13.50 at the current black market rate.
  • Several interesting pieces from the gloom and doom in Venezuela genre: Imports have plunged 40 percent this year and estimates by Bank of America Merrill Lynch suggest the rate at which the Venezuelan economy is crumbling has accelerated this year, reports the Financial Times. And in the Miami Herald Andrés Oppenheimer reports on an IMF economist's prediction that the country's economic system could collapse within the next year and a half. This in addition to a previous IMF report that inflation this year will be 720 percent.
  • There is much speculation that this year could be Marduro's last, reports the Miami Herald. A new poll shows that 69 percent of citizens would support his ouster in a potential recall referendum against him. But analysts say about a third of the population continues to support the government, despite the ongoing crisis and Maduro's approval rating is between 25 and 35 percent. The piece quotes Michael McCarthy who notes the die-hard loyalty of Chavistas. Nor has the opposition done a particularly good job of presenting a political alternative to the social programs of the government. (See last Thursday's and Wednesday's posts.)
  • Venezuelan's moved their clocks forward half an hour yesterday in order to maximize scarce energy, reports AFP. It's part of a raft of measures that include limiting public employees to an eight-hour workweek and giving students Friday's off. (See last Thursday's and Wednesday's posts.)
  • Venezuelan opposition leader Jesús Torrealba was attacked by men throwing rocks as he participated in a protest against power cuts on Friday, reports the Miami Herald.
  • A civilian commission in charge of reforming Honduras' police force fired two dozen police commanders on Friday, part of an ongoing crackdown against corruption that has already claimed the heads of five police generals, reports the New York Times. The move comes in the wake of news reports of collusion between police officials and criminal organizations in the murder of top anti-drug officials several years ago. (See April 6's post.) But the purge is also accompanied by an effort by President Juan Orlando Hernández to bypass the national police in favor of a militarized force, notes the NYTimes.
  • Children and women are being forced into slavery, including sexual slavery, by Salvadoran gangs, according to Urmila Bhoola, U.N. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery. While there has been progress on the issue of forced child labor, Bhoola identified a number of issues of concern in the current context of escalating gang-related violence such as forced recruitment of children as young as 9 years old into such gangs, as well as coercion of girls, adolescents and women into participating in sexual activity with gang members, including as so-called "brides" of gang members forced to conduct conjugal visits with them in prison.
  • The mandate of the IACHR panel of independent experts assigned to examine the case of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students in Mexico expired this weekend. The GIEI's term ended in the midst of heated polemic last week, in the wake of a scathing final report that focused on government missteps in the investigation and accusations that a government official mishandled evidence, reports the New York Times. (See last Friday'sThursday's, and Wednesday's briefs and Tuesday's and Monday's posts.)
  • A grassroots proposed, landmark anti-corruption bill in Mexico looks like it will be blocked by the ruling PRI party, reports VICE. The "Ley 3 de 3," a citizens bill drafted by lawyers, academics, and high-profile transparency activists and organizations, would oblige all holders of public office to upload proof of their personal assets, tax returns, and potential conflicts of interest onto the National Anti-Corruption System database. But the head of the PRI in the senate said that financial incentives to encourage citizens to denounce corruption would unleash a "witch-hunt," and party members say aspects of the bill are unconstitutional.
  • Another in the list of firsts brought on by the U.S.-Cuba detente: the first U.S. cruise ship to Cuba in 40 years will arrive in Havana this morning, reports the Associated Press. It was not all smooth sailing before the maiden voyage, however, the Miami Herald reports on the legal challenges presented by a Cuban policy prohibiting Cuban-born people from traveling to the island by sea. In the meantime, the Florida Straights, separating the two countries, are more travelled than ever: the number of Cubans trying to cross the straits is at its highest point in eight years and cruises and merchant ships regularly rescue rafters from the straits, notes the AP.
  • In fact, the country's population is predicted to shrink by 1 million people over the next decade, reports the Miami Herald. The shift from 11 million to 10 million residents is due to low fertility and birth rates, but also to high levels of immigration.
  • Puerto Rico's government will default on nearly $370 million in bond payments due today, reports the Associated Press.
  • "Nearly two weeks after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Ecuador, killing at least 654 people, a Venezuelan rescue crew pulled a 72-year-old man from the rubble of a building," reports ABC News.
  • Outsiders are increasingly flocking to Peru to try ayahuasca, a potent hallucinogen known locally as "the vine of the soul," reports the Wall Street Journal. While proponents say that it can provide users with spiritual and personal guidance, and others say it can help people overcome traumas, it can be fatal when mixed with other drugs and has been known to trigger psychotic episodes. The stories have spurred growing interest by Western researchers, amid a wider revival of studies into the therapeutic use of psychedelics, according to the WSJ.

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