Thursday, December 22, 2016

Closing 2016 (Dec. 22, 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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