Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Venezuela facing tough 2017 (Jan. 3, 2017)

Last year began in Venezuela with upheaval over an opposition dominated Congress, and the potential for disruption it presented to the Chavista government. But over the course of 2016 hope for a democratic transition from a wildly unpopular government has faded.

David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights paints a graphic picture of the potential instability of the upcoming year. "Not only did 2016 see an excruciating economic contraction leading to scarcities of food and medicines, lootings and unnecessary hunger and death, it was also the year that Venezuela moved from electoral authoritarianism to unhyphenated authoritarianism. This means that 2017 will see more of the same but with even less hope for positive change because of the lack of a credible electoral solution. This is not to say the situation is stable. To the contrary, it is fragile, combustible and could spin out of control at any time–perhaps for better but more likely for worse."

New York Times photo essay chronicles violence in the country, where last year nearly 28,500 people were killed, the deadliest year on record.

Though Vatican mediated talks between the government and the political opposition have largely stalled, authorities released former presidential candidate, Manuel Rosales and student five activists detained since 2014 on New Years Eve, reports the BBC. Release of about 100 political prisoners is a key opposition demand, and leaders say they will not attend the next round of talks on Jan. 13 if it's not met, reports the Associated Press.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of State could mean even tenser relations with Venezuela, writes Timothy M. Gill in a Washington Post Monkey Cage piece. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson clashed repeatedly and bitterly with late President Hugo Chávez, who seized Exxon facilities in 2007. "Given Tillerson’s background at ExxonMobil, we can expect the Trump administration to take an aggressive stance toward Venezuela. This may include sanctions on more Venezuelan state officials and even an end to high-level diplomatic meetings. Expect more friction over the next few years." (See briefs for Dec. 14, 2016.)

December's 100 bolivar note withdrawal upheaval was particularly pronounced in Ciudad Bolivar, where looting and destruction of shops was widespread and violent. The events show the weakness of the state in southern Venezuela, where organized crime related to illicit mining control Bolivar state, argues Albor Rodríguez in a New York Times Español op-ed. The illegal economy that dominates in the area will be particularly hit by the move to withdraw the 100 bolivar note, and the scope of the destruction may have, in part, been aimed at pushing the government to postpone the initial deadline, he writes. (See post for Dec. 19, 2016.)

A harrowing Christmas story in the New York Times highlighting how hunger is taking lives in Venezuela, as food shortages are exacerbated by lack of medical supplies and impacting an increasingly strained population.

And an Associated Press investigation found that Venezuela's military is profiting from food shortages after being put in charge of distribution last year. "With much of the country on the verge of starvation and billions of dollars at stake, food trafficking has become one of the biggest businesses in Venezuela, the AP found. And from generals to foot soldiers, the military is at the heart of the graft, according to documents and interviews with more than 60 officials, business owners and workers, including five former generals. As a result, food is not reaching those who most need it."


Deadly gang related prison riot in Manaus

A prison riot in Brazil left at least 56 people dead between Sunday and Monday. The episode in Manaus was particularly bloody, featuring decapitated bodies being flung over the walls of the penitentiary, reports the New York Times. The 17 hour riot is part of a wider battle in the city, the largest in the Amazon Basin, between two gangs seeking to control the area's cocaine trade. Authorities say the vast majority of the deaths were committed by the Familia do Norte gang, which operates from Manaus prisons, and targeted members of the larger First Capital Command (PCC) with roots in São Paulo's prisons. The Manaus gang is believed to be working at the behest of the Rio de Janeiro based Red Command (CV).

November WOLA report on Brazilian prisons noted increased potential for violence in the penitentiary system following the end of a long alliance between the PCC and the CV, reports Reuters. And InSight Crime's 2016 GameChangers report notes the shifting paradigm of criminality as the two gangs battle for dominance.

Overcrowding and horrific conditions in Brazilian prisons often lead to rioting, notes Reuters. The WOLA report notes that "rebellions due to over-crowding and inhumane conditions have been frequent throughout the country and have resulted in torture, beheadings, and assassinations." (See briefs for Nov. 23, 2016.)

News Briefs
  • The biggest criminal threat in the region for 2017 is the increasing consumption of illicit drugs, "which is  giving birth to a new mutation in organized crime. While the big cartels were born from the cocaine trade, the new generation of criminal syndicates increasingly have their roots in domestic drug consumption and distribution. Many start as street gangs and end up getting subcontracted by transnational organized crime. They quickly learn new skills sets, which they combine with their territorial control and disposition towards extreme violence. The most able ascend the criminal ladder and make the leap into transnational organized crime," explains InSight Crime in its GameChangers 2016 report, which reviews Mexico's failed drug war, struggles against entrenched corruption among political elites in several countries and Venezuela's Cartel of the Suns. The report is also critical of the continued use of militarized security strategies in the country, despite mounting evidence of human rights abuses and limited efficacy.
  • A vast surge in migration from Central America to the U.S. points to a failure of Obama policies to stop the flow through an increase in immigration enforcement and humanitarian assistance, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Murders in El Salvador dropped by a fifth in the past year, a success authorities attribute to anti-gang policies, reports Reuters.
  • Last year was one of institutional upheaval in Brazil -- such that celebrated and reclusive author Raduan Nassar broke years of media silence to denounce the persecution of Workers' Party leaders. Carol Pires interviewed Nassar for a New York Times Español op-ed, and contrasts his new openness with President Michel Temer's closed approach to government. The piece notes the corrosive effect of ramming austerity measures through Congress and calls for more open debate within society over what policies to implement.
  • Even violence weary cariocas were stunned by the telenovela worthy murder of the Greek ambassador to Brazil by a police officer having an affair with his wife, reports the New York Times. The killing adds scrutiny to Rio's police forces, which are accused of extrajudicial killings and torture. Amnesty International's Rio chapter estimates police were responsible for one of every five slayings in the state in 2015. (See briefs for July 29, 2016 for more data on police violence in Rio.)
  • Peru is demanding cash from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht before beginning talks for a plea deal with the company to obtain the names of officials who were bribed with an accumulated $29 million over three separate presidencies, reports Reuters. (See Dec. 22's briefs.)
  • Mexicans were outraged by a 20 percent increase in gas prices on Jan. 1, part of the government's decision to deregulate prices, reports the Washington Post.
  • The US Export-Import Bank, an obscure government agency, has quietly given Pemex more than $8.5 billion in loans during the Obama administration, despite the Mexican oil companies poor safety record in those years, according to a Guardian report that says the loans run counter to the president's climate change goals.
  • Mexico was the deadliest country in the world for Catholic priests in 2016, reports InSight Crime. Three priests were murdered last year, and 61 attacks against church members occurred between 1990 and 2016.
  • Financial Times profiles Mexican maverick politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador, comparing "Amlo" to Trump: "a love-him or loathe-him figure with a message that resonates with the underprivileged and the angry."
  • Argentine authorities are considering treatment for drug addiction as an alternative to incarceration for people accused of minor crimes, reports InSight Crime.
  • Argentina's highest criminal appeals court reopened a case against former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and members of her government accusing them of seeking to cover up Iranian officials' role in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, reports the New York Times. The case was dismissed in three separate instances last year, but judges last week took the rare step of reopening it. (See the post for May 14, 2015 on the Nisman case.)
  • Primitive sanitation systems in Haiti contribute to the persistence of cholera in the country, reports the Associated Press.
  • The final leader of Uruguay's last military dictatorship, General Gregorio Alvarez died last week in Montevideo, reports the Associated Press.
  • Cuba marked the anniversary of is revolution with a show of military strength, reports Reuters.
  • Amid uncertainty over the future of U.S.-Cuba détente, research facilities from both countries are advancing with plans to make a joint coral greenhouse and coral nursery, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Encouraging men to take on more unpaid care work is critical in enlisting their help in ending violence against women, according to Promundo, an NGO that engages men and boys in ending violence against women and girls. In Brazil the group runs a companion project to Bolsa Familia, which trained public sector staff to discuss gender equality and the importance of sharing care work when administering grants, reports the Guardian.

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