Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Honduran military intelligence specialists linked to Cáceres' murder - Guardian (Feb. 28, 2017)

News Briefs
  • Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres was the victim of "an extrajudicial killing planned by military intelligence specialists linked to the country’s US–trained special forces," according to a Guardian investigation. Nearly a year after her death, court documents seem to indicate a network of active and former military officers who planned her killing with coded phone messages. "The murder of Berta Cáceres has all the characteristics of a well-planned operation designed by military intelligence, where it is absolutely normal to contract civilians as assassins. ... It’s inconceivable that someone with her high profile, whose campaign had made her a problem for the state, could be murdered without at least implicit authorisation of military high command," according to a source cited.
  • Honduran authorities are moving against members and associates of the major drug-trafficking Montes Bobadilla clan, a strategy that has brought down some of the country's most powerful criminal organizations in the past, reports InSight Crime.
  • Though U.S. trade protectionism will impact Mexico the most, Central American and Caribbean countries are more vulnerable from a "multi-dimensional risk perspective" to various U.S. policy proposals, according to a new reports from the Economist Intelligence Unit. Mexican trade dependency on the U.S. is high, but the report found that the country is less vulnerable on the issue of remittances -- which amounted to just 2.1 percent of GDP in 2015 -- and on immigration, which has fallen over the past decade. "Overall, Central America and the Caribbean are the two most vulnerable subregions in Latin America, particularly on trade, remittances and immigration. Remittances from the US in 2015 accounted for over 15% of GDP in El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti and trade dependency was also high, with exports to the US totalling over 10% of GDP in El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua. The equivalent of around 1% of the labour force in Guatemala and Honduras, and nearly 2% in El Salvador, emigrated illegally to the US in 2015." Socialist leaning countries -- Venezuela and Cuba -- face the most diplomatic risk in the Trump era, according to the report. And the analysis points to an interesting silver lining in the long term: "by fostering economic diversification away from the US, promoting intra-regional ties and supporting a push to strengthen domestic economies."
Below a "heat map" that measures individual countries' exposure to risks from potential Trump administration policies. The use of relative metrics takes the focus off of Mexico, which in absolute terms is more exposed due to it's larger economy and population. "The result of using a relative approach is the conclusion that certain smaller countries, mainly in Central America and the Caribbean, are the most vulnerable to Mr Trump’s policies."

  • Mexico will withdraw from NAFTA renegotiation discussions if the U.S. slaps tariffs on its exports Mexico's Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo told Bloomberg.
  • A group of Venezuelan exiles in Miami asked Trump for "migratory relief" arguing that sending members of the "Politically Persecuted Venezuelans Abroad" could be "condemning them to death," reports the Miami Herald.
  • Trump's four month halt in refugee admittances has led to an accumulation of asylum seekers at border crossing points between the US and Mexico, trapped in a legal limbo, writes UNAM's Ariadna Estévez in the Conversation. These include Mexican women escaping cartels and gender-based violence, as well as Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorians fleeing Central America’s unceasing gang violence. But also thousands of Haitians. "These are what I’ve coined “disposability pockets” areas where vulnerable populations, especially migrants, are forced into inhumane living conditions and illegal labour markets, with tacit approval of the government that should, in theory and under international human rights law, be their stewards."
  • 2015 was the year of rapprochement for Cuba, 2016 a counter revolution in the wake of Barak Obama's visit and communist hardline ascendancy. This year, the beginning of the post-Fidel era, is a year of uncertainty, according to El País. The country is a year away from President Raúl Castro's stated date for stepping down, and this could be considered the beginning of a transition period and Castro's last chance to define his legacy. (See last Wednesday's briefs for the Miami Herald's take on the same issue.)
  • Costa Ricans are debating abortion laws intensely, incensed by a case of a 12-year-old girl raped and impregnated by her father, reports El País. She has said, through her mother, that she will not seek to terminate. Under national law, abortion is only permitted in the case of life-risk for the mother, and not in the case of rape. The issue will likely influence next year's presidential elections. Only one candidate, José María Figueres (Liberación Nacional, PLN), favors reforming existing laws, while other candidates say in such cases the baby should be given up for adoption.
  • A Uruguayan couple is embroiled in dispute over whether a father can stop a mother from aborting, reports El País. Uruguay is only country in the region other than Cuba where abortion is legal, but a judge has stopped a woman 10 weeks pregnant from the procedure arguing the father also has rights to decide.
  • Mexico's cartel related violence is spurring a forced displacement crisis that is just beginning. "Almost a third of the country's municipalities have fewer inhabitants than they did before homicides became widespread across the country," reports Animal Político. (InSight Crime has the English version.)
  • The new Bolivian law increasing the quantity of legal coca cultivation in the country, aims to enshrine President Evo Morales' engagement policy, according to InSight Crime. (See yesterday's briefs.) Though figure are somewhat contested, Bolivia has successfully precipitated a slight but steady decrease since 2010. Nonetheless, coca cultivation remains higher than that required by the legal coca market, notes the piece. The new law aims to bridge the legal supply-demand gap with government involvement in the regulation of the entire production chain, encouraging sales, industrialization and even international export.
  • Colombia's ELN guerrilla force has taken responsibility for a bombing last week aimed at police that killed one person and wounded dozens, reports El País. The attack jeopardizes incipient peace talks taking place in Ecuador, said the government negotiator. (See last Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Twenty-five years after El Salvador's peace accords ended a period of bloody civil conflict, the governing FLMN and opposition political parties have asked the U.N. to oversee a dialogue process between them. El Faro interviews the newly arrived envoy Benito Andión Sancho, who says the country is "addicted to polarization."
  • Violence in El Salvador, which has a staggering toll on human lives, has spilled over into the animal world. "Gustavito" a beloved hippopotamus in the capital was apparently attacked with icepicks, knives and rocks and died from his wounds, reports the Associated Press. "What they did to Gustavito, speaks less of the terrible zoo we have and more about how our society is sick with violence," tweeted San Salvador mayor Nayib Bukele. Indeed, while basically anecdotal, the case is seen as a metaphor for the country and its society, according to El Faro.
  • Revelations of Odebrecht bribes have caused a storm around the region. Venezuela's government has distinguished itself by relative silence, but has finally announced support for a full investigation into the Brazilian construction giant's activities in the country. "However, the manner in which it has been carried out is raising questions about the government’s intentions," argues Geoff Ramsey in Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
  • The former Guatemalan vice president, Roxana Baldetti, and former interior minister, Mauricio López Bonilla, were separately indicted by a U.S. federal court on cocaine trafficking charges, reports InSight Crime. Media reports say extradition requests will follow, suggesting U.S. lack of confidence in Guatemala's criminal justice system.
  • At least three people have been killed and 19 are reported missing due to flooding and mudslides caused by rains near Santiago in Chile, reports the New York Times. The Maipo river has also been contaminated by the same phenomenon, leaving about 5 million residents without water.
  • The endangered vaquita porpoise population in Mexico's Gulf of California is down to about 30, and experts propose keeping some in captivity as a last resort, reports the New York Times.
  • Residents of Mexico City's Juárez neighborhood, struggling against encroaching gentrification that threatens to "whiten" the area are praying to the newly minted Santa Mari La Juarica, who is said to have appeared and prevented evictions, reports El País.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Carnival! (Feb. 27, 2017)

  • Rio de Janeiro launched its carnival celebrations on Friday. More than one million visitors were expected to generate $1 billion in revenue over the five day celebration, according to Reuters. But many other cities decided to forgo festivities in light of a long recession impacting public budgets, reports the New York Times. (See last Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Brazil's biggest broadcaster, Globo, has changed the presentation of its carnival muse -- Globeleza -- presenting more demure costumes and showcasing performers who represent Brazil’s racial diversity and regional differences, reports the Los Angeles Times. A sign of more conservative times or a broader multi-ethnic consciousness?
  • Fora Temer: Thousands have used carnival festivities to showcase anger at the increasingly unpopular Brazilian president and demand his resignation, reports the Associated Press.
  • At least 20 people were injured in an accident in Rio's Sambadrome, reports the BBC.
  • Residents of Hurricane Matthew affected areas of Haiti are still waiting on government aid to help rebuild homes and businesses destroyed in the storm. And many are angered by the millions of dollars spent by officials on upcoming carnival festivities in Les Cayes, which is in the hard-hit southern area of the country that bore the brunt of the destruction, reports AFP. Though new President Jovenel Moïse intended the move from capital Port-au-Prince to benefit the local economy, critics question how much stimulation it will actually bring, according to AFP.
  • In Trinidad and Tobago this years carnival hit is a departure from the usual rum, partying and women up for grabs themes. "Leave me alone," by Calypso Rose, is about a woman trying to party on the streets without being bothered by men. It's being hailed as a feminist anthem, reports the Washington Post.
News Briefs
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski sat down with U.S. President Trump and told him that that Peruvians "prefer bridges to walls," reports the Wall Street Journal. Experts say PPK faces a difficult balance between pushing back at Trump's anti-trade position, and not antagonizing a key trade partner for Peru.
  • Trump seems to have a soft-spot for the so-called "Dreamers," young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have received temporary shielding under an Obama immigration program. But that attitude towards the approximately 840,000 young people is increasingly alienating his anti-immigration base, reports the New York Times.
  • There's "no chance" that Mexico will take U.S. deportees from third countries, said Mexican interior secretary Miguel Osorio Chong on Friday. His statements to the press were in response to U.S. officials' request that Mexico host the deportees while their cases are processed in the U.S. "And we told them that there’s no way we can have them here during that process," he said according to the Associated Press. Mexico is willing to let go of U.S. funding for the  $2.5 billion Mérida Initiative to fight organized crime if it comes down to that, said Osorio. "... Honestly, we have no problem, none, if they withdraw it." (See Friday's post.)
  • Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said Friday that Mexico could retaliate against a potential U.S. tax on Mexican imports by placing tariffs on select U.S. goods. The tariffs would target states dependent on exports to Mexico, such as Texas, reports the BBC.
  • As the two sides flirt with a potential trade war, energy presents an area of potential mutual benefit, according to the Los Angeles Times.
  • Volunteers in Mexico working with migrants and recent deportees are stocking up in case the promised wave of deportations actually occurs, reports the Los Angeles Times. (See Friday's post.)
  • Billionaire investor Wilbur L. Ross, Trump's nominee for commerce secretary, made a fortune based on business permitted by U.S. trade deals. But he promises to tear up NAFTA and other agreements if confirmed, reports the New York Times.
  • Mexico's populist leftist-candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador has received a big boost from Trump's anti-Mexico stance, and from President Enrique Peña Nieto's unpopularity. But a group of citizens is also looking to promote party outsider Emilio Álvarez Icaza, former executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The campaign, officially launched yesterday, aims for a citizen candidacy, reports Animal Político. The 2018 presidential elections will be the first permitting independent candidates in Mexico, notes El País. In order to run Álvarez Icaza will have to gather 80,000 signatures from around the country. His platform focuses on demands for a shakeup of politics as usual, and human rights.
  • Trumps bluster has inspired a strand of nationalism in Mexico of uncommon proportions, reports the Washington Post.
  • People migrate south too. The Guardian interviews U.S. fútbolers seeking "new opportunities, more money and a better standard of football" (soccer) in Mexico.
  • Experts have long predicted that FARC demobilization in Colombia under the peace agreement reached last year will leave a power void that could be filled by drug traffickers and paramilitary organizations. The New York Times has a video on the issue.
  • A new Bolivian law increases the area of legal coca cultivation, reports El País.
  • The world's growing appetite for agricultural products, namely soy, is fueling a resurgence in deforestation in the Amazon basin, a decade after the "Save the Rainforest" campaign forced dramatic changes in environmental protections, reports the New York Times.
  • The low-key U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Peter Mulrean, is stepping down after a 16 month stint, in which the country went through a prolonged electoral cycle tainted by fraud, ended this month with the inauguration of President Jovenel Moïse. He also oversaw the disbursement of U.S. aid after Hurricane Matthew ravaged parts of the island last year, reports the Miami Herald.
  • A hit song in Haiti -- Madan Papa, loosely Sugar Baby -- has created a debate over an increasingly common phenomenon in the country's tough economic environment: young women entering sexual relationships with older men in exchange for financial favors, reports the Miami Herald. Though the arrangements are hardly new, cultural norms kept them under wraps in the past. "In a country marked by extreme poverty and inequality, Madan Papa, with its driving electronic dance beat, has become a social commentary, a musical reflection on the misery, sexual exploitation and erosion of values caused by years of economic and political instability."

  • Heavy rains over the weekend left millions of people without water in the area of Chile's capital, Santiago, reports Reuters.
  • The Miami Herald has a charming piece on the little known kitschy castles surrounding Quito.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Mexican officials angered by Washington double-speak (Feb. 24, 2017)

A high level U.S. visit to Mexico, intended as a bridge-building exercise, was severely undermined by U.S. President Donald Trump's strong defense of a polemic plan to deport undocumented immigrants yesterday.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly were in Mexico City, a trip intended to emphasize common interests and assuage Mexican fears of mass deportations and unilateral moves. They were already on difficult ground after the U.S. unveiled a contentious immigration policy that appeared to direct officials to deport undocumented immigrants to Mexico, regardless of their country of origin. (See yesterday's and Wednesday's posts.) 

But the U.S. officials were further hamstrung by Trump's remarks at a business forum in Washington yesterday, where he defended deportations saying the U.S. deportations are targeting "really bad dudes."

"We’re going to have a good relationship with Mexico I hope," Trump said, according to the Wall Street Journal. "And if we don’t, we don’t."

Mexican officials reacted poorly to the discrepancy between the promises of cooperation from the envoys and the bluster back home. While they assured Mexicans there would be no mass deportations and the military would not be involved in the process, Trump spoke of ejecting "really bad dudes out of this country at a rate that nobody’s ever seen before ... And it’s a military operation because they’re allowed to come into our country." (The White House later said he used the term military as an adjective, to indicate the operation is precise.)

Gabriela Cuevas, the head of the Mexican Senate’s foreign relations committee said the juxtaposition made her doubt Tillerson and Kelly's sincerity, according to the WSJ.

Yesterday Mexico’s economy minister, Idelfonso Guajardo, suggested the meeting between the U.S. secretaries and President Enrique Peña Nieto would not occur, though eventually it did.

Mexico's Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray rejected the U.S. deportation proposal as unilateral and said it would be a "long road" to reach an agreement with the U.S. He suggested in talks with legislators later, that Mexico would be willing to enter a trade war, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Such an attitude is a sharp departure from the conciliatory stance taken by the Mexican government until recently, and seems to indicate a tougher approach to Trump's "diplomacy," reports the Guardian. Though the case is murky, Mexican media has seized on it as an example of reactions to the new deportation policy, reports the Los Angeles Times.

In a press conference alongside the U.S. officials yesterday, Videgaray emphasized the anger and “irritation” that Mr. Trump’s policies and statements have caused among Mexicans, notes the WSJ.

The staging of the comments to reporters itself was startling, according to the New York Times. "Four officials — two from Mexico and two from the United States — walked into a large ballroom with grim faces and made carefully worded comments without taking any questions. It was the kind of cautious staging normally seen after tough negotiations between adversaries, not talks between friendly neighbors. No one suggested that a breakthrough had been made."

A Mexican man killed himself near the Tijauana-San Diego border crossing, hours after being deported, reports the Guardian.

The New York Times piece analyzes the chips in the upcoming NAFTA renegotiations between Mexico and the U.S., to which Mexico is seeking to also tie security and immigration cooperation. While Mexico's economy is dependent on NAFTA enabled manufacturing, Mexico is in turn a major purchaser of U.S. agricultural products, notes the piece.

Mexico also deported hundreds of thousands of Central Americans attempting to reach the U.S., and plays a key role in fighting and sharing intelligence on drug smuggling, most in transit towards the U.S.


Amnesty denounces increasing violations and repression in LatAm

Amnesty International's new report on human right around the world last year is out.

"... the Americas remained one of the world’s most violent and unequal regions. Across the region, the year was marked by a trend of anti-rights, racial and discriminatory rhetoric in political campaigns and by state officials, which was accepted and normalized by mainstream media," reads the Americas Regional Overview, which points to "waves of repression" that "became more visible and violent, with states frequently misusing their justice and security apparatus to ruthlessly respond to and crush dissent, and increasing public discontent."

"Failures of justice systems – together with states’ failure to implement public security policies that protect human rights – contributed to high levels of violence. Countries such as Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico and Venezuela had the highest homicide rates on the planet." The report also singles out the femicide problem as well as increasing levels of violence against LGBT individuals.

Other topics include:
  • REFUGEES, MIGRANTS AND STATELESS PEOPLE: "Central America was the source of a rapidly worsening refugee crisis. Relentless violence in this often forgotten part of the world continued to cause a surge in asylum applications from Central American citizens in Mexico, the USA and other countries, reaching levels not seen since most of the region’s armed conflicts ended decades ago."
As well as country by country reports.

News Briefs
  • Trump's new immigration policy, which potentially makes any undocumented immigrant eligible for deportation, could destroy El Salvador's remittance dependent economy, especially the safety net money sent by immigrants gives to the country's poorest, reports Ioan Grillo in TIME.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski will become the first Latin American president to visit Trump today. And he plans to use the opportunity to tell the U.S. leader how his policies are alienating the region, according to the Associated Press. Kuczynski, a U.S. educated former Wall Street banker has become the unlikely Latin American leader against Trump's "America First" position.
  • 80 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia last year, more than any other year of President Juan Manuel Santos' government, according to a new report by Somos Defensores. The report points a finger at increased paramilitary activity in the wake of a peace deal with the FARC, reports TeleSUR, which says the count is conservative compared to other estimates that point to 125 murders.
  • Colombian prosecutors froze $98 million worth of buildings, land and assets belonging to the FARC, reports AFP.
  • It's a bit early in the year for statistics, but femicides in the region appear to be on the rise in 2017, reports TeleSUR.
  • Guatemala's army said it has presidential orders to  block the activities of a Dutch non-profit "abortion boat" docked on its shores, reports the BBC. Abortion is illegal in Guatemala except to save a woman's life. Women on Waves, offers free abortion services to women in countries where the procedure is banned and says more than 60,000 illegal abortions are performed in Guatemala every year.
  • Odebrecht donated more than $3 million to former Peruvian President Ollanta Humala's campaign 2011, according to testimony from a former exec at the Brazilian construction giant, reports EFE.
  • A bill aimed at reducing Amazon conservation areas in Brazil seems to be related to mining proposals to exploit those areas, according to the World Wildlife Fund, reports Reuters.
  • China continued to lend heavily to Venezuela last year, but less than in previous years, according to a new report from  the Inter-American Dialogue and Boston University. Extremely high inflation combined with political and economic instability to cool Chinese lending, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Argentine opposition lawmakers filed a suit against President Mauricio Macri, alleging airline routes were unfairly allocated to a company controlled by his family, reports AFP.
  • Hotel prices in Cuba, which soared after the U.S. relaxed a travel ban on Americans, are coming back down, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Brazilians are inaugurating a particularly politicized Carnival season, with party goers addressing everything from Trump's border wall to calls for Brazilian President Michel Temer to step down, reports the Guardian.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

"Don’t mention the wall," U.S. Mexico diplomatic divisions widen (Feb. 23, 2017)

Top U.S. officials in Mexico face a challenging diplomatic mission: to mend a growing rift with a neighbor in the midst of a series of U.S. policy changes interpreted as hostile by Mexicans. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly arrived yesterday in Mexico City with the mission of soothing their counterparts in the wake of a tiff between the two presidents over a U.S. proposal to build a border wall and make Mexico pay, as well as threats to unravel a landmark free trade agreement critical for Mexico's economy.

The two met with the Mexican foreign and defense ministers yesterday and were set to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto today. Their strategy was dubbed "don't mention the wall," by one diplomat cited in the Guardian.

Mexican officials took a hard-line towards the overtures, that come the same week as new U.S. guidelines that call for enlisting local U.S. authorities to enforce immigration law, jailing more people pending hearings, and sending border-crossers back to Mexico to await proceedings, even if they aren’t Mexican, explains the Wall Street Journal

"I want to make it emphatically clear that neither Mexico’s government or the Mexican people have any reason to accept provisions that have been unilaterally imposed by one government on the other," Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said at a ceremony on Wednesday. "We won’t accept it because we don’t have to."

Mexican newspapers have described "the new deportation policies in apocalyptic terms, saying in some cases that they represented “war” on the millions of Mexicans in the United States," according to the New York Times.

Most undocumented migrants entering the U.S. from Mexico are from other countries, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection: of more than 400,000 people apprehended in the year ending Sept. 30, more than 220,000 weren’t from Mexico.

Current Mexican policy ensures deportees from the U.S. are actually Mexican before allowing them to enter, reports Proceso.

Mexicans fear the new U.S. crackdown on undocumented immigrants could lead to deportee and refugee camps along the border, reported the Associated Press yesterday. 

In the ratcheting up of diplomatic tension, Mexico says the entire bilateral relationship -- including border and drug cooperation are on the table along with trade renegotiations. The U.S., for its part, is in the process of reviewing of all federal aid it provides to Mexico, including funding for development projects as well as economic, humanitarian and law-enforcement assistance, reports the WSJ. (See yesterday's post as well.)

"Relations between the neighbours are at their lowest point for decades," according to the BBC.

The move to reexamine all aid to Mexico -- report due tomorrow -- is part of the U.S. administration's efforts to make its neighbor pay for a border wall project, reports the New York Times. Yet Tillerson's role is complicated, according to the NYT he plays little role in setting actual policy and instead seems to be used for cleaning up the administration's messes. 

Trumps "vision of a US-Mexico border wall and other policies are likely to have lethal consequences for many seeking a path out of the deadly violence endemic to their Central American homelands," according to Amnesty International. "By shutting the door to refugees, Trump is effectively condemning them to a life of terror and violence. Failing to take action to protect refugees is not going to stop people from embarking on these dangerous journeys, it will just put them at heightened risk – pushing them to repeatedly attempt the perilous journey in search of safety."

There are frequent reports about the fences that already exist along the border, but the Guardian and AFP have a great photoessay with pictures from both sides. "I quickly began to see, once starting the project, that there is already a wall. While it is not brick and mortar, a huge fence runs up and down the border in quite a few locations. That being said, there are gaps in the fence, and there are areas where there is nothing at all. In many locations the border is the river, or mountains, and a physical barrier would almost be nonsensical, but there are places that the border patrol mentioned that are now seeing high traffic because the fence is everywhere else," said photographer Jim Watson.

News Briefs
  • A BBC piece looks at Central American government's notable silence regarding Trump's new deportation policy, though many of their nationals would be affected. Avoiding attention is a possible reason, as is waiting to see how the Mexico-U.S. spat plays out, hypothesize some experts.
  • In a Guatemala stop before going to Mexico, Kelly urged would be Guatemalan migrants not to risk their children's lives on the dangerous journey to the U.S., reports Aristegui Noticias.
  • Amnesty International's report on 2016 denounces that "politics of demonization" are causing division and fear, and risk a domino effect as powerful states backtrack on human rights commitments. More on the report tomorrow.
  • Mexico's attorney general's office accepted 19 recommendations from the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) between 2011 and 2015, pertaining to grave violations committed by its functionaries. But has resolved on only one of these cases, reports Animal Político, based on a new report by Mexico's national auditing body. The cases involve grave human rights violations of at least 212 people, including forced disappearances and torture.
  • Sixty percent of Mexicans trust the armed forces and agree it should be involved in internal security duties according to a new poll by Parametría, reports Animal Político. The data seems to indicate widespread support of a bill that would regulate military participation in security duties, despite experts concerns that it presents little benefit and could lead to widespread human rights violations. (See Jan 30's briefs.)
  • Ecuadoreans will determine their next president in an April 2 runoff vote between Alianza País candidate Lenín Moreno and conservative banker Guillermo Lasso, reports the Wall Street Journal. Moreno, representing the current government alliance, won about 39.4 percent of the vote last Sunday, just shy of the 40 percent plus 10 point difference he needed for an outright win against Lasso's 28.1 percent. Delays in results led to accusations of fraud, but no evidence of irregularities has been reported, according to the Associated Press. (See yesterday's briefs and Tuesday's post.)
  • Haitian President Jovenel Moïse tapped an obscure physician who heads the Petionville Rotary Club, Dr. Jack Guy Lafontant, to be his prime minister, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Brazilian Foreign Minister José Serra resigned yesterday, citing health reasons. The 74-year-old said he will resume work as a senator, reports the Wall Street Journal. He was seen as a key member of President Michel Temer's government. Serra spearheaded a U-turn in foreign policy since taking office last year, turning against leftist allies in the region such as Venezuela and Cuba.
  • Brazilian development bank BNDES is working to resume nearly to $5 billion in loans suspended due to links with the sweeping Operation Car Wash corruption probe, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • São Paulo's political outsider mayor, João Doria, has made painting over the city's colorful graffiti with grey paint a priority, to the point where he's donned coveralls and completed parts of the task himself. His efforts have set off a local debate over the lines between tagging, graffiti and street murals, reports the Guardian.
  • Argentine economy officials announced aggressive fiscal deficit reduction targets, which will require further cuts to public service subsidies, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Red de Innovación Política launched a ten part series of interviews with its members. In Política Recuperada they give personal accounts of how small political groups seek to use the internet to bridge the gap between democratic systems and their citizenry.
  • Intense water use is threatening the last of Mexico City's pre-Columbian canal area in Xochimilco, reports the New York Times.
  • Mexico's sugar tax has driven down soft drinks purchases for the second year running, by about 9.7 percent over the past year, reports the Guardian.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

U.S. State and Homeland Security secretaries headed to Mexico (Feb. 22, 2017)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly are set to travel to Mexico today, where they will discuss border security, law-enforcement cooperation, trade and other issues with their counterparts and President Enrique Peña Nieto. 

They will meet with Peña Nieto and with Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s foreign minister tomorrow, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The meeting comes in a period of heightened tensions between the two countries. These are hardly likely to be helped by yesterday's announcement by the U.S. government of a policy making essentially all undocumented immigrants subject to deportation, reports the Wall Street Journal

Trump has promised to renegotiate NAFTA and threatened to slap a tariff on Mexican made goods. Mexico has sought to tie negotiations to security and migration issues in order to gain leverage. In recent years Mexican cooperation has stopped thousands of Central American migrants from crossing to the U.S. border, and has cooperated with U.S. drug policy. 

But the grand border wall plan, a project which has deepened the diplomatic rift between the two countries, appears to be stalled in Washington, where federal agencies are reportedly resisting the idea and Congress is hesitant to fund it, according to the Guardian.

Several pieces in recent weeks have noted that Trump's policies are alienating a traditional ally and causing diplomatic rifts where there needn't be problems. (See yesterday's and last Thursday's briefs, for example.)

A piece in the Washington Post explores how NAFTA changes could affect industries straddling the border and, ultimately, make U.S. consumers pay higher prices.

Mexicans fear the new U.S. crackdown on undocumented immigrants could lead to deportee and refugee camps along the border, reports the Associated Press. The sweeping changes announced yesterday could deport migrants from other countries to Mexico, a influx the country is ill-prepared to receive.

A new report by Mexican group Cohesión Comunitaria e Innovación Social looks at how mass deportations from the U.S. could affect specific Mexican localities, and hypothesizes that cities taking in large amounts of returned migrants could face tensions and conflicts with locals, reports Animal Político.

A feature in the Guardian looks at migrants in Tijuana hoping to cross the border. "Tijuana has long been a staging post for Mexicans headed north. In recent years, families fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala added foreign accents to the mix. More recently, and unusually, Asians, Africans and especially Haitians have swelled the influx. An estimated 15,000 migrants from outside Latin America passed through Baja California last year, five times more than in 2015. It gives Tijuana the feel of a global waiting room. Or a limbo."

And another Guardian piece looks at the dangers Central American migrants headed through Mexico face at the hands of bandits and kidnappers, who are often cooperating with security forces.

News Briefs
  • 2017 is off to a gory start in Mexico -- 1,938 homicides in January, the highest since tallies started two decades ago, reports Animal Político.
  • Ecuador is headed for a second round to determine its next president, reports Reuters, after a few days of uncertainty following Sunday's vote. The runoff is between Alianza País candidate Lenin Moreno and conservative CREO candidate Guillermo Lasso, reports the Miami Herald. With nearly 95 percent of all votes officially tallied, the outcome is irreversible, the National Electoral Council said yesterday afternoon, according to the Associated Press. The latest count in the heated competition has Moreno at 39.33 percent to Lasso's 28.19, putting Moreno nearly at an outright win, reports EFE. Protesters maintain a vigil outside the electoral authority's offices in Quito, reports El Universo. (See yesterday's post.) Interesting note in the Herald piece: Moreno won 38 percent of the vote from Ecuadorans living in the U.S., perhaps in part because Lasso was part of the 1998-2000 government, a period during which a banking and economic crisis forced millions to migrate from Ecuador.
  • Cuban President Raúl Castro is slated to step down next year. It would be the first time in 40 years that the country is led by a non-Castro, notes the Miami Herald. He is expected to be succeeded by Miguel Díaz-Canel on Feb. 24 of next year. Nonetheless, Castro is expected to retain considerable influence. Yet the island is also facing uncertainty regarding the direction of U.S. policy, and some experts say Castro could potentially use a hostile relationship with Trump to extend his tenure in power.
  • On that note, just as the regional pink-tide of leftist governments seemed to be in it's final ebb, "Trump’s policies have at least temporarily provided an updraft to a group of Latin American leaders who seemed on their way out the door," writes Christopher Sabatini in World Politics Review. It has also provided a boost to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, which lacking U.S. input seemed to be on its way out as a relevant international body, he says. (See Feb. 8's briefs on how several free-trade minded leaders from the region are scrambling to adjust to the new U.S. stance.)
  • Another perspective from the New York Times, which says Ecuador's election shows a sagging left in the region, as regional icons die off or are forced off the center stage.
  • Brazil's economic crisis and political turmoil are keeping it from a central role in international politics, argues Ramon Blanco in Al Jazeera. "... A country that was once able to pursue a very proactive foreign policy - for instance, brokering, alongside Turkey, a nuclear deal with Iran, or fostering a polycentric world with BRICS countries, engaged in the conception of an alternative international financial architecture with the creation of the New Development Bank - is now unable to deal effectively with pressing crises in its neighbourhood, such as the one in Venezuela or in Haiti."
  • Cuban officials denied entry to OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, former Mexican President Felipe Calderón and two independent Cuban journalists, all heading to a ceremony honoring Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, reports Aristegui Noticias (article 1 and article 2).
  • The Odebrecht earthquake rocking Latin America's political establishment shows the need for concrete steps towards making political campaign contributions more transparent argues Andrés Oppenheimer in a Miami Herald op-ed. He looks at a Transparency International proposal that all future political contributions be done through Blockchain, the financial world’s new technology that uses virtual currencies such as Bitcoin. "Under this plan, politicians would only be allowed to receive donations in Bitcoins or another virtual currency that could be specially designed for political contributions. They would use this virtual money to pay for T-shirts, caps or any other campaign expenses, and only the last supplier — the T-shirt manufacturer, for instance — would be allowed to exchange the virtual currency for cash. 'Think of it like buying chips in a casino: you can only use them in the casino, until you leave,' Transparency International’s Mexico office director Eduardo Bohorquez told me." 
  • On that whole Odebrecht thing, the Washington Post has an in-depth on the ongoing fallout around the region that could implicate current and former presidents in several Latin American countries. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • I'm a bit late, but food for thought in an Monkey Cage piece in the Washington Post, which likens Trump's "president-versus-the-press mentality" to "the adversarial attitude of many Latin American presidents." Such an approach has affected press freedom in Latin America, argue Marisa Kellam and Elizabeth A. Stein.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tensions in Ecuador over delayed electoral results (Feb. 21, 2017)

Sunday's presidential election in Ecuador is too close to call, say authorities. They say it could take days for votes from remote areas and abroad to be tallied. And the delays have prompted frustration and concerns over fraud, according to the Financial Times

The most recent counts put Alianza País candidate Lenin Moreno in the lead, with 39.18 percent, with 94 percent of votes tallied. That's within reach of the 40 percent the incumbent party candidate. Conservative banker Guillermo Lasso is second, with 28.38 percent. (See El Universal or El Comercio for updated counts.)

Protests demanding a second round and a rapid vote count are gearing up. A roundtable of opposition parties called for people to take to the streets to demand results, reports El Comercio. Lasso supporters have snarled traffic in Quito, reports El Universal, and people are coming in from other parts of the country to protest outside the electoral authority, reports El Comercio

Guayaquil mayor Jaime Nebot called a meeting later today to organize a massive march to demand a second round, reports El Tiempo. (See post for June 26, 2015, regarding his role organizing anti-Correa protests.)

Moreno called for calm, in response to opposition calls for mobilization against alleged fraud, reports El Comercio. The electoral council asked political parties to await results peacefully, reports El Comercio.

Observers praised the transparency of the polls and asked for calm in awaiting results, according to TeleSUR.

Many opposition parties have said they'd wait for final results before determining whether they'd back Lasso in an eventual second-round, reports El Universal. (See last Thursday's and Friday's posts.) Lasso promised a "dialogue table" for all political sectors and unions, heading into a second round, reports El Comercio. Third place candidate Cynthia Viteri promised to back Lasso.

Ecuador's Episcopal Conference called on electoral authorities and citizens to pray for the country and for electoral results to "reflect the truth," reports InfoBae. And the Armed Forces also added their voice to the chorus of calls for peace and transparent results, reports El Comercio.

El Universal has some interesting data on voting trends, noting that Moreno has won in eight of the country's ten most populated cities.

And it looks like Alianza País will have a legislative majority, reports El Comercio.


The Latin America terrorism threat

Excellent fact check by Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde in Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, regarding talk of Islamic terrorism using Latin America as a launchpad. Specifically, that Venezuelan authorities, under the leadership of current vice president Tarek El Aissami, issued illegitimate passports to members of Hamas and Hezbollah. They conclude that the rumors -- which featured in a letter from U.S. members of Congress to Trump and prominently in a two-part CNN investigation -- are based on very thin evidence. Though they emphasize that this does not exonerate El Aissami from the claims that he has has ties to drug trafficking or to Hezbollah and Hamas, "the idea that there are Venezuelan passports floating around the globe providing terrorists with an opportunity appears to be a tempest in a teapot." They further make the interesting point that the narrative is being pushed by "officials seeking the attention of the Trump Administration as it settles in. Linking Venezuela to a supposed terror threat emanating from the region has long been a key goal of sectors seeking U.S. intervention and given Washington’s new “normal,” it is perhaps not surprising that the story has gained legs again. By linking Venezuela to terror, stakeholders seek to make a nuisance and human rights crisis into a national security threat, and thereby generate the action they seek."

They cite Christopher Sabatini, who last month argued in Latin America Goes Global, that pushing such inflated or even disproven claims "risks alienating our partners in the hemisphere and making it more difficult to secure the sort of cooperation we need to keep U.S. citizens safe." He picks apart several "extreme claims" of "Islamo-alarmism." 

He does however note the potential links between El Aissami and Hezbollah, including reports that "was active in Hezbollah in his youth and has maintained his ties to terrorist groups both while he was in the Interior Ministry and now in the vice presidency. "

Sabatini also points to what is a potential terrorist concern in the region: "the possibility of a returning ISIS fighter staging a rogue attack. According to two sources, the United States is carefully tracking a troubling number of citizens from the region—primarily the Caribbean—that have left to join ISIS. The fear is that they could come back and launch self-guided attacks on U.S. soil or against U.S. interests in their home countries. Besides the fact that it is how the most recent terrorist attacks have occurred in Europe and—very loosely—in the U.S., it also has more logic than the idea that Iran would launch an attack given all it would risk." 

Addressing such concern, however, would require cooperation with countries in the region, rather than antagonism, he notes.

Today the New York Times has a report on how Trinidad and Tobago officials in particular are seeking to staunch a steady stream of young Muslims headed to Syria where they join ISIS ranks. 

"American officials worry about having a breeding ground for extremists so close to the United States, fearing that Trinidadian fighters could return from the Middle East and attack American diplomatic and oil installations in Trinidad, or even take a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Miami."

Trinidad has a history of Islamist extremism, according to the piece. The White House said President Trump spoke by telephone over the weekend with Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago about terrorism and other security challenges.

News Briefs

  • Beyond terrorism, the U.S. should be concerned about how Trump's policy is creating an enemy along the southern border where there was never any reason for antagonism, argues Stephen Kinzer a Boston Globe correspondent. "We don’t pay much attention to Mexico, but it is one of the most important countries in the world to us. Our economies are integrated, with annual trade exceeding half a trillion dollars. Our cultural ties are deep. Mexico gives the United States vital help in areas ranging from drug control to immigration — turning back 150,000 Central Americans trying to reach the United States in the last year alone. Most important, Mexico’s friendship helps keep us safe because it means we have no strategic threat on our southern border. All of this may now begin to change." (See last Friday's briefs and Feb. 13's post.)
  • Carnaval is coming up, but at least 48 towns and cities in Brazil have cancelled festivities due to the massive national recession's impacts on local budgets. A New York Times op-ed by Vanesa Barbara notes the particularly bad situation Rio de Janeiro state finds itself in, considering official promises about Olympics related windfalls. "The budget disaster in Rio could be attributed to many factors, such as the fall in the oil prices, the expansion of the government payroll and the general recession. But there’s no doubt that reckless spending on the World Cup and the Olympics played a role. The city of Rio will be paying off the debts it amassed for years, while it also now has to maintain the arenas it built ... The Olympic euphoria is definitely gone, as pensions and salaries are held up indefinitely and police officers fight against one another in the streets. But tourists should not worry: Rio’s Carnival is still guaranteed."
  • Prosecutors from Brazil and ten other countries -- Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Portugal -- signed an agreement last week to create a combined task force with bilateral and multilateral teams to coordinate an investigation into Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, reports the Wall Street Journal. It's the latest development in a case that is reverberating across the region, after the company admitted in December that it paid nearly $800 million in bribes around the region. (See Feb. 8's post.)
  • But the sprawling Operation Car Wash in Brazil shouldn't affect Brazil's asset prices, according to "emerging markets investment guru" Mark Mobius, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.
  • A homemade bomb wounded nearly two dozen police officers and two civilians near a Bogotá bullring, reports the Associated Press. Authorities said the attack did not appear to be related to the resumption of bullfighting at the ring, though it as police officers in riot gear were gathering ahead of a protest by animal rights activists. Some local media speculated that the ELN was behind the bomb.
  • As in other parts of the region, Argentine voters are incensed about corruption. But corruption investigations hardly spell out the end of a politicians career. In Argentina, "citizen indignation about corruption has not had a conclusive electoral impact in recent history," argues Martin Sivak in a New York Times Español op-ed. He uses the case of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is reportedly analyzing running for congress, to illustrate increasing citizen mistrust in judicial processes, and how politics have become increasingly "judicialized." What is needed is an integral reform of the judicial power, he argues, though, such a move would not necessarily push Argentines to vote against corrupt officials -- poverty and unemployment have proved more lasting concerns.
  • A U.S. company town swallowed up by the jungle with a few squatters occupying former exec quarters sounds like a scene out of a magical realism novel. But it's actually what happened with Fordlândia, a company town founded in 1928 by the industrialist Henry Ford in the far reaches of the Amazon River Basin, reports the New York Times.
  • The Olympics pop-up soup kitchen Refettorio Gastromotiva -- co-founded by super-chef Massimo Bottura -- has become a large initiative in which chefs of world-renowned create meals with soon-to-expire products donated by supermarkets and restaurants for people in need, as well as providing vocational training in culinary arts to favela residents, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See briefs for Aug. 15, 2016.)
  • Topless protests carried out in several Argentine cities earlier this month may have seemed like a lighthearted feminist caper. But the push to liberate norms governing women's bodies takes on a special relevance within a broader social context in which a femicide is perpetrated every thirty hours, I argue in a New York Times op-ed. "... There is a connection between a culture of violence against women and a breast-obsessed society that is scandalized when women’s breasts escape the control of the screen, Photoshop manipulation or artfully exaggerated cleavage to breast-feed in a public space or participate in a relaxed afternoon at the beach. Such fraught symbolism attached to real bodies has proved to be dangerously combustible." A piece in Cosecha Roja looks at some of the most recent cases of femicide in the country, showing the ghastly nature of what is turning into a quotidian phenomenon. A local organization of civil society estimates that 57 women were killed in the first 43 days of 2017.