Friday, March 31, 2017

Venezuelan court dissolves legislature (March 31, 2017)

Venezuela's Supreme Court seized legislative power on Wednesday night, in a ruling which effectively dissolved the National Assembly. The strongest move yet in the country's slide towards dictatorship, according to the New York Times. It amounts to a the effective dissolution of the legislature, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Supreme Court determined that the National Assembly was in contempt of court for having sworn in three lawmakers accused of electoral fraud. It's been an ongoing issue for the past year, since 2015 elections gave a legislative majority to the opposition. And the court has actually found the AN in contempt several times. Efecto Cocuyo has an analysis of the (rather confusing) legal decision itself, which was tacked onto a decision allowing the government to create private-public oil companies.

Some analysts are saying the decision is ultimately aimed at freeing President Nicolás Maduro to enact economic measures, including take on debt and enact financial policies, without National Assembly approval, according to Efecto Cocuyo.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said the move was a "self-inflicted coup," a term which evokes Alberto Fujimori's dissolution of Peru's congress in 1992. He called for an emergency meeting of the OAS permanent council, reports the Miami Herald. Opposition leaders in Venezuela also referred to a coup and called on citizens to protest tomorrow. 

In a speech yesterday National Assembly President Julio Borges appealed to the armed forces several times, reports Efecto Cocuyo, separately.

The Supreme Court decision is also a challenge to regional diplomacy, after an OAS meeting earlier this week to analyzed how to encourage Venezuela to strengthen its increasingly weak democracy. On Tuesday many OAS member states urged Venezuela to free political prisoners and set a date for regional elections. (See Wednesday's post and yesterday's briefs.)

Peru recalled its ambassador to Caracas and the U.S. condemned the move as an attempt to “usurp the powers” of the national assembly, reports the Guardian.

Before the OAS meeting, the Supreme Court stripped congressmen of immunity and asked the government to prosecute lawmakers who have backed anti-Maduro initiatives for treason in closed courts, reports the WSJ.

News Briefs
  • A renovation process for Venezuelan political parties, organized by the oft-criticized national electoral commission -- has been so difficult that only four of 24 parties convoked so far has succeeded in gathering enough signatures to remain legally recognized, according to the Observatorio Electoral Venezolano. The process has been criticized as political, and appears aimed at restricting political pluralism, according to the OEV.
  • "Venezuela’s violent crime epidemic appears to be escalating into a full-blown humanitarian crisis," argue Juan Carlos Garzón and Robert Muggah in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. But it's hard to be precise, because of the long-standing lack of reliable statistics in Venezuela, which makes formulating adequate public policy next to impossible. Attempts to gather oblique data from citizen perceptions point to a sky-high murder rate. Eighty percent of respondents are “very” or “partly” afraid of being murdered in the coming year. And 6 out of 10 Venezuelans reported at least one murder in their neighborhood over the previous 12 months -- nearly double the rate respondents in El Salvador and Honduras reported.
  • Eduardo Cunha -- the conservative political leader who led the push against former President Dilma Rousseff from Brazil's lower chamber of Congress -- was sentenced to more than 15 years in jail, reports the New York Times. He was found guilty by Judge Sergio Moro of taking about $1.5 million in bribes from Petrobras, laundering the money, and hiding it in secret bank accounts in Switzerland, reports the Wall Street Journal. Cunha resigned as speaker of the house last July, and was expelled by Congress in September. He's the highest ranking politician yet to be convicted in the Operation Car Wash probe.
  • The Inter-American Court of Human Rights held two closed door sessions in Guatemala last week -- in which it reviewed the implementation of 14 sentences it handed down between 1998 and 2012 against the state of Guatemala in grave human rights cases related to the internal armed conflict and another to review the status of reparations mandated by the court in the Las Dos Erres massacre case. It also conducted an in situ visit to Rabinal, Baja Verapaz to review the status of symbolic reparations it mandated for the victims of the Rio Negro and the Plan de Sánchez massacres, reports Jo-Marie Burt in the International Justice Monitor. "The eight human rights and victims’ organizations that requested the private session highlighted the continued failure of the state to carry out its obligation to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible in the majority of the 14 cases, as well as its failure to ensure victims’ access to justice." In addition, the judiciary has permitted malicious litigation and in some cases handed down rulings that contribute to impunity.
  • Over twenty years after the massacre of 1,000 civilians put El Mozote on the map, the El Salvadoran locality remains a ghost town, writes Sarah Maslin in The Nation. The community remains riven by divisions, and an example of how the country's civil war has left scars that continue to polarize today. She reviews the recent steps in exhuming victims of the massacre, the search for justice, and lack of psychological support for victims' families. "People no longer talk about El Salvador as a model for truth and reconciliation. Political polarization has repeatedly brought the country to the brink of fiscal crisis—it appears the two sides simply transferred their conflict to the political arena—while gang violence has once again made El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the world. At the El Mozote village fair in January 2015, three alleged gang members beat a 22-year-old to death with a rock. He was the first of several gang victims buried that spring."
  • Dean Hinton, who denounced human rights violations in El Salvador as U.S. ambassador there in the 1980s, died earlier this week. Hinton faced off against the Reagan administration, and accused Salvadoran soldiers of being responsible for unexplained killings, reports the New York Times.
  • Women make up around a third of the now demobilizing FARC in Colombia. Rather, as one colorfully puts it, they're "mobilizing politically." And a group of former FARC fighting women seek to strengthen women's rights in rural Colombia, arguing that female members of the guerrilla group enjoy greater recognition and security than those in Colombian society, write Kiran Stallone and Julia Zulver in the Guardian.
  • High level U.S. officials were aware almost immediately that U.N. forces likely played a role in the cholera outbreak that killed more than 10,000 people in Haiti since 2010, according to e-mails revealed by Slate
  • Defending Chile's capital from climate change will require reducing inequality, securing water supplies and strengthening disaster prevention. But it will also require good governance, Claudio Orrego, governor of the Santiago metropolitan region told Reuters

Thursday, March 30, 2017

El Salvador bans mining (March 30, 2017)

El Salvador became the first country in the world to ban all metal mining yesterday. The law blocks all exploration, extraction and processing of metals, whether in open pits or underground, as well as use of toxic chemicals like cyanide and mercury, reports Reuters.

Legislators from across the political spectrum approved a bill that turned a decade-old moratorium on mining into law -- an initiative with broad public support, including the influential Roman Catholic Church, reports the New York Times. The ban aims to protect the country's water supply, and thwarts international companies' efforts to tap into a gold belt running across the country's northern provinces.

The initiative follows a long-standing dispute with a Canadian-Australian company over an environmentally questioned gold project, explains the Financial Times. Last year, the World Bank’s arbitration tribunal threw out a seven-year suit filed by a unit of Canadian-Australian company OceanaGold, over its failure to be granted permits for the El Dorado project in the north of the country. 

Activists say the project risked damaging already scarce and contaminated water supplies, in the second most environmentally degraded country in the region. Retaining rainwater in El Salvador is difficult due to unsustainable farming practices and inadequate industrial controls. More than 90 percent of the country's surface waters are estimated to be polluted by toxic chemicals, heavy metals and waste matter, according to the Guardian.

The vote built on increasing popular opposition to mining projects in the region and activists hope it can serve as a model for other countries, according to the Guardian. Campaigners in favor cast the issue as "No to mining, yes to life."

Activists around the region -- where protesters against mining interests routinely turn deadly -- are watching the case closely, according to FT, though partial bans are in place in other countries, for example prohibiting the use of cyanide or open-pit mining.

News Briefs
  • On the issue of mining bans: Colombia's government is questioning the validity of a local referendum in which residents overwhelmingly voted to prohibit mining in Cajamarca. (See yesterday's briefs.) The vote could affect the development of La Colosa, which has the potential to become South America's largest gold mine, reports the BBC. But yesterday Colombia's Mining Minister German Arce said the exploration license granted to South African mining giant AngloGold Ashanti would retain validity, and that the ban could not be applied retroactively. AngloGold Ashanti has invested $370 million in La Colosa, $19 million of which has gone to programs for the community -- including investments in the local hospital and stadium -- reports la Silla Vacía, analyzing why the company's strategy failed nonetheless.
  • A 117 fighters claiming to be FARC members have turned themselves into the military in Tumaco. But the guerrilla force has not recognized them. They are an example of the guerrilla's dark side factions, dedicated to drug trafficking and extortion and kidnapping, reports la Silla Vacía. The FARC is unwilling to recognize the group, and the issue shows some of the difficulties moving forward in the peace process, according to the piece.
  • #delacallealpalacio: Humberto de la Calle, who led the Colombian government's team in negotiations with the FARC, is being urged by peace activists in the country to run for president, reports La Silla Vacía
  • El Salvador's FLMN government is putting together a law that would establish a transitional justice system for war crimes committed during the country's civil war. The goal is to keep former guerrillas and members of the armed forces from facing jail time after the country's Supreme Court overthrew a long standing amnesty law last year, according to El Faro.
  • Venezuela's Supreme Court granted itself legislative powers this morning, after ruling the opposition-majority National Assembly was in contempt of court, reports AFP.
  • The OAS Permanent Council meeting earlier this week failed to reach agreement over suspending Venezuela. (See yesterday's post.) But the "session provided encouraging evidence that the country’s political and economic crisis is prompting an increasingly energetic and coordinated response from Venezuela’s Latin American neighbors," writes Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. "The government of Venezuela, rather than being pushed into counterproductive isolation by being removed from the OAS, will face diplomatic pressure to restore democratic order on new, promising fronts." He points to takeaways for diplomacy from the meeting such as Mexico's leading role, the U.S. taking a step back, and a shift to towards discussing how to address the Venezuelan crisis instead of whether there is one.
  • Argentina passed a medical marijuana bill that guarantees certain patients access to cannabis oil, which will be imported until national production comes online, reports EFE. The bill was pushed by a local group, Mama Cultiva, of mothers of children with epilepsy -- but activists failed to obtain permission to home-grow cannabis for medical purposes.
  • A Mexican judicial council suspended a judge who acquitted a young man accused in a high-profile sexual assault case. Judge Anuar Gonzalez Hemadi issued a verdict earlier this week that exonerated a youth from an affluent family who abducted and assaulted a classmate because he did not enjoy himself and did so without “lascivious intent." The ruling was criticized as an example of perceived impunity of Mexico's upper classes and failure to take sexual assault seriously. (See yesterday's briefs.) Mexico’s Plenary Council of the Federal Judiciary said it will investigate Hemadi's handling of the case, and his verdict is now on hold, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Nearly 20 million Mexicans have fallen into poverty since NAFTA was enacted 23 years ago, according to a new CEPR report. Real wages have fallen and 5 million family farmers were displaced, reports TeleSUR.
  • Two inmates died and 13 were wounded in a Mexican prison riot near Monterrey, reports the BBC. Prisoners were protesting lack of food and water after a riot the previous day.
  • U.S. federal agents arrested the attorney general for the Mexican state of Nayarit on charges that he conspired to smuggle heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine into the U.S, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Former Chihuahua governor Cesar Duarte has fled to Texas to avoid accusations of corruption, said his successor yesterday. He said officials will seek a detention and extradition order, reports the Associated Press.
  • A move by Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes to allow reelection is causing tension in a country critics say could be sliding back to dictatorship. On Tuesday legislators debating a motion that would permit the bill to amend the constitution traded punches and criticisms. And riot police sealed off the congress, reports the Guardian. The vote is scheduled for today.  Polls suggest that nearly 80% of Paraguayans oppose re-election via constitutional amendment, and opposition parties have promised to resist the move.
  • About a 1,000 protesters marched in Asunción yesterday demanding for agrarian reform, reports EFE.
  • Funding for Trump's wall could be left out of a spending bill that the U.S. Congress must pass next month, as Republican's seek to avoid complicating negotiations, reports the BBC.
  • Brazilian President Michel Temer is angling for a visit to the White House, reports Reuters.
  • Nicaragua and Israel reestablished diplomatic relations, which were suspended in 2010 in protest over a deadly Israeli raid on a flotilla trying to break a blockade of Gaza, reports Reuters.
  • This 1980's shot of a mercenary in El Salvador was taken by Derek Hudson, who portrays the scene in an interview with the Guardian. "I bought him a beer and, as he raised the bottle, managed to get three shots in before he went ballistic. He was swearing and called his friends with rifles over and pushed me about. I don’t know what would have happened if they’d realised I’d shot off some frames already. I realised I’d taken a big risk, but I didn’t think about it at the time. I quickly ordered more beers, hoping to calm them down, and then just left."

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

OAS push to suspend Venezuela falls short (March 29, 2017)

OAS member states backed away from a push to suspend Venezuela, but urged the government to engage in dialogue with the political opposition, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's post.)

The Permanent Council engaged in three hours of speeches, but concluded without a concrete course of action to support democracy in the country, reports El País. The charge was led by Mexico, the U.S. and Canada. (Efecto Cocuyo has details on each country's speech.)

Though a majority of member states support some form of action, the block is shot through with disagreement over what approach should be taken. Caribbean countries tended to place greater emphasis on supporting dialogue and noted the country's sovereignty, according to El País.

Venezuela characterized the push as interventionism, and said if the U.S. really wants to help it would stop attacking the country, reports TeleSUR. Representatives from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Haiti voted with Venezuela, despite threats from U.S. Senator Marco Rubio to cut of U.S. aid in retaliation. (See yesterday's post.)
The tense meeting underscored the difficulty in reaching a regional agreement on the issue, according to the AP.

In parallel, President Nicolás Maduro called on OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro to step down and accused him of attempting to destabilize the country. And he raised the possibility that Venezuela will leave the OAS altogether, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

News Briefs
  • At least 600 people in El Salvador have been victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation or gender identity since 2004, according to testimony given at an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights hearing last week, reports the Washington Blade. Statistics from COMCAVIS and Asociación para Impulsar el Desarrollo Humano (ASPIDH). Data from  Arcoiris Trans, another Salvadoran advocacy group, says about two dozen trans people were killed in 2015. A spate of killings this year has increased fear in the country's LGBT community, and has put a spotlight on gang violence towards transgender people, reports Reuters. About seven transgender people have been killed this year.
  • Five members of an Afro-Colombian community in Chocó were killed in unclear circumstances last weekend. Human Rights Watch has called on the Colombian government to investigate claims that they were the victims of either the ELN guerrilla group or the Gaitanist Self-Defenses of Colombia (AGC).
  • Today is the deadline for companies to submit proposals to build Donald Trump's great border wall. "It is the first step in a process that promises to combine three of Trump’s most successful ventures: beauty pageants, reality TV competitions and xenophobia," according to the Guardian.
  • A Mexican judge cleared a wealthy young man who abducted a private school classmate and sexually assaulted her, on grounds that he hadn't enjoyed himself, reports the Guardian. The man in question was one of four Veracruz youths from prominent families involved in the attack.The case has angered human rights activists who say it reinforces the perception that wealth and social prominence serve as judicial shields. Though the violation was videotaped by the perpetrators, the judge said the victim did not resist the sexual act, reports Animal Político.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's landmark oil reforms have communities in the country's south up in arms -- literally -- and increase the appeal of leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has promised to rollback the changes, reports Bloomberg.
  • In the midst of a push to pass a security bill that would formalize the military's participation in internal security, Peña Nieto has been sharing the stage with the armed forces in public events. The government has also launched a public relations campaign promoting the military to citizens, reports Animal Político. Experts have criticized the military's human rights record in matters of internal security. (See Jan 30's and Feb 23's briefs, for example.)
  • Carlos Slim's Giant Motors is joining with China’s JAC Motors to produce low cost cars in Mexico, reports the Financial Times. The announcement comes as U.S. automakers have been pushed to pull production out of Mexico by Trump.
  • The governor of Mexico's Chihuahua state requested national help to fight cartels, saying he lacks the resources to tackle organized crime, reports the BBC.
  • Guardian photo-essay portrays life on the very edge of Mexico City -- the fringe of a megacity.
  • Brazil's meat industry is stalled after several countries banned exports in the wake of allegations that companies bribed sanitation inspectors. The issue is concerning for the poultry industry in particular, where producers are trying to figure out what to do with fowl ready for slaughter in a time-sensitive cycle, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Porto Alegre has banned the use of pushcarts -- effectively criminalizing the 7,000 families that depend on street waste picking to make a living, writes University of California PhD candidate Manuel Rosaldo. "More troubling still, in the midst of a rightward lunge in Brazilian national politics, public authorities in several cities appear to be cracking down on street waste pickers."
  • Voters in Colombia's Tolima province decided to ban mining projects in their municipality. The choice could affect AngloGold's La Colosa mine, a $2 billion potential investment that could yield 28 million ounces of gold, reports Reuters. But it's not yet clear whether the decision would actually stop the project. The results could create a snowball effect in several regions considering similar consultations, according to la Silla Vacía.
  • Should conservative former banker Guillermo Lasso win Ecuador's upcoming presidential run-off, he will likely kick Wikileaks founder Julian Assange out from the country's London embassy. Assange has been holed up there for five years, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • The Quipu project in Peru created a free telephone line permitting victims of Fujimori's forced sterilization program to share their experiences, listen to testimony and record response, reports the BBC. Once recorded, the messages are translated into Quechua, Spanish and English and uploaded to the project's website where they can be listened to from anywhere in the world.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Venezuela lambasts OAS (March 28, 2017)

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez accused the OAS wanting to destroy her country yesterday, and said the organization's secretary general is a stooge of a the U.S., reports the Los Angeles Times. The OAS scheduled a special session of its Permanent Council today to consider the issue, reports EFE. Venezuela says the meeting is contrary to the group's rules, and accused the OAS of acting in favor of hostile U.S. interests, reports Reuters.

Rodríguez appeared in a panel convened after a group of 14 member states demanded the Venezuelan government free political prisoners immediately and set a date for regional elections. (See last Thursday's post.) Failure to comply could lead to the country's suspension from the regional organization.

Nonetheless, it's not clear that the organization will gather the two-thirds vote from member states required to suspend Venezuela, notes Deutsche Welle

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio threatened to cut U.S. aid to the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and El Salvador if these countries do not support the initiative, reports El Nuevo Herald.

But even if it does not pass, the Venezuela situation represents an opportunity for "post-Western" diplomacy within the region and beyond, according to David Smilde and Timothy M. Gill in an LSE Latin America and Caribbean Centre post. The Trump withdrawal from international spaces -- including shunning an Inter-American Court of Human Rights hearing last week and reducing the country's contribution to the OAS -- effectively sideline the country more from the region. This could create a more productive space for other countries to act, they write. 

"Berating the lack of unity among Latin American countries is a favourite pastime of Washington policy circles. However, “groups of friends” are often able to overcome differences among countries through their reduced focus. And the Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric towards Mexico is already pushing that country into greater contact with the region, thereby increasing the possibility of a regional solution."

Venezuela aside: Maduro announced a new currency exchange mechanism that will replace the current intermediate rate, reports Reuters.

News Briefs
  • There has never been a more optimal time for Latin American economic integration, argues a column in the Economist that examines the potential to merge Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance, but also general removing of obstacles to trade.
  • A GPS-enabled panic button Colombia's government distributed to about 400 activists has flaws exposing them to more danger, reports the Associated Press. Vulnerabilities in the devices given to human rights activists, labor organizers, and journalists working in risky environments could let hostile parties disable them, eavesdrop on conversations and track users' movements, found the AP.
  • The militarized "war on drugs" launched a decade ago in Mexico was characterized in early years by aggression, improvisation and increasing lethality according to Nexos. The most notable effect? A drastic increase in violence, reflected in a national homicide rate that jumped from 8.1 to 23.7 between 2007 and 2011. The authors base their analysis on extensive data on violence from government sources to show that the results of the policy were catastrophic, for security and human rights.
  • Al Jazeera has an in-depth piece on how drug gang wars in Brazil are fueling prison violence like the riots that killed more than 130 inmates in the beginning of this year. "Experts say that the prison killings reflect decades of failed policy; the prison population has soared beyond the control of a chronically underfunded system, enabling gangs to step in and take the place of the state. The upsurge in violence is also attributed to growing tensions between gangs fighting for control of the cocaine trade."
  • U.S. rapper Wiz Khalifa has caused a stir by taking flowers to the grave the notorious cartel leader Pablo Escobar. Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez said the rapper is advocating crime and called for an apology, reports the BBC.
  • French Guyana was paralyzed yesterday by a general strike and protests over high crime and economic hardship. The unrest has pushed the overseas territory into the center of French presidential campaign, reports the New York Times.
  • The flood related death toll in Peru rose to 90 this weekend, reports EFE.  Four people died and 500 evacuated in the country's north, reports the BBC. The effects have been particularly devastating because the country was completely unprepared to deal with the natural phenomenon, experts say. The standing of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski will depend on managing reconstruction well, according to the Economist.
  • Experts on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border are saying that overturning NAFTA would be a disaster (see yesterday's post), but farmers in Mexicali are allying themselves with Trump and hoping to kick out a major U.S. brewery they accuse of using up scarce water resources, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Mexico is considering offering duty-free access to Brazilian and Argentine corn as an alternative to U.S. exports that could impact American farmers, reports the Financial Times. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Brazilian airline Gol agreed to pay an indigenous tribe compensation for an 2006 plane crash the community says cursed an area of the reserve they inhabit, reports the BBC.
  • Pensions in Cuba are so low that retirees must find ways to supplement their income, what the Economist calls "hustling, cradle to grave." But they are also beneficiaries of an health care system that has obtained excellent results. 
  • Chile will withdraw peace keeping troops from Haiti, said President Michelle Bachelet yesterday in Port-au-Prince. But she reinforced her country's commitment to Haiti, reports the Miami Herald. The state visit comes in the lead up to a U.N. debate over whether to extend the long-standing stabilization mission there. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has recommended a staggered withdrawal. (See March 20's post.)

Monday, March 27, 2017

Mexico gearing up for NAFTA talks (March 27, 2017)

NAFTA is vital for Mexico. And U.S. President Donald Trumps threats to upend the free trade agreement seeking better terms for the U.S. threw Mexico's economy into a tizzy. But now the uncertainty is dragging on -- affecting foreign investment and other key indicators. So Mexican leaders are focusing energies in getting their U.S. counterparts to move on with the promised renegotiation, reports the New York Times.

Already administration officials have set down some limitations -- saying discussion of Mexican payment for a proposed border wall, for example, would be a deal breaker. Last week Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said Mexico will pull out of the deal if the new terms offered are not beneficial to the country, reports Bloomberg.

And on the U.S. side, analysts say Trump's administration might be overwhelmed with other political conflicts to dwell on Mexican trade. Nonetheless, U.S. commerce secretary Wilbur Ross is expected to formally notify Congress of the Trump administration's plans to renegotiate, which will trigger a 90 consultation period with Congress, after which formal negotiations can begin, according to Bloomberg.

The U.S. proposal could be further hindered by the delicate situation Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto finds himself in, according to the NYT piece: delays could further hit the country's economy, driving down his already low popularity ratings and robbing him of political capital to make concessions to the U.S.

Counter to the NYT piece, last week the Financial Times argued that Mexico's economy has learned to deal with the Trump era. "Uncertainty is the new normal," argues the piece which points to indications that the U.S. will seek a sensible deal, and Mexican officials' successful hedging of the peso.

And U.S. farmers are lobbying hard on both sides of the border, concerned that their exports are going to be collateral damage in the upcoming NAFTA renegotiation, reports the Wall Street Journal. Mexico is the primary market for many U.S. grain, meat and dairy products, and agricultural groups have been seeking to strengthen ties with Mexican clients and government officials in order to avoid potential retaliatory tariffs.

Hurting Mexico will only favor China, a poor decision for the Trump administration, argues Larry Summers in the Financial Times. On the one hand, economically it would eliminate the edge Mexican products have over Chinese. And as many Mexican exports to the U.S. are inputs to further U.S. production, it would affect U.S. manufacturing competition with China.

But, he notes, it would also give China diplomatic leverage by creating a potential anti-U.S. ally. "As illustrated by the more than $60bn China has poured into Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Beijing would regard opportunities to ally with a hard left anti-American government as strategic windfalls. What better than a country of 130m people with a 2,000-mile border with the US? Every Mexican with whom I spoke said that the risk of their country electing a Chavez-like government had gone way up in recent months on account of American disrespect and truculence."

Is Summers referring to presidential frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador? Maybe, as he was at an Acapulco banking conference this weekend in which Mexican financiers and politicians blasted populism in an apparently thinly veiled criticism of AMLO, as he is called, according to Reuters.

News Briefs
  • Aid workers in Haiti found 240 people living in a cave on the outskirts of the Hurricane Mathew affected Jérémie, reports the Miami Herald. They have been living there since the storm in October. Last week, the same group, Food for the Poor, denounced over a dozen deaths in recent days due to hurricane related food shortages. People desperate for sustenance are turning to poisonous fruits and foliage.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said he requested U.N. assistance to help boost medicine supplies in light of crippling shortages around the country, reports the Associated Press.
  • Polls last week in Ecuador put ruling party candidate Lenín Moreno in the lead to win April 2's run-off presidential election. The second-round has become unusually acrimonious. Conservative banker, Guillermo Lasso, who is facing off against Moreno, has accused the government of using state-run media outlets to unfairly boost Moreno, while Moreno's camp is focusing on Lasso's role in the country's 1999 financial crisis and alleging he profited from it, reports the Miami Herald. (See last Wednesday's briefs on the polls.)
  • Ismael Moreno Coto is a Jesuit priest who has become a leader for opposition to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, according to a New York Times Español profile. Padre Melo, as he is known, was close to environmentalist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated last year. He says opposers of the "extractivist" model, activists who cannot be bought by companies or political parties, face a death sentence.
  • With the clock ticking towards the end of Cuban President Raúl Castro's presidency next year, he faces a series of economic challenges in order to leave a growing economy for his successor, reports the Miami Herald. Many state enterprises are not doing well, benefactor Venezuela's troubles are affecting the island, and the country sorely needs foreign investment, among other woes that include the dual currency system and low state salaries, according to the piece.
  • Across the region, economies must grow at higher than projected rates in order to defend the social gains of the past decade, argues Adriana Arreaza in Nueva Sociedad.
  • The Guardian profiles a group of activists providing social services to the shantytown they group up in. The members of Collectivo Villero bought second hand ambulances, which they use to transport residents of the sprawling Villa 1-11-14 in Buenos Aires to hospitals -- official ambulances have long failed to respond to emergencies within shantytowns, citing security concerns. Their activities take new meaning as official poverty rates climb above one third of the population and citizens are angry over President Mauricio Macri's pledge to bring poverty down to "zero."
  • China reopened its markets to Brazilian meat, a week after barring shipments in the wake of a scandal involving meatpacking companies bribing health inspectors, reports the Wall Street Journal. Several other countries also lifted bans this weekend, a victory for the country's third-biggest export industry, reports the Financial Times. (See last Thursday's briefs.)
  • Protests protests everywhere: Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in 18 Brazilian cities, in defense of the sprawling Operation Car Wash investigation into political corruption. In Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo also called for more freedom to bear arms and even advocated military intervention in the government, a sign that conservatives continue to turn out at protests, and have hardened their demands, according to the New York Times.
  • Thousands of Dominicans protested to demand trials for politicians accused of accepting Odebrecht bribes, reports EFE.
  • About a hundred people gathered to protest the death of Mexican journalist Miroslava Breach, the third killed in the country this month, reports Reuters. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • Tens of thousands of Argentines commemorated the 41st anniversary of a military coup by gathering in Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo, where human rights activists demanded trial and punishment of human rights offenders and criticized the Macri administration's human rights policies, reports EFE.
  • And in Chile, tens of thousands protested the countries polemic private pension system, calling on President Michelle Bachelet to scrap it, reports the BBC.

Friday, March 24, 2017

UN report tells Honduras to demilitarize security (March 24, 2017)

A new report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Honduras urges the government to take steps to demilitarize internal security, and to strengthen "transparency and civilian oversight in relation to defense and security."

The report, released this week, also calls on the government to improve the protection of rights of victims of crimes and human rights violations. EFE's coverage focuses on criticism of the expansion of the role of the Armed Forces in internal security and a recent law that broadly identifies terrorism.

The report calls for rapid demilitarization, but also notes that violence is widespread throughout Honduran society, reports El Heraldo.

Among other recommendations, the report also urges Congress to reform the country's criminal code and calls on the government to "develop and implement comprehensive penitentiary system reform that promotes the rehabilitative purpose of imprisonment and puts the system fully under civilian management."

The High Commissioner's representative in Honduras, María Soledad Pazo, emphasized the need to bring police, accused of criminal acts, to justice, reports Criterio. A restructuring of the national force began last year, in relation to accusations of illicit activities on the part of officers. But while 1,651 officers have been purged, none have been formally charged, notes the report.

Mere administrative restructuring is not enough in this case, said another UNHCHR official quoted in El Heraldo.

Pazo avoided answering questions about JOH's reelection bid, according to Criterio separately.

News Briefs
  • OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro is pushing to suspend Venezuela from the organization if the government doesn't free jailed opposition politicians, hold regional elections, and return power to the opposition-led National Assembly. As a carrot he's offering access to much needed international credit lines, to help bail out the country's disastrous economy, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Paramilitary forces have killed and displaced hundreds of people in Colombia since the government signed a peace deal with the FARC last year, according to Amnesty International. "Alarmingly, in various parts of Colombia the armed conflict is as alive as ever." The warning echoes widespread reports of attacks on human rights activists and community leaders, reports AFP.
  • Miroslava Breach -- who reported on murders in her home state of Chihuaha -- became the third journalist killed this month in Mexico, reports the Los Angeles Times. She was shot in her car, and a sign at the scene said "tattletale." She had reported on organised crime, drug-trafficking and corruption for a national newspaper, La Jornada, and a regional newspaper, Norte de Juarez, reports the BBC.
  • U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy warned that aid funding to Guatemala could be jeopardized by President Jimmy Morales' push to remove CICIG head Iván Velásquez, reports InSight Crime.
  • A recent debate in Peru over incorporating gender equality into schoolbooks is seen as a sneaky attempt to encourage children to view homosexuality positively by conservative groups, reports Vice News. Thousands marched earlier this month against "gender ideology," despite official assurances that the texts aim at equality between men and women. (See March 7's briefs.)
  • An Argentine judge has ordered former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to stand trial on charges of leading a plan to defraud the government of $3 billion through the dollars futures market, reports the New York Times. Though she has faced a multitude of accusations of wrongdoing since leaving office, this is the first time a trial has been ordered. The judge accuses Fernández, along with other government officials, of masterminding the plan to prop up the peso in the electoral period leading up to Nov. 2015. The former president has called the case an example of political persecution.
  • A high profile dispute over a Chinese copper mine has an Ecuadorian Amazon community facing off against military drones, reports the Guardian.
  • New restrictions in Mexico's Tabasco state forbid foreigners from hiring pregnancy surrogates, a change that is affecting a lucrative local market, reports the New York Times.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Hemispheric call for Venezuela to release political prisoners (March 23, 2017)

A group of 14 countries -- including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile -- plan to issue a joint statement in coming days calling on the government of President Nicolás Maduro to release political prisoners, return full powers to the National Assembly and set a timetable to hold regional elections that Venezuela has indefinitely postponed, reports the Wall Street Journal

In a region where countries tend to refrain from interfering in each others' sovereign affairs, such a move is unusual, notes the WSJ. Countries close to Venezuela, such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador have refused to sign onto the initiative. But the tide has shifted in the region, replacing previously friendly governments with center-right administrations. The 14 nations hope to submit the statement for a vote as a resolution at the Organization of American States. (See March 15's post, and Tuesday's briefs.)

Earlier this week relatives of imprisoned opposition politicians asked OAS member states to follow Secretary General Luis Almagro's recommendation to suspend Venezuela, reports Voice of America. Venezuela's OAS ambassador interrupted the press conference held by Almagro and families, denouncing the event as political proselytization, reports Voice of America separately.

The U.S. case for defending human rights in the region -- especially the Venezuelan case -- has been weakened by the Trump administration's unusual decision to boycott Inter-American Human Rights Commission sessions dedicated to the immigration ban, argues Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. "The Trump administration's decision to stay out of the hearings put the United States in the odd situation of being in same category as Cuba and other systematic human rights abusers, which often boycott the IAHRC hearings, other commission officials told me."

Venezuela aside: The government has stopped publishing money supply data, eliminating key information used for determining inflation after the country quit issuing inflation data more than a year ago, reports Reuters.

News Briefs
  • Latin America's leadership in global lethal violence is partially du to a high level of impunity, argue Igarapé Institute's  Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabo de Carvalho in Foreign Affairs, where they tout evidence-based and data driven strategies targeted at homicide hotspots. "In Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and Venezuela, at least 90 percent of capital crimes go unpunished. Since most victims are poor black men from low-income neighborhoods, their deaths are considered a low priority. Investigations are sloppy, if they are conducted at all. As a result, people’s faith in the police and criminal justice systems has collapsed." (See March 15's briefs.)
  • Venezuelan authorities have arrested six children in connection with the murder of two off-duty soldiers, reports the BBC. The minors range from six to 15 years, and are said to belong to a gang called Los Cachorros.
  • Rapidly deteriorating conditions in Venezuela are pushing thousands of citizens across the Brazilian border in search of sanctuary from criminal violence, food and medicine shortages, and rampant inflation. Though its not clear that these reasons qualify migrants for refugee status, it hasn't stopped people engaging in what one expert calls "survival migration." But migrants find themselves in only marginally better circumstances than at home, and Brazilian authorities have been slow to respond, write Igarapé Institute's María Beatriz Bonna Nogueira and Maiara Folly in America's Quarterly. New legislation allows citizens from border countries to apply for a two-year temporary resident status, an attempt to keep Venezuelans from overwhelming the national asylum system. But the efforts lack resources and have left local, state, and federal governments squabbling over who must provide shelter, access to health, the provision of food, or other basic requirements of the migrant population, they write. "What is required is a comprehensive approach to asylum that simultaneously provides for the essential social and economic requirements of new arrivals."
  • Brazil's government struggled to convince international markets that meatpacking industry bribes to sanitation inspectors were merely aimed at moving produce faster, not to sell rotten meat, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See Monday's briefs.) At least 17 import markets took steps to limit Brazilian meat exports, a key national industry. The government criticized police handling of the case, saying the companies in question did not sell tainted meat. Officials also said that some of the information appears to have been misinterpreted and actually referred to legal practices. The agriculture minister called it a "punch to the stomach" for the meat industry, reports the New York Times. Meat exports on Tuesday fell to just $74,000, compared with a daily average for March of $63 million. President Michel Temer took ambassadors from meat-importing countries to a steakhouse, but according to Brazilian media, much of the meat sold there was imported. "Weak Flesh" is just the latest in a series of damaging revelations to shake the Brazilian corporate sector, already struggling with the worst recession to hit Latin America's biggest economy, notes the Financial Times, pointing to the still ongoing Petrobras and Odebrecht scandals.
  • Momentum is building in support of a proposal to loosen El Salvador's famously draconian abortion policy. A bill in congress would the procedure in cases of rape or human trafficking; when the foetus in unviable; or to protect the pregnant woman’s health or life. And could mitigate the often tragic effects of the current total ban, which has forced women to carry to term pregnancies that were unviable, dangerous, or the result of rape, reports the Guardian. Women have been forced to face life-threatening medical complications, or denial of treatment in order to protect the fetus. And dozens have been imprisoned for murder after suffering obstetric complications.
  • Guatemalan Congressman Edgar Justino Ovalle has not been seen publicly in over a month, and is believed to have fled the country in the wake of a Supreme Court decision impeaching him and allowing the attorney general's office to formally initiate judicial proceedings against Ovalle in a major human rights case. The Attorney General’s Office seeks to charge Ovalle in relation to several crimes that occurred in 1983 in the CREOMPAZ case, a major case of enforced disappearance in the country's civil war, explains Jo-Marie Burt at the International Justice Monitor. (See March 16's briefs and post for Jan. 7, 2016.)
  • Chile's high court has sentenced 33 former intelligence agents for the disappearance of five political activists in 1987, reports the BBC.
  • A rare opinion survey found that many Cubans long for a stronger economic future, reports the New York Times.
  • Teacher participation in a massive general strike against pension reform in Brazil earlier this month was underreported, according to an account by Stanford Post-Doc scholar Rebecca Tarlau at Education in Crisis. "On March 15 one million workers took to the street across Brazil, the largest national mobilization since the new conservative government took power. A large portion of these workers were teachers; teachers who not only initiated the strike, but who had done the hard work to mobilize their base to participate.
  • Two teenage sisters fleeing violence in Guatemala were sexually assaulted by a U.S. border agent after crossing into Texas from Mexico last year, according to a suit filed by the ACLU, reports the Guardian.
  • The numbers of people crossing over to the U.S. from Mexico are at an all-time low, reports the Financial Times, citing new research to be presented at the Brookings Papers conference this week. Apprehensions at the Mexican border, considered a proxy for how many people are attempting to migrate, has dropped to 1970s levels. Recently the Center for Migration Studies reported that up to 66 percent of migrants living illegally in the U.S. had overstayed valid visas. (See March 10's briefs.)
  • Uncertainty over Trump and his plan to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, as well as destroy the NAFTA cornerstone of trade between the two countries, has settled and tension is easing in Mexico, reports the Financial Times. "Higher prices and borrowing costs, plus the prospect of slower growth and the political uncertainty attached to Mr Trump’s policies, sound like a sentiment-crushing combination. Yet consumer confidence rallied in February after the government backpedalled on additional petrol price rises, the hedging programme strengthened the peso and fears of Nafta being scrapped receded."
  • Haitian police reject claims that former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the target of an assassination attempt earlier this week, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's briefs.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

JOH confronted in DC over Cáceres (March 22, 2017)

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was confronted in Washington D.C. by protesters demanding an independent investigation into the murder last year of environmental activist Berta Cáceres, reports the Guardian.

Hernández met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. lawmakers, reports La Prensa.

Increasing violence against land activists around the world are frequently the result of a conspiracy aimed at silencing campaigners, according to an investigation by Yale Environment 360. They also found that while the victims are usually characterized as environmental activists, "their campaigns run much deeper and are often rooted in the social identity of minority groups," reports the Guardian, separately.

The piece goes in depth into Cáceres' assassination and her key role in reviving Lenca heritage as part of her campaigns. 

News Briefs
  • Ongoing testimony in a U.S. court from a former Honduran criminal group leader has  implicated the brother of current Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, said he met with the president's brother, Congressman Antonio "Tony" Hernández and discussed how a Maradiaga family business could carry out public works and pay a kickback to Hernández in return, reports InSight Crime. Already the former head of Los Cachiros had implicated former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, and several media accounts say he also referenced the current president by his initials, JOH. (See March 13's post.)
  • Los Cachiros were so powerful at one point in Honduras that they had a group of police officers functioning as the organization's hit men, reports La Prensa based on Maradiaga's testimony in the U.S. Testimony shows how a group of six officers planned protection of shipments of cocaine across the country, reports La Prensa, separately.
  • Waldomiro Costa Pereira, a prominent Brazilian land activist, was killed by gunmen in a Para state hospital, where he was recovering from a previous assassination attempt, reports the BBC. Brazil has become one of the world's most dangerous places for land activists, according to national rights groups that point to 61 murders last year, reports Reuters.
  • Three Guatemalan police officers were killed yesterday, in a series of attacks on police, reports the BBC. The assaults on officers were apparently in retaliation for a raid on a gang controlled youth detention center, which led to the arrest of 13 suspected gang members and seizure of weapons. Dozens of inmates had been rioting in the center, and police entered to free hostages. The assaults were apparently carried out by the Barrio 18 gang, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Haiti's parliament ratified Jack Guy Lafontant, a doctor with no previous political experience, as the country's new prime minister. The Chamber of Deputies confirmed President Jovenel Moïse's candidate early yesterday, after 19 hours of debate. Legislators questioned his suitability, as well as questions over his tax record. But much of the debate centered over how he will finance an ambitious list of priorities, reports the Miami Herald.  
  • Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez said the country will be pulling its peacekeeping troops out of Haiti at the end of the month, reports the Associated Press. The announcement comes a few days after U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres recommended ending the 13 year stabilization mission in Haiti. (See Monday's post.)
  • At least two people were wounded in Port-au-Prince on Monday when shots were fired at a motorcade carrying former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, reports the Associated Press.
  • New polls put Alianza País candidate Lenín Moreno ahead in Ecuador's upcoming second-round presidential vote, reports EFE. The ruling party candidate has 52.4 percent to conservative banker Guillermo Lasso's 47.6 percent. Moreno came out ahead in the February first round, but not by enough to win outright. The elections were marred by delayed results, which led to opposition accusations of irregularities. (See Feb. 21's post.) April 2's run-off will be technically simpler to tally, and electoral authorities promise quick results, reports TeleSUR.
  • Moreno's possible win is "good news," for the Nation's Greg Gandin, "indicating that the Trump effect might rebound in favor of the Latin American left, halting an emboldened neoliberal right, which now rules in Brazil and Argentina."
  • Oil theft is a major source of funding for Mexican drug gangs, which can earn up to $90,000 in seven minutes from tapping a pipeline of refined oil, according to an Atlantic Council study. Mexico is one of the biggest oil theft hotspots, where an estimated $1 billion is stolen each year. About 40 percent of that market is controlled by the Zetas cartel, reports the Guardian.
  • The family of a teen who died from drinking liquid methamphetamine while in U.S. Border Patrol custody in 2013 have been awarded a $1 million settlement, reports the BBC.
  • Mexicans are up in arms over pictures on social media of federal police officers posing with tourists in Playa del Carmen, in Quintana Roo state, reports the BBC.
  • Hong Kong joined China in suspending Brazilian meat imports in the wake of allegations that major meatpacking companies bribed inspectors to approve unsafe products, reports the BBC. (See yesterday's and Monday's briefs.)
  • Bolivia demanded Chile return two soldiers and seven custom agents detained over the weekend in a border altercation. Bolivian authorities say their forces were carrying out an anti-smuggling operation and the arrest of their agents ocurred on Bolivian soil, Chile says it occurred on its side of the border, reports EFE.
  • A two year WWF project has trained members of Guyana's Wai-Wai tribe to use cutting-edge software, smartphones and GPS to gather data and assess carbon stocks, reports the BBC