Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Helicopter fired at Venezuelan government buildings (June 28, 2017)

A police helicopter, possibly manned by a former police intelligence officer, fired shots at Venezuela's Interior Ministry and lobbed four grenades at the country's Supreme Court building yesterday. No injuries were reported. President Nicolás Maduro called it an act of terrorism, and said the arms failed to detonate, reports the Guardian.

Venezuela's political opposition questioned the attack, saying Maduro had orchestrated a diversion from attempts to intervene in the opposition-controlled National Assembly, reports the Wall Street Journal. Yesterday soldiers surrounded the congress building, and clashed with lawmakers who said troops were carrying equipment to be used in a government takeover of the building.

The alleged attack on government buildings took place shortly after Maduro said his supporters would be willing to take up arms if his government is toppled. Speaking at a rally to promote a 30 July vote for a constituent assembly, Maduro seemed to threaten to fight unfavorable electoral results with weapons, reports the Guardian separately.

Venezuelan media describe an exchange of fire between building guards and the helicopter, and pin the attack on Oscar Pérez, a former captain in the CICPC, Venezuela’s intelligence and investigative body. In a video released on social media, Pérez speaks directly to a camera flanked by four masked men wielding what appear to be assault rifles. He said he represented a coalition of military, police and civilian personnel who opposed what he called "this transitional, criminal government," reports the New York Times. (Footage of attack and video.)

The helicopter used in the attack flew a banner reading, "350 Libertad," apparently a reference to the article of the Venezuelan constitution which says citizens will not recognize regimes that run counter to democratic values. In the video Pérez  says his allegiance is to "the truth and to Christ," reports the Guardian separately. The NYT reviews some mysterious elements of Pérez's past, such as an appearance as a police officer in a 2015 film.

The incident could indicate growing dissent within the security forces against the Maduro government.

The incident occurred in the wake of the worst incidents of looting since a wave of daily protests against the government began over two months ago, notes the Guardian. Some 68 businesses, including supermarkets, liquor stores, bakeries and food shops were ransacked in a wave of lawlessness that began Monday night in the city of Maracay, 100km west of Caracas. And residents of a middle-class gated community shot at national guard members to prevent them from entering the neighborhood, in eastern Caracas.

Yesterday the Maduro-loyal Supreme Court published a decision that gave investigative powers to the human-rights ombudsman, an ally of the president, usurping powers of Attorney General Luisa Ortega who has been increasingly critical of the regime, reports the WSJ.


Brazilian politics reeling -- again, even more

Bribery charges filed against Brazilian President Michel Temer bring the country's leadership close to a potential ouster, for the second time in little over a year. (See yesterday's post.) Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot accused Temer of accepting about $150,000 in bribes and agreeing to take about $11.5 million more. He is expected to bring additional charges for obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy in upcoming days, and requested permission from the Supreme Court to investigate the president for money laundering. Each of the charges must be evaluated by the lower house of Congress, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in order to put Temer on trial before the Supreme Court. If that happens, he will be suspended for 180 days. 

Though analysts say he currently has enough support from lawmakers to duck a trial, that could change as new evidence comes to light or successive charges are filed and evaluated by Congress, reports the Wall Street Journal. The longer the process takes, the more his support could wear thin, and eventually it might come down to whether ruling party legislators consider him a liability ahead of next year's elections, according to the Guardian.

Calls for Temer to resign and call early elections before his mandate finishes next year are multiplying -- he is resisting and insists on his innocence. He has said the charges against him are politically motivated, and that Janot's supporters are against the national interest, reports the Guardian. Ironically, his supporters say the anti-corruption push by prosecutors is undemocratic and denies power to elected officials. In the meantime, the opposition is making much of the fact that Temer is the first sitting president charged with corruption. 

While Temer supporters insist it is vital he remain in office and complete a series of economic reforms aimed at pulling the country out of recession, the current political scenario makes that unpopular legislation unlikely to pass, notes the WSJ. (The Wall Street Journal has a handy summary of how the charges will wend their way through the system -- there is no timeline for when the House of Deputies will vote on the case.)

News Briefs
  • Colombia's FARC rebels turned over the last of 7,132 weapons yesterday to U.N. monitors. The U.N. has also destroyed also destroyed 77 of hundreds of the guerrilla group's secret arms caches throughout the country. "Goodbye to weapons, goodbye to war, hello peace," said FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño. The FARC plans to become a political party, likely launching in August, reports the Guardian. A ceremony yesterday in a transition camp where fighters prepare for civilian life was attended by President Juan Manuel Santos. He gave Londoño a gold shovel made from an old machine gun, and white butterflies were released, reports the Financial Times. The weapons handed over by former fighters will be melted down and used to create monuments to peace. Now comes the challenge of implementing the rest of the complex peace agreement that promises special tribunals for war crimes and extensive rural development programs, reports the New York Times. That will be the hard part, Cynthia J. Arnson, the director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars told the NYT. The peace process has polarized Colombia, and next year's presidential election promises to become a second referendum on the issue, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Colombia's top anticorruption prosecutor was arrested in Bogotá, after U.S. DEA agents said they had recorded him in South Florida at meetings where a former Colombian governor was asked to pay bribes in exchange for favorable treatment and names of witnesses, reports the New York Times. It is another blow for Santos' administration.
  • Peru's public prosecutor has opened an investigation in the wake of a fire that killed four people in Lima, apparently working in virtual conditions of slavery. Two may have been locked into a container on the roof of a building where they worked. The case draws attention abysmal working conditions in a country where 70 percent of the work force is in the unregulated labor sector, according to the Guardian.
  • Gang warfare has spurred incredible violence in Honduras, where the homicide rate in San Pedro Sula is among the world's highest. Clashes between the dominant MS-13 and 18th Street gangs are motivated by conflicts over specific drug trafficking routes and local representation of Mexican cartels, according to a Fusion piece by Douglas Farah
  • A Honduran-Guatemalan customs union could boost economic growth in both countries by one percent, reports Reuters.
  • Argentina is unlikely to make headway with economic reform ahead of October's midterm elections, which have paralyzed Congress, warned treasury minister Nicolás Dujovne according to the Financial Times.
  • Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is constructing a massive new urban intervention in Mexico City -- a  $13.4 billion airport project. "The stakes are high, and not just for Slim," reports the Guardian. "Should this project be a success, it will be his crowning glory, a symbol of his role in shaping Mexican modernity and a great gateway for the country’s global ambitions. Should it be a fiasco, future generations will see it as an ostentatious monument in an era long on mathematics and short on wisdom, in which natural resources existed to be consumed, megaprojects were a way to keep the poor fed and occupied, and the future was an afterthought."
  • Mexico City's mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera is harboring presidential ambitions for next year. But his plans for a major mass-transit bus line have been paused by complaints from ecological groups who say it will require chopping back trees along Reforma Avenue, reports the Financial Times.
  • Miss Escobar, El Patrón del Mal? Netflix has now released a new series about Mexican drug cartel kingpin, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. But not for the faint of heart. According to the Guardian review, it sounds like another Hollywood-version of a narcocorrido: "El Chapo traces the Scarface blueprint of a young buck with a big idea who butts up against the established order and prevails thanks to clever alliances and chilling ruthlessness. If you’re expecting carnage, the show will not disappoint. Explosions, decapitation, torture, unimaginable cruelty, slaughter of innocents and coke-induced psychosis pop up with the reliability of a drug dealer who always comes through."
  • Yay parrots! A rare new species discovered in Mexico and no birds were harmed in the DNA testing to identify their ancestry, reports the Guardian.

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