Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Venezuelan protester shot by security forces (June 21, 2017)

A 17-year-old protester was shot dead by the national guard yesterday. The interior minister, Nestor Reverol confirmed the death of Fabian Urbina, who died Monday after security forces opened fire with handguns during clashes with demonstrators on a major highway in Caracas. On Twitter he said the cause of death was presumed to be "excessive use of force," reports the Guardian.

More than 70 people have been killed since daily protests began more than two months ago in Venezuela -- including members of the security forces and passersby -- but this is the first to have been shot dead by security forces.

Maduro fired four top military commanders yesterday, including the head of the police force, which has been accused of attacking protesters, reports AFP. He said he was also replacing the heads of the army, navy and the central strategic command body. Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez will remain in his posts. Analysts point to the vital importance of the armed forces in maintaining the government in power.

Yesterday prosecutor general Luisa Ortega Díaz, who has accused security officers of using excessive force, became the subject of investigation herself. The Supreme Court lifted her immunity from prosecution for allegedly committing "serious errors" in her role.

The step is widely viewed as an attempt to silence a prominent critical voice from within the government, reports the New York Times. Last night Ortega condemned the investigation as evidence that democracy was failing in Venezuela. "They are trying to snuff out any dissidence," she said. "It is a shame to say it, but I believe the state has dissolved."

Ortega has increasingly become a leading voice of internal criticism. Human Rights Watch notes that her legal challenges to the government "and the justice system’s reaction to them has been to create a paper trail of what is probably the heart of today’s institutional crisis in Venezuela: the absolute lack of judicial independence." (See yesterday's post.)

OAS aside: A meeting of OAS foreign ministers failed to muster enough support for a resolution condemning the Venezuelan government and calling on it to desist in efforts to rewrite the constitution. The charge in favor of that resolution was led by the U.S., along with Mexico, but the last minute abstention from several Caribbean countries left the motion short the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. Delcy Rodriguez, foreign minister of Venezuela, said yesterday that the OAS agenda had been hijacked by the United States in an "immoral" gesture, reports the Los Angles Times. Latin American leaders are increasingly angry at the regional failure to reach a consensus, reports the Financial Times, which describes how a "handful of leftist nations and Caribbean island states" thwarted the desires of large and more influential countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. (See yesterday's post.)


Investigators claim Temer took bribes

Brazilian Federal police claim to have evidence that President Michel Temer took bribes to help businesses, again raising the possibility that he could be suspended from office for a corruption trial, reports the Associated Press.

 In report published yesterday federal police investigators said former Temer aide Rodrigo Rocha Loures directly received bribes from meatpacking giant JBS on the president’s behalf. The federal police report noted Temer has refused to answer investigators’ questions in the case.

The report was written by the Brazilian equivalent of the FBI, and made public by the Supreme Court yesterday. It examined wiretaps, testimony and other evidence from executives of the food giant JBS, who have agreed to a plea bargain with prosecutors, reports the New York Times.

If the country's prosecutor general, Rodrigo Janot, chooses to indict Temer, his decision would have to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in the lower house of Congress. Should that decision be confirmed by the Supreme Court, Temer would be suspended for six months. Analysts believe Temer has enough support to block the move in Congress, but that could change rapidly.

The report is intensifying pressure on the president as he attempts to push unpopular austerity measures through congress, notes the NYT. A Senate committee rejected a government-sponsored labor bill yesterday, suggesting reform might become harder still to pass, reports the Financial Times.

News Briefs
  • Temer paid heed to supermodel Gisele Bündchen's appeal to protect the Amazon rainforest. He responded to her Tweet yesterday, saying he'd veto a bill that would have opened up 600,000 hectares (1.5m acres) of forest to development. Conservationists and experts have been lobbying without success on the issue, reports the Guardian, but apparently Bündchen's exhortation to "protect our Mother Earth" struck a chord. Nonetheless, the pro-business government is considering other plans to reduce forest reserves and indigenous territory.
  • Reports that prominent Mexican journalists and activists were targeted by sophisticated, government-owned surveillance software has led to calls for an independent inquiry into the allegations and criminal complaints being filed. (See Wednesday's briefs.) Victims, including lawyers looking into the Ayotzinapa disappearances and prominent journalist Carmen Aristegui who has investigated corruption related to President Enrique Peña Nieto's family, say an independent group of international experts is the only way to reach the truth, reports the New York Times. The attorney general's office announced today that it is starting an investigation into the case, reports Animal Político. Worried that you might be a target? The BBC explains how the Pegasus system uses a text message to infiltrate cell phones.
  • That the government might be using the Israeli made software to spy on critics is an example of how authoritarianism continues to rule the country, for Guillermo Osorno in a New York Times op-ed. He documents the extensive dangers of reporting in Mexico, and the threats and intimidation faced by journalists covering government wrongdoing. 
  • Journalists in Mexico's Sinaloa state demanded results in the investigation into the killing of Javier Valdéz. They turned their backs to a meeting of federal security officials and carried signs demanding justice, reports Animal Político.
  • New official data shows that homicide rates are breaking records this year in Mexico, reports Animal Político. Over 2,180 homicide investigations were opened in May of this year, more than in any other month on record.
  • Medicinal marijuana is officially legal in Mexico, now the executive has 180 days to regulate how the substance will be produced and marketed, reports the Huffington Post.
  • U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced the appointment of former top State Department official and head of the United Nations’ World Food Program as a as a high-level envoy for Haiti. Josette Sheeran will be developing  a comprehensive fundraising strategy to finance the U.N.’s plan to clean up cholera in Haiti, reports the Miami Herald. The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to visit on Thursday to review how the 13-year U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is implementing withdrawal ahead of the October permanent closure of the program. Sheeran will act as Guterres’ special envoy, and will focus more broadly on supporting national efforts to reach Haiti’s 2030 sustainable development goals, as well as guide the approach to eliminate cholera in the country.
  • Just as the FARC begins its final disarmament push, a deadly mall bombing and the kidnapping of two foreign journalists remind Colombia of the difficulties it faces in finding peace, reports the AFP.
  • The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (better known by its Spanish acronym CICIG) "can be a model for other countries facing the challenge of deep-seated corruption and impunity, but donors must pay attention to ensuring that future CICIG-like bodies are politically independent, adequately funded, and assigned top priority within donors’ broader foreign policy and aid objectives," according to a new report by the Council on Foreign Relations. The success of the U.N. funded independent body in Guatemala has activists to call for similar models in other countries -- notably Honduras. "But for all its accomplishments, CICIG has not spurred widespread or lasting rule of law in Guatemala. The CICIG experience thus provides lessons for policymakers in the United States and other donor nations as they contemplate creating similar structures to fight corruption in aid recipient countries," writes Mathew Taylor.
  • A potent array of technology deployed along the U.S. Mexico border -- much brought back from Afghanistan by the Defense Department -- has allowed law officials to carry out tens of thousands of arrests. Despite Trump's ongoing defense of a border wall, "the fight against illegal immigration and drug trafficking on the United States-Mexico border has increasingly become high tech," reports the New York Times.
  • In terms of policy, Trump's announcement about Cuba didn't alter important issues -- in fact, until regulations are made in keeping with the presidential memo, nothing will change. Instead the presidential political theater impacted mood, writes Jorge I. Domínguez in a New York Times Español op-ed. In terms of negotiating, however, it's a mistake he argues, reviewing how previous concessions -- or "parallel gestures in a context of cooperation" occurred with more positive rhetoric. 
  • However, an apparently innocuous clause in Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) on Cuba could potentially upset remittances back to the island by prohibiting payments to "officials of the Government of Cuba" which the document defines extensively, write William LeoGrande and Marguerite Jímenez in the Huffington Post. "The new definition proposed by President Trump includes hundreds of senior officials in every government agency, thousands of ordinary Cubans who volunteer as leaders of their local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, and—most importantly― every employee of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR) and Ministry of the Interior (MININT)."
  • Former Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa promised to retire after handing over the reins to his successor, Lenín Moreno, last month. Instead he is actively commenting on politics, and criticizing divisions within his own party. The result is a schism in the ruling Alianza País coalition, with Morenistas consolidating in the executive branch and Correistas in the legislative, writes Soraya Constante in a New York Times Español op-ed. She compares the two leaders to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his predecessor and former boss, Álvaro Uribe. Constante points to decisions Moreno has already taken that point to a personal agenda different to that of Correa: including a technocratic cabinet, warmer relations with journalists, and a commission against corruption that could work with the U.N.
  • Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner launched a new electoral alliance yesterday, that will have her leading a list of senate candidates for the Buenos Aires province, reports the Associated Press.
  • Experts are starting to identify the remains of 123 Argentine soldiers killed in fighting Britain and buried on the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, reports AFP.
  • A landslide in a small northern town in Guatemala killed 11 people, reports the Associated Press.
  • The St. Lucia National Trust is facing budget cuts, which some link to criticisms of a scheme to build a $2.6bn resort on the island that is to be part funded by the sale of St Lucian citizenship to Asian investors, reports the Guardian. As part of the reduction in funding, the Trust has had to shutter a museum on the site of the boyhood home of the poet and playwright Derek Walcott.
  • Chilean presidential candidate Sebastian Piñera jokingly suggested at a campaign rally that all the women lie down and play dead, while the men lie down and take advantage of them. (It works in Spanish, "hacerse los vivos.") His take on gender violence played less well once it started circulating on social media, reports the BBC. It's not the first time Piñera has come under fire for sexist jokes, in 2011 he quipped that the difference between a a politician and a woman was that the former meant "No" when he said "maybe", while a woman meant "maybe" when she said "No".

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