Monday, July 31, 2017

Venezuelans vote, international condemnation (July 31, 2017)

Venezuela's embattled government pushed through with an election yesterday to choose a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. The government claimed a turnout of nearly 8.1 million voters, or 41.5 percent -- a number the opposition claims is fraudulent, reports the Washington Post, which notes that Venezuela is known for high electoral participation.

An exit poll by Torino capital put the number at 18.5 percent participation. "The numbers are entirely unverifiable because this time around the National Electoral Council (CNE) dispensed with fourteen of its normal audits and protocols. In addition, it allowed voters to vote in alternative centers, did not use indelible ink, had no independent electoral observation, and did not allow journalists anywhere near the electoral centers," writes David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.

Reporters noted few lines at polling centers around the country, according to the New York Times.

Allies of the Socialist Party won all 545 seats in the new assembly, which will have the power to dissolve state institutions -- including the opposition-led National Assembly -- and oust dissident state officials. First in line is the office of the dissident chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Díaz, reports Reuters.

"The result effectively liquidates the Venezuelan political opposition and leaves the left with complete control over a country that remains deeply divided," according to the NYT.

President Nicolás Maduro insists the goal is to move power from the hands of politicians to the hands of citizens, but critics say it will nullify opposition influence.

The government responded harshly to protests -- shock troops firing volleys of tear gas and storming squares in Caracas and around the country, according to the Washington Post. Those citizens who did vote came under the watchful gaze of 326,000 national guards and police. At least 10 people were killed in protests yesterday.

A new Datanalisis poll found that 72 percent of the population opposed the new constituent assembly.

Maduro insisted that the newly elected body will bring peace after months of protests, and mocked U.S. protests that the election was a violation of democracy. 

The opposition called for protests to continue today, reports the Guardian.

Growing international condemnation could increasingly affect Venezuela diplomatically, notes Smilde. Countries could refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the constitutional assembly's decisions, explains Mariano de Alba at Prodavinci.

Latin American countries joined the chorus of condemnation yesterday, along with Spain and Canada. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said that his country would not recognize the vote, while Mexico and Panama said they would collaborate with U.S. sanctions. The EU said the constituent assembly could not be part of the negotiated solution to the country's crisis, noting it was elected under doubtful and often violent circumstances, according to Reuters.

"If these other countries don’t recognize Venezuela as a democracy, it will be hard for them to look like a legitimate power,” WOLA's David Smilde told the NYT.

U.S. sanctions, however, are not the way to go, argue Smilde and Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, noting how these actions have consistently backfired over the years.

Upping sanctions is of dubious "legitimacy and legality," argues Mark Weisbrot in The Hill. And Venezuelans overwhelmingly oppose such a course of action, he notes. "Most academic research shows that sanctions are generally ineffective, especially when they are being used to coerce another government to change its behavior. A recent study by Thomas Biersteker of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva found that sanctions were effective in such cases just 10 percent of the time. This is not surprising since most governments don’t like to be seen as being pushed around by foreign states."

A U.S. immigration lawyer who was close to former President Hugo Chávez has joined a chorus of chavista critics of the Maduro government, reports Bloomberg. Eva Golinger joins a growing group of dissent, though without necessarily supporting the opposition.

News Briefs
  • Haiti's decision to reconstitute its armed forces -- disbanded more than 20 years ago -- has raised concerns that the military's violent and antidemocratic history could repeat. Politicians say the efforts are targeted at reducing illegal trafficking. But critics say the real motivation might be political, reports Insight Crime, pointing to the ruling party's links to the country's traditional Duvalierist and militarist groups.
  • Nicaragua's government is promising to revive a $17 billion damage claim made decades ago over U.S. support for contra rebels in the 1980s, reports the Associated Press. Nicaraguan politicians are retaliating against the Nica Act bill advancing through the U.S. House of Representatives, which would add conditions to the provisions of aid from international financial institutions to the country add conditions to the provisions of aid from international financial institutions to the country, in demand for "free, fair, and transparent elections." (See Friday's briefs.)
  • Brazil's lower chamber of congress is set to vote this week on whether President Michel Temer should go to trial on corruption allegations. The government seems to have a solid majority to defeat the measure, which would suspend him for six months, reports Bloomberg. Temer opponents need to round up two-thirds of the Chamber of Deputies in order to put Temer on trial.
  • "Regardless of the outcome of House proceedings, political turmoil appears certain to continue – and Temer’s conservative policies will continue to aggravate social divisions," writes Fábio Kerche at the Aula Blog.
  • The sentencing of popular former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva should have been Operation Car Wash's pinnacle of success -- proof that the corruption investigation is above politics. But instead the probe is fighting for its life, reports the Atlantic. In the face of a concerted effort by politicians to undermine the investigation, "Operation Car Wash is kept alive by the media (including, to their credit, some conservative outlets), very small leftist parties, and parts of the judicial system. Business leaders who supported Operation Car Wash before Rousseff´s impeachment have gone oddly quiet. Yet the Operation remains wildly popular: an IPSOS poll from March shows that Sergio Moro, the judge who convicted Lula, has an 63 percent approval rate. But this widespread support has not yet translated into effective political action. This is partly due to political polarization. Supporters of Operation Car Wash on the left and on the right are not willing to march side by side. That is why it’s too soon to divine the meaning of Lula’s conviction. No one can be sure that it is part of a complete overhaul of the system. In fact, Lula might actually manage to avoid punishment amid some kind of general amnesty concocted by his adversaries," writes Celso Barros.
  • The Brazilian military has begun deploying 10,000 troops in the state of Rio de Janeiro to help the fight against organized crime, reports the BBC. The state is being squeezed by a budget crisis affecting public finances and an increasingly intense gang problem, reports the Financial Times.
  • Honduras must do more to protect its human rights defenders, said U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, at the end of a three-day visit to a newly established U.N. human rights office in the country. Among the groups with whom he met was the Organization of American States' Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), as well as the National Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • Mexican polls show President Enrique Peña Nieto and his traditional PRI party are in free fall ahead of next year's elections. Outsider Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is a presumed front-runner and "could capitalize on this discontent and lead the country in a fairer and more democratic direction," writes Christy Thornton in a Washington Post opinion piece. She writes about a massive sinkhole that opened suddenly in a newly inaugurated Mexico City expressway, making the case that its an apt metaphor for the government. "For all of its promises to lead Mexico to a bright new future, the PRI is likely to be swallowed up into a sinkhole of its own making. And while the billboards may have been removed, everyone knows they have the president to thank."
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) said Argentine social activist Milagro Sala must be released from jail. The precautionary measure said that the government must comply immediately, reports CELS. Sala has been arbitrarily detained since January 16, 2016, when she was arrested over a protest. The precautionary measure was requested by Amnesty International, Andhes and CELS.
  • Economists say Argentina's economy is growing -- but consumers aren't feeling it, and it could impact the ruling party's odds in the upcoming mid-term elections, reports Bloomberg.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Sessions in El Salvador to combat MS-13 (July 28, 2017)

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is in El Salvador for a series of meetings with law enforcement officials about a transnational anti-gang task force aimed against violent street gang MS-13, reports the Associated Press

Sessions' is touting the meetings with Salvadoran officials, including his counterpart Attorney General Douglas Melendez, as the convening of a transnational anti-gang task force, according to the AP. The U.S. administration has sought to justify its crackdown in illegal immigration to incidents of gang violence carried out by migrants. 

Critics note that the gangs in question originated in the U.S. and took root in Central America due to previous governments' deportation policies. (See last Friday's briefs, for example.) Some law enforcement officials argue that the Trump administration's deportations are at odds with the goal of eradicating MS-13 locally. MS-13 preys largely on immigrant communities, and cracking down on undocumented migrants can have a chilling effect on reporting of gang crime. And the police chief of Los Angeles, announcing a major arrest of nearly two dozen MS-13 leaders, said the trust of undocumented victims was essential to that investigation, reports NPR.

In San Salvador, Sessions emphasized the scope of MS-13's reach in the U.S., saying the gang has affiliates in 40 states and the District of Colombia, reports La Prensa Gráfica.

Sessions' visit comes as he has been increasingly criticized by U.S. President Donald Trump. From San Salvador Sessions lamented that the president’s broadsides were "kind of hurtful" – but he intends to remain on the job, reports USA News and World Report.

News Briefs
  • More than 40 percent of Salvadorans would approve of torture as a tool to combat gang members, according to a new opinion poll by the Universidad Centroamericana together with the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center. Nearly 35 percent would approve of extrajudicial executions, while over 17 percent would approve of "social cleansing practices," reports El Nuevo Diario. These attitudes are more prevalent among the country's youth and people of higher socio-economic status, notes the study. The armed forces are the public institution with the most public trust, at 65.2 percent, followed by municipal governments. The police come in third, with justice, the presidency, and the National Assembly all trailing under 50 percent, reports El Diario de Hoy. Community policing initiatives have reduced perceptions of insecurity in areas where they have been implemented, but do not appear to have actually reduced incidences of crime.
  • Last week the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) announced an investigation into potential corruption related to the Aguas Zarca dam project. The development company Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA) behind the polemic project is suspected of ties to the killing of environmentalist Berta Cáceres last year, reports El Faro. Last year a DESA employee was arrested in relation to the homicide. Earlier this month, the international backers project pulled out. (See July 11's briefs.) A group of Honduran business leaders condemned the investigation. A group of international organizations, including WOLA, announced their support for the OAS backed commission, and denounced a smear campaign in the Honduran press, reports EFE
  • Honduras and Guatemala are advancing in customs integration between the two countries -- though it has been a goal for decades, its never been fully carried out, reports El Faro.
  • Bolivia would desist in a legal case against Chile in the International Court of Justice if Santiago agrees to enter good-faith negotiations regarding sea-access, reports EFE.
  • The constitutional assembly election to be held on Sunday in Venezuela represents the solidification of a slide towards authoritarian government, reports the Washington Post. Though the government is still a far cry from the massive repression of past dictatorships in the region, the opposition denounces hundreds of political prisoners. The assembly would have the power to keep President Nicolás Maduro in power indefinitely. 
  • Venezuela's government banned protests that could affect Sunday's vote, with potential prison terms of five to 10 years for violators, reports the BBC.
  • Ahead of the vote, Americas Quarterly analyzes the key stakeholders and how they're gearing up for Sunday. "The position of the military establishment – the National Armed Force, or FAN, in its Spanish acronym – is a decisive factor for the course of the conflict in Venezuela. It is directly involved in the fighting, and its official position is that it will defend the regime. Currently, 38 percent of Maduro’s cabinet ministers are retired or active military officers. They also distribute – and are accused of profiting from – food, and control the significant and questionable exploration and certification of gold, copper,  and other minerals. While the pressure of people in the streets can make FAN’s position uncomfortable, the large interests they have at stake have made them guardians of the status quo – so far. While there is speculation about discontent within middle-ranking officers of FAN, this is an institution whose command chain was transformed by the late former President Hugo Chávez into a labyrinth intended to hinder joint action. The FAN’s course in the next few days will weigh heavily on Venezuela’s future. No one wants a military government, but their support, if they keep to their institutional role, could be the determining factor in Venezuela’s turn toward democracy."
  • Yesterday the U.S. State Department ordered family members of American employees at the U.S. embassy in Caracas to leave, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the bill known as the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act of 2017, or Nica Act, yesterday. The bill, which seeks to seeks to add conditions to the provisions of aid from international financial institutions to the country, in response to alleged authoritarianism and corruption by President Daniel Ortega, reports TeleSUR.
  • Jamaica has passed a law allowing the army and police to launch special operations in crime hotspots, but the approach could lead to security force abuses and shifts resources from preventive measures, reports Insight Crime.
  • "In Colombia, as in much of Latin America, the overuse of pretrial detention has fueled an overcrowding crisis: Colombia's prisons stand at 154 percent of their capacity, and around a third of inmates are on remand. Authorities struggle to maintain control of these jails' tens of thousands of prisoners, a significant number of whom are innocent or only guilty of minor crimes. Inmates routinely endure prolonged physical and mental suffering as well as exposure to hardened convicts and organized crime networks," InSight Crime reports.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

U.S. actions dial up Venezuelan tensions (July 27, 2017)

The United States Treasury imposed sanctions on 13 senior Venezuelan officials -- part of a mounting international campaign to pressure the Venezuelan government to back off of a plan to rewrite the country's constitution, reports the BBC. The sanctions freeze the US assets of those affected, and stop US entities from doing business with them.

The sanctions targeted current and former government officials, high-ranking military officers, and managers of the state oil company known as PDVSA for alleged human rights abuses, undermining democracy and corruption, reports the Guardian. The officials targeted include Tibisay Lucena, the head of the country’s electoral agency, as well as the chiefs of the Venezuelan Army, National Guard and National Police. Under the sanctions, the officials’ U.S. assets are frozen and their U.S. visas revoked. U.S. citizens and institutions are prohibited from doing business with them, explains the Wall Street Journal.

Venezuelan officials involved in organizing the constituent assembly were also targeted, and the U.S. government also warned that any individuals who become members of the constituent assembly to be elected on Sunday risked being added to the U.S. sanctions list.

Officials also said that tougher sanctions, including measures targeting oil sales, are still on the table, notes the New York Times. Such a move would be dramatic, and take the U.S. into unknown territory, according to the Miami Herald. Oil sanctions could trigger further violence and even a military coup. And they could also risk affecting U.S. consumers, warns another New York Times piece.

Predictably, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro reacted with defiance, and honored the targeted officials yesterday.

Indeed, the sanctions are only likely to harden the resolve of the government's inner circle, warns David Smilde in a New York Times op-ed. The U.S. must not act unilaterally, he warns, at risk of giving the Maduro government a scapegoat in the style of the Cuba embargo. Oil sanctions would be worse, and could potentially cause a refugee crisis in the region. And the path, currently mostly symbolic, the Venezuelan opposition is taking towards creating a parallel government could potentially lead to full-on civil war, he warns. Instead, he advocates regional diplomacy led by a "group of friends," with the support of other international players.

Dialogue is the only way out, notes Smilde. But neither side seems anxious to negotiate seriously argues Miguel Angel Latouche in the Conversation. "Shunning the hard work of dialogue and debate, many Venezuelans are hoping for a Disney-style quick fix. ... Between these two approaches – the opposition’s weak mutinies and the government’s growing authoritarianism – there is a single country. But Venezuelans have demonstrated a sweeping inability to acknowledge each other’s existence in order to reach even the most basic agreement that could drive progress."

For the Economist, "the best solution would be a negotiated transition. Mr Maduro would finish his term but would respect the constitution and parliament, free political prisoners and guarantee that overdue regional elections, and the presidential contest next year, take place fairly. However, an attempt at such a negotiation failed last year, and there is no sign that Mr Maduro and his cronies will voluntarily surrender power."

Back to warnings against the U.S. acting unilaterally -- CIA Director Mike Pompeo blundered in an Aspen Institute chat and gave the Maduro regime ammunition to argue about U.S. intents to intervene in the crisis, writes Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's post.)

Colombian airline Avianca became the latest to suspend flights to Venezuela, joining Aeroméxico, Air Canada, Alitalia, Latam, Lufthansa and United Airlines, reports the BBC.

News Briefs
  • Supporters of El Salvador's draconian abortion ban -- one of the most stringent in the world -- have long been receiving funding from a U.S. anti-abortion group, reports the Guardian. Virginia-based Human Life International has been giving money to Sí a la Vida, a local group mainly responsible for the legislation banning abortion, since 2000. Salvador's lawmakers enshrined the ban in the country's constitution in 1999, to devastating effects for women suffering inviable pregnancies or obstetric complications.
  • Haitian cholera victims are desperate for U.N. compensation, but there's no sign that it will come through anytime soon, reports the Miami Herald. Victims and advocates have also rejected a suggestion that U.N. funding for victims would be used for community projects, instead insisting on individual payments.
  • Mexico City used to be an island of relative tranquility in the drug war violence that has characterized Mexico over the past decade. But "security experts and residents alike express concern that the calm is coming to an end," reports the Washington Post. Last week a security operative to capture a local cartel boss involved 1,000 members of security forces, and when Felipe de Jesús Pérez Luna, known as "Los Ojos," was killed, his underlings hijacked and burned buses and transport vehicles, the city's first "narcobloqueo." (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • A feminist group is claiming responsibility for an explosion in the Mexican Episcopal Conference facilities in Mexico City, reports Milenio. The "Comando Feminista Informal de Acción Antiautoritaria Coatlicue" published a message saying "Neither God nor master. For every torture and murder in the name of your God. For every child defiled by pederast priests." The homemade bomb exploded on Tuesday and damaged a door, nobody was injured, reports El Economista. The case will be investigated by federal authorities as it involves a religious institution, notes Informador.
  • Brazilian police arrested Aldemir Bendine, the former chief executive of Petrobras and before that Banco de Brasil, today. He allegedly bribes from construction giant Odebrecht, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Venezuela and region brace for more unrest (July 26, 2017)

News Briefs
  • A 48-hour strike started today in Venezuela, in protest of this weekend's scheduled vote for an assembly to rewrite the constitution, reports the BBC. (See Monday's post.) Overall, fewer people appeared to be heeding the shutdown than the millions who participated in a 24-hour strike last week, reports Reuters. (See last Friday's post.) Further protests are also expected for Friday, despite increasingly violent police repression, reports the Guardian. And Colombian authorities say they are bracing for a potential wave of migration from this week's unrest, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Under growing international pressure, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro offered a 45 day delay on the election to the opposition in secret negotiations. In exchange, they would have to recall the alternative Supreme Court magistrates appointed by the National Assembly last week and dial back street protests, reports the Miami Herald based on sources familiar with the talks. Maduro is reportedly also asking the opposition for help in avoiding U.S. oil sanctions, which could further cripple the crisis ridden economy. The opposition apparently rejected the offer. Another source told the Herald that Maduro is also dangling the possibility of holding presidential elections before the end of the year. (See Monday's post.)
  • Yesterday, U.S. Senators. Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez asked U.S. President Donald Trump to sanction 10 more high-ranking individuals in the Venezuelan government, reports the Miami Herald. One of the most prominent names on their list is Tibisay Lucena Ramírez, president of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, but it also includes members of the Venezuelan military, a potential attempt to fracture the armed forces' support for the government. (See Monday's post.)
  • Venezuelan government leaders accused Rubio and CIA director Mike Pompeo of secretly conspiring against the Maduro administration in order to install a more friendly regime, reports the Miami Herald. They referred to comments Pompeo made at an Aspen Institute security forum, in which he said he was "hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela and we, the CIA is doing its best to understand the dynamic there ... I was just down in Mexico City and in Bogota a week before last talking about this very issue, trying to help them understand the things they might do so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world."
  • Two more of the alternative magistrates named to the Supreme Court by the National Assembly last week were arrested by intelligence agents yesterday, reports Reuters.
  • The parents of one young Venezuelan protest victim have requested the Supreme Court open up a case into their son's death seek to sue high ranking officials, who they accuse of covering up security forces' responsibility in the killing, reports the BBC.
  • A lawyer for Colombia's FARC says a criminal gang has offered $1 million bounties for assassins to kill FARC secretariat members, reports Reuters. The FARC, which recently finished handing over its weapons, plans on launching its political party in September. Already killings of social activists and community leaders has become more common in Colombia -- rights groups say 40 have been murdered so far this year. And FARC members fear a repeat of the thousands of killings of members of a leftwing party in the 1980s and 1990s at the hands of rightwing paramilitaries.
  • Colombia's ELN rebel group said yesterday it had proposed a three-month ceasefire to the government, reports Reuters.
  • Brazilian swing voters have gone towards the right, after 13 years of Workers' Party government and the subsequent impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, reports the Guardian. "... disillusioned Brazilians are increasingly looking to free-market liberals, evangelical Christians, and populist, rightwing populists." (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Members of the Brazilian House of Deputies will vote on whether to suspend President Michel Temer to face corruption charges. Government ministers say they have the votes to avoid trial, reports the Guardian
  • Hundreds of members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) have invaded farms belonging to Brazil’s agriculture minister, the former president of the Brazilian soccer association, and a close Temer ally as part of a campaign to pressure lawmakers to vote against the president, reports the Guardian. MST leaders also warn that arresting former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would create widespread unrest and pave the way for his reelection, reports Bloomberg.
  • Brazil's Attorney General's office announced yesterday that it has tripled its 2018 budget for the Operation Car Wash probe into corruption, reports the Associated Press.
  • Chief Brazilian prosecutor Rodrigo Janot noted in Washington this week, there's no putting the genie back in the bottle after the broad devastation Operation Car Wash has wrought on entrenched corruption in Brazilian politics. Nonetheless, international historical comparisons suggest it may take decades for the benefits of accountability efforts to result in less corrupt systems, writes Matthew Taylor for the Council on Foreign Relations. There is also evidence to suggest that anti-corruption gains implemented in recent years could work faster, he notes, referring to countries such as Rwanda and Georgia.
  • The Dominican Republic on Tuesday granted a one-year extension to some 230,000 Haitian migrants trying to renew or obtain residency permits, reports the Associated Press. The issue of undocumented Haitians in the Dominican Republic has been heated for a few years -- since the government announced a plan in 2015 to deport thousands of Haitians without paperwork, many of whom had been born and raised in the DR.
  • The ideas presented at the recent high ranking summit in Miami on Central American development "reflect longstanding, misguided U.S. policies that have bolstered military and corporate interests—ultimately driving the very displacement the conference was ostensibly convened to curtail," writes Lauren Carasik for Boston Review. "The Trump administration’s plan centers on intensified border militarization coupled with a retreat from development assistance. On the ground, this will likely look like an expansion of the worst of Obama’s drug-war and neoliberal policies in the region, such as massive privatization, enforced austerity, the evisceration of labor and environmental protections, and a strengthened military force to back it all up." Though the Trump administration has made it clear it doesn't care about human rights, the human cost in Central America and Mexico will be incalculable, she writes -- and will create blowback. The U.S. government is hoping private investors step in to fill gaps created by reduced budgets for development goals. "But if history is predictive, the model will only inflame instability, not tamp it down. What’s more, this development will be implemented under crisis conditions that are exploited to usher in extreme, opportunistic policies, including the massive privatization of public resources and the evisceration of protections for those affected by the projects, maximizing corporate profits while dispossessing the poor."
  • Trump's proposed cuts to humanitarian aid in Central America has been opposed by Republicans in Congress who see them as harmful to the U.S. exercise of soft power in the region, writes Nancy Hiemstra in NACLA. Their opposition is interesting as an unusually honest indication "the self-serving goals of foreign 'assistance,'" she notes. "The surfacing of the underlying goals of the State Department and foreign aid also offers a rare opportunity for public discussion of fundamental flaws and negative consequences of longstanding approaches to migration and border policing in Latin America. These approaches show continued failure to successfully address the real reasons for migration, such as poverty and violence—which are often linked to past and present U.S. interventions, the favoring private interests at the expense of human rights, and government instability and corruption. Perhaps buried in discussions of soft and hard power is an understanding that the State Department and foreign aid monies ultimately make immigration policing—and dealing with its consequences—cheaper and less messy."
  • Nearly 200 women have been murdered in the first six months of 2017 reported the Violence Observatory of the National Autonomous University of Honduras. Thats one woman every 18 hours, report TeleSUR.
  • Peruvian authorities are cracking down on factories employing forced labor after a warehouse fire last month killed four workers, reports Reuters.
  • Increasing gang violence related to fuel theft in Mexico is likely to harm the international investment the government is seeking in the oil sector, reports Bloomberg.
  • One of the child actors from the acclaimed Brazilian film City of God is a suspect in the killing of a police officer over the weekend in Rio de Janeiro, reports the BBC. (See Monday's briefs.) Ivan da Silva Martins was one of a group of boys from favelas recruited to act in the movie. He is now known as Ivan the Terrible and believed to control drug trafficking in the Vidigal favela.
  • Guatemalans are not just producing great coffee -- they're joining the "third wave" coffee snobbery bandwagon and consuming high end product as well, reports the New York Times.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Arrest warrants issued for three former Salvadoran guerrillas (July 25, 2017)

A Salvadoran issued arrest warrants against three former guerrillas last week, the first since an amnesty law was struck down last year, reports El Diario de Hoy. They are sought in connection to the execution of two U.S. soldiers killed in 1991, in the midst of the country's civil war. 

The warrants come amid mounting criticism of inaction with regards to human rights violations committed during the conflict, which lasted between 1979 and 1991, reports the Guardian. El Salvador’s civil war left about 80,000 people dead, 8,000 missing and a million displaced , according to a 1993 UN Truth Commission report.

The vast majority of war crimes were attributed to the American-backed armed forces and paramilitaries. Which makes it surprising that the first warrants out are for former guerrillas, notes the Guardian.

El Salvador's Supreme Court struck down a 1993 amnesty law as unconstitutional last year. (See posts for July 14 and July 15, 2016.) Chief prosecutor Douglas Meléndez told the court last week that a unit created to investigate war crimes is working on 139 reports of human rights violations during the armed conflict, reports La Prensa Gráfica. But he said he lacks resources -- just three prosecutors are working on a case load that would require 50, he said.

The case in question involves the summary execution of Lt Col David Pickett and Cpl Earnest Dawson, who were wounded when a U.S. army helicopter was shot down by FMLN guerrillas in the San Miguel district. According to the U.N. report, they were killed by Fernán Fernández Arévalo, on the orders of guerrilla leader Severiano Fuentes. The two presented themselves to justice in 1992, and were in pretrial detention when the amnesty law freed them, reports La Prensa Gráfica separately.

News Briefs
  • Mano dura policies are responsible for the severe gang problem El Salvador faces today, according to academic José Miguel Cruz, interviewed in El Faro. But, contrary to popular belief, it is possible for individuals to leave street gangs, though they face considerable difficulties in doing so, he says. He highlights the importance of Evangelical churches in helping gang members change their lives. Nonetheless, youths continue to be recruited, largely because of a lack of alternative options. And rather than rehabilitate, the country's penal system compounds the problem.
  • Bolivian and Chilean border officials are set to meet today for the first time in six years. The goal is to restore normal working relations along their mutual border, a perennial flashpoint since Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile in 1904. In recent months, with 11 officials – soldiers, police officers and customs officers – detained by their counterparts on the other side, reports Americas Quarterly.
  • Volkswagen, was an active participant in the persecution and oppression of political opponents of Brazil's military dictatorship that was in power from 1964 to 1985, according to a new investigation done by a group of German news organizations, reports Deutsche Welle. The accusations are not new, and in fact, the company commissioned historian Christopher Kopper to write on its role during the military dictatorship. The report is expected at the end of this year, and Kopper has said there was regular cooperation between VW's Brazilian factory security service and the police.
  • A tragic human smuggling episode in which migrants were transported in an airless truck led to 10 deaths, and demonstrates "the extremes people will go to to sneak into the United States," reports the New York Times.
  • "The amazing thing about Mr. Trump’s vision of an ever-shifting, ever-shrinking wall (he’s halved its needed length to 700 to 900 miles, plus “natural barriers”) is that House Republican appropriators somehow rate it credible enough that they approved funding last week for the administration’s request of $1.6 billion to start construction. Outside experts have estimated the ultimate cost at $25 billion or more," writes the New York Times editorial board. "The president still insists that Mexico will be brought to heel and pay for the wall. Right now, though, Mr. Trump needs front money, and that has to come from the American taxpayer."
  • Mexico's ruling PRI party is polling third for presidential elections to be held next year, reports Reuters. A Reforma poll shows leftist hopeful Andres Manuel López Obrador in first place, followed by the center-right opposition PAN.
  • Brazil's sweeping Operation Car Wash investigation into corruption has left the country leaderless as major politicians from all parties fall to allegations of misconduct. The speed with which this occurred has left politics unable to renew its ranks, and thrust conservatives into the fore in the country, writes Carol Pires in a New York Times Español op-ed. While it's understandable that the left clings to the still popular (though convicted) former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, its missing a golden opportunity to capitalize on the current government's massive lack of popularity, she argues. "The next leader capable of proposing a unity agenda won't be like Lula, harassed by Car Wash, nor somebody of the old political class who, like Temer, pushes the country towards the past. In order for that politician to not be a dark adventurer, society must not only stop betting on politicians with a guillotine over their heads, but also proclaim what agenda it wants for parties search among their new militants for who can respond to the call."
  • U.S. oil sanctions against Venezuela are on the table, but Caracas has spent at least $1.3 million on Washington lobbyists since Trump's election to try to push against the option, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's post.)
  • The Venezuelan government released a remixed version of the pop-hit Despacito to promote the unpopular constituent assembly election next weekend. But Puerto Rican singers Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee said they rejected the use of their song and called it an illegal appropriation, reports Reuters.
  • "The country that was on the edge of the abyss is collapsing," writes New York Times correspondent Nicholas Casey in graphic article that tells the story of his time covering Venezuela's crisis.
  • Latin America's youths are coming of age in an era of unique opportunity -- they are the first raised in a Latin America where the middle class outnumbers the poor, and they are optimistic. But they also face economic instability, chronic insecurity and deficient infrastructure that makes it difficult for them to advance towards their dreams, according to an Americas Quarterly special report that follows fourth young adults from the region. "The good news is that many of the hurdles we’ve uncovered have policy solutions. Governments should resist the temptation to spend primarily on the old, and work to improve not just education systems but also infrastructure across the board. Smart, pro-business policies will also help ensure the creation of decent jobs that can keep young people engaged in society – and out of trouble."

Monday, July 24, 2017

Venezuela's government insists on constituent assembly (July 24, 2017)

On Friday the opposition-led National Assembly swore in 13 magistrates as replacements for pro-government Supreme Court magistrates. Immediately after, the top judge in the constitutional chamber accused those named by lawmakers of treason, reports the Wall Street Journal. The court's constitutional chamber had previously declared that such a move would constitute a crime and usurpation of powers by congress. Lawmakers say they have the right to name and fire justices under the country's constitution, reports the BBC.

Opposition leaders said Angel Zerpa, one of the 13 alternative magistrates, was arrested on Saturday by the government’s intelligence service, reports the Guardian.

The court has a total of 32 judges. The court has played a key role in stripping down legislative power since the opposition won a National Assembly majority at the end of 2015. The judges lawmakers seek to replace were approved after that election, before the new congress was sworn in. (See post for Jan. 4, 2016.)

On Saturday several thousand protesters attempted to march to the Supreme Court building in support of the alternative magistrates, reports the Guardian. It was however a "disappointing turnout" for the opposition, according to the Associated Press.

Lawmakers last week also discussed a "national unity government," raising the specter of a parallel government, notes the BBC.

The opposition is upping pressure this week ahead of a government convened vote next Sunday for a Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the constitution. Opposition leaders called for a two day national strike against the government after violent clashes between security forces and protesters on Saturday, reports Reuters. Mass marches are planned for today and Friday.

Over the weekend, Maduro promised to push ahead with the controversial plan, despite local and international pressure to change course, reports Reuters. Critics say the assembly will pave the way to an authoritarian government, while the government says its necessary to escape the current political impasse.

The entire process of convening the constituent assembly, as well as how its going to be structured, already demonstrate the government's authoritarian tendencies, argue Laura Gamboa and Raúl Sánchez Urribarri in the Conversation

Venezuela's crisis is terminal, writes Alberto Barrera Tyska in a New York Times Español op-ed. The only option for the government to remain in power is to turn towards illegitimacy, while the opposition lacks the ability to set up a real, functioning parallel state, he warns. Both sides have no option other than the negotiating table. But the real deciding factor will be the military, he argues. The success or not of a negotiation will lie with them, and international efforts should turn towards pressuring the armed forces.

A U.S. oil embargo is effectively the "nuclear" option against the Maduro government, reports the Washington Post. The U.S. receives about a third of Venezuela’s production of about 2.1 million barrels a day, and is a critical source of hard cash for the country. But the effect of an embargo could be so devastating that even some Maduro opponents say it would be a step too far, notes Anthony Faiola. U.S. oil payments fund critically needed imports of food and medicine, and could give Maduro a convenient scapegoat for added misery. A senior member of an opposition party suggested U.S. officials employ more nuanced tools -- such as publishing information about corrupt officials' U.S. holdings, blocking the sale of Venezuelan debt, and tying future projects with Venezuelan oil to National Assembly approval.

At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde review the various international responses to last week's symbolic referendum against the constituent assembly plan and the potential effects of broad sanctions against the Venezuelan government. "There is no way to apply economic sanctions now in Venezuela without making the humanitarian situation much worse. People will starve to death," Smilde told the AFP last week.

Also last week, Moisés Naím, a former Venezuelan trade minister now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Wall Street Journal that an oil embargo would be "political manna from heaven for Caracas," as it would allow Maduro to blame ensuing misery on U.S. imperialism.

Think it sounds like the Cuba embargo debate? Indeed, "the unfolding Venezuela crisis has become Cuban Americans’ new crusade," notes the Miami Herald. In fact U.S. Senator Marco Rubio is among those proposing a hardline against the Venezuelan government, notes Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. (And so is OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro.)

Ahead of next Sunday's vote, government employees are denouncing that they are being coerced to participate -- at risk of losing their jobs, reports Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Local civil society group Provea has denounced that such pressure is a human rights violation. And while casting a null vote apparently isn't an option in the election, local groups are giving instructions on how to trick voting machines to permit them.

The New York Times has a photo essay from the Venezuelan "resistance" front lines. With nearly 100 deaths in over three months of protests, families of victims are carrying on the fight, reports the Miami Herald.

News Briefs
  • Hundreds of relatives of Rio de Janeiro police officers gathered in the Brazilian city yesterday, protesting a lack of resources for security forces combatting organized crime. The demonstration came hours after an officer was killed in an operative in the Vidigal favela. The Brazilian government announced last week it would send an extra 1,000 federal agents to support local police, reports the BBC. Over 90 officers have been killed so far this year, and police say their deaths are given less importance than human rights abuses committed by security operations. According to Amnesty International, more than 800 people were killed by the police in the state of Rio in 2016.
  • New limits on seasonal worker visas to the U.S. have hit businesses that depend on unskilled, nonagricultural workers -- such as carnivals, reports the New York Times. Critics say the system enables worker abuses, but Mexican seasonal migrants say the lack of income is hitting them hard.
  • U.S. plans to end temporary protected status for about 58,000 Haitian immigrants has many migrants living in fear of losing dreams of advancement and having to return to a country with fewer opportunities, reports the New York Times.
  • The Colombian government faces a conundrum in how to deal with small-time coca growers who also process the leaf into coca paste used to make cocaine. A temporary amnesty for small-time growers who agree to participate in a crop substitution program is necessary to convince farmers to participate and is part of the peace agreement with the FARC, explains La Silla Vacía. But 40 percent of these farmers also process the leaf, and including them in the temporary amnesty is politically tricky.
  • Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, has traveled to Cuba several times to explore the possibility of doing business on the island, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Tourism in the first half of the year made the Cuban economy grow, but other sectors have failed to meet government targets, reports the Miami Herald
  • The World Bank's arbitration tribunal has ordered Argentina to pay $320 million plus interest and legal fees to Spanish travel group Marsans for expropriating Aerolineas Argentinas in 2008, reports Reuters.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's mandate is ending, an apparent close to a cycle of female presidencies in the region -- a sign of the difficulties of reaching true political gender equality, reports the New York Times. The cases of Dilma Rousseff, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Bachelet also show some of the difficulties faced by women leaders. All three say their gender exposed them to "particularly virulent backlashes."
  • Code-switchers unite! Spanglish in its various local forms across Latin America needs to be embraced as a linguistic movement in its own right, argues Ilan Stavans in a New York Times op-ed -- in which he compares it to Yiddish.  "It is time we stop this condescending approach to Spanglish. Puerto Ricans are proof of the durability of the phenomenon. In fact, we must see Spanglish as a new language. While it’s still not standardized, millions of speakers use it every day, creating their own syntactic rules. Looking down at them as barbarous speaks tons. ... I will not be surprised if a Nobel is given in the next few decades to a Spanglish author whose oeuvre will need to be translated into Spanish and English to be fully understood by non-Spanglish speakers."

Friday, July 21, 2017

Two die in Venezuelan national strike clashes (July 21, 2017)

Large parts of Venezuela were paralyzed yesterday by a national strike in opposition to a government plan to rewrite the country's constitution. The opposition claimed 85 percent of the country joined the strike. Millions of people participated, and many private transportation groups shut down, reports Reuters. Most Caracas residents stayed home and businesses were closed, reports the Wall Street Journal. Reuters notes that in some poorer Caracas neighborhoods business went on as usual.

There were several reports of confrontations between protesters and security forces in different parts of Caracas, reports the Washington Post. Two people were reported dead in clashes, reports Reuters.

Alfredo Romero, co-director of Foro Penal, a human rights group that defends political prisoners, tweeted that at least 261 protesters were arrested as of 9:30 p.m. yesterday.

President Nicolás Maduro downplayed the effects of the strike, saying major businesses were "100 percent" working. He sang and danced at a youth rally in Caracas yesterday. He also promised to push ahead with an election to choose a constituent assembly that would revise the Venezuelan constitution, reports the Associated Press.

Yesterday a senior member of Venezuela's U.N. delegation Isaias Arturo Medina Mejías, abruptly resigned, citing “irreconcilable differences” with the Maduro government, reports the WP. In a video circulating on Thursday, Medina said he was leaving the U.N. mission to "fight impunity" at home, reports Reuters. He is one of the few members of the government to have broken ranks, according to the AP.

The shut-down effect of the strike was far more widespread than the last one, held in October of last year, according to the WP. (That one had spotty support, see post for Oct. 28, 2016.)  Strikes have traditionally been risky for the opposition, notes the WSJ, referring to one that lasted several months in 2003 against Chávez, but which ultimately polarized the country and led to more government intervention in the economy.

The opposition has called for a national march tomorrow.

News Briefs
  • The belief that an immigration crackdown in the U.S. will keep residents safe from Central American gangs' increasing presence in the United States is misguided, argues Daniel Denvir in a Washington Post opinion piece in which he points to the gangs' origins in U.S. prisons and deportation policies.
  • Guatemalan police arrested a former government minister last week, adding to a corruption scheme that involved top officials in the Otto Pérez Molina presidency. (See Monday's briefs.) Former Infrastructure, Housing and Communications Minister Alejandro Sinibaldi Aparicio. According to International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) investigators, he received $10 million in bribes from private construction companies throughout his tenure in exchange for preferential treatment in areas like project contracting and debt forgiveness. The accusations flesh out a network of corruption so vast that it supports InSight Crime's argument that Guatemala is in fact a mafia state. "Sinibaldi was a figure close to Pérez Molina and his case fits within the structure of the mafia state, above all because according to the formal accusations, he laundered money illicitly obtained from private companies to finance the ex-president's campaigns."
  • A law that would have permitted abortion in limited cases in Chile was rejected by one vote in the country's lower chamber of congress, reports the Associated Press. The bill, which was strongly supported by President Michelle Bachelet was widely expected to pass.
  • There's been much written about China's potential to displace the U.S. sphere of influence in Latin America. Now with efforts to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the U.S., other Asian countries -- especially South Korea -- are also looking to cooperate more with the region, writes Christopher Sabatini at Latin America Goes Global.
  • Judge Serio Moro ordered the seizure of more than $2.8 million in pension funds from former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in connection with his recent corruption conviction, reports the Associated Press. Earlier this week Brazil's central bank froze four of Silva's bank accounts amounting to more than $190,000. Yesterday Lula assured supporters that he is being politically persecuted, reports Reuters.
  • Brazil will double some taxes on fuels, part of an ongoing (and unpopular) attempt to reduce the country's fiscal deficit, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Peruvian government declared a state of emergency in areas affected by a teachers' strike that has lasted over a month. The measure effectively suspends constitutional rights of individual liberty, security, free travel and assembly for a duration of 30 days, according to TeleSUR.
  • Bolivian polices seized a cocaine shipment worth about $10 million, destined for shipment to Brazil, reports AFP.
  • Eight people were killed by police in a shoot out with suspected gang members in Mexico City, reports the Associated Press.
  • Mexico is testing a new way to protect the environment: insurance. An innovative scheme to protect a coral reef off the coast of Cancún calls for hotels and local government to pay the premiums on insurance to restore the reef from storm damage, reports the Guardian.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

U.N. experts call for independent investigation in Mexican spy scandal (July 20, 2017)

News Briefs
  • Four U.N. human rights experts called for the Mexican government to establish an independent investigation into allegations of monitoring and illegal surveillance against human rights defenders, social activists, and journalists. "We urge the Government to commit to cease the surveillance immediately," they emphasized. "Such commitment must include effective controls over the security and intelligence services in order to prevent unlawful use of the State's monitoring tools." The Mexican government has limited the investigation of allegations of spying using government owned software to the attorney general's office, which essentially means the government is investigating itself with no oversight. The government blocked a proposal for the country’s new anticorruption board to investigate the case, which would have added transparency to the investigation, reports the New York Times. (Among the targets was the then-16-year-old son of journalist Carmen Aristegui. "By targeting her family with tools designed to fight terror and crime, Aristegui told The Intercept, the Mexican government is treating its critics like “enemies of the state.” And she is demanding answers not only as a journalist, but as a parent as well.")
  • The entire scandal gives organized crime in Mexico a window into how the government works against it, and "represents a massive self-inflicted wound" for the government's efforts to combat illicit groups, reports InSight Crime
  • Large portions of Caracas appeared to be shutdown this morning, heeding opposition calls for a massive national strike against the government plan to rewrite the constitution, reports the Associated PressEl País has live updates. (See Tuesday's post.)
  • Earlier this week the U.S. threatened economic sanctions if Venezuela's government moves forward with a plan to rewrite the constitution. But unilateral sanctions are not the way to go, argues Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. "..Well-placed Venezuelan opposition sources tell me that cutting oil imports or suspending U.S. exports of light oils to Venezuela — which the country uses to mix with its own heavy crudes — would have a devastating impact on the Venezuelan people, who are already suffering from widespread food and medicine shortages." Instead he advocates incremental diplomatic measures, more sanctions for individual Venezuelan officials, and releasing information on extensive U.S. holdings by Venezuelan officials. "Most importantly, the Trump administration should condition future U.S. oil contracts with Venezuela on the approval of the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition after a landslide victory in the 2015 elections." (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel called on the government to suspend elections for a constituent assembly, in a New York Times Español op-ed. (See July 12's briefs for more on "El Sistema," and the country's classical musicians' relationship to the protests.) 
  • Two reports by Colombian civil society groups -- Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) and Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (Pares) -- detail how the FARC demobilization is permitting the expansion of other illegal groups, and how the current peace transition phase is characterized by a continuity of organized crime, reports the BBC. Pares also emphasizes the murder of five FARC leaders, allegedly by new criminal structures operating in their territories, reports CNN Español.
  • A report by a Commission of Guarantors of the Referendum in Venezuela emphasizes the massive participation and calm environment it took place in -- "an indication of the organizational capacity of civil society—those who took on the cost of some of the activities and materials–and the democratic conviction of the citizens that understand elections to be a privileged of democracy." However, "despite these achievements, it should be stated that while the preliminary data does corroborate the qualitative impression of a large mobilization, the absence of an electoral registry reduced the technical precision of the popular consultation in establishing the level of participation. In addition, there was no guarantee of the secrecy of the vote. It was common for the citizens to vote in front of those in charge of the table. While this did not appear to cause discomfort–and reflected that the event was fundamentally an occurrence of citizens aligned with the opposition–it distanced the Referendum from one of the fundamental characteristics of an electoral event. The Referendum amounted to a relevant, political event."
  • Fighting the U.S. opioid epidemic means declaring war on Mexican cartels -- like actual, real war -- argues Matt Meyer in U.S. News and World Report. "By "go to war," I mean a formal declaration of war by Congress against Mexico in which we use the full force of our military might to destroy the cartels, the poppy fields and all elements of the drug trade. Ideally, as our fight is not with the Mexican government, its military or its people, which try to weaken the cartels, we would try to partner with those entities against the cartels, much as we partnered with the South Vietnamese government and military against the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. It sounds crazy, I know – unless you acknowledge we are already fighting a war with Mexico."
  • Cubans caught off guard by the sudden termination of a favorable U.S. immigration policy in January are gathering in Mexico to seek alternatives, reports the Guardian. The piece contrasts the difference between Cuban migrants who legally travel through Mexico, and their Central American counterparts who are increasingly detained by Mexican authorities or face grave dangers traveling illegally through the country.
  • Two years after the U.S. and Cuba officially reestablished diplomatic relations, the Trump administration has somewhat changed the narrative, though extensive rollback of rapprochement policies has not taken place, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Former Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori openly sided with his son Kenji over his daughter Keiko, exposing a deep divide within the right-wing party he founded 30 years ago, reports Reuters. In a series of tweets, Fujimori backed his son for "building bridges" with the government of centrist President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Earlier this week, the Popular Force suspended Kenji from its activities for 60 days after he openly criticized the party and voiced support for Kuczynski's 1-year-old government. Fujimori's support for cooperation comes as Kuczynski is evaluating whether to whether to pardon and grant Fujimori early release from prison, where he has been serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations and graft.
  • Haiti's government is taking advantage of reduced political polarization to initial steps aimed at overcoming longstanding problems of governance, rule of law and social and economic development, the U.N. envoy to Haiti Sandra Honore told the Security Council. But while she applauded an improved relationship between the executive and legislative branches, she said the judiciary still is not fully functioning, reports the Associated Press.
  • Brazil's central bank has frozen four bank accounts belonging to ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva due to his recent conviction on corruption charges, reports the Associated Press.
  • Colombia is at risk of a credit rating downgrade. The country is struggling to meet fiscal targets and investors are tiring of overly optimistic government forecasts, reports Reuters.