Monday, August 28, 2017

Morales declares Velásquez persona non grata, triggers political crisis (Aug. 28, 2017)

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales declared the head of a U.N. anti-corruption panel persona non grata this weekend, a polemic choice that pushes the country into a grave political crisis. Morales accused U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) head Iván Velásquez of exceeding the organism's mandate by trying to lobby for constitutional reforms, and also publicizing allegations against "Guatemalan citizens" without allowing for presumption of innocence, reports El Periódico. He made the announcement vía a Twitter video posted early Sunday, notes the Wall Street Journal.

The sudden expulsion order was immediately blocked by the country's Constitutional Court, reports the New York Times. The court later granted two more precautionary measures defending Velásquez, reports La Hora. Morales said yesterday the court had no standing to block his expulsion of Velásquez, a stance that would put him him in contempt of court according to judicial officials, reports El Periódico.

Morales' announcement came less than 48 hours after Velásquez and Thelma Aldana, the attorney general, asked the court to strip Morales of his political immunity in order to proceed with charges linked to illegal campaign funds allegedly received by his political party the National Convergence Front (FCN) during the 2015 election, reports the Guardian. On Friday they announced that investigators have identified at least $825,000 in anonymous contributions to the president’s election campaign that went unreported to regulators, reports the WSJ. (See Friday's post.) 

A judicial ruling is expected today on their request, and a two-thirds vote from Congress could leave Morales exposed to prosecution.

The decision to oust Velásquez has left Morales extremely isolated politically. He fired his foreign minister for refusing to carry out the order yesterday, reports the Guardian

Several members of the cabinet resigned yesterday, or voiced their support for Velásquez, reports Plaza Pública. Sources say most are unhappy with the president's decision. A long list of government officials, judicial officials, international diplomats, members of civil society and international organizations has spoken out in favor of Velásquez's permanence in the post. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres was "shocked" by the declaration and said Velásquez to "be treated by the Guatemalan authorities with the respect due to his functions as an international civil servant." Protesters gathered in the streets after Morales' early morning announcement. And the U.S., German, Canadian, Spanish, French, Italian, U.K. Swiss and E.U. embassies said the decision harmed the CICIG's ability to fulfill its mandate, reports El PeriódicoU.S. lawmakers warned that the actions could affect aid funds. And Transparency International's local branch, Acción Ciudadana, started a suit against Morales for obstruction of justice, reports El Periódico separately.

(See last Thursday's and Friday's posts.)

"I think it’s fair to say this is a constitutional crisis of the gravest proportions," Wilson Center's Eric L. Olson told the NYT, suggesting that Guatemala’s fragile institutions may be unable to withstand the rupture. "The train is veering off the tracks, and it’s not clear who will stop it."

The CICIG is credited with making inroads against what has been characterized as a "corporate mafia state." The commission received unprecedented power within a sovereign state, including the right to launch probes and act as a plaintiff in criminal cases, reports the Wall Street Journal. It has been instrumental in landmark corruption cases, including exposure of the corruption network that brought down then-President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015.

The CICIG has broad public support, and is one of the country's most trusted institutions.

News Briefs
  • New U.S. economic sanctions on Venezuela imposed Friday restrict trading of Venezuelan bonds sold by the government in the U.S., but stopped short of prohibiting imports of Venezuelan crude oil to American refineries. Friday's announcement, Venezuela’s ability to borrow money from American creditors, reports the Miami Herald. The move could increase the likelihood of a Venezuelan default on its debts at the end of the year, reports the New York Times. The sanctions have been the object of a schism within the Trump administration -- pitting the State Department against a White House group advocating tougher actions against Maduro, reports the Miami Herald. Though the sanctions will not be a crippling blow to the government, it will likely complicate the country's cash flow problem as it struggles to import food and pay interest on its debts, according to analysts.
  • Hunger continues to affect broad swathes of the Venezuelan population, including the struggling middle class, reports the Guardian. Activists are signaling a humanitarian crisis.
  • Florida politicians began expressing their support for expanding a temporary program that would allow Venezuelans who have fled to stay in the U.S., reports the Miami Herald.
  • External interference and unilateral sanctions only make things more complex and will not help resolve problems said the Chinese foreign ministry in response to the sanctions announcement, reports Reuters.
  • El Salvador's Human Rights Prosecutor's Office (PDDH) ordered the country's police to guarantee protection for Factum journalists who were threatened after publishing an investigation showing police involvement in extrajudicial killings, abuse and extortion, reports Factum. The precautionary measures obligate National Civil Police chief Howard Cotto to take measures necessary to guarantee the safety of the investigation's authors Bryan Avelar and Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson, as well as the magazine's editor César Castro Fagoaga, and their families.
  • The PDDH is investigating at least 40 extrajudicial executions allegedly committed by members of security forces so far this year, reports La Prensa Gráfica.
  • The U.S.  Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which has granted permission to stay and work to about 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children is again under threat. U.S. President Donald Trump promised to eliminate it last year while on the campaign trail, but later backtracked and seemed to support it. But now it's under threat by conservative state attorneys general and key members of the administration are urging the president to wind it down, reports the New York Times.
  • Violence is so widespread in Mexico that the Zapatista rebels are renouncing armed revolution, reports the New York Times. The rebel group has neither reached a peace deal with the government nor achieved the indigenous rights they have fought for. But Mexico does not need more violence, no matter what the cause, says the group. Instead, they will work within the political system, backing a political candidate for next year's presidential elections.
  • Trump again tweeted that Mexico must pay for his proposed border wall (this time tweeting that it could be through reimbursement), reports the Guardian. "With Mexico being one of the highest crime Nations in the world, we must have THE WALL. Mexico will pay for it through reimbursement/other," he wrote. Mexican officials again said they wouldn't finance the project, reports CNN. "This determination is not part of a Mexican negotiating strategy, but a principle of national sovereignty and dignity," said the Mexican foreign ministry in a statement yesterday. The ministry also said crime is a "shared problem" for both countries and is caused in part by U.S. demand for Mexican narcotics. Trump also tweeted a threat to terminate NAFTA, and complained that the renegotiation process with Mexico and Canada was "difficult." In response Mexico's foreign ministry said its Mexico said its position at the negotiating table was "serious and constructive," and that the country "will not negotiate NAFTA nor any other aspect of the bilateral relationship through social media or the media."
  • Two married journalists in Honduras survived an attack by gunmen who they say wanted to kill them, but police on Friday called the incident a robbery attempt, reports the Associated Press. Johnny Lagos, director of the online news site El Libertador and his wife,  Lurbin Yadira Cerrato, survived the attack unharmed and with light injuries, respectively. 
  • Crusading Brazilian Judge Sergio Moro is at the center of a clash between judicial efforts to eradicate entrenched government corruption at the country's highest levels and a legislative backlash from politicians seeking to protect themselves, reports the New York Times. But Moro himself has become a contentious figure, revered by people for his anti-corruption efforts and reviled by those who say he is politically motivated.
  • Brazilian Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot accused filed criminal charges against some of President Michel Temer’s closest allies -- including Senator Romero Juca and ex-Senate chief Renan Calheiros, reports Bloomberg.
  • Ecuadorean lawmakers cleared the path for vice president Jorge Glas to be investigated in relation to allegedly receiving Odebrecht bribes, reports the Associated Press. Glas has denied any wrongdoing and refused to resign -- in fact asking for the investigation to continue so he can clear his name. (See last Tuesday's briefs on the schism between President Lenín Moreno and Glas.)
  • Members of the newly disarmed FARC are holding their first congress since the peace deal with the Colombian government, reports the BBC. About 1,200 delegates attended the first day of meetings in Bogotá, which launch the movement's political career. Over the course of the week will select candidates to run for office in next year's elections.
  • Canadian officials are trying to dispel rumors among the U.S. Haitian community that asylum seekers are welcome north of the border, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The U.S. Patriot Act is posing an unexpected obstacle for Uruguay's legal cannabis industry. U.S. banks, including Bank of America, said that they would stop doing business with banks in Uruguay that provide services for those state-controlled marijuana sales, reports the New York Times. And rather than risk losing access to the U.S. banking system, Uruguayan banks are threatening to close the accounts of pharmacies selling legal marijuana. Some of the 15 pharmacies that initially started sales last month have already backed out as a result of the banking issue, and others that were supposed to join the scheme are waiting while the government explores possible solutions. (See July 19's post.)
  • The Buenos Aires Herald, known for it's courageous stand against the human rights violations of Argentina's last military dictatorship, closed down this month, 141 years after it started publishing, reports the New York Times. By the time it closed, "the Herald was more loved than read," acknowledged Sebastián Lacunza, 45, who took over as the paper’s editor in chief in 2013. The closing comes as thousands of Argentine journalists have lost their jobs under the Macri government, notes Daniel Politi. But the paper also fell prey to changing times, he writes. "By the time the paper closed, it seemed the Herald itself had been left alone. It was in search of an audience that never adapted to the digital world and a product that had survived for years on the backs of a tiny, dedicated staff."
  • The hearing problems affecting over a dozen employees of Havana's U.S. embassy could be related to a botched electronic surveillance operation, reports the Guardian. (See Friday's briefs.)
  • Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich urged people not to make a political battle over the disappearance of a social activist a month ago. "The police are not the same as 40 years ago," said Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, referring to the country's military dictatorship. Her comments spurred an angry social media campaign demanding the whereabouts of Santiago Maldonado, last seen in an indigenous community protest violently repressed by police, reports the BBC.

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