Friday, September 29, 2017

U.S. pulling half its diplomats out of Cuba (Sept. 29, 2017)

News Briefs
  • The U.S. is pulling out more than half of its embassy staff from Cuba and warning citizens not to travel to the island. The diplomatic measures take place in the wake of sonic attacks that have harmed 21 American diplomats and family members, reports the Guardian. The Cuban government has denied involvement in any attacks, that appear to have been carried out in a targeted fashion against U.S. citizens. Earlier this week U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, the highest level official contact since Trump assumed office, reports EFE.
  • The United Nations Independent Expert on the Promotion of Democratic and Equitable International Order Alfred de Zaya announced an official visit to Venezuela in November, in which he will listen to the government and the political opposition regarding the country's pressing crisis, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • More forest fires were detected in Brazil this month than any previous month since 1998. They are almost exclusively due to human activity, and can be blamed on the expansion of agriculture and a reduction of oversight and surveillance, reports the Guardian. Fires are used to deforest land and use it for cattle, agriculture or mineral extraction. Confused by corporate deforestation pledges? The Guardian has a handy piece on why deforestation matters and the difference between "deforestation free" and "zero net deforestation."
  • Modern day slavery is another fixture of Brazil's beef export industry. And the country's "once famously tough anti-slavery laws are being grossly undermined by powerful politicians and business interests," reports the Guardian.
  • And a growing number of Cuban doctors working in Cuba have filed suits in Brazilian courts demanding to be treated as independent contractors. Cuba's government effectively exports medical services around the world, but the thousands of doctors only receive a small portion of what foreign governments pay for their services. At least 150 doctors working in Brazil are seeking legal redress, reports the New York Times. Though the courts have mostly ruled against the doctors, some have sided with them, calling the contracts a form of modern day slavery. The move comes after the U.S. cancelled a long standing policy allowing doctors to defect to the U.S. earlier this year. It also jeopardizes a program that the U.N. helped broker, that is credited with lowered Brazil’s infant mortality rate and extended care to indigenous communities.
  • Brazil's government said interest in offshore drilling rights was encouraging, after a first auction for foreign companies, reports the New York Times.
  • Evidence suggests that the Mexican school that collapsed in last week's earthquake killing 19 children and seven adults continued operating despite orders to close because of the irregular construction of a fourth floor, reports the Wall Street Journal. District head Claudia Sheinbaum, of the Morena party, filed a criminal complaint against two former district officials who were responsible for enforcing the closures, and against the principal and owner of the school, yesterday.
  • The two major earthquakes that struck Mexico this month, damaged or destroyed more than 150,000 homes, thousands of schools and hundreds of historical buildings, according to government estimates. More than 24,500 homes were destroyed in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Mexico, Morelos and Puebla, while another 46,000 were left uninhabitable and more than 82,000 suffered partial damage, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Spending cuts and a failure by Mexico’s president to upgrade an earthquake alert system hurt life-saving prevention programs and amplified recovery costs after the earthquakes, according to Reuters.
  • Civilian response to the earthquakes has received much attention, especially in contrast to official efforts, but grassroots efforts have also been critical in confronting human rights abuses in Mexico, argues Dawn Paley in NACLA.
  • The U.S. Ambassador to Colombia criticized the implementation of the peace deal with the FARC (see yesterday's briefs) but failed to note key positive aspects of the deal and how its being carried out, argues WOLA's Adam Isacson. "The interview was remarkable for what the Ambassador did not say," including: praise for the number of weapons handed over by the FARC, the U.N. verification mission, the deaths and injuries prevented by the ceasefire. Nor did he criticize the Colombian government's failures to comply with the agreement, notes Isacson. "Coming a week after the White House’s near-decertification of Colombia, whose bombastic wording did needless harm to an unraveling bilateral relationship, the glaring omissions in Whitaker’s interview strengthen and enable the new hard line in Washington."
  • Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa ordered over a dozen crackdowns on "ollas," open air drug scenes. The violent raids, followed by investment and gentrification are not the answer to the city's organized crime and homicides, however, argues Amy Elizabeth Ritterbusch in the Conversation. She advocates harm reduction programs, noting that "there are ways to promote progress in cities while respecting the rights of the most marginalized. Programs that offer social services, health care, housing and employment can help transform the lives of drug users. In the meantime, harm reduction services like needle exchange and peer education can reduce risky behaviors."
  • Rio de Janiero's evangelical mayor Marcelo Crivella is using his position to push the interests of his evangelical church, perhaps at the cost of Rio's rich funk and samba cultures, argues Carol Pires in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • Argentine poverty rates are inching down thanks to the Macri administration's tough economic measures, including a steep devaluation that fueled inflation, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • A scientific study suggests how a single genetic mutation could have transformed the Zika virus, present for decades elsewhere in the world, into the devastating disease that hit Latin America, causing abnormally high rates of birth defects, reports the New York Times.
Note: I will be off from Oct. 2 through Oct. 13. Elyssa Pachico will be taking over the briefing in my absence.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

More than half of Lat Am's abortions are unsafe (Sept. 28, 2017)

Today is International Safe Abortion Day

There are nearly 56 million abortions every year in the world and almost half of them are unsafe, according  research from the World Health Organization. Of those, most are carried out in the developing world. There were 55.7 million abortions every year between 2010 and 2014 worldwide, and of them 17.1 million were unsafe, according to the study carried out with the Guttmacher Institute and published in the Lancet. Another eight million were categorized as "least safe," involving desperate and dangerous backstreet measures, from swallowing toxic substances to inserting wires to try to bring about a miscarriage.

Places where abortion is safest have the fewest women carrying out the procedure. Lead author Dr Bela Gunatra, from the WHO, told the Guardian their work showed "the persistence of inequalities by geography, by income, by levels of development ... that’s the real tragedy that these findings point to." 

“There is an association between highly restrictive laws and unsafe abortion,” she told the media.

And experts say women in poor countries face even higher risks due to U.S. funding cuts to family planning programs abroad, reports Reuters. "Attempts to stop abortion by withholding family planning aid do not work, because they do not eliminate women’s need for abortion. In fact, studies have shown that by preventing USAID from partnering with organizations like Marie Stopes International that deliver comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, the Mexico City Policy actually increases the number of abortions that take place in developing countries," writes Araceli Lopez Nava VázquezCountry director for Marie Stopes Mexico in the Huffington Post.

Africa leads the world in least safe abortions and death. But in Latin America more than half of the abortions are considered unsafe, largely because they are being carried out with pills but without adequate support. According to the study 6.4 million abortions were carried out in the region between 2010 and 2014, 4.9 million of which were considered unsafe, reports CNN.

In the region, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Suriname  maintain total abortion bans, reports AFP.

Abortion briefs from the region
  • El Salvador continues to have one of the harshest abortion bans in the world. "A testament to the counter-effects of the legislation, the abortion ban is thought to be the second leading cause of maternal mortality in El Salvador," reports the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "The associated risks of illegal abortions are dangerous and often deadly, especially to young women with developing reproductive systems." And the situation is only made worst by high rates of sexual violence in the country. A bill permitting abortion in limited circumstances is stagnating in the country's congress due to political opposition. (See May 9's post.)
  • "Abortion is a crime in Brazil, except in cases of rape, when the life of the woman is at risk, or the fetus has anencephaly—a fatal congenital brain disorder. ... Because of restrictions on access to abortion, hundreds of thousands of women and girls in Brazil risk their health and lives to get clandestine, and often unsafe, abortions each year," writes Human Rights Watch's Margaret Wurth in Folha de S. Paulo. "More than 900 women and girls have died from unsafe abortion in Brazil since 2005, according to Ministry of Health data. Roughly one out of every six deaths from unsafe abortion between 2011 and 2015 was of a girl or young woman between the ages of 10 and 19." HRW has filed briefs in cases seeking to decriminalize abortion, noting that "the criminalization of abortion is incompatible with Brazil’s human rights obligations."
  • Legal abortion in Barbados, legislated in 1983, reduced maternal mortality over the following 25 years. Passage of the law required strong political leadership supported by broad grassroots efforts, writes Dame Billie Miller, minister of health at the time, in the Guardian. "When governments deny women access to safe and legal abortion, it does nothingto decrease the rate at which abortions occur. Instead, it leads to more injuries and deaths. In the absence of care, women resort to all kinds of methods to interrupt unintended pregnancies – unqualified healthcare providers, self-made drug concoctions, coat hangers – each more dangerous than the next."
News Briefs
  • Guatemalan chief prosecutor Thelma Aldana has asked the Supreme Court to strip President Jimmy Morales of immunity, so he can be investigated for $61,000 he apparently received from the army, reports the Associated Press. It's the second time in less than two months that Aldana has requested to investigate Morales -- last month she requested an investigation into illicit campaign financing, though Congress rejected lifting Morales' immunity in that case.
  • Earlier this week Venezuela's opposition said it would not participate in a dialogue effort with the government, saying not enough progress has been made on issues such as human rights to warrant full bilateral talks, reports Reuters. The opposition is wary of repeating a process that was inconclusive last year and seen as benefiting the government. (See Sept. 18's post.)
  • The San Blas massacre, in which police executed eight people at an isolated farmstead in 2015, has become a symbol of the atrocious human rights abuses committed by the security forces in their battle to control the country's gang violence. Now the case will also represent impunity, after a judge absolved the eight officers implicated in the case this week, though recognizing that at least one of the dead was the victim of an extrajudicial killing, argues an El Faro editorial. (See yesterday's briefs for Roberto Valencia's take.)
  • A year after El Salvador's Constitutional Court struck down a 1993 amnesty law, the only active trial relating to the country's long civil war is that of the El Mozote massacre, reports El Faro. And the case is wending its way slowly, facing obstacles of an antiquated system and the sheer amount of time that has passed since the 1981 operative that killed over a thousand people. The difficulty for the prosecution will be demonstrating that the accused, who include former minister of defense José Guillermo García, actually participated in or actively covered up the three day massacre, explains Nelson Rauda Zablah.
  • This week the FMLN government created a commission dedicated to searching for adult victims of forced disappearances during El Salvador's civil war, reports El Faro.
  • U.S. Democratic lawmakers -- more than a hundred members of the house and several senators -- called on President Donald Trump to step up aid efforts in Puerto Rico, yesterday, reports the Washington Post. (See yesterday's post.)
  • A group of bondholders of Puerto Rican debt are proposing more debt as a relief measure for the bankrupt island. Specifically, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) Bondholder Group has offered a debt swap in order to make funds available immediately to restore power on most of the island, reports The Intercept.
  • Puerto Rico needs emergency funding and a break from the U.S. and bondholder induced austerity measures, argues The Nation. "Puerto Rico has been hit by the double whammy of irresponsible policy driven by a lust for profit. The reckless speculation in bonds ignored not only the fact that its economy was failing, but that the island itself is vulnerable to extreme weather events resulting from climate change ..."
  • Fifteen people were killed in a mass shooting at a drug rehabilitation center in Mexico's Chihuahua state. Drug gangs have been known to use rehab centers to recruit addicts, and rival gangs sometimes assault the centers, reports the Associated Press.
  • The U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, told media the FARC is not complying with its part of the peace accord, and that the former guerrilla force continues to encourage coca cultivation in certain areas of the country. He also said should not be involved in government efforts to implement crop substitution programs for coca farmers, reports InSight Crime. It's part of a growing rift between the two countries, with the U.S. skeptical of the peace process, which it blames for an increase in cocaine production. (See last Friday's briefs on a report questioning the causality between increased production and consumption.)
  • A FARC dissident leader was killed in a military operative in province of Guaviare, reports the BBC.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales enacted on Tuesday a law that guarantees job stability for workers with serious disabilities and establishes a monthly payment of $36 for those who are no longer able to work, reports EFE.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Puerto Rico's devastation (Sept. 27, 2017)

Hurricane devastation, which has left 3.4 million Puerto Ricans without electricity and an estimated 1.5 million without access to clean water, "has brought the island's state of political neglect into sharp relief," reports the Washington Post. Experts say the bankrupt territory is a victim of colonial policies, which leave residents unable to manage their own economy.
U.S. President Donald Trump's response has been criticized as lacking, leaving residents scrambling for food and medicine, reports the BBC. On Monday he commented on Twitter regarding the island's debt, saying the island is in "deep trouble."

Democrats argued that Trump should appoint a general to the territory and send in troops, and said Hurricanes Irma and Maria could be Trump's Katrina, reports the Miami Herald.

The slow response could also be political payback, argus Fabiola Santiago in the Miami Herald.

News Briefs
  • Amid criticisms towards the international community for slow and insufficient aid to the hurricane battered Caribbean, the 15-member Caricom is being noticed for its cooperation among governments, reports the Miami Herald.
  • A Salvadoran judge determined that an innocent young man was executed by police in the 2015 "San Blas Massacre," in which police killed six alleged gang members and two civilians. But he cleared the eight police officers accused of the murder of Dennis Alexander Hernández Martínez, saying there was no evidence about which had carried out the killing, reports El Faro. The case put forward by prosecutors ignores the question of the other seven deaths, and ignores evidence contradicting the police story of a confrontation with gang members, writes Roberto Valencia. 
  • Mexico's earthquake could have political aftershocks -- amplifying citizen anger at political parties and government inefficiency, reports the Guardian. Last week, President Enrique Peña Nieto was booed by students as he toured a damaged town in his home state. "Grab a shovel," shouted one of them. Others have accused officials of diverting aid in order to distribute supplies through political machines. Some experts believe anger could impact next year's presidential campaign, bringing issues such as housing and reconstruction to the fore.
  • The earthquake displaced number in the many thousands, including those whose homes were destroyed, but also those living in buildings now declared structurally unsound or abutting others at risk of collapse, reports the New York Times. Federal officials say this month's earthquakes damaged at least 155,000 homes, with more than 27,000 destroyed and 19,700 damaged so severely as to be uninhabitable.
  • At least 14 people have been killed and eight injured in an attack on a drug rehabilitation centre in the northern Mexican city of Chihuahua, reports the BBC.
  • The U.S. government is advancing in the construction of eight prototype barriers for the Mexican border, four would be concrete and another four in alternate materials, reports the BBC.
  • Despite the end of armed conflict with the FARC, mass displacements in Colombia have increased this year, report local watchdogs. The worst affected areas are all key drug trafficking territories and areas where guerrilla demobilization has created a criminal power vacuum, according to InSight Crime. "As the FARC have withdrawn, other armed groups, primarily the ELN, the Urabeños and FARC dissident networks have sought to capitalize by moving into former FARC territories to take control of these zones and the criminal economies that lie within them, coming into conflict with each other as a result.
    The regions identified by CODHES as mass displacement hotspots are all epicenters of these new criminal conflicts.
  • Pope Francis' recent trip to Colombia aimed to push a polarized population towards acceptance of the FARC peace process. He didn't bring President Juan Manuel Santos and his predecessor and peace critic Álvaro Uribe any closer, but "his concept of peace has resonated with the country’s social and political movements, ethnic groups, victims, and intellectuals," writes Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias at the Aula blog. "A nascent coalition of left-leaning minority parties, called Ni-Ni’s, could give voice and organization to them and – perhaps in the future – bring some pressure to bear on opponents of the accords to come toward the middle.  Congressional elections next March and Presidential elections two months later guarantee that implementation of the peace accords will remain front and center in Colombian politics."
  • Polls putting former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the lead for next year's presidential elections sent Brazilian markets tumbling last week. But a political shift leftwards -- assuming corruption cases against Lula don't leave him out of the running -- is only one of three potential scenarios investors should look out for, including the potential for a right-wing populist government under dictatorship apologist Jair Bolsonaro, argues Bret Rosen in Americas Quarterly.
  • Political corruption is a headliner around the region, but what about white-collar tax evasion? Colombia's La Pulla goes into how multinational corporations evade and how its normalized.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Temer backtracks on opening up Amazon reserve (Sept. 26, 2017)

Brazil's government backtracked on a controversial decree that would have opened up a large Amazon reserve to commercial mining, reports the BBC. A court had already suspended the measure, saying changes in the Renca reserve's status had to pass through Congress. (See Aug. 31's briefs.)

Conservationists are hailing the move as a victory, reports the Guardian, which calls "a humiliating reversal" for President Michel Temer. His August announcement that he was abolishing a protected area of 17,800 square miles caused widespread anger among critics who said the move would threaten important biodiversity and indigenous communities.

Earlier this month Greenpeace already denounced illegal mining activity in the area. Investigators flying over the Renca reserve found at least 14 illegal mines and eight clandestine landing strips used by miners. (See Sept. 20's briefs.)

News Briefs
  • The ongoing gun battle between rival drug factions in Rio de Janeiro's Rocinha suggests significant turmoil in the city's underworld, according to InSight Crime. "Whether or not security forces will be able to curtail, and ultimately end, the conflict remains to be seen."(See yesterday's post.)
  • Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza accused U.S. President Donald Trump of acting like "the world’s emperor" in a U.N. speech, reports the Associated Press. Experts have been warning that Trump's belligerent stance feeds into the Venezuelan government's anti-imperialist narrative and also rubs regional allies the wrong way.
  • Natural disasters, like the hurricanes that have destroyed swathes of the Caribbean or the earthquakes that hit Mexico this month, are a boon for organized crime, explains Oliver Leighton Barrett in an interview with InSight Crime. "In post-disaster situations there is often a breakdown in governance and institutions, even if only temporarily. This means the bad guys are going to have room to play. There will be a vacuum that they can exploit. When security forces are concentrated on disaster response and rescue efforts, they don't have time to focus on the criminal element, whether that be opportunists or organized crime groups."
  • Puerto Rico's governor warned of a "humanitarian crisis occurring in America", and called for more aid, reports the BBC. San Juan's major international airport is barely functioning, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Puerto Rico's hurricane recovery efforts will be dramatically hindered by preexisting problems with  food insecurity, poor health care and resource-starved public transit, argues Lauren Lluveras in the Conversation.
  • An interview with the U.S. State Department's outgoing assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, William Browning, demonstrate confusion and lack of consensus in Washington over how to direct drug policy in the region, reports Insight Crime.
  • Brazil's government is opening up new areas of oil reserves for foreign investors, reversing a decision a decade ago to keep those deep sea discoveries for its state-run oil firm, Petrobras, reports the Wall Street Journal. However, the crude reserves are now worth just a fraction of what they could have garnered in 2007. And Brazil desperately needs the foreign investment, according to the WSJ.
  • Mexican officials have opened an investigation into whether the school building that collapsed last week, killing 19 children and six adults, was up to code, reports the New York Times. The Enrique Rébsamen school quickly became emblematic of the tragic toll of last week's earthquake.
  • In rural areas, residents whose homes collapsed in the earthquakes have essentially lost everything, reports the New York Times. In San Francisco Xochiteopan, residents have little faith in government aid, and worry that a U.S. crackdown on undocumented migrants will affect remittances that will be vital for rebuilding.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Brazilian military deployed in Rio favela (Sept. 25, 2017)

Brazil's armed forces were deployed around Rio de Janeiro's Rocinha favela on Friday, after a week of intense gun battles between rival drug gangs and security forces, reports the Guardian. Brazil’s minister of defense, Raul Jungmann, said that 950 soldiers would be deployed in and around the community. Critics say official response was slow, coming a week after dozens of gang members first invaded the favela.

At least four people were reportedly killed in the turf war between drug gangs, reports Reuters. At least 60 criminals are believed to have launched an effort to control the drug trade in the territory. More than 70,000 people live in the territory which is reportedly the site of a conflict between the jailed leader of Amigos dos Amigos, Nem, and his successor in the territory, Rogério 157, reports El País

Rocinha, Brazil's biggest favela, was touted as a success of the UPP police pacification program in 2011, but has now come to symbolize Rio's growing violence problem. Nem was in fact detained as part of the 2011 UPP operative, and the community has also been the site of human rights violations by the new community police, including the enforced disappearance of Amarildo. 

A fiscal crisis in Rio de Janeiro state, affecting police and other essential services, have also complicated the city's security situation, notes Reuters. There were shootouts in four other favelas as well, according to the BBC

Locals have complained that attention is only paid to violence when it threatens wealthier neighborhoods.

Terrified residents watched the battles on TV as they hid from bullets, according to El País.

More than 3,000 children were left without school today, as institutions stayed closed due to safety concerns, reports O Globo.

News Briefs
  • The U.N. finished deactivating a total of 8,994 firearms and more than 38 tons of explosives collected from the FARC, a milestone commemorated in a ceremony with President Juan Manuel Santos on Friday, reports the Associated Press. A team of 15 German specialists needed six weeks to cut through the metal weapons so they can’t be fired ever again. On the same day, the leadership of the new FARC political party paid tribute to a guerrilla leader killed in a bombing raid seven years ago, ordered by Santos. In a 200 person ceremony, the remains of Jorge "Mono Jojoy" Briceno -- real name Victor Julio Suarez Rojas -- were interred near Bogotá, reports AFP.
  • FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez complained to the U.N. verification commission that the government is aiming to disperse and disunite former guerrillas in the process of reintegrating into society. But the former fighting force is also hindered by a focus on mega projects rather than smaller scale efforts, as well as the leaderships' political focus, reports La Silla Vacía.
  • The U.S. included Venezuelan government officials and their immediate family members in a proclamation that extends the existing travel restrictions on citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, reports the Miami Herald. In the decree, the White House said Venezuela’s government “fails to share public-safety and terrorism-related information adequately” and has been “not fully cooperative” in receiving deportees. On Friday Canada announced targeted sanctions against 40 senior Venezuelan officials, reports Reuters.
  • International pressure on the Venezuelan government is mounting -- but Washington's efforts to force a transition government are unlikely to succeed if Cuba isn't included in the equation, argues Jorge Castañeda in a New York Times Español op-ed. The Cubans are the only ones with the requisite influence on President Nicolás Maduro, he writes. Such an approach could also benefit Cuba in pushing for a return to the Obama administrations efforts towards normalization, he argues. "Venezuela has much to win from a big negotiation that includes Cuba and the U.S., as does Cuba, the U.S. and the rest of Latin America. For now, perhaps it seems naive to think that Maduro and his allies would accept a deal in which he leaves power, just as he seems to have consolidated it. Nonetheless, sometimes that's the best time to reach an agreement. The situation in Venezuela is unsustainable, and the Cubans, who have always been there, know it. Does Trump?"

  • A powerful 6.1-magnitude aftershock earthquake rocked Mexico on Saturday, causing panic in a country devastated by two earthquakes in short succession that together killed more than 400 people. There was some damage in Oaxaca but no immediate reports of new deaths, reports the Associated Press
  • Rescue teams continued working yesterday, though there are increasingly few hopes of finding people alive in the rubble. Inhabitants are wondering how they will deal with structures left unsound, reports the Wall Street Journal. More than 17,000 were in shelters around the city.
  • Official rescue operations are being called off in Mexico City, causing clashed between security forces and civilians who want to continue searching for victims. Anger at slow official response -- especially in smaller rural communities -- is contrasted with extensive volunteer efforts, now focused on donations and aid for affected communities, reports the Guardian. In fact, there might be too much immediate aide, while victims are worried about longer-term needs, like returning to their homes and having building inspections. People in Mexico City seem to be moving forward, while reconstruction efforts in more rural areas need assistance, reports the Washington Post. Aide is piling up in the city's richer districts, while poorer areas in the outskirts lack supplies, reports Reuters.
  • Civic response has been "extraordinary" and filled gaps in the official response, reported the Guardian in an earlier piece this weekend. Behind accusations of mismanagement are fears that aid could be redirected away from needy communities by criminal groups or political machines. 
  • Even as Mexico City pulls together towards recovery, a "manic dread hangs over the city as people wrestle with the lost comforts they once enjoyed in their neighborhoods and, more broadly, their lives," reports the New York Times.
  • Toughened building codes in Mexico, adopted after a catastrophic earthquake in 1985, were not as effective as believed in preventing destruction this time around, reports the New York Times. Enforcement of the code, among the best in the world, is flawed and uneven. Rather, luck played a hand in sparing destruction last week, as the type of earthquake caused less waves that affected shorter buildings more.
  • Large amounts of U.S. aid started entering Puerto Rico on Saturday, racing to stem a growing crisis in towns left without water, fuel, electricity or phone service after Hurricane Maria last week, reports the Associated Press. The storm wiped out about 80 percent of the crop value in Puerto Rico — making it one of the costliest storms to hit the island’s agriculture industry, reports the New York Times.
  • New York Times video of devastation in Dominica the morning after Hurricane Maria last week.
  • Many hurricane hit Caribbean countries are not sovereign nations, but rather "places with diverse and shifting arrangements with their colonial centers," writes Yarimar Bonilla in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. "Natural disasters and moments of social and political upheaval mark the few occasions when these marginal citizens fleetingly appear in the national consciousness. In these moments, it’s common to hear debate about why these societies remain tied to their colonial centers. ... The most obvious answer is geopolitics: These far-flung territories provide military bases, satellite launching centers and footholds in important terrains. Less obvious is the fact that these societies are protected markets for national corporations. American companies such as Walmart and Walgreens have more stores per square mile in Puerto Rico than anywhere else in the world."
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK's) faces a political dilemma this week: whether to pardon dictator Alberto Fujimori, sentenced to 25 years in jail for crimes against humanity. Fujimori's political party, Popular Will, holds a majority in Congress and has consistently complicated PPK's government over the past year. Last week Kuczynski reshuffled his cabinet after a Popular Will-led no confidence vote in Congress. (See last Monday's briefs.) A pardon could be politically expedient, and cabinet members have indicated it is possible based on the former autocrat's supposed ill health. But critics -- including Marío Vargas Llosa -- say the move would not suffice to appease Popular Will, and would be a poor human rights precedent, argues Carlos Cué in El País.
  • Conservative Chilean presidential candidate Sebastian Piñera promised to move the country towards a fully renewable electricity grid by 2040, reports Reuters.
  • Paraguay is exploring how to turn its status as the region's number one exporter of illicit marijuana into a medical cannabis exporter, reports EFE.
  • Few chocolate addicts suspect the constant threat to Latin America's cacao crops, worsened by a heavy dependence on a few varieties susceptible to the same blights, reports the New York Times. A combination of pathogens, environmental risks, and low profits and yields might signal a chocolate shortage on the horizon, even as demand increases from new markets in China and India.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Mexicans critical of officials after earthquake (Sept. 22, 2017)

News Briefs
  • The official death count of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico this week is now 273, and officials said 1,900 people had been injured, while thousands have lost their homes. Though much of the media focus has been on destruction in Mexico City, the states of Morelos and Puebla have been particularly badly hit. The New York Times features a piece on the Morelos town of Jojutla, where nearly half of the 60,000 inhabitant town's structures were leveled by the quake. The entire town was basically destroyed, an official told the Wall Street Journal.
  • And citizens are critical of the military, which took over rescue operations initiated by volunteers, but reportedly began to demolish piles of rubble just 72 hours after the earthquake, reports the Guardian. Yesterday evening President Enrique Peña Nieto said search-and-rescue missions are continuing in collapsed buildings. Foreign rescue teams arrived in Mexico to help in efforts, reports the Wall Street Journal. Rescuers believe that people may still be trapped alive in as many as 10 buildings in Mexico City alone, reports the BBC.
  • Hope at the story of a 12-year-old girl supposedly alive under the rubble of a collapsed school turned to anger when officials admitted the story was false, reports the Guardian. The narrative of Frida Sofía, who rescuers were inching towards in the earthquake destruction of the Enrique Rebsámen school had become symbolic of a nation gathering together in the wake of a natural disaster. That it turned out to be false could now become a new symbol -- one representing the disgust many Mexicans feel towards government officials and mainstream media frequently accused of faking statistics. The outcome could "could turn into an emotional whipsaw for a country that had been fixated for over 24 hours on the search for a missing student following a devastating earthquake," reports the Washington Post. Some rescue volunteers remain convinced there are victims trapped in the school's debris, reports the Wall Street JournalProceso has a skeptical piece detailing the "reality TV" media show, especially pushed by Televisa with fawning coverage of official rescue efforts. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Mexico's leading political parties agreed to dedicate a portion of the public funds assigned to their 2018 campaigns to help with earthquake reconstruction, reports Animal Político. The donation follows a social media campaign calling for #PartidosDenSuDinero. 
  • Wars rarely end in clear victories or defeats nowadays, ongoing dialogue is really the only way to prevent ongoing conflict, argues Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in a New York Times Español op-ed. Listing several insights gleaned from the peace process with the FARC, he notes that "the perfect peace does not exist. After all, peace is made with enemies, not friends." He refers to the polemic issue of transitional justice in Colombia, which critics say is too lax in cases of crimes against humanity. "Like many Colombians, I too would have preferred more severe penalties. Nonetheless, I think in the future our children will be grateful we chose the path of a careful equilibrium between peace and justice."
  • Former Colombian Supreme Court Judge Francisco Javier Ricaurte Gómez was arrested earlier this week on charges of criminal association, bribery, influence peddling and abuse of privileged information. It's part of a larger investigation into an alleged network of high-level judicial officials accused of blocking progress in cases in exchange for money. Revelations appear to indicate other high-level arrests are imminent. "In addition to involving figures at the highest echelons of the judiciary, this unfolding case is concerning because the allegations suggest the repetition of a consistent pattern of corruption involving several top judicial officials, which could point to a long-running scheme operated by a structured network," explains InSight Crime.
  • At least 10 people have died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane María, which continued to cause rain on the island. Rain and flooding could also trigger mudslides, reports the BBC, which reports a death toll of 13. An estimated 3.4 million people were left without power, and the territory's energy grid was largely destroyed, reports the New York Times. The destruction compounds an already complicated situation for the island, including an extended debt and bankruptcy crisis, and recovery from the recent destruction of Hurricane Irma.
  • Hurricane warnings are in place for British territory the Turks and Caicos and the south-eastern Bahamas, where María is heading next, reports the BBC.
  • Irma destruction in Havana worsened an already grave problem of unsound housing, reports the Miami Herald. "... Falling architectural elements and collapsing buildings that splay bricks and timbers into the street are an all too common occurrence in Havana where some of the buildings people inhabit are centuries old and in poor repair. A good rain can cause a derrumbe (collapse)." Of the nearly 4,300 homes damaged in the capital, the government said 157 dwellings collapsed and were total losses, putting more pressure on Havana’s creaky and aged housing stock. There were 986 partial collapses, 818 homes lost their roofs, and 1,555 homes reported partial roof damage.
  • A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers questioned recently approved (and retracted) reforms to Guatemala's Penal Code on a visit to Guatemala City yesterday, reports El Periódico. Lawmakers were unable to carry out a planned visit to Guatemala's Congress due to ongoing protests outside the building. They also met with organizations of civil society campaigning against impunity in Guatemala, including Acción Ciudadana, Justicia Ya, and the Fundación Myrna Mack. (See yesterday's post.)
  • A branch of the Guatemalan Public Ministry dedicated to money laundering cases requested information regarding President Jimmy Morales from the national electoral authority yesterday, reports El Periódico. The request is part of an investigation into sources of funding for his 2015 presidential campaign.
  • The son-in-law of a key witness in the case of the San Blas massacre in El Salvador was killed, reports El Faro. Officials have offered protection for Consuelo Hernández, whose son was killed in a police raid, but can only house part of her family in a safe house. A sentence is expected next week in the case of 8 police in the case of alleged extrajudicial execution. (See post for July 18, 2016.)
  • El Salvador's governing FMLN party is heading towards a break with San Salvador's mayor Nayib Bukele, reports El Faro
  • U.S. officials have pointed to Colombia's cocaine output boom as a driver for U.S. increased consumption, while Colombian officials say production has been pushed by increased local and international demand. In fact, it's not at all clear that consumption has increased, "or that there is a causal link between production and demand within an illegal market in which an array of factors are at work," reported La Silla Vacía in June. (InSight Crime has the English translation.) "This is not to understate the serious public health issue that drug consumption represents. But oversimplifications should be avoided, especially when voiced in support of failed, repressive policy measures, such as coca eradication via aerial fumigation and harsher criminal sentences," warn Juan Carlos Garzón and José Luis Bernal.
  • Costa Rican authorities appear to have uncovered a major international organ trafficking ring operating in the country. " Costa Rica may be transforming from a tiny player in the global organ trafficking trade into an "epicenter" for illegal organ trafficking, in large part due to corruption that has helped fuel a sophisticated "transplant tourism" industry as well as the global imbalance between the limited supply of kidneys and the high demand for transplants," reports InSight Crime.
  • The closure of a Brazilian art exhibit featuring LGBTQ-themed work -- "the Queer Museum" -- "is only the latest conservative coup in a country that has been tacking markedly rightward since 2013," argues Marcia Tiburi in the Conversation. "Rather than ask what art’s social function is, why not query the social role of groups that, like Free Brazil, censor art? This reframing exposes why fascist movements have always sought to quash art when it makes people think. To better manage citizens’ desires – including the desire to push back against political overreach – authoritarian states must repress analytical and critical thinking."
  • Happy Friday: Radio-loving Latin Americans have jumped on the streaming bandwagon, and growth of Latin music is far outpacing that of other genres, reports the Economist. "As streaming services have tracked and monetised, labels have noted Latin music’s climb up the charts. ... Record labels are eager to tap a fan base that includes Latin Americans, Latinos in America (one of the country’s fastest-growing ethnic groups) and millions of teenagers worldwide drawn to reggaeton by “Despacito” and “Mi Gente”."

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Guatemalans demand Morales', lawmakers' resignation (Sept. 21, 2017)

Thousands of Guatemalans protested yesterday against government impunity, demanding the resignation of President Jimmy Morales, the 107 lawmakers who voted to relax anti-corruption legislation last week, and in favor of the fight against impunity, reports El Periódico. It's the latest move in an ongoing struggle between anti-impunity efforts --  led by the Public Ministry and the U.N.'s anti-corruption commission -- and entrenched structural corruption in the political elite. Yesterday's protests deepened national turmoil, but also potentially pointed to how "a wave of domestic pressure could shape the outcome," according to InSight Crime.

"Guatemala needs another plaza, because nobody else fits in this one," tweeted El Faro journalist Carlos Dada. Unarmed contingents of National Civil Police officers were deployed outside various public buildings, including the Government Ministry and the National Palace of Culture to provide security, reports EFE.

Police estimates of participants range from 50 to 125 thousand, reports Nómada -- the largest outpouring since protests in 2015 led to the ouster of then President Otto Pérez Molina, charged with leading a massive customs graft scheme. Organized by Justicia Ya and the Asociación de Estudiantes Universitarios (AEU) de la Usac, yesterday's national strike should be considered a success, according to Nómada, which notes that Morales' support among legislators is waning.

Today lawmakers will vote to resume the discussion over whether to lift Morales' immunity from prosecution -- in relation to allegations of campaign finance irregularities -- after voting last week to protect him, reports Nómada.

Public pressure is mounting, and "if sustained, protests could even lead to the toppling of Morales, much like his predecessor," argues InSight. Anti-government protests have been held almost daily since Sept. 15, notes TeleSur.

Members of several organizations of civil society presented a request for a preliminary trial against lawmakers that voted for polemic reforms to the criminal code, potentially shielding themselves for jail sentences for corruption, reports El Periódico. (See Sept. 12's post.)

And this week several key cabinet members resigned, further deepening the political crisis. (See yesterday's briefs.)

What happens now will "determine, in good measure, whether Guatemala advances towards democracy and transparency or regresses to authoritarianism and impunity," argues Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, Nómada's editor, in a New York Times Español op-ed. The country is in the midst of a battle between the interests of mafias representing the military, politicians, much of the media and some big businesses, up against the citizens battling corruption and impunity through organizations of civil society, universities, the private sector and other media outlets. "The problem is that both sides no longer fit together on the street. Or the corrupt mafias go to jail, or they will end up imposing themselves and jailing those of us who fight against corruption."

Morales congratulated protesters on their pacific demonstration, but ignored the calls for his resignation, reports El Periódico separately. He called for a dialogue to prioritize an agenda of national interests.


Collapsed Mexican school symbol of earthquake tragedy

The tragic earthquake in Mexico this week has brought out citizen volunteers from all walks of life -- pulling victims from the rubble, distributing supplies, and helping organize shelters and assistance, reports Animal Político. The spirit of solidarity is transcending Mexico’s usually rigid class divisions, according to the Washington Post. Telecom companies enabled free text messaging and provided Internet service at points across the city. Private car services, as well as public buses and subways, offered free rides.

"Disasters bring out the best in Mexicans," according to the Economist. "Within minutes, ordinary people clutching buckets to collect rubble dashed to help. Thousands laboured alongside rescue workers. They directed traffic and donated food and water. Though in smaller towns there were fears of looting, Mexicans showed that they are not the “bad hombres” of Mr Trump’s imagination."

"Nothing provokes so much aging in such a short time as an earthquake," writes Carlos Manuel Álvarez in a New York Times Español op-ed detailing his experience in Mexico City helping rescue efforts in his neighborhood. "The convulsion is sudden, it comes to the city from the mouth of the stomach."

In the midst of so much destruction, the story of the Enrique Rebsámen school which collapsed and killed at least 30 children, has become a painful symbol of the disaster. Rescue workers appear to have located a girl buried in rubble but still alive, reports the New York Times. "The search for the girl known as Frida Sofia became the top priority at the school, and maybe for all of Mexico," reports the Washington Post. But hope is starting to fade, reports the Wall Street JournalAnimal Político details the focused work of marines and volunteers in the area. 

Mexico City is a particularly bad place to be in an earthquake, because it sits on a former lake bed and near an array of tectonic plates that crash into each other. The consistency of the soft soil amplifies tremors, explains the Wall Street Journal. Most of the affected buildings, about 38 in the capital collapsed, were located in areas of the former lakebed. Areas of the city and surrounding suburbs located on bedrock fared much better. Shorter, older structures -- built before Mexico's dramatically improved building codes in the wake of the 1985 earthquake -- were also more affected. That the destruction was far less than in 1985 is a small consolation, pointing to the success of the building code measures instituted since, notes the Economist.

Mexico itself is prone to strong earthquakes because it is in a so-called subduction zone, notes the New York Times in a piece that explains the term. The Guardian delves even deeper into earthquake science and compares those caused by ruptures within tectonic plates (like this one) and those that result from clashes between tectonic plates.

The New York Times has a list of organizations for those looking to make donations. The Topos, a volunteer force renowned around the world for helping to rescue quake victims. They were founded in the wake of the 1985 earthquake, and are in full force helping in Mexico City, reports the Wall Street Journal. They use picks, shovels and small drills to tunnel into rubble, eschewing heavy machinery that could kill survivors.

As of yesterday the official death toll stood at 230, reports the Guardian.

News Briefs
  • Hurricane María crossed the Virgin Islands as a Category 5 storm, slammed into Puerto Rico where it left all residents without electricity, and is now predicted to pass north of the Dominican Republic, though downgraded to a Category 2, reports the New York Times. Relief agencies reached Dominica yesterday, where officials estimated at least 70 percent of the island's structures sustained storm damage, reports the Washington Post. (See Tuesday's post and yesterday's briefs.)
  • Trump's "rhetorical attacks and financial sanctions against the Venezuelan government suggest a shift toward coercive diplomacy aimed at achieving regime change, but U.S. power faces significant limits in the conflict-ridden country," according to Michael McCarthy at the Aula Blog. "While the United States, Europeans, and Latin Americans are operating in loose formation – with Washington ratcheting up pressure while everyone else scrambles for negotiations – China and Russia are sticking to their strategic game.  As Maduro’s main financial backers, they are betting talks can stabilize the situation bit by bit.  They may kick in some more financial assistance if and when Maduro restores some stability by holding peaceful regional elections, delivering on the dialogue, and making large upcoming debt payments.  But while there is some basis for the geopolitical schadenfreude of Beijing and Moscow making it harder for Washington in Caracas, there are also signs that both have buyer’s remorse.  While they prefer Maduro stay afloat, they seem unlikely to extend loans that help stabilize the economy unconditionally."
  • Brazil's anti-corruption crusade is at a turning point. Former Attorney General Rodrigo Janot's term ended last weekend, and his parting shot was accusing President Michel Temer of leading a criminal corruption gang within the government. "The prosecutor has deepened suspicions about the president’s conduct while leaving room for doubt. People who feel threatened by the broader Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption probes are seizing on what they claim are weaknesses in Mr Janot’s case to call into question the entire process. Now Brazilians wonder whether Mr Janot’s successor, Raquel Dodge (pronounced “dodgy” in Brazil), will pursue it with the same zeal," reports the Economist.
  • A majority of Brazil’s Supreme Court rejected a request by Temer's lawyers to suspend the criminal charges filed against him, but the decision may actually favor the president by leading to a swift resolution, according to Bloomberg.
  • Thousands of Haitian protesters demanded the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse after a national budget proposal viewed as unfavorable for the country's poorest, reports AFP.
  • Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández told Reuters that the Trump administration’s effort to combat violence and poverty in Central America will not mean greater militarization in his country.
  • A union representing more than half of Avianca's pilots declared a 60 strike, leading the Colombian airline to cancel nearly a hundred flights so far, reports the Wall Street Journal.