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.

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