Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Venezuela's opposition divided over municipal election boycott (Oct. 31, 2017)

Three of Venezuela's leading opposition parties said they will boycott December's municipal elections,  reports the BBC. Justice First, Popular Will and Democratic Action, along with four other opposition parties, say the electoral system is biased. But the decision comes after a surprising loss in gubernatorial elections earlier this month, due in part to illicit maneuvering by the government, but also a high abstention rate among opposition voters. (See last Friday's briefs, for example.) 

The loss and the debate over whether to participate in future elections are not has divided the MUD opposition coalition. (See Oct. 19's briefs on the growing schism, and last Friday's briefs for Geoff Ramsey's primer on the split.) For example, former MUD secretary general  Jesús Torrealba, criticized the parties that decided not to participate in the upcoming elections, saying they were ceding the spots to the government, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

At heart, the debate is over whether to work within the system or challenge it from without, Justice First coordinator Rachid Yasbek told Al Jazeera

Analysts are increasingly critical of the opposition's inability to put forth a clear and united front, as well as it's "incoherent" response to the government's illegal electoral moves, according to another Efecto Cocuyo piece.

The scenario bodes ill for hopes of defeating Chavismo in a presidential election scheduled for some point next year, reports the BBC separately. Opposition parties are increasingly at odds and many of the most popular leaders are jailed or banned from running for office.

Two months ahead of the municipal elections, the National Electoral Council has yet to confirm an exact date (some outlets are reporting Dec. 10), according to Efecto Cocuyo
  • Currently opposition parties hold 76 mayorships out of the country's 335. 
  • In Caracas' Libertador municipality, "critical Chavista" Nicmer Evans is running for the Nuvipa party.
  • Former Zulia state governor and  Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) founder Manuel Rosales' ban on political participation was lifted by the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, just in time to declare candidacy, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
George W. Bush's former assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega argues in Newsweek that Venezuela will collapse soon if the U.S. doesn't help focus pro-democracy efforts in a more concerted way.

Amnesty International denounced "a vicious campaign of illegal home raids on citizens suspected of dissent." A new investigation, Nights of terror: Attacks and illegal raids on homes in Venezuela "reveals how Venezuelan security forces and government-sponsored civilian armed groups have violently broken into people’s homes in recent months as a way of intimidating them against taking part in demonstrations or any other form of protest."

News Briefs
  • Cuba's government announced measures aimed at easing visits by Cubans living abroad. The changes boil down to less paperwork, reports the Miami Herald. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez also announced that Cubans who left illegally will be permitted to return for visits, and children of Cubans born abroad can apply for citizenship. Cuban Americans will also be allowed to arrive and leave Cuba by boat. The changes also seem to be an official response to the U.S. chilling of relations between the Cold-War enemies, according to a subsequent Miami Herald article. It could also be part of a transition to a more open government, ahead of President Raul Castro's stepping down next year.
  • Following a broad electoral victory in mid-term elections earlier this month, Argentine President Mauricio Macri announced a broad array of reforms aimed at making the economy more competitive. He announced a tax overhaul, pension cuts, and asked provincial governments to cut spending, reports the Wall Street Journal. He also reiterated previous promises to cut down on legislation protecting workers in order to create better conditions for businesses. Though he did not flesh out the proposals, the gist is in line with IMF recommendations from last year, notes Alfredo Zaiat in Página 12.
  • Brazilian President Michel Temer recognizes a national insecurity crisis, but "the government does not appear to have a coherent plan to address the main drivers of violence and crime," according to InSight Crime. "During a recent visit to Brazil, InSight Crime observed clear signs of public concern over growing insecurity in the country. News of violent clashes between police and alleged criminals dominated the headlines of major news outlets. However, mirroring the government's messaging about insecurity, the media coverage focused almost entirely on the symptoms of the failure to halt rising crime and violence rather than the factors undergirding this dynamic."
  • Slum tourism has been a popular Rio de Janeiro attraction for years -- but operators rarely mention the very real risks, highlighted by the recent killing of a Spanish tourist by police. (See Oct. 24's briefs.) It's a symbol of the dangers faced daily by locals living in favelas, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Mexican criminal organizations are always seeking new revenue streams. The latest: stolen multi-ton shipments of frozen octopus, reports InSight Crime.
  • Among the many profiting from Puerto Rico's deficient finances are a growing cadre of lawyers and consultants, reports the New Yorker.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Int'l group of lawyers points to broad plot behind Cáceres' killing (Oct. 30, 2017)

Honduran environmental rights defender Berta Cáceres was killed by a criminal structure that spanned from senior executives of an Honduran dam development company to state officials and criminal organizations, according to an international group of lawyers reviewing the investigation.

"The existing proof is conclusive regarding the participation of numerous state agents, high-ranking executives and employees of Desa in the planning, execution and cover-up of the assassination," the lawyers wrote in a report reviewed by the New York Times.

Cáceres and other members of her organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known as Copinh, were known internationally for their struggle against a dam planned on indigenous Lenca community land. Desarrollos Energéticos, known as Desa, is the Honduran company holding the dam concession.

About 40,000 pages of text messages seized by government investigators show that the orders to threaten Copinh and sabotage its protests came from Desa executives who were exercising control over security forces in the area, issuing instructions and paying for police units’ food, lodging and radio equipment.

Though eight suspects are in custody, including a Desa employee and a retired army lieutenant who also worked for the company, the international group of lawyers say there is no sign the official government investigation has moved beyond them to the ultimate masterminds of the assassination. The group says the evidence reviewed demonstrates a plot that goes far beyond the eight aprehended suspects and points towards state agents, reports CNN Español.

The group of prominent human rights lawyers from the U.S., Colombia and Guatemala -- Grupo Asesor Internacional de Personas Expertas (GAIPE) -- was chosen chosen by Bertha Zúñiga, Cáceres’s daughter, with recommendations from the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), according to the NYT.

The piece also examines Desa's history and relationship to powerful Honduran business groups. The OAS backed anti-impunity commission, MACCIH, is investigating Desa’s contracts, a move that has angered some of the country's elite.

Last week two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Shirin Ebadi from Iran and Tawakkol Karma from Yemen, denounced the government's lack of action in the Cáceres assassination case, reports TeleSUR.

Environmental activists regularly face mortal danger in Honduras, where more than 120 activists have been murdered in the last eight years. A recently approved law that could be used to label protest organizers as criminals or terrorists now makes the burden of activism even greater, notes the Wire.

News Briefs
  • Human Rights Watch calls on the OECD to consider the Colombian government’s inadequate response to a protracted hunger crisis as it discusses the country’s bid to accede to the international body. "In recent years, Wayuu indigenous communities in the northeastern province of La Guajira have experienced malnutrition, resulting in high death rates, especially of children under 5. Official figures indicate that between 2013 and 2017, at least 193 indigenous children in that age group in the province died due to malnutrition."
  • Colombia's peace process has left a much discussed power vacuum in former FARC controlled rural areas. Paramilitaries and other criminal groups competing to control lucrative illicit trade are now facing another competitor: militant indigenous activists seeking to liberate areas of the Cauca Valley from coca and sugar plantations. The liberation of "Mother Earth," has attracted hundreds, sometimes thousands, of activists every other week to join communal actions, known as minga, which involve burning and hacking down swaths of sugar cane, then erecting camps and planting traditional crops including maize and cassava, reports the Guardian. Environmental concerns are also among the groups' concerns.
  • Colombia's ELN said members killed an indigenous leader in the north of the country last week, less than a month after the group declared a ceasefire as part of peace talks, reports the BBC.
  • Elective abortion is illegal in much of Latin America -- yet investigators have found that the region's abortion rate is far higher than it is in places were the procedure is legal, such as the U.S., reports the Los Angeles Times. The piece focuses on Argentina, where the government estimates that between 370,000 and 522,000 abortions are performed every year. Though most are illegal, few are prosecuted.
  • According to at New York Times Interpreter piece, Mexico's record-breaking violence was spurred in part by two apparently positive milestones 20 years ago: the defeat of Colombia's major drug cartels, which drove the drug trade north, and Mexico's transition into a multi-party democracy, which threw the country's politics and institutions into flux at precisely that time.
  • Last week Mexico's government fired an anti-corruption prosecutor investigating Odebrecht contributions to the ruling PRI party's 2012 general election campaign. Former prosecutor Sebastian Nieto said he was pressured by a prominent party operator to pronounce his innocence in the case. (See last Monday's post.) The attorney general's office said Nieta was ousted for improperly discussing an ongoing case. But the case seems symbolic of more in a country where citizens are increasingly angry about corruption and politicians are inclined to dismiss their concerns, according to the Guardian.
  • New documents seem to indicate that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's 2012 campaign was partially funded by an Odebrecht subsidiary, reports InSight Crime.
  • The wave of Haitian asylum seekers arriving in Canada from the U.S. could be only the beginning, as several Central American countries' citizens face termination of the Temporary Protection Status immigration programs that enable them to living and work in the U.S., argues Jaime Porras Ferreyra in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron laughed off marijuana fumes in the air while he was meeting with locals on a visit to French Guyana, reports AFP. "That will not help with your schoolwork," he could be heard telling the smokers on a video posted on the presidential Facebook page in the overseas territory. "You have to tell the youngest!"
  • Gaston Browne, prime minster of Antigua and Barbuda, called on the U.K. to help the Hurricane Irma affected country, reports the Guardian. Most of Barbuda was destroyed in September and most of its 2,000 residents were evacuated to Antigua, where they're still living provisionally. (See Sept. 11's post.) New York Times 360 features the island's almost total destruction.
  • Troops and federal police were deployed to protect government environmental agency buildings in Brazil's Amazon region after they were set on fire on Friday, reports the BBC. The attacks were apparently carried out by gold prospectors in revenge for a recent raid on an illegal operation, according to authorities.
  • Cuba's abrupt weaning from trade with the Soviet Union in the 1990's marked the beginning of a path towards small farms that are increasing organic, reports the Guardian.
  • On Friday a Guatemalan judge  sent former President Otto Perez Molina and his vice president to trial for participation in a customs fraud scheme known as "La Línea," reports the Associated Press. The decision comes two years after they were accused of participating by Guatemala's public prosecutor and the U.N. backed anti-corruption commission, the CICIG. 
  • Guatemalan prosecutors arrested 15 municipal officials accused of an embezzlement scheme involving government construction contracts in exchange for kickbacks, reports InSight Crime.
  • This Saturday's Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City paid tribute to to the victims of September's earthquakes, the rescue workers who searched the rubble, and demonstrated the country's resilient spirit, according to the New York Times. Beautiful shots in the Guardian.
-Clive Rose/Getty Images​

Friday, October 27, 2017

Analysis of El Salvador's extrajudicial killings (Oct. 27, 2017)

El Salvador's police kill with alarming frequency in a country that has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. The Economist examines a study by Brazilian criminologist Ignacio Cano linking the overall rate of killings by police using firearms with the overall homicide rates in a country."It seems that police unable to quell violence may lose their inhibitions about taking part in it." 

In part this is the result of mano dura policies, which have proved ineffective in reducing homicides, and can even backfire by making the public trust police less. Technical fixes to reduce mortality are one option, but broader systemic reform to root out police death squads and systemic corruption are needed to really improve in El Salvador, argues the piece. (See Aug. 23's post, for example, on a Factum investigation into summary executions and other abuses carried out by an elite Salvadoran police squad.) 

Here's the link to the full study by Cano and Anneke Osse, in which the authors argue that "more transparency about police use of firearms is needed in order to gain better understanding of when and why police resort to the use of firearms, and develop more effective measures to prevent loss of life."

News Briefs
  • Reporters Sans Frontières selected El Salvador's online magazine Factum among those nominated for this year's Press Freedom Award. Carmen Aristegui is among the journalists nominated.
  • An Honduran cameraman who reported receiving death threats was killed this week in western Honduras. Carlos Oveniel Lara, a 23-year-old cameraman for Canal 12 Telemaya in Copán was shot leaving for work, according to the Knight Center. Freedom of expression organization C-Libre said he was well known in the area. Seventy-three journalists, including owners and media workers, have been killed in Honduras since 2003.
  • The European Parliament awarded the EU's most prestigious human rights award to the opposition-led National Assembly in Venezuela. Antonio Tajani, the Parliament’s president's lauded Venezuela's "only democratically elected Parliament," a repudiation of the recently elected supra-congressional National Constituent Assembly which many members of the international community have refused to recognize as legitimate. The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was officially awarded to the "democratic opposition in Venezuela," as represented by the country’s National Assembly and its president, Julio Borges, and the political prisoners listed by Foro Penal, reports the New York Times.
  • Amazing analysis of Venezuela's surprise results in the regional elections by Dorothy Kronick and Francisco Rodríguez at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Tricky maneuvering and outright fraud in some cases certainly occurred and contributed to the opposition's shockingly low results. But these only account for a tiny percentage of the government's sweep of governorships. Instead the authors point to high levels of abstention in opposition strongholds, far more than in neighborhoods supporting the government. "A back-of-the-envelope calculation using these data suggests that, if turnout in last Sunday’s election had looked more like turnout in 2015, the opposition would have won more than one million additional votes, while the government would have picked up only half a million." Another interesting factor they point to is U.S. sanctions -- which most Venezuelans oppose -- and opposition leaders' refusal to condemn them. Though the authors note that violent repression of protests and imprisonment of leadership has hit the opposition hard, the MUD coalition "also committed some of the same mistakes it has made in the past: boycotting elections; trying to block the government’s access to resources; and, perhaps most importantly, focusing on regime change instead of policy proposals."
  • Members of the 12-nation so-called Lima group called on the United Nations to help fight human rights violations in Venezuela, reports the AFP. They said the recent gubernatorial elections were marked by "acts of intimidation, manipulation, social coercion and voting conditioning, among other irregularities." See above.
  • The lone opposition governor elect who refused to swear in before the ANC was sacked yesterday by the pro-government Zulia state legislature, reports Reuters.
  • In the midst of the opposition coalition crisis (see Tuesday's post), the MUD must confront upcoming municipal elections. Capitalizing on the government's good showing, officials have announced mayoral elections in December. Actors within the coalition are actively talking about restructuring, notes Geoff Ramsey in a review of the various factions and positions at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Voluntad Popular is the only party that has so far declared that it will not participate in the municipal elections. Some smaller MUD parties have said they will participate. "This division does not bode well for the opposition’s longer-term electoral aspirations. With Leopoldo Lopez still under house arrest, Henrique Capriles barred from holding public office, and Ramos Allup under fire, the Venezuelan opposition is far from rallying behind a single figure to run in presidential elections slated for next year. Some have suggested that the time is ripe for an outsider to emerge as a viable opposition candidate, but so far none has materialized."
  • For those despairing of a democratic solution to Venezuela's crisis, Oscar Morales Rodríguez has a piece in Efecto Cocuyo with a slew of historical cases where voters threw out autocratic regimes through the ballot box -- from Pinochet in 1981, to Poland in 1989 to Guatemala in 1985 and Bolivia in 1982. Of course, he recognizes differences in the examples, but elections carried out on uneven playing fields (to say the least) are a common denominator, he argues, making the case for participation.
  • Most of a group of 33 magistrates named to the Supreme Court by the opposition National Assembly earlier this year fled the country after President Nicolás Maduro threatened them with jail time. They are now connecting virtually, perhaps the first example of a "Supreme Court in exile," according to the Miami Herald. This week a group of the judges in the U.S. issued a ruling declaring the ANC illegitimate.
  • Spanish police arrested a former deputy Venezuelan energy minister yesterday, on a U.S. warrant for alleged involvement in $1 billion bribery scheme involving Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA, reports the Associated Press.
  • Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno's cabinet and high level officials rallied behind his proposed plebiscite on several of his predecessor's reforms, reports EFE. They marked that a revolution requires criticism, self criticism, and popular participation. Earlier this week, members of the Alianza País coalition rejected the move, saying it's aimed at undermining the social gains of Rafael Correa and preventing the former president from running for office again. (See Wednesday's briefs.) The schism within the ruling party has extended to Congress, where El Universal says most AP lawmakers back Moreno.
  • A tiny Swiss company quietly obtained exclusive World Cup broadcast rights in 16 countries in Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina. The deal came to light as part of U.S. and Swiss investigations into FIFA corruption and show corruption in the world football elite works, reports the New York Times. Among other details, investigators found that Mountrigi is a wholly owned subsidiary of a giant Mexican television network, Grupo Televisa. And investigators have found hints that a major broadcasting affiliate had helped to pay millions in bribes to get the rights in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay for the next four World Cups.  (Televisa and Mountrigi deny paying bribes in connection to acquiring rights.)
  • In an unrelated (?) move, Televisa's chairman is stepping down, part of the media conglomerate's move towards new styles of programming after a sharp decline in ratings, reports the New York Times.
  • Some of Colombia's former FARC rebels have begun to construct communes in rural areas, reports Reuters. They aim to help reduce socio-economic inequalities in areas sorely lacking in access to public services and economic opportunity.
  • Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner denied plotting a cover-up for Iranian suspects in a 1994 Buenos Aires bombing. She was accused of treason and plotting a cover-up for signing a 2012 pact with Iran that would have allowed senior Iranian officials accused of the deadly attack to be investigated in their own country, rather than in Argentina, reports the AFP.
  • Clashes erupted between protesters and police in French Guiana last night, during a visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, reports the BBC.
  • Guatemala's Constitutional Court eliminated the death penalty for civil cases, reports the Associated Press.
  • Panama’s Attorney General accused the judiciary of provoking impunity, after a court decided not to approve further investigation into the alleged money-laundering case involving the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht and its Lava Jato corruption scandal, according to EFE.
  • For the first time United States has blocked imports from a Peruvian timber exporter suspected of illegal logging. But the actual impact of the move aimed at limiting the illicit timber trade is likely to be limited because of widespread corruption in Peru, reports InSight Crime.
  • Brazil's market welcomed a Congressional vote shielding President Michel Temer from facing a corruption trial, but experts doubt the government's ability to advance economic reform ahead of next year's elections, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's post.)
  • A sign of Temer's amazingly low popularity, a rap video called I’m Happy (I Killed The President) 2 has become a viral hit, reports the Guardian.
  • TGIF: Two Rio de Janeiro favela entrepreneurs have brought artisanal beer to their community, and their craft brews are becoming popular around the city and possibly expanding beyond, reports Americas Quarterly. In just five years Bistrô Estação R&R in the city's Complexo do Alemão favelas has become a hotspot for beer lovers local and foreign. Owners Marcelo Ramos and Gabriela Romualdo are launching a third artisanal beer, all named for local favelas.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Temer dodges trial again (Oct. 26, 2017)

Brazilian lawmakers protected President Michel Temer from standing trial on corruption and obstruction of justice charges, the second time in a few months he has managed to dodge such a case. 

The final tally yesterday was 251 in support of Temer and 233 against -- the president easily passed the 171 vote threshold he needed to avoid trial, reports the Associated Press. Under Brazilian law, two-thirds of the Chamber of Deputies must refer charges against the president to the Supreme Court. 

But legislators' support came at a high financial and political cost, notes the New York Times. Millions of dollars of federal funding were promised to lawmakers, and the administration backed controversial projects favored by key groups. For example, last week the government weakened regulations aimed at preventing modern-day slavery, and announced steep discounts for companies fined for environmental damage. 

Rather than legal arguments, Temer is using government financing and political maneuvering to avoid charges, reports the BBC. The cost to state coffers has been estimated at $10 million. His quest for the support of legislators is likely helped by the fact that dozens -- more than half of those who sided with Temer in August -- are themselves charged with corruption. 

Opposition lawmakers sought to stall proceedings yesterday, accusing the government of Machiavellian machinations, reports the Washington Post.

However, analysts say Temer's bruised administration has been left to limp along for an extended lame duck period -- there is year and a half left of his term. In particular, many doubt that he will be able to pass unpopular economic reforms demanded by investors and the business sector. Major social security and tax reform, along with more labor overhauls are now unlikely, according to a separate Associated Press piece.

And the backroom scheming is further alienating a critical citizenry. Temer's approval rating was already rock bottom: a recent poll said he was supported by just 3 percent of the population. And he was never elected to the presidency, rather he's finishing out the term of his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached last year.

Prosecutors accused Temer and his predecessors of running a criminal organization that treated the government like a cartel, handing out favors and postings in exchange for financing. But the president appears to be a "mastermind of survival," according to the BBC, which notes the seriousness of the charges brought against Temer.

His political group allegedly funneled over $180 million from state-run institutions such as Petrobras and the Brazilian Lottery into the pockets of lawmakers. He is also accused of pressuring billionaire businessman Joesley Batista into buying the silence of two key witnesses that are cooperating with investigators from jail.

News Briefs
  • A fire destroyed almost a quarter of a Unesco World Heritage national park in central Brazil. Officials at Chapada dos Veadeiros national park believe the blaze was started deliberately, reports the BBC.
  • U.S. anti-choice groups are pouring millions of dollars into anti-abortion efforts in Latin America and the Caribbean, reports the Guardian. For example Human Life International (HLI), a Catholic not-for-profit group from Virginia, has channeled more than $1.3m to anti-abortion partners in the region. At least three groups are focusing efforts on training anti-abortion activists and opening "pregnancy crisis centers" in which women are convinced not to have terminations. Rights advocates say these centers' objectives are often hidden, and women believe they are regular clinics. Anti-abortion activists also deter women approaching legal abortion clinics in Bogotá, for example, pushing women who seek to avoid confrontation towards less safe options for termination.
  • The Trump administration must decide next month whether to renew Temporary Protected Status for 60,000 Hondurans living in the U.S. Ending the immigration program and sending them back could worsen economic problems in Honduras, and could potentially increase illegal immigration back to the U.S., reports the Miami Herald. As many as 300,000 people from the Western Hemisphere living in the U.S. could be affected by upcoming TPS decisions.
  • Ousted Mexican prosecutor Santiago Nieto said he was fired without justification, reports Reuters. The Senate is preparing to vote whether to reinstate the anti-corruption prosecutor. (See yesterday's briefs and Monday's post.)
  • Despite rising violence rates in Mexico, perceptions of insecurity and the number of victims have stayed relatively stable, reports InSight Crime.
  • Chilean conservative presidential candidate Sebastian Piñera maintained his lead in voter preference ahead of the Nov. 19 election, and was seen beating his two closest rivals in a likely runoff, reports Reuters.
  • Colombia's government and the ELN guerrilla force began a fourth round of peace talks yesterday, reports AFP.
  • Cuban officials say U.S. accusations of "sonic attacks" against diplomats posted to the island are slanderous "science fiction," reports Reuters
  • Hurricane Maria didn't differentiate among social classes when it destroyed much of Puerto Rico, but the recovery process is far more stratified, reports Reuters. The damage is only making life worst for the 40 plus percent of the island living below the poverty line.
  • Two Brazilian police officers were arrested in connection to the fatal shooting of a Spanish tourist in a Rio de Janeiro favela. The case will likely invite scrutiny of a security force accused by rights groups of shooting first and asking questions later, reports the Associated Press.
  • A Brazilian toilet paper campaign using the slogan "black is beautiful" has provoked anger among activists and commentators who say its a cynical use of a cultural movement and subliminally racist, reports the Guardian.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Moreno rolls back civil society restrictions (Oct. 25, 2017)

Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno revoked decrees aimed at controlling organizations of civil society. On Monday he reversed his predecessor's Decreto número 16 y el número 739, which were used to dissolve environmental and educational NGO's, reports El Comercio

Moreno has sought to differentiate himself from his predecessor, who had a confrontational stance, and tweeted Monday that the changes were made in accordance with "national dialogue." Civil society organizations said the decrees endangered citizens' rights to free association. Moreno said he sought to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles and encourage civil and social organizations. 

The new regulations free organizations to participate in political events and social protests, notes El Comercio.

El Comercio separately reports on the cases of the UNE, which was dissolved last year under the decrees for allegedly failing to hew to its official statute. The largest teacher's union was also a strong government opponent, notes Extra. Fundación Pachamama was dissolved in 2013 for protests that the government considered threats to public order.

News Briefs
  • Moreno's party, the Alianza País has announced its opposition to a referendum the president has proposed to eliminate reforms passed by his predecessor, including unlimited presidential reelection. Moreno critics say the move is aimed at eliminating Rafael Correa from running again in future elections, reports TeleSUR. (See last Thursday's briefs for other views on Moreno's referendum.)
  • Human rights defenders and journalists in Honduras say they are confronting jail-time and violence, drastically restricting their capacity to work. The Latin America Working Group Education Fund points to legislation punishing social protest and reducing penalties for corruption as part of a worrisome trend, along with "rampant" and "largely unpunished" Murders of and attacks and threats against human rights defenders and journalists.
  • Mexican opposition senators blocked a ruling-PRI party attempt to schedule a fast-track secret vote to uphold a polemic ousting of an anticorruption prosecutor last week, reports the Associated Press. The Senate chairman ended yesterday's session after about two dozen senators from opposition parties demanded an open vote and refused to leave the podium. (See Monday's post.)
  • Prominent Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles threatened to pull out of the MUD coalition. It's the latest expression of deepening schisms in the opposition alliance in the wake of a surprising loss in recent regional elections, reports the New York Times. The decade-old coalition has always had internal divisions, but these have become exacerbated in the lead up to the elections -- which some parties wanted to boycott -- and in the aftermath, in which four opposition governors-elect broke ranks with the MUD stance and swore in before a controversial pro-government assembly. (See yesterday's post.) Luis Vicente León of Datanalisis told the NYT that it's the worst crisis faced by the opposition in 19 years, and it's just beginning. President Nicolás Maduro met yesterday with three of the newly sworn in opposition governors, a meeting he hailed as cordial and positive, reports EFE.
  • The much predicted Venezuelan default might be on the near horizon according to Bloomberg. On Friday, the government-run oil giant PDVSA owes $985 million and the following week another $1.2 billion. This coming as the country's foreign-currency reserves reached a 15 year-low.
  • A Venezuela opposition leader said the country's government allowed a $1.7 billion gold swap with Germany’s Deutsche Bank AG to lapse, weakening Venezuela's already crisis-struck balance sheet, reports Reuters.
  • Newsweek criticizes the U.N.'s foot-dragging in redressing the harms of a peacekeeper initiated cholera epidemic in Haiti. "People will continue to fall sick and die until the UN provides a comprehensive remedy for the travesty it caused. The UN’s refusal to right this wrong has caused incalculable damage to its reputation and mission at a time when the world is in particular need of strong multilateral leadership."
  • Longstanding criticisms of the now ended U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti are tainting reception of the new justice mission, reports Reuters. Opposition politicians are skeptical the new MINUJUSTH will succeed in its institutional support goals. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions named Salvadoran street gang MS-13 a priority target for law enforcement, reports InSight Crime. "What is not clear is how these measures could represent an effective step in the fight against the entry of drugs into the United States. The MS13 is not a major player in transnational drug trafficking and the US State Department, several research centers in Washington, police officers and even the DEA have all acknowledged this." (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Social gains in Brazil are eroding, and millions are falling back into poverty, reports the Associated Press. The World Bank estimates about 28.6 million Brazilians moved out of poverty between 2004 and 2014. But the bank estimates that from the start of 2016 to the end of this year, 2.5 million to 3.6 million will have fallen back below the poverty line of 140 Brazilian reais per month, about $44 at current exchange rates.
  • Brazilian President Michel Temer has again made policy and spending concessions in an attempt to buy congressional goodwill ahead of a vote today on whether he should face corruption charges, reports Reuters.
  • Amazonian indigenous groups in Brazil are increasingly under threat by mining interests. The Waiapi, who live in the Renca reserve the government has sought to open to mining and agriculture, have vowed to defend their territory and are terrified it will be taken from them, reports AFP.
  • The companions of a Spanish tourist killed by Rio de Janeiro police say they did not break through an official checkpoint, contradicting the military police's version of events, reports EFE. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • U.S. prosecutors obtained the confession of a Panamanian establishment scion in a controversial money laundering investigation. Nidal Waked Hatum admitted that he had fraudulently secured bank credit for one of his companies for the purchase of non-existent electronic appliances from two more of his companies. In exchange prosecutors dropped two other charges. Prosecutors said the transactions were used to move cash for drug traffickers in Panama, Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, reports InSight Crime. The Waked family is accused of laundering money through real estate investments, financial vehicles, shell companies and property holdings. A decision to add Nidal and his father Abdul to the Narcotics Traffickers Kingpin list last year "ent shockwaves through Panama, where members of the Waked family are among the most powerful people in the country," according to InSight. 
  • The US Treasury Department lifted sanctions against two Panamanian newspapers owned by Abdul Waked after he transferred a controlling interest to a Panamanian foundation, reports EFE
  • A Panamanian Supreme Court judge will reportedly back anti-gay marriage legislation, according to the Washington Blade.
  • "María and Irma, 2017’s two most destructive hurricanes in the Caribbean basin, have exposed the trappings and inequalities of colonialism in the region. The hurricanes have blown away decades of legal and international maneuvers and ruses, local constitutions, and moves towards autonomy and integration and administrative reclassifications—leaving exposed a simple colonial truth," writes Angel “Monxo” López Santiago in NACLA.
  • Peruvian indigenous group the Shipibo-Konibo are fighting to secure housing titles in a Lima slum, two decades after they were displaced by guerrilla violence, reports Reuters. A massive fire last year destroyed more than 400 homes and Lima's mayor has promised to rebuild in the same location.
  • Transgender women in Uruguay tend to die young -- they are shunned socially and have difficulty accessing health services and work, reports Reuters.
  • Uruguay's hemp industry is quietly taking off, "in the shadow of its more sexy cousin, recreational marijuana," reports Bloomberg. Cultivation of the crop is set to triple next year.
  • Fifty years after his death, the cultural rebellions Che Guevara inspired as an icon are not the revolutions he would have desired. But the "existencial, cultural, generational and anti-war" rebellions he inspired formed the basis for the freedoms enjoyed by Western societies today, argues Jorge Castañeda in a New York Times Español op-ed.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Opposition governors-elect break ranks with MUD coalition stance (Oct. 24, 2017)

Four newly elected opposition governors were quietly sworn in yesterday before Venezuela's internationally criticized National Constituent Assembly (ANC). Only one of the handful of opposition leaders elected ten days ago maintained the opposition alliance's initial promise not to swear in before the ANC. 

The governors who took office yesterday are all from the Democratic Action party. The move demonstrates a growing schism within the MUD coalition, notes the Wall Street Journal. The Democratic Action's recognition of the polemically elected supra-legislative body bolsters the government's position and will likely contribute to frustration with the opposition.

President Nicolás Maduro said he had personally spoken with the four and promised to meet with them soon, reports Efecto Cocuyo. His friendly embrace is likely aimed at strengthening the government's democratic credentials before a skeptical international community.

Juan Pablo Guanipa, governor elect of Zulia state, said the ANC lacked legitimacy and refused to swear in yesterday, reports Efecto Cocuyo. The government has said a new election can be held in states where the winner does not swear loyalty to the ANC, reports Reuters.

The MUD schism will likely divide along the lines of electoral participation -- whether to compete in unfair elections or boycott them, according to analyst John Magdaleno in Efecto Cocuyo

News Briefs
  • Rio de Janeiro police killed a Spanish tourist after the car she was traveling in failed to stop at an official roadblock near a favela. She is the third tourist killed in Rio's favelas in less than a year, episodes which draw attention to the stunningly high homicide levels there, reports the Guardian. Police violence is on track to kill over a 1,000 people in Rio state this year, according to the Wall Street Journal. In the first eight months of 2017, Rio state police killed 712 people, 30 percent more than a year earlier and the most since 2009, according to official statistics. Rio’s overall homicide rate also rose 8 percent. Human rights groups have accused police of using excessive force, notes the BBC. María Esperanza Jiménez Ruiz was killed while on a touristic tour of the Rocinha favela, which has been in upheaval since last month, when troops failed to control a gang turf war. 
  • Two-thirds of the countries in the region will be holding key elections in the next two years -- and there is the real possibility of a populist comeback, though this time the candidates skew both to the right and left, argues Robert Muggah in Foreign Policy. "Taking the long view, Latin America has experienced general improvements over the past few decades. While social and economic progress — especially poverty reduction and job creation for the region’s 163 million young people — recently slowed, the overall trends are positive. ... The big question for Latin America in 2018 is whether voters also take this more constructive long view? Or will they embrace the populist anger and nationalist pride that seems to be sweeping much of the world? It’s impossible to know at this point, but the stakes are clearly huge. Policymakers and investors in Washington and elsewhere would do well to pay much closer attention."
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri said his alliance's strong electoral showing last weekend represents a popular mandate for a controversial package of labor, tax and pension reforms aimed at strengthening the country's economy, reports the New York Times. Macri's Cambiemos exceeded predictions for the mid-term elections, and won the country's five largest electoral districts. However, Macri's deficit-cutting austerity program is politically risky, said experts interviewed by the NYT. Already gas prices increased by 10 percent yesterday, and Macri plans to push a tax overhaul, as well as labor reforms, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Street gangs are not Central America's most pressing problem, corruption is, argues FIU's director of research José Miguel Cruz in the Conversation. He looks at how corruption abets street gangs and violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. "The whole idea that the U.S. government can make America safer by getting tough on crime in Central America is questionable. But if the Trump administration wants to try, it should at least start at the top. Political institutions in the grip of organized crime use their power to erode the democratic rule of law in the region. They shield criminal organizations in exchange for economic support and political backing in gang-controlled barrios. Root out corruption in the Central American ruling class, and the gangs and crooks will go down with it."
  • A new app launched by Mexican civil society groups aims to help citizens report incidents of corruption. Though such apps are increasingly popular in the region, they have had little effect so far, reports InSight Crime.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto denied allegations that he received extensive campaign financing from an Odebrecht filial in his 2012 electoral run, reports Animal Político. (See yesterday's post.)
  • The president of Red Cross compared the effects of violence in Mexico to that of a war zone, a comparison that has proved polemic in the past, according to InSight Crime. "Many experts have stressed that equating Mexico's drug-related violence to that of an armed conflict or civil war is an "uneven comparison." That may well be true, but Maurer makes a good point when he talks of the consequences -- rather than nature -- of the violence and the way it impacts people's quality of life and access to basic services such as health, education and justice."
  • A quietly raised fist -- originally used by earthquake rescue workers to call for silence in order to hear trapped victims -- has become a symbol of resistance and resilience for Mexicans, according to the Washington Post.
  • Hurricane Maria's destruction has unleashed a crime wave in Puerto Rico, where violence was already a pressing problem, reports the Miami Herald.
  • So far 27 international companies have been approved to operate in Cuba's Mariel Special Economic Development Zone. Nine are already installed there. Cuban officials envision the site west of Havana as the "the beginning of a bustling commercial city built on high-tech, advanced manufacturing and sustainable development," reports the Miami Herald.
  • Nicaragua signed the Paris Climate Change agreement, leaving only the U.S. and Syria as the only countries not supporting the accord, reports the BBC.
  • Colombia is known for excellent coffee, but its residents are only recently coming to enjoy good quality brew, according to the Washington Post.
  • The design selection process for Trump's "big, beautiful" border wall has its similarities to a reality TV contest. Hundreds of proposals were winnowed down to eight designs. Contractors were given a month to construct 30 feet by 30 feet prototypes, which in late Nov. will be tested for resistance to climbing, tunneling and other efforts to cross them, reports the Guardian.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Mexican prosecutor investigating Odebrecht bribes fired (Oct. 23, 2017)

Mexico's top election corruption prosecutor was fired on Friday, in the midst of an investigation into whether bribes allegedly received by the head of the state oil firm were used to finance President Enrique Peña Nieto's campaign. The Attorney General’s Office said Santiago Nieto was fired for breaching the internal code of conduct, a few days after telling a local newspaper that he is being pressured by the former Pemex head to clear him of accusations, reports the Wall Street Journal

Mexican authorities are investigating allegations that Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid about $10 million in bribes to then-Pemex head Emilio Lozoya in exchange for contracts. 

Nieto said his removal was illegitimate, and that he will contest the firing in the Senate, reports Animal Político

Leaders from across the political opposition spectrum condemned the move, and some said its aimed at covering up further charges of wrongdoing, according to Animal Político. The case may complicate the ruling PRI party's attempts to shake-off corruption allegations ahead of next year's presidential elections, notes Reuters.

News Briefs
  • A DEA surveillance video appears to contradict the agency's version of a 2012 episode in Honduras that ended in the deaths of four Honduran civilians. The three hour video -- released due to a Freedom of Information Act request -- seems to show gunshots going from an anti-narcotics boat aimed at a passenger vessel, indicating the DEA narrative of "exchange of gunfire" is inaccurate, report the New York Times and ProPublica. A scathing report from the inspectors general of Justice and State departments earlier this year also questioned the DEA's characterization of events, and has captured the attention of critical lawmakers. (See May 25's post.)
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri's Cambiemos coalition won yesterday's mid-term elections decisively. The coalition won in several key districts around the country, as well as the country's most populated provinces, reports the Wall Street Journal. Though Macri still won't have an outright majority in either chamber of Congress, the results will strengthen his hand in passing a tax reform, reduce the federal budget deficit and reduce costs for businesses hiring and firing workers. Cambiemos' candidate for Senate in the Buenos Aires province outperformed former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, though she still won a seat and claims to represent the opposition to Macri's economic liberalization plans, reports the New York Times.
  • The appearance of the body of a disappeared Argentine activist, Santiago Maldonado, was originally interpreted as boon for the opposition. But though the Guardian reports on the government's many PR missteps in the case, it doesn't seem to have affected the electoral outcome as much as initially expected.
  • Hyper-politicized Argentines have a long history of unresolved political deaths, which combine flawed justice institutions with each citizen's conviction that they know the truth, writes Sylvia Colombo in a New York Times Español op-ed. "But it's negative for a society to have the sensation that important political crimes will never be solved and could transform into a weapon for political attacks." She focuses on the Maldonado case and prosecutor Alberto Nisman's death as cases that have been used politically recently but which would be simple cases for justice in a "normal" democracy.
  • Reintegration of Colombia's former FARC guerrilla fighters isn't going well, and could ultimately impact the peace process, warned the U.N.’s deputy human rights chief on Friday. Should efforts to transition the former fighters into society fail, there is a strong change the individuals could turn to trafficking and other illicit activities, he warned, according to the Associated Press.
  • The issue of coca cultivation is becoming central to peace efforts in Colombia. And areas where coca is concentrated are ripe for the type of altercation that led to confrontation between cultivators and security forces in Tumaco earlier this month, resulting in eight deaths. Former President Ernesto Samper argued there is a contradiction between policies of forced eradication and crop-substitution, reports El Tiempo
  • The achievements of the peace process are being lost in areas where coca cultivation is growing, argued Colombian attorney general Nestor Martínez in an interview with El Tiempo this weekend. He advocated a return to aerial fumigation eradication efforts, and said voluntary crop-substitution efforts are unlikely to meet targets. (See last Thursday's post.)
  • The Colombian government authorized meetings between FARC and ELN leadership, hoping to further the ELN peace talks, reports El Tiempo.
  • The international community has been divided regarding Venezuela's regional elections earlier this month. The 12 member Lima Group has called for an audit of the results. The U.S., Canada and Colombia have taken a harder stance, while the European Union is reportedly contemplating sanctions against Venezuelan officials, but has not announced anything yet. The country's main international creditors, China and Russia, have lauded the vote.  The "opposition’s decision to participate in the vote appears not to have cost them too much internationally, despite significant criticism from OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro," notes Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. (See last Friday's post.)
  • Though the Observers are now starting to look at next year's presidential elections. The main question is whether President Nicolás Maduro will run for another term, and who else might be the PSUV candidate if not. Socialist Party leader Diosdado Cabello and National Constituent Assembly president Delcy Rodríguez are possibilities, according to NBC.
  • Brazil is increasingly dangerous for LGBTQ people. A local organization found that 343 LGBT people were killed in 2016, compared to 260 in 2010. But a drag queen pop sensation, Pabllo Vittar, has become a symbolic beacon for those opposed to the moralistic conservative politicians who have won power across the country in recent years, reports the Guardian.
  • Ecuador's plan to exploit oil reserves located in a rainforest reserve will have minimal environmental impact -- at least according to the state oil company, reports Reuters.
  • Mark Weisbrot compares Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro to the U.S president in U.S. News and World Report, though he admits Bolsonaro's "racist, misogynist and anti-gay statements have been so violently over-the-top that the comparison to Trump – whom Bolsonaro sees as a role model – is almost unfair to Trump."
  • Peru's Congress overwhelmingly approved a measure legalizing medical marijuana, reports the Guardian. Advocates' efforts were aided by a police raid earlier this year on a makeshift laboratory where mothers produced cannabis oil for their epileptic children.
  • A group of 16 international forensic experts found that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda did not die from cancer as stated on his death certificate -- though the actual cause of death remains unclear. The Nobel laureate, former diplomat, and senator from the Communist Party died two weeks after the the 1973 military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende. His former driver alleged Neruda was poisoned by an injection, and eyewitness accounts from the time differ on Neruda's state before death, reports the New York Times. Those who believe Neruda was killed say he could have been a prominent critic of the regime if he went into exile, notes the Guardian.
  • The Guardian reviews a "compelling, devastating book" by Mexican writer Veronica Luiselli, an essay based on her work as an interpreter for undocumented Mexican children crossing into the U.S. She "documents the huge injustices done to the children by both the American and Mexican governments, and by the public who treat them as “illegal aliens”, rather than as what they truly are: refugees of war."