Thursday, November 30, 2017

ESMA mega-case ends in 29 life-sentences (Nov. 30, 2017)

News Briefs
  • Argentine judges sentenced 29 former military officials with life sentences yesterday, the cap to a five year trial aimed at holding leaders accountable for human rights violations in the 1976-1983 dictatorship. Prosecutors tried 54 former Argentine officials in the deaths or forced disappearances of 789 people, and presented testimony from more than 800 witnesses, reports the New York Times484 cases corresponded to persons who were either murdered or made to “disappear” at the ESMA, while the remaining 305 involved survivors of kidnapping and torture as well as children born in captivity at the camp, reports the Guardian. A total of 48 defendents received sentences in the case focused on the infamous ESMA clandestine detention center, reports Página 12. The case also gave evidence and established as fact the "vuelos de la muerte" (death flights), in which prisoners were drugged and thrown off planes into the Rio de la Plata.
  • The judgements against perpetrators of violations are part of Argentina's large strides in the ensuing decades in defense of human rights. But the new CELS report on human rights in the country over the past year underscores potentially troubling government stances. "A number of decisions, measures and events have adversely affected critical items on the human rights agenda and protection mechanisms in Argentina. We do not aim to provide a full assessment of the governing Cambiemos alliance’s platform, but rather to underscore a troubling convergence of political and judicial actions and decisions that erode key aspects of the country’s human rights system," writes Gastón Chillier in a prologue released this week. Two cases from this year are particularly emblematic: the investigation into disappeared protester Santiago Maldonado and the ongoing imprisonment of social activist Milagro Sala. "Sala’s case is emblematic of the weakening of international human rights law in Argentina and, in particular, of the international protection mechanisms," writes Chillier. And "in a regional and international context that – political colors aside – is adverse to global agreements on human rights, the response by the Argentine government to Santiago Maldonado’s disappearance and death; the repression and discourse circulating about present threats and past events; judicial decisions that take aim at some of the pillars of Argentine democracy, such as the struggle against impunity for crimes against humanity and the commitment to international systems of protection – all of these put the core human rights agenda in Argentina on alert."
  • Honduras is on the cusp of a political crisis, reports the New York Times. Opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla has said he will not recognize the electoral commission’s count, which has dragged on slowly since Sunday’s vote. (See yesterday’sTuesday’s, and Monday’s posts.) Nasralla was inititally five points ahead, but his lead has shrunk to a virtual tie with incumbent candidate President Juan Orlando Hernández. Nasralla’s declaration yesterday came just hours after he and Hernández signed an OAS brokered agreement to respect the commission’s results.
  • The New York Times magazine has an in-depth on the bloody conflict between El Salvador’s gangs and the police. “What is happening is like a war in nearly every way, but the vocabulary of war has no words to describe this new variation. The gangs look something like an insurgency, but they appear to have no political aim other than to avoid being killed.” Azam Ahmed points to a new dynamic among some gang sectors: a willingness to lay down arms in a negotiated settlement. The option however is unpopular within the ruling FMLN party and the general population – which approves of iron-fist policies against gang members, including torture and extrajudicial killings. The piece goes into gang history and dynamics in recent years – noting in particular the dynamics of violence with the police who are increasingly accused of extrajudicial killings and other violations against alleged gang members. The piece also discusses potential gang influence on electoral dynamics – traditionally carried out in exchange for money, but potentially wielded against the ruling party next year in retaliation for the security force crackdown on gangs.
  • Former Salvadoran army colonel  Inocente Orlando Montano has been extradited to Spain to face charges or allegedly helping plan the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests and two civilians. U.S. court documents say the killings were aimed at derailing peace talks during El Salvador’s civil war, reports the Guardian.
  • A “fast-track” period for Colombia’s Congress to approve laws needed to implement the FARC peace deal expired today. Lawmakers failed to pass a law that would created a framework to amnesty coca cultivators who eradicated their crops. This makes it unlikely that the 25,000 families who already signed voluntary crop-substitution agreements will follow through, as they are not assured of avoiding criminal prosecution, reports La Silla Vacía.
  • Mexican lawmakers are moving forward with a bill that would ratify the military’s role in the country’s drug war. Critics say the legislation will keep soldiers on Mexico’s streets indefinitely and lead to the suspension of basic civil rights, reports the New York Times. The proposal would put the military beyond civilian oversight and remove incentives for states and municipalities to build effective police forces, according critics, including human rights groups.
  • A police shooting of a well-known informal recycler in an affluent São Paulo neighborhood has drawn attention to the 20,000 people who collect 90 percent of the city’s recycling, which they sell to private scrapyards, reports the Guardian.
  • Inequality in São Paulo’s periphery affects women more than men. “At the same time, women are often leaders in these disadvantaged communities. From Paraisópolis to Cidade Tiradentes, they emerge as activists, educators, entrepreneurs and philanthropists, shaping their communities for the better,” reports the Guardian.
  • A lack of paper bills is inadvertently turning Venezuela into a cashless economy, reports the Guardian.
  • Argentina has evolved beyond populist Peronism, and ushered in a modern, pro-business era by ratifying President Mauricio Macri's Cambiemos alliance in this year's mid-term elections, argues Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Shannon O'Neil in a Bloomberg opinion piece. Voters chose good government, backed by good marketing she says. "Yet Macri’s win also came from Peronist failures. The movement has all but disintegrated, its factions losing ground in the midterms. Part of the problem is its leadership, or lack thereof. Despite her legacy of economic malpractice and deep ties to corruption, former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner remains its standard bearer, the most visible and popular among the unpopular. But Peronism’s slide into irrelevance also reflects a failure to adapt to structural economic change."
  • On that note, a piece from earlier this year by José Natanson in Página 12 masterfully susses out how Cambiemos represents a new right-wing: "democratic, willing to express economic differences with the 90's right, and socially not inclusive, but compassionate." Cambiemos has also latched onto a key concern by presenting itself as a modernizer of politics, he writes. The opposition response cannot be to decry right-wing neoliberalism, Natanson argues, because the narrative (though not necessarily the policies) are fundamentally different.
  • Yesterday evening Argentina’s senators approved a polemic pension reform that adjusts how retirement payouts are adjusted biannually, reports La Nación.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Honduras results increasingly questioned (Nov. 29, 2017)

Updates to Hondura's presidential election vote count have lessened the lead of opposition challenger Salvador Nasralla over incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández. Data published this morning by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) left Nasralla with just under a 1 percent lead, with about 75 percent of the votes counted. This reverts a nearly five point lead that Nasralla had been holding since the Sunday election, reports La Prensa.

El Heraldo has the evolution of the vote tallies over the past couple of days, showing how the close difference between the two candidates shrunk drastically since yesterday evening.

Protesters took to the streets in Tegucigalpa yesterday, and civil society organizations accused TSE of dragging its feet to obscure an opposition win, reports the Los Angeles Times. Nasralla has accused the TSE of prioritizing ballots from areas where Hernández has one, skewing the electoral trend, reports Reuters.

He has also accused the TSE of manipulating the vote by adding false tallies to the total. He has called for demonstrations by his supporters today in Tegucigalpa, reports La Prensa

Indeed, the long delay in a final result has many observers concerned about potential manipulation of the vote. And the tensions -- amid criticisms regarding the legality of Hernández's reelection bid -- are setting the stage for a political crisis, argues Juan Carlos Hidalgo at the Cato Institute blog.

Yesterday European Union electoral observers decried the slow pace of the count, and the lack of a definitive winner, reports La Prensa. They noted the TSE had made more frequent updates and advanced more quickly in previous elections, reports the Associated Press.

The Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States in Honduras urged people to remain calm and wait for official results, which it said should be delivered as quickly and transparently as possible, reports Reuters. The OAS mission also said it would delay its report until the definitive results are tallied, reports El Heraldo.

News Briefs
  • A Salvadoran court found former President Mauricio Funes and his son guilty of illicit enrichment, and ordered them to pay back $420,000 to the state. The civil judgement does not involve jail-time, but bars them from holding public office for 10 years, reports the Associated Press. Both are in Nicaragua, where they were granted asylum.
  • Speaking of polemic reelection plans: Bolivia's constitutional court struck down limits on reelection, paving the way for President Evo Morales to run for a fourth consecutive term in 2019, reports Reuters. The ruling appealed to a clause of the American Convention on Human Rights granting citizens the right to participate in government, reports Telam. However OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro noted that the clause "does not mean the right to perpetual power." Bolivian voters narrowly rejected a referendum in 2016 that would have permitted further reelections for Morales.
  • Colombia's lower house of Congress approved a bill creating a transitional justice system for human rights violations committed during the country's armed conflict with the FARC. However, lawmakers modified the bill passed earlier this month by the Senate, so the text must now go to conciliation between the two chambers, reports Reuters.
  • Some Venezuelan investors are becoming convinced that President Nicolás Maduro will manage to stay in power, despite an ongoing crisis and bets of a default in the near future, reports Bloomberg.
  • The Guardian continues its coverage of São Paulo, including: a profile of mayor João Doria, who has frequently been compared to a Brazilian Donald Trump, though he might also angle for a centrist vote in the upcoming national elections. Another piece focuses on the city's vast sprawl and high costs of living, meaning daily commutes of three, four or five hours in terrible public transportation conditions. And ongoing Amazon deforestation threatens the city with devastating water shortages, reports another piece in the series.
  • Another 2018 presidential contender, Brazilian right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro, argued that gun ownership should be subsidized and police should face fewer investigations, reports Bloomberg.
  • Mosquitos and the dengue virus they spread seem to have been an unintended consequence of development in Brazil's Acre state, where cases of the disease have ballooned since 2000, reports NPR.
  • A conservative Guatemalan lawmaker has introduced a bill that would give blanket amnesty to military members accused of committing war crimes during Guatemala’s 36-year-long internal armed conflict, reports NACLA
  • Former Lima mayor Susana Villaran is the latest Peruvian politician to be implicated in the Operation Car Wash investigation, reports Bloomberg. She was barred from leaving the country for eight months after prosecutors alleged she received $4 million in campaign donations from Odebrecht SA and OAS SA in 2013. Her administration later signed contracts with both companies later that year. Villaran denies wrongdoing.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump has quietly backed away from his promise to make Mexico pay for a polemic border wall. But he continues to threaten to block remittances from Mexicans living in the U.S. The proposal "would cause hardship for millions; most remittances are spent on basic necessities such as food.  But by undermining the free flow of capital, a core feature of our modern globalized world, Trump is also attacking a central component of neoliberal capitalism," writes  Ezra Rosser at the Aula Blog.
  • A small Cuban design brand, Clandestina, has just become the country's first to launch an e-shop with global shipping -- no small feat, reports the Guardian.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Honduras still in election limbo (Nov. 28, 2017)

Honduran electoral results are still in limbo. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) said it will not give more updates until all of the votes are counted, possibly tomorrow, reports El Heraldo. The last of the actual tallies are expected to arrive in Tegucigalpa tonight, and counting might continue through Friday, according to La Prensa.

As of this morning, opposition alliance candidate Salvador Nasralla maintained a slight lead, but with just over half the votes counted. President Juan Orlando Hernández, who is running for reelection, has 40.28 percent of the vote to Nasralla’s 45.05 percent, with 58.39 percent of the votes tallied. (See yesterday’s post.)

Slow updates after the surprising initial results have raised questions over whether there are attempts being made to change the outcome, reports the Associated PressHonduras Culture and Politics has updates and analysis on vote counting and potential problems in that arena.

However an election official told Reuters yesterday evening that Nasralla has a lead with over 70 percent of the vote counted and that an opposition upset is irreversible.

New York Times article by Elizabeth Malkin from before the election sheds more light on the polemic reelection issue in Honduras. Reelection is prohibited in Honduras’ constitution, and the topic is polemic after a military coup ousted then-president Manuel Zelaya for allegedly trying to circumvent the limitation in 2009. Hernández supported that coup, but benefitted from a later Supreme Court decision lifting the ban. Critics note that the decision itself is “circuitous” and made by judges who all owed their positions to Hernández after their predecessors were hastily removed.

Beyond the direct policies the candidates campaigned on (see yesterday’s post), Malkin posited that the election was also a referendum on how much control Hernández and the executive branch should exert over the country’s institutions.

Another piece from before the election, in the Guardian, notes the underlying questions about the fairness of the election itself. For example, “according to official figures, 6.2 million people are eligible to vote – a number the opposition says is mathematically impossible in a country with 8.5 million habitants.”

News Briefs
  • Mexico's ruling PRI party will field an outsider presidential candidate in next year's elections. José Antonio Meade resigned from his post as finance secretary yesterday in order to run, after continuously occupying cabinet posts in the Peña Nieto administration, reports Animal Político. Meade is a party independent, and also held the posts of energy secretary and finance secretary under the previous Calderón administration. But the anointing of Meade as chosen PRI successor seems to harken back to Mexico's time under one-party rule, argues David Agren in the Washington Post. Though Meade is not necessarily the party's most popular option, he writes, the campaign strategy will focus on his "apolitical," technocrat profile. The option is particularly soothing for the business sector, which is frightened of the leftist-populist option of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, he notes. Meade's status as an independent is actually alluring to a party tarnished by allegations of corruption and human rights violations, notes the New York Times. Officials hope he will attract voters from the PAN conservative party. However, there are concerns regarding "whether his stellar credentials and scandal-free record will be enough to overcome his relatively low-energy demeanor."
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro named an active general to lead the country's state-run oil company, PdVSA. It was the last major economic sector that had remained outside of the military purview, notes the Wall Street Journal, and represents most the country's foreign currency income. The appointment comes after a four-month purge of the company, in which more than 50 company officials and contractors have been arrested and jailed in Venezuela since August. Analysts and opposition leaders said the appointment was a political move and would worsen an already crushing economic crisis, reports the New York Times. They say the appointment of Maj. Gen. Manuel Quevedo, who has no previous experience in the industry, is aimed at curbing dissatisfaction within the armed forces, a mainstay of the current administration.
  • Shortages of contraceptives in Venezuela have led to a spike in unwanted pregnancies and STDs, as residents face the bleak choice of abstinence or unprotected sex. It has also led to an increase in dangerous attempts to terminate pregnancies at home, reports the Washington Post.
  • Former FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño has received a makeover in his new role as presidential candidate of the demobilized guerrilla force’s new political party. The man formerly known as “Timochenko” surprised audiences with a softer, neater look, reports the Miami Herald, part of a push to change negative public perceptions of him and the FARC.
  • Colombia’s possible entry to the OECD is a chance to push the state to do more for the malnutrition crisis affecting the Wayuu indigenous community, writes Human Rights Watch’s Juan Pappier in El Espectador.
  • A small group of Argentines – relatives of perpetrators of human rights violations under the 1976-1983 dictatorship – are lobbying to change the country’s penal code, that prohibits offspring from testifying against their parents, reports the Guardian.
  • A year after Fidel Castro’s long-anticipated death, Cubans are commemorating his life with a series of events this week, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Even as U.S. President Donald Trump insists on a border wall with Mexico, increasing numbers of U.S. college students choose to study abroad in Latin America, a potential positive trend for hemispheric relations, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The horror! Cheap, high-definition, flat-panel TVs, a favorite U.S. consumer item, could fall by the wayside if NAFTA ends, warns the Wall Street Journal.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Possible opposition upset in Honduras' presidential election (Nov. 27, 2017)

Rival candidates yesterday's presidential election in Honduras have both claimed victory, with just over half the votes counted, reports the BBC. A former journalist heading an opposition coalition, Salvador Nasralla, is in the lead so far, with just over 45 percent of the vote. President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) is a close second though, with 40 percent. Both said they were certain of victory.

Turnout was reportedly larger than expected around the country.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) released its first report of preliminary results nearly 10 hours after polls closed, notes Al Jazeera. It later suspended updates to the vote count due to lack of representative results from around the country, reports La Prensa. The TSE warned that the votes counted did not include more than 7,000 ballot boxes from the interior of the country, and that the 2 million missing votes could change the result, reports El Heraldo

Hernández himself warned that the votes counted could not be considered representative, reports El País. Hernández cited exit polls as the basis for his purported victory, reports Reuters. A private television channel exit poll predicted a win for Hernández with nearly 44 percent of the vote, reports Infobae.

Final vote tallies might not be ready until Thursday, warns Honduras Culture and Politics, and the TSE has not yet posted vote totals on the website, which would allow for a better assessment of what the final outcome might be. Nonetheless, the initial reporting of Nasralla's lead is already a relevant point, according to the site.

JOH was widely expected to win a second term -- a polemic undertaking in a country where the Supreme Court approved the possibility of consecutive terms in 2015, and a president was ousted by the military in 2009 ostensibly for angling to create a legal framework to seek another term. 

In fact, deposed former president Manuel Zelaya played a prominent role in this election as part of Nasralla's Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship. And nostalgia for Zelaya's government may have swayed voters towards Nasralla, according to the New York Times. Nasralla also benefited from a perceived "outsider" status in a political scene marked by corruption, writes Elizabeth Malkin.

In contrast, JOH bet on security policies that targeted violence and succeeded in bringing down homicides significantly. He has however been marked by allegations of corruption and criticized for sidestepping the constitutional ban on reelection.

It is not clear whether Nasralla would continue a commission aimed at rooting out endemic police corruption, as well as an OAS backed anti-corruption mission. Earlier this month, InSight Crime said Nasralla said he would revisit the cases of police officers recently removed by the commission.

"A victory for Nasralla would be a blow for the United States, which sees Hernandez as a reliable ally in tackling drug trafficking, gangs and migration," according to Reuters. But Honduran Culture and Politics criticizes this characterization, saying its an oversimplification of differences among the country's parties. "Honduran political parties all want good relations with the US. What the National Party provides, though, is a willing partner in militarization of policing in Honduras that some US policy makers think is a key to ending drug trafficking (or at least diminishing it). Hernández also has accepted US characterization of undocumented migration to the US as his country's problem, leading him to militarize the borders to stop people fleeing violence in the cities and drug-dominated areas."

"We have defeated fraud," Nasralla told supporters, in reference to reports that the ruling National Party could rig the vote. "There is no doubt."

On Saturday the Economist reported on a recording that -- if authentic -- appears to indicate a push by the National Party to fraudulently increase its vote count. The two hour recording is of a training session for party representatives at polling stations, and "suggests three ways to alter the vote during the counting process: spoiling ballots by adding extra marks; filling in leftover ballots; and damaging the bar-code on tally sheets that record a majority for opposition parties." These are classic dirty tricks, say experts consulted in the piece, and are not surprising for Hondurans who distrust in the political system. Nor is it clear that they could significantly alter the outcome, say others.

Though Hernández was predicted to win yesterday, the strategy could be aimed at improving his party's Congressional position, notes the Economist.

Nonetheless, 600 international observers said the election was carried out cleanly and peacefully, reports El País.

Yesterday the The Liberal Party, also raised concerns about irregularities, pointing out to Al Jazeera that polls were closed at 4 pm, when they are usually extended for another hour.

Hernández's critics say the president is tightening his grip on power using the country's fragile institutions, notes Reuters.

News Briefs
  • Intense socio-economic inequality in São Paulo mirrors that of Brazil, the the 10th most unequal country in the world, according to the Guardian, which has a series on the city this week. The piece cites data in life-expectancy disparities from the 2017 Inequality Map, a survey produced by Rede Nossa São Paulo. Separately in the Guardian, Leonardo Sakamoto writes about the challenge to inequality posed by vibrant social movements and organizations. "The inequality in São Paulo makes it difficult for people to see themselves and others as being entitled to the same consideration, something that should guide all social relations. At the same time, there is a perception – arguably correct – that the state authorities are there to serve the wealthiest and control the poorest, using the police and the political process to defend the privileges of the former by using violence against the latter if need be. However, one of the world’s most unequal cities also has an intense and lively network of social movements and organisations fighting to change the status quo. And if there is a shift in the way the city treats the most humble, it is due to their own mobilisation, pressure and struggle – and not to the kindness of the supposedly enlightened or charity from the most well-off."
  • An investigation by the Guardian and Agência Pública found that a fires in São Paulo favelas were more frequent on more valuable land in recent years. The finding could feed into concerns that the fires are the result of arson, and pushed by real estate values of the land the informal neighborhoods sit on.
  • And among the informal communities occupying the city's prime real estate is the infamous Cracolândia, Crackland. Earlier this year mayor João Doria declared war on the addicts' neighborhood (see July 14's briefs, for example), but despite a massive and violent operative, most residents simply relocated just a few meters away, reports the Guardian.
  • Carlos Chamorro denounces the official silence regarding allegations that an army operative earlier this month killed two minors in Nicaragua. The military announced a shootout with alleged criminals and identified one of six dead as a gang leader. But a mother is denouncing that the dead include two of her children, aged 16 and 12, as well as her husband, the gang leader's brother, he writes in El Confidencial. "Her denunciation puts all of society, particularly business leaders, economic allies and key interlocutors of [President Daniel] Ortega, in a limit situation. Nobody can remain indifferent to this crime. To keep quiet, with the excuse that it's collateral damage of a national rural security policy ... is the equivalent of backing a regime that governs without democracy and without transparence, and can now kill even minors with impunity."
  • In the midst of a Fuerza Popular push against Peru's general prosecutor and several Constitutional Tribunal magistrates, 68 percent of the population believes the Fujimorista party is abusing its power in Congress, according to a new GfK survey published in La República yesterday. This belief includes 35 percent of Fuerza Popular's own sympathizers, notes the survey. And 70 percent believe the accusations against Pablo Sánchez (see last Wednesday's  post) are payback for investigations into party leader Keiko Fujimori and former party secretary general Joaquín Ramírez. Respondents also disapproved of the move against the magistrates, and 42 percent said they'd be willing to take to the streets in defense of an independent Constitutional Tribunal.
  • The same survey puts President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's approval rating at 26, a percentage point up from last month. And his disapproval dropped slightly to 69 percent, reports La República.
  • On Friday Peru's head prosecutor accused former president Alejandro Toledo of taking bribes from Brazilian construction firm Camargo Correa SA in exchange for a highway contract, reports Reuters
  • The allegations come as Peruvian lawmakers seek to force apply new anti-corruption restrictions on local partners of Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, a measure Kuczynski's administration says will paralyze construction and potential violate due process, reports Reuters.
  • A melting glaciar has made parts of the Peruvian Andes desert bloom -- prompting the irrigation and cultivation of more than 100,000 acres of land since the 1980s, reports the New York Times. But the flow of water is already declining, and scientists say it will end by 2050, yet another climate change challenge for the country.
  • Friday marked the one year anniversary of Colombia's peace accord with the FARC. However the hopeful moment has dimmed and implementation of the deal is flagging, according to the Associated Press. Just over half of the demobilized 8,000 former fighters have left the transition camps where they were meant to adjust to civilian life -- and there are fears that they might join criminal gangs or a dissident FARC movement that rejects the peace process. And Congress is running up a Dec. 1 deadline to implement critical peace accord legislation, including special peace tribunals. (See Nov. 15's briefs.)
  • Juanita León at la Silla Vacía also reviews the past year, noting that the central objective of carrying out FARC disarmament and demobilization -- a critical point for President Juan Manuel Santos and the "establishment" -- was carried out well. However, "everything else in the Peace Accord, which sought to transform structural conditions that facilitated the origin of the violence and its reproduction and which wasn't strictly tied to disarmament ... has been bogged down," she writes critically.
  • And, "the accords have not undermined Colombia’s criminal underworld as much as hoped, due largely to shortcomings in the implementation of certain measures," according to InSight Crime. "Under strong pressure from the United States to emphasize a traditional, hardline and repressive coca eradication policy, the Colombian government has stumbled forward in the implementation of voluntary crop substitution programs stipulated by the peace accords."
  • León also notes an interesting move by former Colombian president Ernesto Samper, who last week renounced his presidential immunity for potential human rights violations committed during his government, putting himself at the disposal of the Special Peace Tribunal and the Truth Commission, and inviting other former presidents to do the same.
  • The reincorporation of former FARC fighters into Colombian society is considered a critical part of the country's landmark peace accord. "One bright spot has been the FARC’s own creation of nearly two dozen so-called productive projects at the camps," reports the Associated Press, in a piece focused on Nueva Colombia Noticias, a budding video network started by former guerrillas. "The story of Nueva Colombia Noticias is in many ways a microcosm of both the successes and challenges of reintegrating former guerrillas into Colombian society. Reporting on the streets, the ex-combatants are coming face-to-face with a Colombian populace reluctant to embrace them after five decades of bloody conflict. Many Colombians are also wary of the network’s continued ties and unabashed support for the former guerrillas’ new political party."
  • The Guardian reports on testimony from a survivor of the fire in a Guatemalan youth shelter that killed 41 girls in March. Estefani Sotoj Hernández recounts abusive treatment at the shelter, where on the night of the fire, 56 girls had been locked inside a room as punishment for protesting. Several government officials, including the former minister of social welfare, his deputy and the director of the shelter – were charged with negligent homicide, abuse of power and mistreatment of minor. Lawyers are seeking to hold President Jimmy Morales accountable as well.
  • Mexico created a 150,000 square km ocean reserve around the Revillagigedo islands of the Baja California peninsula. The largest ocean reserve in North America will help ensure the conservation of marine creatures including whales, giant rays and turtles, reports the Guardian.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Fujimoristas angle to oust Peru's head prosecutor (Nov. 22, 2017)

An attempt by right-wing Fuerza Popular party in Peru to oust the country's head prosecutor has been strongly criticized by other parties and protested by the judicial sector, reports La República.

On Monday the Congressional Permanent Commission voted to investigate head prosecutor Pablo Sánchez for alleged mismanagement in relation to details of political corruption stemming from Brazilian testimony in the Lava Jato case. But the move, pushed only by the Fujimorista Fuerza Popular party has been criticized as politicized and unfounded, reports La Mula.

Gustavo Gorriti calls the accusation a "monument to hypocrisy, lying, and political duplicity," in IDL Reporteros. Instead, he points to allegations that Fuerza Popular leader Keiko Fujimori received illicit campaign contributions in her 2011 presidential run, as well as investigations into an important Fuerza Popular advisor, as a possible motives for the sudden opposition to Sánchez. 

La República reports that Fujimori herself ordered the accusations against Sánchez in retaliation for investigations against her and associates.

And Allan Wagner of Transparencia, in an interview with El Comercio, warned that the move against Sánchez could in fact hinder the Lava Jato investigation.

Gorriti, and others, point to the similarities between Fuerza Popular's current attempt against Sánchez and the coup by party leader President Alberto Fujimori in 1992. However, actually ousting Sánchez will require a two-thirds vote by the entire Congress. Fuerza Popular would have to attract some other party, which currently seems unlikely, according to La Mula.

The move is part of a broader push against the Executive branch and independent agencies like the Public Ministry, argues a lawmaker from Pablo Pedro Kuczynski's party, in La Mula.

News Briefs
  • Last weekend's elections have thrown Chilean politics for a loop. Candidates must now simultaneously try to pick up votes from candidates further towards the extremes of the political spectrum, while also attracting voters from the center, writes Juan Aedo Guzmán in La Mula. (See Monday's post and yesterday's briefs.)
  • While most of the focus has been on the presidential race, parliament has changed significantly, writes Javier Sajuria in the Washington Post's Monkey Cage. The new insurgent left coalition founded just this year, Frente Amplio, obtained a Senate seat and 20 seats in the lower chamber of Congress. It's part of a shift away from the dominance of traditional parties, he writes. Sajuria also notes the improved gender balance thanks to a new quota electoral system, and a younger, more diverse crowd of lawmakers. "Whoever gets elected president in December, the challenge will be to operate in a Congress that is less experienced, more socially diverse, and much more complex in political terms than previously. Chile will prove a significant test case for proponents of deep electoral reform around the world."
  • Cuban President Raúl Castro is supposed to step down next February, the first time in more than 40 years that the island would not be led by one of the Castro brothers. But three months away from the supposed transition, the question is whether negative conditions spanning from renewed U.S. hostility under President Donald Trump and economic troubles due in part to dwindling Venezuelan oil will delay Castro's retirement, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The chief U.S. NAFTA negotiator decried stalled talks and said Canada and Mexico are refusing to  “seriously engage” on controversial U.S. proposals, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • An anti-hatred law passed last month by Venezuela's questioned National Assembly continues a media war waged over the past 18 years of Chavismo, argues Marianela Balbi in a New York Times op-ed. Its purported goals are to promote peace, tolerance, and diversity. But, "establishing a normative about hate leaves it clear that the government's objective is to silence through fear those who wish to exercise their right to free expression of their opinions and thoughts," she writes.
  • Illegal logging practices continue in Peru, despite regulations and mechanisms aimed at ensuring the traceability of timber, reports La Mula. A report from the new Center for International Environmental Law reveals how exporters send products of dubious legal origin to markets that don't prohibit illegal wood, thus indicating they might be aware of its questionable provenance. (A recent Global Witness report also focused on illegal logging in Peru, revealing evidence that major Peruvian timber exporters are aware they are dealing illegal products and shield themselves with falsified documents used to launder illicit timber. See Friday Nov. 10's briefs.)
  • A person of color is killed in Brazil every 13 minutes, reports Aos Fato using new Igarapé Institute data. In 2000, the homicides rate of persons of color was 12.53 percent more than that of whites. In 2015 that difference reached nearly 47 percent.
  • Hundreds of Florida hospitality workers protested outside of U.S. President Donald Trump's private beach club in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, as South Florida community leaders denounced the administration's decision to end immigration protection for 59,000 Haitians, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Improved building codes are increasingly drawing attention as a potential tool to improve Caribbean island's hurricane preparedness. While they are "indeed are a key driver of resilience, their impact should not be overestimated," writes Michael Donovan in Americas Quarterly. In order to be effective, regulations must be regularly revised; climate-smart coastal development must be implemented; and existing buildings must be climate proofed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

TPS for Haitians to end in 2019 (Nov. 21, 2017)

As many as 59,000 Haitians living in the U.S. under a provisional immigration program will lose that protection as of July, 2019, reports the Miami Herald. That gives Temporary Protection Status recipients 18 months to prepare their return to a country U.S. officials argue has recovered sufficiently from a devastating 2010 earthquake. 

"Since the 2010 earthquake, the number of displaced people in Haiti has decreased by 97 percent," acting homeland security secretary Elaine Duke said in a statement. "Significant steps have been taken to improve the stability and quality of life for Haitian citizens, and Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens."

But advocates insist that Haiti is not prepared to accept this influx. Earlier this year human rights organizations and the Haitian government urged the U.S. to grant a longer extension of the program -- pointing to inadequate conditions on the ground for returnees and the vital role of remittances. (See May 31's briefs.) Though Haiti has rebuilt since the earthquake, it has also been hit by successive natural disasters, including widespread devastation from Hurricane Matthew last year. More than 2.5 million people, roughly a quarter of the population, live on less than $1.23 a day, considered extreme poverty, reports the Associated Press.

In addition, the country will be hard-hit by lost remittances from returning immigrants. Money sent from the Haitian diaspora totaled $2.36 billion in 2016, an increase of 7 percent over the previous year, reports the New York Times based on World Bank numbers. That's more than one-fourth of the country's national income.

The effects will also be disastrous for U.S. communities: "According to a recent study by the Center for Migration Studies, Haitians on TPS have been living in the United States on average for 13 years, and have 27,000 U.S.-citizen children among them. More than 80 percent are employed, while 6,200 have mortgages," notes the Herald. The decision will be devastating for families who must decide whether to leave their children behind in the U.S. or take them to a country that offers far less opportunity, notes NPR.

Two weeks ago, the Duke decided to end protection for Nicaraguan immigrants, but postponed a decision on Hondurans. (See Nov. 7's post.) Now this decision bodes ill for the approximately 320,000 recipients of TPS from all countries. The biggest group is El Salvadorans. The TPS program shielding about 195,000 Salvadorans from deportation expires next year and DHS is expected to make a decision on whether to terminate the program by January, 2018.

Several lawmakers point to the Haiti decision as evidence that a legislative solution protecting migrants from ten different countries permitted to stay after catastrophes at home must be found. They also accuse the Trump administration of mischaracterizing the conditions on the ground in Haiti, reports the BBC.

But the Trump administration says TPS was never meant to be an avenue for permanent residency, and the decision must be based on whether the original justifications for protection still exist, reports the Washington Post.

The looming threat of TPS termination has already sent thousands of Haitians across the Canadian border, where they hope to apply for asylum, though it's unclear they will be permitted to stay there. (See Aug. 4's and Aug. 14's posts.)

News Briefs
  • Chavismo has made serious inroads into journalism outlets in Venezuela. In the 18 years since Hugo Chávez was elected, "five television channels have been closed and nine removed from cable television subscription services; 62 radio stations have gone off the air because of official prohibitions; and the government has fined media outlets 32 times," according to Nieman Reports. Digital media outlets have stepped up to fill the void, aiming to inform audiences of issues -- like social protests -- that are ignored by traditional media threatened by censorship and economic policies. The piece reviews several key players in Venezuela's new media scene including Efecto Cocuyo, Prodavinci, El Pitazo, and Runrunes.
  • Chile's surprising election results -- particularly the accedence of the Frente Amplio which garnered 20 percent of the vote -- point to an increasingly polarized political playing field and an uncertain result for December's presidential runoff, reports the Guardian. The left-leaning Frente Amplio is characterized as a "reluctant kingmaker." Candidate Beatriz Sánchez must decide whether to throw her weight behind Nueva Mayoría candidate Alejandro Guillier or focus on strengthening her radical independent movement. (See yesterday's post.)
  • "Officially, the Mexican government acknowledges the disappearances of more than 30,000 people — men, women and children trapped in a liminal abyss — neither dead nor alive, silent victims of the drug war," reports the New York Times. "But the truth is no one knows how many people are missing in Mexico." Both drug cartels and security forces have disposed of murdered people in unmarked graves, generating an even crueler situation for relatives who cannot even mourn a definitive death. "To search for a missing loved one in Mexico is to inhabit a life of desperate entrepreneurialism. Families, resigned to looking on their own, build coalitions, pressure and cajole officials, and cling to every shred of hope."
  • Mexicans sick of cartel violence and ineffective state protection have formed their own self-defense collectives, some of which have, in turn, also become criminal organizations. In Guerrero, where over half the municipalities have community police forces, the citizens find themselves battling the government as well as drug gangs, reports the New Yorker. The piece focuses particularly on the case of Nestora Salgado, one of several self-defense activists accused by the government of murder, kidnapping, organized crime, and robbery. Though she was ultimately cleared of the charges after nearly three years of jail, many of her colleagues are similarly accused. The piece quotes Steven Dudley on the evolution of the "auto defensas."
  • El Salvador's hardline policy towards gangs has been a disaster, and has made an already tragic cycle of violence even worst, writes Efrain Lemus in Nueva Sociedad. He compares the relatively successful homicide reductions of a gang truce with the effects of mano dura. While the former was politically unpopular, the latter has made security forces targets of gang violence, and led to human rights violations including police death squads reported on earlier this year.
  • One of the unsung heroes of the so-called "Medellín Miracle" are the hip-hop collectives that took on social-development initiatives, reports the Guardian. Crew Peligrosos, one of the country's most popular groups, for example, focuses efforts on classes for under-privileged youth. 
  • Two months after Hurricane Irma knocked down most of Barbuda's structures, most of its small population remains evacuated and reconstruction efforts are hindered by lack of residents, reports the Guardian.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Piñera wins first round by smaller margin than predicted (Nov. 20, 2017)

Former Chilean President Sebastián Piñera won the first round of an election to reclaim his old post on Sunday. With 36.6 percent of the votes, he will face off against Alejandro Guillierme of the ruling Nueva Mayoría coalition, who won 22.7 percent, reports El Mercurio (full breakdown of votes). 
Though Piñera's was not expected to pass the fifty percent threshold needed to win outright, he performed less well than expected. Analysts had predicted an easy win in December's second-round for Piñera, but yesterday's results point to a potentially closer result if leftist voters back Guillier, reports the Wall Street Journal. Yesterday Guillier called for a broad alliance to win the runoff. 
Leftist candidate Beatriz Sánchez obtained 20.3 percent of the votes, far more than predicted before the election. Though Sánchez didn't endorse Guillier during a concession speech yesterday, she said that Piñera's re-election would be a setback for the country. 
Her voters are largely youthful, and could hold the decision regarding the next Chilean presidency in their hands, according to the BBC."The surge from the left, more relevant than in any other presidential elections since 1990, may change the political map, or at least influence the agenda of the future president," agrees the New York Times. Votes from yesterday demonstrate a generational shift, 
Investors are hoping for Piñera's economy boosting policy promises -- including pledges to reduce corporate tax rates and simplify the tax code -- according to the WSJ. Guillier, though initially independent, has promised to continue President Michelle Bachelet's ambitious goals of progressive reform.
The Chilean constitution prohibits consecutive presidential terms, but some analysts see the election as a referendum on her legacy, reports U.S. News and World Today.
As Bachelet prepares to step down, she ends an era of female presidents across the region -- one that she herself ushered in with her initial 2006 election, notes the Christian Science Monitor. Though Bachelet and her regional counterparts were symbolically important, critics say they did not do enough to advance women's rights in their countries, according to the piece. But even the gains such as Chile's new law permitting abortion in limited circumstances could be challenged by her successor.
A new gender parity law was in effect for the first time this year, fomenting female participation on party slates. And female lawmakers increased to 21.4 percent, up from 15.8 percent, reports El Mercurio.
News Briefs
  • The exodus of Venezuela's citizens -- to other countries in the region and the United States -- is difficult to quantify, though tens of thousands seek asylum, many more migrate for economic reasons to countries that have seen a massive influx in recent years, including Colombia and Trinidad and Tobago, writes David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. He notes the relative lack of official crackdowns on these migrants, as well as efforts by civil society groups to pressure their governments to meet immigrants' needs. "In Colombia, human rights group Dejusticia has launched a campaign called #VenezuelaBienvenida, which combats discrimination against Venezuelan immigrants in the country. As the group puts it, the campaign is a “call for solidarity,” and one of its aims is to showcasehow many of these are descendants of Colombians who originally fled the armed conflict. In Brazil, Conectas has been especially involved in advocating for more resources for the crisis, and for local governments along the Brazilian border to treat Venezuelans who arrive with dignity and respect for their rights."
  • Efforts to find a negotiated solution to Venezuela's crisis are increasingly central to avoiding a Syria-like flood of refugees, writes Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald
  • Five regional human rights groups - CELS, Conectas, Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos, Dejusticia and WOLA -- condemned Argentine President Mauricio Macri's call for a U.S. oil embargo on Venezuelan crude. "As organizations devoted to advancing human rights, the signing groups express our deep rejection of these remarks. We urge the international community to find a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Venezuela by refraining from supporting sanctions that would worsen the grave humanitarian situation faced by Venezuelans." Restrictions on oil sales would affect the Venezuelan government's ability to import much needed food and medicine, as well as worsen the above mentioned migration crisis, they argue. "Finally, economic sanctions would go against public opinion in Venezuela, where a majority of Venezuelans reject such measures. For this reason and because of the frequent invocation by the Maduro government of an alleged international plot to justify policies that violate human rights, sanctions could even be counterproductive and end up contributing to those policies."
  • Escaped Venezuelan political prisoner Antonio Ledezma arrived in Spain on Sunday, reports the Associated Press. (See Friday's post.) Ledezma is one of the country's most recognized political prisoners, reports the Miami Herald
  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, concluded a visit to El Salvador. He criticized the mano dura approach to gang violence, urging preventive policies as well. "The level of violence in El Salvador remains shockingly high. According to civil society groups, from January 2015 to February 2017, more than a thousand civilians and 45 police officers were killed in armed confrontations between the police and alleged gang members. There are also alarming reports of extrajudicial killings and the return of death squads. No matter how serious the human rights violations committed by violent gangs, all perpetrators of violence need to be held fully accountable for their actions through judicial mechanisms. Victims on all sides deserve justice." He also said he was "appalled" by punishments women face for complications in pregnancy under the country's draconian abortion prohibition. He called on authorities to review all cases of women detained for offenses related to abortion, including miscarriages and obstetric complications, reports Reuters.
  • Surging violence in Rio de Janeiro has officials hostage, reports the New York Times. Teachers find themselves perfecting the art of determining when gun-battles merit canceling classes, and police officers face rising levels of mortality as well. But it also affects ordinary citizens who use apps to glean information about ongoing gunfights. Rio is facing a "rise in lawlessness reminiscent of its darkest periods in the 1980s and 1990s," according to the piece, which cites the Brazilian Forum on Public Security.
  • The UK's trade minister successfully lobbied the Brazilian government on behalf of BP and Shell. The oil giants were concerned over Brazilian taxation, environmental regulation and rules on using local firms, according to documents revealed by a Greenpeace investigation. Greenpeace accused the department of acting as a "lobbying arm of the fossil fuel industry," reports the Guardian.
  • Fifty years after Caetano Veloso's "Tropicalismo" album earned him fame and detention by the country's military dictatorship, he has now emerged as the leader of a resistance against Evangelical and rural movements in Brazilian politics, writes Carol Pires in a New York Times Español op-ed. In the midst of a sort of conservative counter-revolution, he and his partner Paula Lavigne have organized artistic protests.
  • Mexican officials promised a new capital city airport would be a conservation lodestone. But critics say the environmental efforts associated with the new airport are suspiciously devoid of detail, reports the New York Times. It's yet another potential failure for President Enrique Peña Nieto, notes the piece.
  • Public sector reform remains a challenge, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the Miami Herald, saying that borrowing to pay for a sector that does not produce value makes no sense. He also highlighted the need to tackle violence -- homicides so far this year have increased by 25 percent over the 2016 total.
  • Argentine officials said the odds were increasingly grim in the search for a missing submarine and its 44 person crew. The  San Juan, which went missing on Friday, is the focus of an international search to locate the vessel, reports the New York Times. Assistance from the U.S. and the U.K. have raised some eyebrows in Argentina, where critics say it indicates a lack of investment in the military, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Trump Ocean Club tower in Panama was apparently used by many condo-owners to launder illicit funds, report NBC and Reuters. Their investigation "shows that the project was riddled with brokers, customers and investors who have been linked to drug trafficking and international crime." A Global Witness investigation on the issue, also released Friday, argues that "Trump may not have deliberately set out to facilitate criminal activity in his business dealings. But ... licensing his brand to the luxurious Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama aligned Trump’s financial interests with those of crooks looking to launder ill-gotten gains. Trump seems to have done little to nothing to prevent this. What is clear is that proceeds from Colombian cartels’ narcotics trafficking were laundered through the Trump Ocean Club and that Donald Trump was one of the beneficiaries."
  • Latino, Latina, Latinx? In a New York Times Español op-ed, Ilan Stavens explores attempts to make Spanish gender neutral, and in the process also explores the history of the term Latin America.
  • Rat soup anybody? It's a delicacy in Mexico's Zacateca state, and crusade for a local lawmaker attempting to rescue the tradition, reports the Guardian.