Wednesday, January 31, 2018

MACCIH monitor reports on new cases (Jan. 31, 2018)

The OAS Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) has been in headlines recently, accusing lawmakers of hobbling efforts to investigate a significant network of corruption operating within Congress. The American University Center for Latin American & Latino Studies just published a new issue of the MACCIH Monitor, giving context of how the commission is working in Honduras and perceptions of the mission on the ground. 

MACCIH has presented two of its highest profile cases up till now in the wake of the electoral scandal questioning results that gave President Juan Orlando Hernández a second term. These are the Network of Legislators (Red de Diputados) case, and  charges of misappropriation of funds against the former First Lady, Rosa Elena de Lobo. 

Nonetheless, "despite progress in key cases, MACCIH continues to face a public impression that it has not had sufficient impact. During the electoral period, it kept its distance from the OAS Electoral Observer Mission, which may have enhanced the perception of independence of MACCIH from the vicissitudes of the controversial election, especially once the Secretary General called for a second round but was undercut by Member States that recognized the decision of the TSE in favor of Juan Orlando Hernández’s reelection." 

Though there is an element of public disappointment in the mission's advances, the report emphasizes important efforts, particularly with the newly created Special Fiscal Unit Against Impunity and Corruption (UFECIC, its acronym in Spanish) in the Public Ministry, working alongside MACCIH.

News Briefs
  • The Lima Group, an informal diplomatic alliance of 12 Latin American countries aimed at defending democracy in Venezuela, has shown inconsistent standards when it comes to the rest of the region, argues Nicolás Comini at the AULA blog. In the case of Honduras, several governments from the coalition, including Argentina's, Brazil's, and Mexico's, quickly recognized President Juan Orlando Hernández's victory, despite reports of significant irregularities. Though the crises in each country are vastly different, "the high-sounding values at stake – democracy, institutionality, and rule of law – are the same," writes Comini. "The failure to support the OAS’ call for new elections was not just a stab in the back of Secretary General Almagro; it revealed that their rhetoric about the OAS Democracy Charter – embodiment of democratic values they demand be respected in Venezuela – are not as universal as they say. When the Lima Group last Tuesday (with considerable justification) rejected the Venezuelan National Assembly’s call for an early presidential election, the Hernández government’s signature was there alongside the others.  If universal democratic values and principles are not for universal application – if even an informal grouping will not criticize a small actor with whom they do not have major equities at stake – their value is much diminished."
  • Shifting factors in Colombia and Venezuela have made the border between the two countries "one of the most important organized crime hubs in Latin America," reports Insight Crime. In Colombia the relevant change is the FARC demobilization, while Venezuela is affected by its ongoing economic, political and social crisis. The piece breaks down the most relevant players in Colombia's criminal system, using Venezuela as a transport hub for drugs. Another important factor is the rise in Venezuelan refugees in Colombia, opening opportunities for criminal groups to extort the vulnerable population. "The border region is not a main priority for either government, which is likely to exacerbate criminality.
  • El Salvador's bipartisan system, between the FLMN and the Arena parties, no longer represents citizens, argues Roberto Valencia in a New York Times Español op-ed. A decade after the FLMN won El Salvador's presidency, the former guerrilla party has failed to follow through on its promise of change in the country. In the upcoming legislative elections, voters will still be forced to choose between the FMLN and the right-wing Arena, which have governed the country for decades. Valencia points to the potential impact of new parties in next year's presidential elections. In this year's March elections, San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele has called for citizens to cast null votes or just stay home. The call reflects a general disgust with the country's mainstream parties, for Valencia.
  • Though business sectors impact in the formulation of public policies throughout the region, elites are particularly entrenched in Guatemala, where business representatives sit on at least 58 public boards, commissions and committees, allowing them to impact on government decision making and access privileged information, reports Plaza Pública. Former officials in the piece point to positive impact in some cases, regarding energy policy or roads, for example. But more problematic influence in other cases such as land distribution or indigenous peoples participation. "The Ministry of Economy, regardless of the ideological bent of the current government, has been largely run by technocrats coming from business groups. Having control over this ministry is strategic for business leaders, as it is in charge of defining the rules of import and export, as well as regulating regional commerce, or defining the products that will have better import and export quotas in free trade agreements ..."
  • The Guatemalan government is proposing a change to the country's penal code that would characterize street gangs as terrorist organizations, reports Prensa Libre. The change would also impact U.S. Treasury designations, which can levy sanctions.
  • Mexico's electoral campaigns are awash in illicit funding, despite a generous public financing scheme for politicians and parties. "... Academic and journalistic analyses suggest that for every peso that legally enters a race for public office, another six to 10 come in under the table," writes María Amparo Casar, CEO of Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad, in Americas Quarterly. "Given the amount of illegal money used in campaigns, elected officials frequently begin their terms in debt to their political contributors. Public servants break the law in order to get to their position and do so again after taking office because of commitments they made during the campaign. Voters, and their interests, are sidelined."
  • Independents can run in Mexico's presidential election for the first time, but the clunky smartphone app required for gathering signatures to back candidates, is hindering many, writes Ana C. de Alba in the Conversation. Critics say the system particularly discriminates against rural and poorer voters, which requires a Facebook or Gmail account. 
  • Family remittances to 17 Latin American and the Caribbean countries grew over 8% from 2016 to 2017, reaching over US$75 billion, according to a new report by The Dialogue. "In terms of scale, remittance growth has been nearly as large as export growth (9%) in 2017. Growth in remittances is being driven predominantly by migration patterns in countries such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Colombia, which represent 45% of flows in remittances and experienced growth of over 10% last year. In fact, for Central America and the Caribbean, the projected 3.5% economic growth for these countries is due largely to the combined 15% increase in remittances."
  • In the wake of a sex-scandal controversy that accompanied the Pope's trip to Chile, the Vatican will send a sex crimes expert to listen to victims who accuse a bishop of involvement in shielding a pedophile priest, reports the Associated Press.
  • Argentine authorities say drug traffickers are increasingly using mules in the national territory in response to counter-narcotics policies employed by the Macri administration. However, use of the more rudimentary smuggling tactic could also respond to other factors, including fragmentation of criminal groups in the region, increased drug production in general, and a potential "uptick in criminal organizations specializing in the types of drugs for which mules are most useful," according to InSight Crime.
  • Villa 31, an emblematic informal neighborhood in Buenos Aires, demonstrates a paradox in urban planning, according to Gehl urban designers Jeff Risom and Mayra Madriz, writing in Next City. "Planners and urban designers often face an uncomfortable paradox: People tend to prefer neighborhoods that developed organically with the contributions of many over those that were master-planned by a small group of experts. City makers love to use terms like organic, spontaneous and authentic, but tend to plan and design areas that limit these very qualities." They caution against romanticizing the characteristics of the neighborhood that stem from need, but also emphasize beneficial elements of urban design, such as dense, human-scale construction, and flexible architecture that provides economic opportunity.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Colombia's fraught peace (Jan. 30, 2018)

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos suspended peace talks with the ELN guerrilla force after a spate of bomb attacks over the weekend killed seven police officers and wounded 47, reports the BBC. (See yesterday's briefs.) 

Authorities yesterday said the attacks were carried out by the ELN, reports Reuters. (Semana reports on the police investigation into the attacks.) "My patience and the patience of the Colombian people has its limits, so I have taken the decision to suspend the start of the fifth cycle of negotiations, that was scheduled for the coming days, until we see coherence between the ELN’s words and its actions," Santos said. His stance was backed by politicians and business sectors, reports El Espectador

The return to violence bodes ill for the country's peace negotiations. "I think Colombia is in for several weeks of pointless bloodletting," WOLA analyst Adam Isacson told the New York Times. And the issue of peace, and the debate over whether the government has been too soft on former guerrillas, will be dominant in the country's upcoming elections.
Colombia is a country shaped by conflict, now that the FARC has disarmed after five decades of violence, residents will have to forge a lasting peace, writes Alma Guillermoprieto in National Geographic. She sketches a vivid picture of a county that must face up to entrenched rural poverty and remaining threats from the conflict, such as land mines and criminal groups that seek to control the land and illicit economies dominated by the FARC until now. 

"In a great irony of this complicated war, the FARC may turn out to be by far the cheaper of two evils, compared with the cost of controlling the savage new drug-trafficking gangs taking over the territories where guerrillas and paramilitaries once fought for control. The government estimates that 5 percent of the guerrilla forces have refused to lay down their weapons and may eventually find their way into the ranks of the so-called bacrim (short for bandas criminales). Today these gangs are mostly involved in the drug trade, but they’re slowly taking over old guerrilla and paramilitary sidelines as well: extortion, kidnapping, and human trafficking."

La Silla Vacía reports on a complication in coca crop-substitution efforts, a key component of the peace deal: what to do with the people who made a living harvesting the leaves of the illicit plant used to make cocaine. More than 400 families in the Caquetá region have signed agreements to destroy their crops, and have received payments in exchange. The harvesters, left without income, are starting to migrate to other regions in the country where coca cultivation remains strong. This displacement shouldn't be occurring, notes the piece, in theory harvesters should receive a subsidy in exchange for community service work. But bureaucratic hurdles are making the subsidies hard to obtain, and government sources point to the difficulty of truly determining who the harvesters are.

News Briefs
  • Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández swore in for a second term -- won in a highly questioned election -- in the midst of a militarized capital city and clouds of tear gas launched at protesters, including his opponent in the presidential election, writes Carlos Dada in a vivid account in El Faro. (See yesterday's post.) The diplomatic observations are particularly relevant: not a single president from the region attended, and the head of the OAS anti-corruption mission (MACCIH) was absent in protest of a law that would limit investigations into lawmakers. Countering accounts that the protest movement has fizzled, Dada writes of the clashes between protesters and security forces, of the different smoke produced by tear gas and burning tires deployed by each side. "This is how it has been in Honduras for two months. Every day. Since Hondurans went to the polls to choose a president and the two main candidates -- Nasralla and Hernández -- probclaimed themselves victors. ... Since then, almost forty people have been murdered, and human rights organizations denounce arbitrary detentions and operations aimed at harassing, capturing, or beating their leaders; national and international journalists have been harassed, threatened, detained or interrogated by police and military officers. The country is undergoing a profound political crisis generated by the reelection. If Hernández's second term continues as it starts, he will not be able to govern."
  • National Catholic Reporter teamed up with Radio Progreso journalists to report on communities outside the capital on the inauguration day. "In a country where a jurisdiction for members of the military has now been organized with its own judges and prosecutors separate from the state, there is no guarantee that military personnel will be held accountable for human rights violations. In this time of intense political polarization and social crisis, the military acts with impunity, protected by the ever-growing, centralized power of the re-elected president," writes Tom Webb.
  • Honduras has the world's highest femicide rate, accompanied by "shocking numbers of rape, assault, and domestic violencecases, happening with near-total impunity," reports ABC News.
  • A new Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report on El Salvador voices concern "over the increase of a military presence in public security tasks" and notes that homicide rates, while reduced in recent years, remain among the highest in the world. "The IACHR observes that the high rates of public violence and the context of criminality have a different impact on women and girls and on other groups at special risk, such as migrant persons and persons deprived of liberty." The report also makes special mention of the absolute criminalization of abortion, which has led to women being sentenced to decades of prison after suffering obstetric complications, suspected of inducing termination of pregnancy. "These sentences are said to be occurring in the context of proceedings that allegedly fail to respect the right of the accused to a fair trial by not recognizing the principle of presumption of innocence and not assessing the evidence in accordance with inter-American standards on due process protections. Moreover, negative stereotypes around the concept of the “bad mother” and the “murderous mother” are said to prevail in these sentences."
  • El Salvador's government is seeking to extend exceptional measures permitting restrictions on rights of incarcerated suspected gang members, despite criticism from the U.N.'s human rights high commission and the national Procuraduria de Derechos Humanos, reports El Faro. Its important to note that many of the people affected by the measures are in pre-trial detention, writes Tim Muth at El Salvador Perspectives.
  • The upholding of a criminal conviction of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva last week, supports "an array of dangerous judicial practices that create a state of exception proper of authoritarian regimes," writes Hernán Gómez Bruera in a New York Times Español op-ed. "It seems that in the Brazilian judiciary anything goes in an anti-corruption trial ..."
  • Despite the ruling that technically invalidate's Lula from running in this year's presidential election, he remains a viable force, according to current president and political opponent Michel Temer, AFP reports.
  • Ecuadoreans head to the polls on Sunday in a popular referendum asking them to determine term limits for elected officials, among other reforms enacted by former President Rafael Correa. The vote is also a showdown between Correa and his successor, current President Lenín Moreno, reports the Wall Street Journal. Polls predict that all seven proposals on the ballot will be approved, including restrictions on mining, revamping of government watchdog agencies and harsher terms for sexual predators. But more broadly, it will serve to bolster Moreno's break with his former mentor. (See Jan. 5's post.)
  • The spat has been carried out in part on social media, notes El País. And  New York Times investigation into fake social media followers found that an advisor to Moreno bought tens of thousands of followers and retweets for his campaign accounts during last year’s elections.
  • On the same subject, El Espectador reports on an analysis of Colombia's presidential candidates' social media accounts.
  • A group of Colombian youths have filed a suit asking the government to reduce deforestation of the Amazon to zero, reports El País. The case alleges the government's failure to stem rising deforestation in Colombia puts their future in jeopardy and violates their constitutional rights to a healthy environment, life, food and water, reports Reuters. Their case is accompanied by De Justicia, that argues the Colombian government must assume compromises made in the Paris Climate agreement. 
  • Mercury used by illegal gold miners in Peru's Amazon is impacting communities far away from the actual mines, reports the Miami Herald, in an ongoing series on the far flung illicit gold industry.
  • Peru's glaciers are quickly melting -- the New York Times has a feature on an "ayudante de campo," the local version of sherpas.
  • Jamaican authorities banned a an anti-gay, Holocaust denying pastor from visiting the island, in response to activist outcries, reports the Guardian. Arizona pastor Steven Anderson has called for gay people to be stoned death and  has previously been denied entry to South Africa, Canada, the United Kingdom and Botswana. "The decision was made by the chief immigration officer because the pastor’s statements are not conducive to the current climate," said spokesperson for the Ministry of National Security.
  • St Vincent and the Grenadines is seeking to cash in on medical cannabis. Draft legislation would allow for the transformation of the illegal marijuana industry, reports Caribbean News Now.
  • Gunmen killed at least 14 people in a Brazil nightclub, reports the BBC.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri announced national government job cuts, and new rules forbidding cabinet members from employing family, reports the BBC. The new policy would save the country $77 million. The savings are a drop in the bucket in terms of public spending, notes La Nación. The nepotism measure will affect about 40 employees.
  • Chile has created five new national parks in Patagonia, spanning 10.3 million acres. They are in part the result of donation by the former CEO of the outdoors company Patagonia, who donated 1 million acres, reports the Guardian.
  • Peruvian president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's ratings have plummeted since his Christmas pardon of former authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimori, who had been serving a jail sentence for human rights violations, reports Reuters.
  • The frontrunner in Mexico's presidential race, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), has proposed doing away with presidential immunity. He said he'd advocate reforms to allow a sitting president to be charged with corruption and electoral crimes, reports Reuters.
  • While AMLO remains in the lead with 32 percent support, polls show Ricardo Anaya, of a right-left coalition, is gaining, with 26 percent support, reports Reuters.
  • Trump talks tough on migrants, but in Mexico his bark has been worst than his bite: last year is estimated to be a record-breaker for remittances, writes Ioan Grillo in a New York Times op-ed. "This gap between rhetoric and reality reflects the deep-rooted relationship between the United States and Mexico and the confusing agenda of the Trump presidency."

Monday, January 29, 2018

JOH sworn in among protests (Jan. 29, 2018)

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was sworn in for his second term on Saturday. Outside the Tegucigalpa national stadium ceremony, security forces threw tear gas at thousands demonstrators protesting irregularities in the November presidential election, reports the New York Times.

The unrest is a sign of the difficulties JOH will face as he embarks on a new term, reports the Wall Street Journal. While supporters laud results based policies targeting poverty and violence, critics say the leader is a classic strongman who is undermining the country's institutions.

JOH starts his second term questioned by rights groups, which tallied as many as 22 killings by security forces in protests after the elections. Media reports say at least 30 people were killed.

And critics also point to efforts in Congress to eviscerate anti-corruption investigations carried out by prosecutors with an OAS backed international commission. (See last Thursday's post.) The OAS was one of the most vocal opponents of the election results.

Though almost nobody is convinced of the validity of the election results, the protest movement against JOH is fizzling, according to the Economist. And there are rumors that the de-facto opposition leader, former President Manuel Zelaya, has a backroom deal with JOH in order to pave the way for his own presidential run in 2021.

Much of the focus on irregularities has been regarding how the votes were tallied. But heavy spending on rural social programs may have also made a significant difference in favor of JOH, reports Univisión. Critics say that assistance, which has made inroads in poverty, is heavily politicized, and there are reports of vote buying.

Those worried about term limits however, can relax. JOH promises he won't go for a third term.

News Briefs
  • A wave of bombing in Colombia killed seven police officers and wounded dozens, reports the New York Times. Police stations were targeted in three attacks along the Caribbean coast on Saturday. The motives remain unclear, though police sources speculated it could be payback from criminal organizations.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski met with lawmaker Kenji Fujimori months before pardoning his father, former authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimori, who was serving a sentence for human rights violations. "After a ceremony at the ornate presidential palace where he grew up, Kenji asked Kuczynski to free his ailing father from prison and offered him political support in Congress in return," reports Reuters.
  • Venezuela's opposition said it will return to negotiations with the government, reports the Associated Press.
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's corruption conviction, upheld by an appeals court last week, is portrayed as justice by his opponents and a politically motivated judicial face by his supporters. Neither is quite right, according to Rubens Glezer, writing in the Conversation. "As a Brazilian constitutional law professor and Supreme Court researcher, I see Lula’s trials as a marquee example of Brazil’s flawed and inconsistent justice system. It confirms that Brazilian judges are on a moral quest to “cleanse” politics – and they’re willing to bend the law to do it."
  • In Bolivia, President Evo Morales is determined to run again for office, despite constitutional term limits, a situation that echoes increasingly unstable politics in democracies around the region, according to the New York Times.
  • The middle class is generally seen as a stability factor in democracies, but the example of Chile's recent presidential election shows how that can be misleading, according to the Economist. "In today’s Latin America, the new middle classes’ main demand is for better services, from higher education to health care and policing. But that doesn’t necessarily imply public services, or a big state and support for the left."
  • Leftist presidential frontrunner in Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, says NAFTA's renegotiation should wait for July's election, reports Reuters.
  • Bogotá authorities enacted a ban on men riding as pillion passengers on the backs of motorcycles, a policy aimed at reducing robberies which increased by 60 percent last year. Riders protesting on Friday clashed with police, and motorcyclists claim they are being unfairly stigmatized. The policy emulates one in Medellín, banning male passengers during the day, credited with with reducing motorcycle homicides, reports the Guardian. As the Bogotá ban only affects male passengers, there is some concern that women will be drawn into street crime.
  • China played a prominent role in Davos last week, including efforts to increase economic influence in Latin America, reports the New York Times
  • Mexico's tourism secretary has proposed legalizing marijuana in two of the country's tourism heavy states, but the plan butts up against limitations in the country's penal code and health law, reports El País.
  • Brazil's state-run technology company, Serpro, hopes to use blockchain technology to limit corruption, reports Reuters.
  • Rio de Janeiro's homeless population is booming -- in 2016 15,000 people were registered with the government, though advocates say the real number is likely much higher. The ritzy neighborhood of Copacabana has become a focal point, with residents taking poorly to their new sidewalk neighbors, reports the Washington Post.
  • The U.S. nominee for ambassador to Chile, Andrew Gellert, has close financial ties to Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law, reports Bloomberg.
  • Trump's border wall is always looming in the horizon of U.S. migration policy, but in San Diego where prototypes have actually been erected, immigration advocates say the real danger for migrants is Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and efforts made to detain undocumented people. Just across the Mexican border in Tijuana, advocates agree that the wall itself is pretty irrelevant, reports the Guardian.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Lula vows to run anyway (Jan. 26, 2018)

Brazil's Workers' Party defiantly declared former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to be its candidate for October's presidential elections. Party leaders called for demonstrations and civil disobedience, a day after an appeals court upheld a criminal conviction against Lula, that technically makes him ineligible for political office, reports the Wall Street Journal. Electoral authorities are expected to block his candidacy if he registers to run, reports Reuters.

"The presidential campaign has, in effect, started in a courtroom," reports the Economist. "This means that the election, thought by some to be the most important since the end of dictatorship in 1985, will be a mess. "

Though it's unlikely Lula will be jailed while he continues appealing the case, a judge yesterday confiscated his passport and forbade him from leaving the country, reports EFE. The decision came on the eve of a planned trip by Lula to Africa, notes Reuters.

The case itself involves a beachfront apartment, allegedly serving as a bribe to the former president by a construction company, though it's not clear what the company received in exchange. An article in El País explores the somewhat inconclusive evidence.

Though he claims political persecution in the case against him, "Lula is just one of a large number of powerful Brazilian elites in recent years targeted by wide-ranging anti-graft efforts. And ... their cases have proceeded through the justice system with relative impartiality," argue C.H. Gardiner and Angelika Albaladejo in InSight Crime

The authors note that massive corruption scandals have worsened Brazil's economy, "reducing the resources available for security spending, and has distracted the Brazilian government’s attention away from pressing security issues, including a war between the country’s two biggest gangs that is helping drive up violence around the country. ... With the security crises in Brazil becoming ever more pronounced and the expansion of domestic criminal organizations abroad, the polarization of the political scene brought on by the continued anti-corruption drive could continue to hinder efforts to address other important crime-related issues."

News Briefs
  • Newly appointed Honduras police chief Jose David Aguilar Moran allegedly helped drug traffickers avoid a bust of nearly one ton of cocaine in 2013, according to a confidential internal security report seen by the Associated Press. The drugs, moved by cartel boss Walter Blanco, could have had a street value of up to $20 million. Honduran government officials said the report was a fake, but high ranking security officials corroborated it to the AP. Moran allegedly called off cops who had busted a truckload of cocaine, and then conspired with other officials to cover up the incident. "There is so much illegal drug money to be made and it is so easy to get away with it, especially if you are in the police force," said U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy.
  • Guatemalan authorities arrested eight people – including the former head of the Tax Administration Supervisory Authority (SAT), Rudy Villeda – on corruption charges yesterday. Additionally, the Public Ministry and CICIG also presented requests to strip a judge and the vice president of Congress, Felipe Alejos, of their parliamentary immunity on corruption charges, reports EFE. The case is not easy to understand, according to Nómada, which attempts to explain the scheme under which big businesses and well-connected characters bribed the SAT in order to evade taxes. The case affects Guatemalan heavyweights, reports Nómada separately: the owner and CEO of the country's largest sugarmill, a major junk dealer accused of illicit maneuvering and intimidation of competitors, and Alejos, who is accused of offering portfolios of favors to businesses.
  • Earlier this week in Guatemala, a Nominating Commission met for the first time to select the shortlist of candidates from which President Jimmy Morales will choose the country’s next attorney general. The International Justice Monitor "reports on a complex process that in the past has been prone to political manipulation," and notes that "reports on a complex process that in the past has been prone to political manipulation."
  • Odebrecht revelations threw Brazilian politics for a loop, but they are also wreaking havoc in Peru, reports the Washington Post. "For Latin America, the scandal has laid bare the sins of the political and business elite, and challenged the independence of judiciaries charged with prosecuting crimes. But it has also slammed economies still struggling to emerge from the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis. Peru, experts say, is now a case study in the ability of corruption to damage a developing nation. Billions of dollars’ worth of major construction projects have been stopped as the nation grapples with how to respond to a scandal engulfing the highest ranks of its political class."
  • Oil theft in Mexico now rivals drug trafficking as a principal source of income for the country's splintered cartels, reports Reuters. The double effect is to weaken the national oil industry, while at the same time strengthening criminal organizations. A study obtained by Reuters found that between 2009 and 2016 thieves had tapped pipelines roughly every 1.4 kms along Pemex’s approximately 14,000 km pipeline network. "Interviews with Pemex and Mexican security officials, authorities in Guanajuato and locals affected by fuel theft describe an increasingly desperate situation for the industry and the regional economy." And sources describe an increasingly heavy human toll. "Using the habitual narco offer of “plata or plomo,” or “silver or lead,” gangs extort refinery workers into providing crucial information. Their tactics, coupled with fighting between groups jockeying for access to the racket, have led to a surge of violence in cities like Salamanca, home to a third of the fuel taps discovered in Mexico in 2016. Mutilated corpses of refinery workers, police and suspected fuel thieves increasingly appear around the city, terrifying its 260,000 residents. Cartels routinely festoon Salamanca with “narcomantas,” banners that mark territory or spell out grisly threats to rivals."
  • Conservative evangelical Christian candidate Fabricio Alvarado is leading polls for Feb. 4's presidential election in Costa Rica, reports Reuters. His standing was boosted by opposition to a January ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which called for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Alvarado was effectively tied with Antonio Alvarez, from the conservative National Liberation Party (PLN), according to a poll from this week. Corruption will also be a central issue for voters, according to TeleSUR. But about 25 percent of voters were undecided and all 13 candidates were far from the 40 percent minimum needed to win outright in the first round. "Uncertainty," "volatility," and "surprise," are key terms in the lead up to Costa Rica's election next month, writes Carlos Malamud at the AULA blog. "It’s unclear whether any of the candidates’ issues have lasting support or only an ephemeral presence on the electoral agenda." The election marks the end of two-party hegemony in the country, and demonstrates the need to shore up the country's institutions, argues Malamud.
  • Venezuela's top court has eliminated the opposition MUD coalition from running in "snap" presidential elections to be held before April 30. MUD parties had to reregister with the electoral council, after boycotting municipal elections held last year. But yesterday the government-loyal Supreme Court told the national election council to delay this registration by six months, reports the AFP. (Efecto Cocuyo goes into detail.)
  • Hyperinflation might seem like a reasonable catalyst for regime change at the ballot box, but history shows that this might not be the case, write Douglas Barrios and Miguel Ángel Santos in a New York Times Español op-ed. The most intense and prolonged cases of hyperinflation occur in authoritarian contexts. Nonetheless, "despite their devastating social and economic consequences, there is no evidence that hyperinflation episodes are in and of themselves capable of liberating a democratizing force." Interestingly, such bouts can move a country away from democracy, they note.
  • Colombian journalist Claudia Morales wrote a column in El Espectador depicting how a former boss raped her in the past. She kept the perpetrator anonymous, calling for support for sexual abuse victims, within the context of the #MeToo campaigns, but also support for those who choose to remain silent. Media versions rapidly ascribed her accusation to former President Álvaro Uribe, for whom she served as international press chief. Uribe denies the allegations, reports El Tiempo.
  • A senior U.S. State Department official said the country would reject the legitimacy of presidential elections to be held in Venezuela, reports Reuters.
  • Venezuela has expelled the Spanish ambassador to Caracas, Jesús Silva Fernández. Spain has promised to reciprocate, reports the BBC. The move comes a few days after the European Union slapped sanctions on high-level government officials.
  • Two U.S. senators urged the Trump administration to increase pressure on Venezuela, including a potential U.N. Security Council emergency session, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Venezuelan authorities said they were seeking an Interpol red alert for ex-oil czar Rafael Ramirez on corruption charges, reports Reuters. (See briefs for Dec. 6, 2017.)
  • Colombian authorities evicted 200 homeless Venezuelan migrants, sleeping in a border town sports field, part of a growing crisis with refugees fleeing Venezuela's crisis, reports Reuters.
  • Between 2003 and 2018 Venezuelan security forces committed at least 10 massacres, killing 177 people, according to Provea. Of these, five have occurred under President Nicolás Maduro, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • Paul Romer stepped down as the World Bank’s chief economist in the wake of accusing an organization report of political bias against Chile's government, reports Reuters. (See Jan. 16's briefs.)
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri's gradualist economic reforms are paying off so far, according to the Economist. But he "has put off some of the hardest decisions for his second term, which he hopes to secure in elections to be held in 2019. ...  The labour reform that he plans to enact this year, which will make it easier to sack workers and hire part-timers, is a timid version of the overhaul Argentina needs. Improvements to education, more ambitious tax and pension reforms and a shake-up of the judiciary will also have to wait." In the meantime, Macri "is pursuing policies that seek to balance economic stability with the need to placate groups that could disrupt his presidency and thwart his re-election."

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Appeals court upholds Lula's conviction (Jan. 25, 2018)

A Brazilian appeals court upheld a criminal conviction against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, casting Brazil's already turbulent political scene into further uncertainty. Justices stopped short of the "politically charged" step of jailing the popular Workers Party leader, reports the Washington Post.

The ruling, which confirms a conviction from last year on corruption charges, technically makes Lula ineligible to run in October's presidential election.  Under Brazil’s Clean Record law, anyone convicted of a crime who loses his first appeal stands to be banned from political office for eight years. (See Tuesday's post.)

However, Lula is widely expected to challenge the prohibition to appear on the ballot, reports the New York Times. The issue will likely be ultimately determined by the Supreme Court. The timing could be extremely difficult, and a decision on the validity of his candidacy could feasibly occur between the election and a potential run-off. The former president is expected to argue that disqualifying him would subvert democracy. 

Lula had a considerable lead in opinion polls, and the prosecution and decision to uphold the conviction cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, according t the NYT. In fact, President Michel Temer, said it would be preferable for Lula to appear on the ballot (and be defeated) than to be taken out of the running by courts, which would appear to make him a victim.

Lula has said the proceedings against him are politically motivated, and the Workers' Party called on supporters to mobilize against the decision yesterday. Addressing supporters last night night, Lula compared himself to South African leader Nelson Mandela, who was sent to prison and then became president.

The stock market rallied at Lula's apparent elimination from the running, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Should Lula be out of the running, the presidential race will open up to far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, but also potential outsiders like São Paulo Mayor João Doria, notes the Washington Post.

"Immunity pact" causes polemic in Honduras

The OAS anti-impunity commission in Honduras -- MACCIH -- has threatened to leave the country in the wake of a new law that would impede investigations into misuse of public funds. A bill passed last week would give the country's court of auditors, the Tribunal Superior de Cuentas, exclusive competence to evaluate to public spending for a period of three years, reports the Associated Press. Prosecutors would only be permitted to press charges in cases where the TSC finds irregularities, reports El Faro. The law is retroactive, potentially allowing lawmakers to challenge investigations already underway. (See yesterday's post.)

Yesterday a judge applied the legislation to release five lawmakers accused of corruption from detention, reports Reuters. They were accused by MACCIH of diverting public funds aimed at organizations of civil society. Yesterday MACCIH spokesman Juan Jiménez Mayor said the new law would affect investigations into 60 more lawmakers and officials from the past four presidential administrations. He gave details into a scheme in which lawmakers skimmed from funding aimed at social projects, reports La Prensa.

Honduran organizations of civil society and the Consejo Hondureño de la Empresa Privada (Cohep) rejected the bill and voiced support for MACCIH, reports El Confidencial. Cohep condemned state acts promoting corruption and impunity.

Heide Fulton, the U.S. chargé d‘affaires in Honduras, also criticized the measure on Twitter, calling it a "step backward in the fight against corruption."

The move comes as media outlets reported a MACCIH investigation into potential Odebrecht bribes to officials from three separate administrations, reports Honduras' El País. A Public Ministry spokesman confirmed that one of the cases prosecutors are investigating is the adjudication of the Jicatuyo-Los Llanitos hydroelectric project to the Brazilian construction giant. The contract was given in 2009, under the administration of former President Manuel Zelaya.

El Faro reports that the bill passed in Congress last week with 60 votes in favor, 11 abstentions, and two against. But the digital registry was turned off, so it's not yet known which lawmakers voted in favor. At least one member of Zelaya's Partido Libertad y Refundación left, and said others joined him. But he said the former president remained in the session. 

News Briefs
  • Environmental activists in Honduras say they have been the target of surveillance, intimidation and violence over the past month, in the wake of unrest over Honduras' questioned presidential election in late November. Members of Movimiento Amplio say they have been threatened, and that security forces have been intimidating protesters demonstrating against the election results, reports the Guardian
  • Guatemalan head prosecutor Thelma Aldana said investigators have data to trace $17.9 million in bribes allegedly paid by the Brazilian company Odebrecht to local officials, politicians and private citizens, reports the Associated Press. Former Communications Minister Alejandro Sinibaldi allegedly coordinated and distributed the funds, and is accused of taking $9 million himself.
  • Colombia’s FARC political party will field 74 candidates in legislative elections in March. The former guerrilla group is guaranteed 10 seats in Congress as part of the peace deal signed with the government in 2016, but aims to win more through popular support, reports Reuters. Party representatives said the FARC will present a 10-point platform at a campaign launch event this weekend, including policies focused on fighting poverty and unemployment and improving health and education.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro confirmed he will run for a second term in the "snap" presidential election called this week, to be held before April 30, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's post.) It was called by the supra-legislative National Constituent Assembly, considered illegitimate internationally. The election puts the divided opposition in a bind, WOLA expert told Voice of America, as parties must decide whether to participate or boycott a questioned process. Despite the lack of electoral guarantees, WOLA expert Geoff Ramsey told the Associated Press that it might be advantageous for the opposition to participate and field a unity candidate. That will be hard with heavyweights eliminated from the running by government bans, and the short time frame, reports the New York Times.
  • Venezuela's upcoming presidential election was denounced by regional leaders, who say it will cut short negotiations between the government and the opposition. (See yesterday's post.) Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he would not recognize the results, reports Reuters. The Lima group said the process would lack legitimacy. U.S. State Department spokeswoman said Maduro's candidacy didn't seem like a good idea, reports Reuters. Colombia’s finance minister called for an emergency plan to help Venezuela after what he said will be its imminent collapse, reports AFP.
  • Two U.S. senators called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate senior Venezuelan officials on allegations of drug trafficking, reports Reuters.
  • The countries in Central America's northern triangle top world rankings for femicides, and women between 25 and 39 years of age are most at risk, writes Igarapé Institute's Renata Avilar Giannini in Revista Factum. Organized crime, institutional debility, and a society that favors violent machismo partially explain the high numbers of women killed. She calls for specific policies aimed at reducing femicides, noting that "violence reduction policies tend to leave aside or devalue the specific dynamics that affect women and have had mixed or limited results in terms of prevention and violence reduction against this specific public."
  • Igarapé and Foropaz organized a two day international forum this week in El Salvador, focused on data, innovation and design for urban security, reports La Prensa Gráfica.
  • About 20,000 people were left homeless in Asunción due to flooding along the river Paraguay, reports AFP.
  • The lower house of the Chilean Congress on Tuesday approved a bill that would allow transgender adults to legally change their name and gender without surgery or a court order, reports the Washington Blade.
  • Chilean poet Nicanor Parra died in Santiago this week at the age of 103. His "use of direct, colloquial and playful language, often for ironic and comic effect, pioneered the literary movement that became known as anti-poetry," according to the New York Times' obituary.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

MACCIH denounces impunity pact (Jan. 24, 2018)

The Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) denounced that a new budget law will severely curtail advances against impunity in the country. The changes aim to take investigations regarding misuse of public funds out of the hands of the MACCIH and the public ministry, reports La Prensa

Spokesman Juan Jímenez Mayor said today that the reform will stop investigations against high level officials involved in these crimes, as well as let convicted former officials off the hook, reports El Heraldo.

Jímenez said more than 60 deputies and former deputies are under investigation, including Mauricio Olivia, the president of Honduras' Congress, according to La Tribuna.

Congress rejected MACCIH's statements, saying the reform promotes transparency, reports La Prensa.

The reform comes in the wake of strong international questioning of presidential election results last year, which gave President Juan Orlando Hernández a second term. MACCIH depends on the OAS, which called for new elections in Honduras.

A coalition of non-partisan electoral observation groups proposed inclusive dialogue in order to resolve the post-electoral crisis in the country. La Coalición de Observación Electoral no Partidaria, Observación N-26 also analyzed three potential scenarios moving forward, reports Criterio. They range from a negotiated transition government, to a national integration government composed of all political parties, to a purely partisan government led by the ruling Partido Nacional Party. 

Members of the Partido National to the top positions in the Honduran Congress yesterday, amid opposition protests, reports EFE.

Venezuelan presidential elections to be held in upcoming months

Venezuelans will vote for president before the end of April, announced the government yesterday. Though the country is in the midst of a protracted economic and political crisis, the government is rushing to hold the vote in order to take advantage of dissent within the political opposition, according to the Wall Street Journal. Legally the elections could be held anytime this year.

In fact, the opposition in torn between denouncing the process and fielding a unity candidate. Many of the most popular opposition leaders are out of the running, notes Reuters. This includes Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles, and Antonio Ledezma who have been imprisoned, banned from running for office, and forced into exile, respectively.

It is not yet clear whether President Nicolás Maduro will run for another term, though some party loyalists yesterday said he'd be the official candidate.

The former speaker of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, said the decision to call an early vote was in retaliation against recent European Union sanctions against senior government officials, reports the BBC.

Thirteen countries in the region, including Brazil and Canada, slammed the decision to hold elections immediately, arguing that the “decision makes it impossible to hold democratic, transparent and credible presidential elections, in accordance with international standards."

The announcement complicates political negotiations between the government and members of an opposition coalition, being held in the Dominican Republic, according to the WSJ. Part of the opposition demands in the talks involve ensuring free and fair elections, observed by international monitors. Mexico said it would withdraw from its mediation role in negotiations, as elections were called without previous agreement between parties.

Growing Chinese trade influence in Lat Am

This week China  and CELAC ministers met in Santiago. China invited Latin American and Caribbean countries to join its “One Belt, One Road” initiative on Monday. The initiative aims at deepening cooperation between China and developing countries, and is part of a Beijing push to increase influence in the region, traditionally more oriented towards the U.S., reports Reuters

A new ECLAC report was also made public at the meeting. Trade between China and Latin America surged 22-fold between 2000-2013, totaling $266 billion last year, reports EFE.

News Briefs
  • Those looking struggling to remember who is who in the presidential races across the region will appreciate Americas Quarterly's round-up of frontrunners from Costa Rica to Venezuela.
  • The fight against corrupt political elites will be a unifying theme across the region in this super-electoral year, though in each country the candidates espousing the vision are radically different argues Americas Quarterly, which features Brazilian arch-conservative Jair Bolsonaro and Mexican leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador on the newest issue's cover. "It’s hard to believe that, in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, anyone could be complacent about the appeal of nationalists who promise to “drain the swamp.” But Latin American establishments are running out of time. Without change, the region’s political landscape may well look radically different a year from now," writes editor-in-chief Brian Winter.
  • For those who feel that dictatorship apologist Bolsonaro is a freak phenomenon, Winter warns that he could well win. And while Bolsonaro is part of a world-wide trend that includes Trump, he is "above all a Brazilian phenomenon, a product of not only the country’s severe economic, institutional and criminal crises since 2014, but also of its successes in the decade prior," he writes in a separate Americas Quarterly piece. The piece delves into the Bolsonaro family's political success, and reviews patriarch Jair's history of controversies. 
  • Supporters of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gathered in Puerto Alegre today ahead of an appeals court decision regarding a criminal conviction that could prevent him from retaking the presidency this year, reports the Washington Post. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Ahead of this year's presidential elections in Colombia, Juanita León analyzes the playing field in La Silla Vacía. The battle for candidates to be associated with the ideological "center" will be key, she writes, as is convincing voters that candidates represent "change." Legislative elections in March will likely realign the coalition playing field she warns. The left is entering the campaign very divided, with five separate candidates, while Uribismo is united.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced a new electoral intelligence unit, aimed at evaluating risks and vulnerability's in the country's presidential and congressional elections this year, reports El Espectador. Santos referenced "cyberattacks" carried out during the 2016 plebiscite regarding the peace process, and rumors of potential interference from abroad. He emphasized that attacks are not only against voting systems, but also false information aimed at scaring citizens or generate distrust, reports El Universal.
  • At least seven people were murdered over the weekend in Colombia’s Antioquia province, where the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group and the Clan del Golfo gang operate, reports EFE.
  • Chilean president-elect Sebastián Piñera announced a hardline cabinet, with politicians closely aligned to the authoritarian government of dictator Augusto Pinochet, reports the Guardian. The ministerial frontline will be dominated by men in their 60s, and just seven of the 23 ministries will be headed by women. Both the incoming ministers of health and women and gender equality were vocal opponents of landmark legislation last year permitting abortion in limited circumstances, suggesting a potential reversal.
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership has been revived, albeit without the U.S. The 11 remaining countries, including Canada and Chile will likely sign an amended agreement in early March, reports the Guardian.
  • The U.S. government should recognize its historical role in fomenting El Salvador's civil war, and contemplate that responsibility in outlining immigrant policies, argues Raymond Bonner in the Atlantic.
  • A Peruvian Health Ministry report from 2015 found a remote indigenous tribe is suffering from a mercury epidemic, reports the Guardian. The report found that a significant portion of the Nahua population living in an Amazon reserve suffer from high levels of mercury, and exhorts authorities to investigate the Camisea gas extraction development as a potential source of the contamination.
  • Yellow fever is on the rise in São Paulo and has already caused 70 deaths, reports the Associated Press. Last week the World Health Organization recommended that travelers to the state be vaccinated for the disease.