Monday, January 22, 2018

Human Rights Watch points to lack of democracy in Venezuela (Jan. 22, 2018)

Human Rights Watch released its 2018 World Report, celebrating pushback against populist authoritarians around the world, but warning of a retreat in international defense of human rights.

Executive Director Kenneth Roth points to Venezuela as an example of resistance to autocratic popular leaders. 

"President Nicolás Maduro continued to eviscerate Venezuela’s democracy and economy under the guise of standing up for the little people and against those whom he calls the imperialists. But as his rule became more brutal and autocratic, his corrupt and incompetent management of the economy became painfully apparent. This potentially wealthy nation was left destitute despite its vast oil reserves, with many people desperately searching for food and medicine amid raging hyperinflation ...  But as the Venezuelan people continue their descent into poverty and misery, it is unclear how long they will let Maduro cling to power."

The report's country chapter on Venezuela emphasizes that no independent government institutions remain as a check on executive power in the country. "The government has been repressing dissent through often-violent crackdowns on street protests, jailing opponents, and prosecuting civilians in military courts. It has also stripped power from the opposition-led legislature. ... Due to severe shortages of medicines, medical supplies, and food, many Venezuelans cannot adequately feed their families or access the most basic healthcare. In response to the human rights and humanitarian crisis, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing the country."

The country chapter on Colombia emphasizes that though the FARC guerrilla group disarmed last year, "civilians continue to suffer serious abuses by the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and paramilitary successor groups that emerged after a demobilization process a decade ago. Violence associated with the conflict has forcibly displaced more than 7.7 million Colombians since 1985, generating the world’s largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, and other community activists face death threats and violence, mostly from guerrillas and successor groups. Perpetrators of these abuses are rarely held accountable."

(More from the country specific chapters tomorrow.)

Mexico's 2017 murder rate reached record high

Mexico's homicide rate soared in 2017 -- there were 25,339 intentional homicides last year, a 24 percent increase over the previous and the bloodiest year on record, reports Animal Político. Murders were up 63 percent from 2014, when the number had fallen to a six-year low. Until now, 2011 had been the year with highest murder rate, with 19.37 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. But last year increased to 20.51. 

But Mexico security analyst Alejandro Hope told the Associated Press that the real homicide rate is likely higher, as the Interior Department tallies the statistics based on the number of murder investigations, not the number of victims, and a killing may result in more than one victim. Hope says the real homicide rate is probably around 24 per 100,000.

A relative recent arrival on Mexico's organized crime scene -- Jalisco New Generation Cartel -- is responsible for a surge in violence, reports the Wall Street Journal. Known by its Spanish initials CJNG, the group is becoming the country's most powerful cartel, and increasing violence in its quest for power. (See this 2016 Animal Político piece on the gangs origins and rise.)

Violence will be a central issue July's presidential election, notes Reuters, with the ruling PRI party struggling in the polls. There were 40 percent more murder investigations opened last year compared with 2013, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s first full year in office. (See today's briefs for more on election.)

News Briefs
  • InSight Crime released its annual homicide roundup for 2017 -- Venezuela topped the regional ranking, with 89 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, based on Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia statistics, as the government does not release official numbers. Though El Salvador came in second, at 60 murders per 100,000, InSight notes its significant improvement over the previous year. 
  • One protester was killed in clashes with police in Honduras on Saturday. Demonstrators blocked roads in protest of a contested election result that granted President Juan Orlando Hernández a second term in office, reports AFP. Military police opened fire on protesters in Saba, killing a 60-year-old man and wounding another person, reports Reuters
  • El Salvador's Legislative Assembly will investigate the work of the national intelligence agency, in response to reports that journalists, politicians and government officials considered opponents of the ruling FLMN government were followed. Several opposition Arena lawmakers seek answers from intelligence officials in response to a report from El Faro on how the agency watched politicians in order to obtain blackmail fodder and followed journalists in order to reach their sources.
  • Brazil's LGBT population is undergoing a surge of violent deaths, reports the Guardian. At least 445 LGBT Brazilians died as victims of homophobia in 2017 – a 30% increase from 2016, according to LGBT watchdog group Grupo Gay de Bahia. The deaths were directly related to homophobia and are linked to the rise of ultra-conservative politicians in the country, according to the group.
  • The Guardian profiles the Ka’apor tribe's battle against deforestation in northern Brazil, where loggers and indigenous communities struggle over Amazon land. "Last year 6,624 sq km – more than four times the area of London – was deforested in Brazil. This was the first time in three years that the rate did not rise, and the country remains off track to reach its Paris climate targets. Numerous studies have shown that protection of indigenous land is the most effective way to cut deforestation, but the Ka’apor – like many other tribes – feel the police often work against them. Battling to save the forest is a risky business. According to Global Witness, Brazil is the deadliest country in the world for environmental and land defenders with 44 killings recorded in 2017. Maranhão – the nation’s poorest state – is among the worst affected. There were more death threats and attacks on indigenous groups here than anywhere else in 2016, according to the Pastoral Land Commission."
  • The Amazon's indigenous tribes have never been so threatened as they are now, warned Pope Francis in Peru last week. He spoke of environmental threats and told the rainforest's indigenous inhabitants that they were a "call to conscience for a way of life which could not measure its own costs," reports the Guardian. He also sought to comfort victims of natural disasters, a year after intense flooding killed 160 people and left hundreds of thousands of others unable to return to their homes, reports the New York Times.
  • Pope Francis ended his latest Latin America visit in Peru, where he warned about corruption tainting the region's politics. He referenced the nearly $800 million paid in bribes by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht in a televised meeting with bishops in Lima, reports the Wall Street Journal. "Today, a large part of Latin America suffers a large decay in its politics," he said.
  • Pope Francis remained mute on the subject of sexual abuse during his visit to Peru, though he had issued an apology to victims in Chile, reports the New York Times. In particular, the pontiff did not distance himself from a national Catholic group Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, accused by dozens of former members of systemic sexual abuse by group leaders.
  • Brazil's presidential election this year "is shaping up to be a turbulent, bitter affair, with Brazilian voters confronting starkly different choices," according to the New York Times. On the one hand, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is the front-runner for a third term, though a criminal conviction could render him ineligible. On the other, is a far-right provocateur, Jair Bolsonaro, who has "a long history of incendiary, crude remarks belittling women, blacks and gays." Moderates seem to have little choice so far, according to the piece.
  • U.S. authorities have accused an Honduran congressman of drug trafficking and gun crimes. Fredy Renan Najera Montoya is the highest-ranking Honduran politician targeted by the U.S. in recent years, according to InSight Crime. But he joins a "growing list of Honduran political elites with suspected links to organized crime, suggesting US efforts to prosecute corrupt elites in the Central American country are starting to bear fruit." According to an indictment unveiled last week, he "participated in and supported" the drug trafficking activities of "large-scale" Honduran drug traffickers and "high-ranking" members of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
  • Former Guatemalan presidential candidate, Manuel Baldizón, is seeking asylum in the U.S. The businessman is wanted on graft charges, and was arrested trying to enter the U.S. in Miami, reports Reuters. Guatemala's charges against Baldizón stem from Odebrecht revelations.
  • The British government warned tourists in Jamaica's Montego Bay to stay in their resorts in the midst of a military crack-down on violent crime, reports the Guardian. The Jamaican military has reported that the state of emergency imposed in the parish last week is achieving results, reports the Jamaica Observer. The state of public emergency, which will be in force until February 15, allows temporarily grants security forces additional powers of search and detention.
  • Even as the U.S. is slamming its doors to Haitian migrants, Chile is opening up its arms, reports the Wall Street Journal. Last year, almost 105,000 Haitians entered Chile, part of a trend of migration between developing countries, according to experts.
  • La Silla Vacía reports on the plight of Venezuelan refugees in Colombia, where an estimated 552,000 Venezuelans now live, over half without legal permission.
  • Looting is on the rise in Venezuela, as people are increasingly desperate for food, reports the Guardian. During the first 11 days of January the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, a Caracas rights group, recorded 107 episodes of looting and several deaths in 19 of Venezuela’s 23 states.
  • Oscar Pérez, Venezuela's mysterious anti-government cop turned rebel, spoke to the New York Times in the days and hours before he was killed in a confrontation with security forces. Though his cinematographic call to rebellion last year did not generate an uprising, social media videos uploaded during the gunfight that took his life have caught the attention of Venezuela's public. "Mr. Pérez was an actor, a detective and an insurgent. To the government he was a terrorist. To his followers he was a freedom fighter, a modern folk hero in the ilk of Robin Hood or Che Guevara. Some skeptics said his story was too improbable to be true — they mused that he must have been a double agent of some sort, meant to cast the opposition in a bad light. However people viewed him, his actions resonated across the whole country."
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales said he will cancel a new penal code that has sparked widespread protests around the country, including a 47-day doctors' strike, reports EFE.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said this weekend that he will seek to salvage peace talks with the ELN guerrillas with a new truce, reports AFP.
  • Two independent candidates in Mexico have successfully gathered the requisite signatures to run in this year's elections, reports Segundo Enfoque. Former first lady Margarita Zavala will be competing for president, pending the ratification of the nearly 1 million signatures she gathered. And Jalisco lawmaker Pablo Kumamoto obtained the signatures to enable him to run for Senate. Three other independent Jalisco candidates, backed by civil society group ¡Vamos a reemplazarles!, have also obtained the necessary signatures to run for congress, reports Milenio, which focuses on their campaign tactics. Citizen network Wikipolítica is backing 14 other young candidates seeking to run in four different states, reports Arena Pública.
  • On the issue of Mexico's elections, front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador has humorously dismissed U.S. allegations of Russian interference in the country's elections. (See Jan. 8's post and Jan. 9's briefs.) He is considered to be the likely beneficiary of interference, though critics note there has been no evidence to substantiate the accusations. Mexican journalist León Krauze warns against dismissing the allegations in a Washington Post piece, in which he argues that a potential AMLO cabinet member is suspect because her husband is a contributor to Russia Today. These accusations have been latched on by the increasingly desperate ruling PRI party. But the Guardian notes that comparisons to the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez cratered AMLO's support int he 2006 presidential election, which he lost narrowly. And many Mexicans are themselves skeptical of Russian interference, according to the piece. Online, many Mexicans made fun of the allegations against AMLO, changing Twitter handles to cyrillic script and sharing gifs from Rocky IV.

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