Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Falcón will run against Maduro, MUD rejects candidacy (Feb. 28, 2018)

Venezuelan opposition leader Henri Falcón is defying an opposition call to boycott upcoming April snap presidential elections. He announced his candidacy against President Nicolás Maduro yesterday, saying he is operating independently of the MUD opposition coalition, reports Reuters

The MUD yesterday expelled Falcon and called the vote a farce, saying his candidacy would validate a fraudulent system, reports the BBC. (See last Thursday's post.)

In his speech yesterday Falcón asked the national electoral council (CNE) to postpone the elections and meet a series of conditions very similar to those demanded by MUD negotiators in failed internationally mediated talks, reports Efecto Cocuyo. He particularly urged the participation of international observers, from the U.N. or regional organizations.

Falcón is a former Chavista who defected from the Socialist Party in 2010, and is viewed with suspicion both by government supporters and opposition leaders. He is the former governor of Lara State.

The opposition has pushed for a boycott of the election which lacks guarantees of transparency and freedom.

The national electoral council extended the deadline for registering candidacy for April's election by two days, in response to civil society concerns regarding lack of time, reports Efecto Cocuyo. (See yesterday's briefs.)

News Briefs
  • Congressional Democrats on Tuesday introduced a resolution condemning the Venezuelan government’s proposed presidential contest in April as a “sham election” and calling for the vote to be postponed until minimal electoral standards are met, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Though the U.S. is pressuring Venezuela's government to restore democratic order, it is not opening up to the increasing numbers of refugees fleeing the country, writes Council on Foreign Relations fellow Shannon O'Neil in Bloomberg.  According to the United Nations, 5,000 Venezuelans have fled to Curacao, 20,000 to Aruba, 30,000 to Brazil, 40,000 to Trinidad and Tobago, and more than 600,000 to Colombia.

  • Latin American countries could approve the world's first legally binding agreement to protect environmental defenders in an upcoming Costa Rica meeting of the UN's Economic commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Eclac). The agreement comes as record numbers of environmental activists have been killed in the region -- last year more than two nature protectors murdered every week, reports the Guardian. Though the agreement is expected to pass, diplomats told the Guardian that it's not clear yet how Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil will vote. 
  • A group of U.S. Democratic lawmakers, called on the Inspectors General of the Departments of Justice and State urging them to open an investigation into operations carried out by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-trained and funded vetted units in Mexico in 2010 and 2011. These operations led to the deaths of between 60 and 300 Mexicans, the vast majority of whom were civilians. (See post for June 13, 2017 and briefs for Dec. 21, 2017.)
  • El Salvador's military leaders, including Defense Minister David Munguía Payés, lashed out against an investigation by the country's attorney general's office into three military chiefs accused of covering up the torture of two youths in 2016, at hands of eight members of the army. Munguía Payés said the probe was arbitrary and an abuse of power, reports La Prensa Gráfica. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions responded asking Munguía Payés to respect judicial independence, reports La Prensa Gráfica separately.
  • Haiti recalled its ambassador to the U.N., after the special representative and chief of the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH) voiced support for a corruption investigation into how  $2 billion in oil loans from Venezuela was spent by former Haitian government officials, reports the Miami Herald. The Haitian government argues that Susan D. Page overstepped her boundaries in voicing support for the investigation and also called on authorities to look into two separate incidents involving alleged police brutality and shootings.
  • In the midst of scandals about foreign aid workers hiring sex workers or exchanging supplies for sex, women in Haiti recall that foreign organization staff would pay far higher prices than locals, reports the Guardian.
  • At least one LGBT person is killed or commits suicide each day in Brazil, according to the NGO Grupo Gay. LGBT homicides rose to 445 in 2017, reports EFE.
  • The standoff between a Panamanian hotel owner and the Trump Organization running the property continued to escalate yesterday -- local police detained a Trump Organization security guard who denied officers access to hotel offices, reports the Washington Post. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Leaders of massive Chilean student protests six years ago, now elected politicians, sent a letter of support to young U.S. activists pushing for gun reform, reports the Guardian. (See last Friday's briefs for an Americas Quarterly piece drawing parallels between the Chilean and U.S. student activism movements.)
  • A Bogotá urbanism initiative in one of the city's poorest districts focuses on children (specifically people under 95 cm) aiming to make the streets more kid friendly and encourage better use of public space, reports the Guardian.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Temer creates Ministry of Public Security (Feb. 27, 2018)

Brazilian President Michel Temer a new extraordinary ministry of public security and appointed a general to head the defense ministry yesterday, reports the Guardian

The new Ministry of Public Security that will coordinate efforts between all levels of government to try to curb escalating violence across Brazil, reports Reuters.

It's the first time a member of the armed forces holds the post of Defense Minister in nearly two decades, notes El País. It's yet another nod towards the militarization of public security, in the wake of a federal intervention of Rio de Janeiro state's security last week.

Yet military intervention spooks the very people its aimed at protecting, notes the Guardian. (See yesterday's briefs as well.)

Army involvement has led to human rights violations, and complicates investigations into them. Last week Human Rights Watch denounced that Brazil´s army is not making its personnel available to talk with state prosecutors in the investigation into the killing of eight people during a joint raid with civil police in Rio de Janeiro.

Yet Rio is hardly the most violent state in the country, and authorities are reacting more to press accounts and public fear than to cold violence data, notes Folha de S. Paulo. "Specialists say that the hilly relief that sets Rio de Janeiro's tourist neighborhoods next to violent neighborhoods, coupled with the closed highways used by most residents to commute, have increased the feeling of insecurity. ... The "media factor" also influences the feeling of insecurity. Rio de Janeiro, the country's biggest tourist destination and its former capital, is a window of Brazil and has the spotlights on it."

Temer has denied rumors that he is planning a presidential run later this year, reports Reuters. Nonetheless, there is increasing speculation that he might throw his hat into the ring, reports the AFP. Critics say the Rio intervention is designed to improve public opinion of Temer.

News Briefs
  • Brazilian Attorney General Raquel Dodge asked the Supreme Court to intervene in order to prevent the federal police chief from interfering in a criminal investigation that could implicate Temer, reports Reuters.
  • Dodge's office also said that it was seeking to quash a plea bargain deal that had been reached with Wesley Batista, the former chief executive officer of the world’s largest meatpacker, JBS SA, reports Reuters.
  • U.S. officials say oil sanctions are on the table as a possible response to upcoming Venezuelan presidential elections, considered illegitimate by many in the international community, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Less than two months away from the vote, the only opponent to President Nicolás Maduro's reelection bid is a little-known television evangelist with past charges of fuel smuggling, reports the Associated Press. Rev. Javier Bertucci humbly believes that Jesus Christ would support his candidacy, and claims to represent the poor who are disillusioned by the Socialist Party government. But critics say his running lends legitimacy to the election, and could potentially divide the fractured political opposition -- much of which has been advocating boycotting the elections due to lack of electoral guarantees.
  • Candidates have until today to register to run in April 22's elections, reports AFP.
  • A bizarre standoff between a Panamanian hotel owner and the Trump Organization that runs it has led Panamanian prosecutors to open an investigation into the case, effectively investigating the U.S. president's private business, though the day to day management is in his sons' hands, reports the Washington Post.
  • A former Mexican state attorney general is accusing the government of forcing state governments to report falsely lowered homicide statistics, reports Buzzfeed.
  • There are reports of increased Mexican cartel influence in Colombia's criminal groups and drug trafficking organizations in the post-FARC scenario. Colombian Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez has said cartels are also seeking to directly control cocaine production. While InSight Crime discounts "hyperbolic claims that Mexican cartels are trying to take over the Colombian underworld" it says "their presence and influence in the country has expanded rapidly in recent years, and they now appear to be developing new strategies for the post-FARC underworld."
  • In La Macarena, Colombia, a booming eco-tourism industry -- a result of the FARC peace deal -- is pitting up against potential oil wells that could destroy it, reports the New York Times. The national government revoked an oil company's lease nearby, arguing that it could have negative environmental impact. And a dissident FARC group active in the area could impact everybody's plans.
  • Natural parks in Colombia protect the environment, but also provide haven for illicit crops and groups, reports InSight Crime, based on a study by El Colombiano. "These protected areas are often difficult to access, offering strategic cover for smuggling of all kinds, and are additionally attractive to traffickers when located along international borders, as are several of Colombia’s parks."
  • Colombia's ELN rebels announced a temporary ceasefire during next month's legislative elections, reports the AFP.
  • A Mexican judge ordered the arrest of 31 high-ranking Veracruz state police officers accused of participating in a paramilitary group that allegedly carried out enforced disappearances, reports, InSight Crime.
  • People in El Salvador asking for "mano dura" anti-gang policies are likely those who don't live in gang controlled areas, International Crisis Group's Ivan Briscoe told El Faro in an interview. "... Because they aren't affected by those repressive policies. This doesn't only happen in El Salvador. This phenomenon of not having direct contact with the consequences of repressive policies and yet support them is something we see in many countries in Latin America. In Colombia, for example." He also said negotiations with gangs could one day happen again, but would require a political paradigm shift. In this sense he also links to processes in Colombia and potentially Mexico.
  • Uruguay's government said the country achieved an infant mortality rate of 6.6 per 1,000 live births last year, the lowest in the South American country’s history, reports EFE.
  • An book by Francisco Cantú delves into the world of U.S. border patrol along the Mexican border. Though agents are prepared to battle "narco warfare" and instead find themselves up against desperate migrants attempting to cross murderous territory, according to the New York Times review. "The aliens we encounter are not narco bosses and murderous kidnappers but their victims: bewildered, disoriented, helpless migrants. Some are dead. They don’t fit the terror profile.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Trump's wall causes rift with Mexico, again (Feb. 26, 2018)

An upcoming White House visit by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has been postponed after a tense phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump over his perennially conflictive border wall proposal. The Washington Post reports the two leaders spoke for nearly an hour last Tuesday, and that discussion regarding the wall consumed most of that time. Peña Nieto was planning an official White House visit this month or in March, but sought for Trump to publicly affirm Mexico’s position that it would not fund construction of a border wall.

According to the Washington Post, a Mexican official said Trump had lost his temper, while U.S. officials said he was exasperated and frustrated that Peña Nieto insisted he back away from his electoral promise to make Mexico pay for the wall. Its worth noting that Mexicans are profoundly opposed to the unilateral proposal.

(The official White House release makes no mention of the spat.)

According to sources, Peña Nieto sought assurance that he would not be publicly embarrassed during the visit with a reference to the proposal. Mexicans vote for president in July, and a diplomatic failure by Peña Nieto would likely further damage prospects for the ruling PRI party at the ballot box.

Just over a year ago, days after Trump assumed office, Peña Nieto called of another official White House visit after a conflictive phone call about the border wall. 

Which leads to the question the Washington Post reports is on many Mexican's minds: why did Peña Nieto think a visit with Trump could ever be a good idea?

The wall proposal has become a sticking point in efforts to extend the Dreamer program which shields from deportation people who migrated illegally to the U.S. as children, notes Reuters.

News Briefs
  • Trump administration threats to sanction Venezuela's oil exports could be a potential death blow to a rapidly failing industry, reports the Washington Post. This weekend President Nicolas Maduro promised to recover 70 percent of the country’s lost oil production in the first half of 2018, reports Reuters.
  • Venezuela's pro-government electoral council said Friday it was considering maintaining the upcoming presidential elections separate from congressional elections, contradicting Maduro's proposal from earlier last week to combine the two, reports Reuters. The proposal would require meeting a series of technical requirements the council likely cannot achieve before the April 22 date set for snap presidential elections, explains El País. There are however rumors, according to El País, that the election might be postponed for a couple of months. (See last Thursday's post.)
  • Fishermen in Venezuela's Amuay are battling an oil refinery, as toxic spills threaten the fish they live off, reports the New York Times.
  • María de Jesús Patricio, known as Marichuy, failed in her bid to become an independent presidential candidate in Mexico's upcoming elections. She would have been Mexico's first indigenous candidate, and her campaign demonstrates the systemic injustices that more than 60 ethnicities face, argues Juan Villoro in a New York Times Español op-ed. Nonetheless, her campaign to gather the necessary signatures to validate her candidacy, has drawn attention to the country's most isolated and hostile regions. And also to the bias in the new system for independent candidates to run, which requires a smart phone and internet access -- not easy in the areas Marichuy focused on.
  • Two female candidates for local posts were assassinated in the last week in Guerrero state, reports El País.
  • Some scientists and doctors believe the episode of U.S. embassy workers affected by alleged sonic attacks is being spun for political gain, reports the Guardian. (See Feb. 15's briefs.)
  • Rio de Janeiro's favelas are being guarded by the military, but few of their inhabitants believe this is a solution to the surge in violence that led the national government to declare a state of exception last week, reports El País.
  • Brazil's pension system threatens to bankrupt the country. But unpopular President Michel Temer has been forced to shelve a reform plan that likely wouldn't have passed congress in an electoral year, and an angry electorate is unwilling to listen to arguments about necessary cuts in the midst of ever more reports of political corruption, reports the New York Times.
  • Anti-establishment discourse has led former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro to shoot up in opinion polls for the upcoming presidential vote in Colombia, reports El País.
  • Panama has made some headway in rolling back its money laundering friendly legislation, but a new study by the Latin America Financial Action Task Force found the country's legislation continue to appeal to people seeking to hide illicit revenue. "The GAFILAT concluded that Panama is more vulnerable to foreign illicit revenue streams than domestic ones. The group also found that drug trafficking, contraband and other illicit activities related to organized crime provide key sources of illicit revenue entering the country’s financial system," reports InSight Crime.
  • The massacre of United Fruit Company workers in 1928 in some ways laid the groundwork for decades of strife in Colombia. The Observer visits banana farming communities in the new post-conflict paradigm, but finds that many have little faith in the demobilized guerrillas, and also mistrust the government.  
  • Washington Edison Prado, known as the "Pablo Escobar of Ecuador," was extradited by Colombian authorities to the U.S. He is accused of shipping more than 200 tonnes of cocaine to the U.S., reports the Associated Press. Prado tried unsuccessfully to avoid extradition by claiming membership to the FARC.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Honduras court dismisses cases against "impunity pact" (Feb. 23, 2018)

News Briefs
  • Honduras' top court dismissed two cases against a reform limiting anti-corruption investigations, leaving only the Public Ministry's challenge to be addressed, reports La Prensa. The cases aim to rollback a budget law limiting corruption investigations against lawmakers, dubbed the "impunity pact" by critics. (See last Friday's post.)
  • The Honduran National Anticorruption Council (CNA) presented a summary of 12 investigations into public contracts presented over the past three years, reports La Prensa. In 2017 alone eight lines of investigation involving 548 government officials and 16 private citizens were presented to the Public Ministry. Key figures mentioned include lawmaker David Chávez, judge Silvio Rodríguez, and former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo.
  • The Associated Press filed legal papers in Honduras objecting to an attempt by Honduran police officials to obtain phone records that would reveal the news agency's sources for a story on alleged police corruption. (See Jan. 26's briefs.)
  • Immigration activists in the U.S. are warning against terminating Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Honduran nationals, given the instability in their home country, reports NBC.
  • Eight Haitian and Salvadoran immigrants living in the United States with temporary protection from deportation have filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, arguing that its decision to end their Temporary Protected Status was based on racism and discrimination that violates their constitutional rights, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Journalistic coverage of Venezuela's crisis has hardly been impartial. But in the case of the Simón Bolivar bridge crossing between Venezuela and Colombia, the situation is just as bad as the pictures being published, said WOLA Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isaacson in a blog post. "... It’s a chaotic scene with thousands of people either crossing, milling around, waiting in long immigration lines, or trying to sell food or other services, like hauling suitcases on carts. Colombian authorities appear to be trying at least to channel the crowd and order the migration process. But they’re undermanned and overwhelmed."
  • El Salvador's lame-duck congress is littered with millionaire lawmakers -- 13 to be exact. "All are from right-wing parties. All lied or omitted information in their declarations. All have been investigated or have pending investigations, for possible illicit enrichment. Eleven of them are candidates in the upcoming March 4 elections," reports El Faro
  • Ahead of those elections, InSight Crime Senior Investigator Héctor Silva Ávalos and Senior Editor Mike LaSusa discuss "how gangs and other types of criminal groups have managed to infiltrate El Salvador’s political system, and how they negotiate with candidates by trading electoral support for various types of benefits."
  • Homicides in Colombian municipalities participating in crop-substitution programs increased by 33 percent between 2016 and 2017, reports InSight Crime based on a new report by Fundación Ideas para la Paz. The full report notes the high cost of failure for the crop substitution program, "not only because of the resources invested, but because of the loss of trust in the communities and the risk of replanting. In political terms, the interruption and failure of the program could result in multiple social protests, capitalized on by organizations that seek to speak for the cocaleros (including the FARC). In addition, the militarization of the areas and a primordially repressive strategy could be counterproductive, strengthening the link between communities that depend on this illegal market and criminal groups that participate in the drug smuggling chain. What is in play is the development of these communities and territories."
  • Two eradication strategies -- crop substitution and forced eradication -- are at war with each other and have become proxies in the peace deal debate in Colombia, according to the Economist. "It will be up to the next president and congress to determine the balance between helping coca-growers and uprooting crops. Candidates on the left, such as Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá, favour the voluntary approach. Conservatives such as Germán Vargas Lleras, a former vice-president, would resume aerial spraying."
  • Oil and mining are key industries in Colombia, and peace in former conflict zones could encourage expansion of extraction activities in those areas. But production has been hindered by "inconsistent policies and inefficient regulation," and "many communities are strongly opposed to extractive industries on environmental grounds ... In this context, the next president will be tasked with outlining a fresh approach to environmental regulation of extractive industries in the post-conflict period." A new Inter-American Dialogue report advocates a clearly defined mining policy for the next government, and national review of " local governance structures to determine whether local authorities are equipped to handle environmental management and disseminate accurate information to local communities about the environmental impacts of extractive industries."
  • Military intervention barely scratches at the surface of the public safety problem in Rio de Janeiro, argues Antônio Sampaio in Americas Quarterly. "Authorities in Rio and Brasília have not shown they understand the complexity and magnitude of the challenge. Otherwise, instead of military intervention we would have seen a profound and well-resourced reform of its troubled police, an ambitious and transparent plan for urban infrastructure investment in marginalized areas and a clear program (with the federal government and international partners) of socio-economic development. As it is, organized crime and corruption were left to expand, control favela territories and undermine hope to such an extent that many (though not all) cariocas have welcomed the announcement of military intervention." (See Tuesday's post.)
  • Speaking of militarized security: In Mexico the eleven-year "war on drugs" has resulted in more than 125,000 deaths, 30,000 disappearances, and the internal displacement of 250,000 people. The upcoming presidential election is an opportunity to question whether the military should continue to be involved in battling violence or whether its time to look at alternatives, writes Froylán Enciso in a New York Times Español op-ed. Front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador has voiced exploring alternatives to the questioned Law of Interior Security that formalizes the army's role in combating violence. He has proposed, for example, amnesty for the lowest rung of drug producers, the farmers of poppy and marijuana, "the historic victim's of Mexico's criminal system," writes Enciso. "Amnesty might be or not a solution to the security problem in Mexico, but it would be an advance to admit the mistake we have been in for the past eleven years."
  • In Mexico, a sweeping corruption case involving the alleged siphoning of millions of dollars in public money to fund the ruling PRI party's 2016 political campaigns is threatening a political operator traditionally considered untouchable, reports the New York Times. Last month, Manlio Fabio Beltrones, former PRI president, filed an injunction in Mexican federal court, hoping to temporarily suspend any possible arrest warrants against him. The case shows how the country is changing, according to the piece.
  • The Haitian government suspended British charity Oxfam for two months, while it investigates allegations of sexual misconduct by employees in the wake of a 2010 earthquake, reports the New York Times. The government raised the possibility that Oxfam will not be permitted to work in Haiti again. The decision only affects Oxfam Great Britain -- groups from from Italy, Spain and Quebec remain in the country. Oxfam spends $3.9 million annually in Haiti.
  • Cuba might jump to a single currency, after decades of using a dual currency, officials told visiting U.S. lawmakers, according to the Miami Herald.
  • Nascent student activism against guns in the U.S. is reminiscent of 2006 protests in Chile, where students staged a national strike against a dictatorship-era educational system, argues Brendan O'Boyle in Americas Quarterly. Their efforts led to reforms, and pushed the issue of education onto the national platform, where they helped elect Michelle Bachelet in 2013. "But perhaps the most enduring legacy of the student movement in Chile was a shift in the understanding of young people’s clout in a political system otherwise dominated by aging established politicians. This change was made clear in 2013, when four leaders of the youth movement, Camila Vallejo, Gabriel Boric, Giorgio Jackson, and Karol Cariola, were elected to Congress. The four have kept education on the legislative agenda. Boric and Jackson have also started a political coalition, the Frente Amplio, which has become an influential third forcein national politics."
  • The Macri administration announced indicated its lawmakers will have freedom of conscience to vote on an abortion bill in Argentina's congress, reports La Nación. The announcement comes amid growing pressure from activists on the issue. A bill which has been presented in congress for years but has never been voted on will be re-submitted in March. Though support from legislators from several different parties is growing in the Chamber of Deputies -- due to generational turnover, according to La Nación -- a majority of senators remain opposed to the the bill, which would legalize abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. (See Tuesday's briefs.)
  • An Argentine judge sentenced a woman to 150 hours of community service for Twitter defamation of a business leader. The case is emblematic of the issues of freedom of expression in the age of social media, writes Hugo Alconada Mon in a New York Times Español op-ed. "Twitter is the public bathroom stall door of the 21st century. You can run into pearls: reflexions, ideas, humor, poetry, and social and political campaigns. But also with the worst: fake news, intolerance, racism, xenophobia, child pornography, and much more. What to do, then? Who bells the cat? Moreover: should the cat be belled?"
  • IJNetwork features a story on Chequeado, an Argentine fact-checking organization that "has become a global leader in the fight against misinformation."
  • Argentine authorities announced six arrests -- including one police officer and a former Russian diplomat -- related to an international cocaine smuggling ring operating between Argentina, Russia, and Germany. The 14 month investigation came after 389 kilograms of cocaine were found in luggage on the grounds of the Russian Embassy in Buenos Aires. The Russian ambassador himself tipped off authorities about the $60 million in drugs. Officials replaced the cocaine with bags of flour fitted with tracking devices, permitting them to follow the purported drugs as they were smuggled to Russia, reports the New York Times.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Venezuela's opposition coalition will boycott elections (Feb. 22, 2018)

Venezuela's opposition alliance formally decided to boycott the upcoming presidential elections in April, saying the system is rigged in favor of President Nicolás Maduro. The MUD coalition has been split over whether it is better to challenge the ruling Socialist party, despite an uneven playing field, or to sit out the vote. 

In a statement yesterday the group said the election was “premature” and lacked “proper conditions,” and called it “a show by the government to give an impression of legitimacy that it does not have in the midst of Venezuelans’ agony and suffering," reports the New York Times. The MUD left open the possibility to reconsider its position if elections are moved to a later date, the country's electoral commission (accused of bias) is renewed, and international observers monitor the vote.

The decision comes as the government is pushing to hold congressional elections three years early, and tossing municipal and state elections into the mix as well, reports the BBC. (See yesterday's post.) Should the opposition choose to boycott that as well, it would leave the ruling party in control of most of the country's elected offices, notes the NYT. The "mega-election" proposal would eliminate the last opposition-dominated institution in the country. Though the National Assembly has been stripped of most of its power in the past two years, its the last bastion of opposition influence in the government, reports the Miami Herald. It also runs afoul of a prohibition of grouping local and national elections, notes Efecto Cocuyo.

Former Lara state governor Henri Falcón affirmed his intention to run against Maduro, yesterday, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci, with a checkered past and accusations of contrabanding, is also in the running, reports Efecto Cocuyo separately.

The latest quality of life poll by Universidad Católica Andrés Bello found 87 percent of the country is considered poor, meaning their income does not cover basic neccesities, including food, reports Efecto Cocuyo

In his Miami Herald column, Andrés Oppenheimer warns against allowing Maduro to crash the upcoming Summit of the Americas meeting in Peru, as he has threatened to do.

And OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro called for harsher sanctions against the government, reports Reuters. (See Tuesday's briefs for David Smilde's take on what makes sanctions effective.)

At Americas Quarterly, Francisco Rodríguez argues Venezuela should consider dollarization, looking at the successful case of Ecuador.

News Briefs
  • There have been numerous reports of nighttime raids by Honduran security forces in recent months, in the midst of crackdowns against protests in the wake of President Juan Orlando Hernández's questioned reelection in November. Residents tell of illegitimate procedures carried out by an elite U.S. trained special force squadron, reports The Intercept. "TIGRES special forces have been controversial since their founding in 2013, and their short history has been dogged by allegations of theft and corruption involving drug traffickers. Trained in Honduras and in the United States by Green Berets from the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), the TIGRES receive substantial support from the U.S. State Department. And they have been active participants in government repression during the current political crisis in Honduras."
  • A federal judge has ruled that the former president of Bolivia and his minister of defense must face trial in the United States in a civil case alleging that the Bolivian military massacred more than 50 of its own citizens during a period of civil unrest in 2003.  It will be the first time that a former head of state will sit before his accusers in a civil human rights trial in a U.S. court, reports the Center for Constitutional Justice.
  • Mexico's ruling PRI party is hoping to attract disenchanted voters with an outsider candidate who portrays himself as a "common" man in a country where the political class tends towards opulence. But the efforts seem to be falling flat, and citizens are not buying José Antonio Meade's technocratic talk, reports the Guardian.
  • At least 44 people were killed in Peru after a bus veered off a road and down a ravine, reports the BBC. The second such accident in a short period of time has caused anger among citizens who say the government is not doing enough to prevent highway bus accidents, reports the New York Times.
  • Bolivia's Cholitas can do anything! The Guardian has a photoessay showing the women in traditional garb doing everything from driving buses, wrestling and politicking.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Venezuelan election updates (Feb. 21, 2018)

Venezuela's government officially requested U.N. electoral accompaniment and observance, said the head of the country's electoral authority yesterday. The request aims to satisfy one of the demands of the failed negotiation with the political opposition, reports TeleSUR.

The CNE requested the delegation be led by former Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who has led international mediation efforts, reports El País. The U.N. said it had not received a formal request yet.

The move comes as the country's main opposition parties have announced they will sit out the vote due to lack of electoral guarantees, reports Bloomberg. Yesterday, Henrique Capriles' Primero Justicia party announced it would not participate, and last week Leopoldo López's Voluntad Popular party also said it wouldn't field a candidate. 

However, Avanzada Progresista candidate, former Lara state governor Henri Falcón might participate outside of the MUD opposition coalition, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Yesterday the party's secretary called for a united opposition to the government. The Juntos political movement, which includes critical chavistas, also called on civil society to participate and rejected opposition calls for a boycott, reports Efecto Cocuyo separately. Abstention is useless and only promotes violent confrontation said the group in a press release yesterday.

Government leader Diosdado Cabello, VP of the ruling Socialist Party, proposed holding early Congressional elections in April, along with the presidential vote. The move would cut short the tenure of the opposition-controlled National Assembly by two years, reports Reuters. Political experts consulted by Efecto Cocuyo said the plan wasn't viable and would run roughshod over political rights.

President Nicolas Maduro said Venezuela's new oil-backed cryptocurrency raised $735 million dollars on its launch day, at a a "startup-style" celebration, reports the Washington Post. But skeptics say the project is unlikely to thrive due to lack of confidence in its leadership.

The New York Times quotes Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who calls it "a desperate move by a regime that is increasingly isolated and has an economy that has spiraled out of its control."

Though its angled at mitigating the effects of U.S. sanctions limiting credit and business with the Venezuelan government, though U.S. officials have warned that investing in the petro could potentially be interpreted as an extension of credit.

Yesterday Maduro made a direct appeal via Twitter to U.S. President Donald Trump, reminding him of his campaign promise not to interfere in other countries and inviting him to dialogue, reports the Washington Post. The White House rejected the proposal, calling on Maduro to restore democracy in Venezuela first, reports EFE.

News Briefs
  • Making it harder for immigrants to legally stay in the U.S. and increasing deportations will only make the U.S. less safe, argues Oscar Martínez in a New York Times op-ed. Deportation, in and of itself, strengthens gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) by handing them recruits familiar with the U.S., who often return and bring the gang along with them, he writes. "But the biggest problem with the focus on deportation is that it distracts from the efforts that would really make a difference." Gangs do not win over these youths, he writes, because "the United States is not fighting for these boys." He criticizes lack of social policies in areas where immigrant youths live in the U.S., and lack of oversight of unaccompanied minors. "Last June, a teenager at Uniondale who was a “chequeo,” the lowest rung on the MS-13 ladder, told me why he joined the group. “You feel lost,” he said, when reflecting on his arrival at the school. He said that everyone had been after him: the police, because being young and Salvadoran made him a potential MS-13 member; the black gangs, because he looked like a Latino gang member; the Latino gangs — including MS-13 — because he wasn’t then a member. He did not join a cartel for money, or a gang because he was an “animal.” He joined MS-13 out of frustration, loneliness and the need for protection."
  • Immigration is also a major political issue in Chile now, writes Ariel Dorfman in a New York Times op-ed. He argues the country should look at its history of receiving Spanish republicans fleeing Franco, the result of a campaign by poet Pablo Neruda. "Almost 80 years later, those undesirables pose disturbing questions for us, both in Chile and elsewhere. Where are the presidents who welcome destitute refugees with open arms despite the most virulent slander against them? Where are the Nerudas of yesteryear, ready to launch ships like poems to defend the right to happiness?"
  • Looking at Latin America in 2018, an observer might well feel a sense of déjà vu, writes Carol Pires in a New York Times Español op-ed, comparing the current state of regional politics to 1989. She analyzes various political throwbacks throughout the region, and the rise of socially conservative agendas. "The left that is exiting the stage now, disinflated by its populist tendencies and accusations of corruption, needs a new programatic project that doesn't sound like a late-night Cold War conversation. But the right has reacted as if the solution to all problems is to enter a time machine that throws us back to the 80s. A good start to air out that smell of mothballs would be for the right to commit to liberal values, not only in its economic discourse, but also in the social arena. And to, for once and for all, break its ties to military regimes."
  • Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has consolidated broad control over the country's institutions and politics, helped along by a well-oiled network of friendly businesses fed with Venezuelan financing. U.S. sanctions -- such as the U.S. Nica Act, which if passed by Congress would seek to limit financing unless the government strengthens democratic and electoral institutions -- are a start, but will be insufficient to root out the corrupt system put in place by the former Sandinista guerrilla leader, argues Diego Fonseca in a New York Times Español op-ed. "The crisis has the dimension of a generational mortgage for Nicaragua because, even if Ortega were to leave power tomorrow, the state within a state constructed by the FSLN would remain encysted while the partners of the president maintain key posts in congress or the court of justice."
  • Brazilian authorities indicate a desire to institutionalize the militarization of security policy launched in Rio de Janeiro this week. (See yesterday's post.) But the approach "has shown little long-term promise — both in Brazil and throughout Latin America," warns InSight Crime.
  • A large-scale seizure of FARC assets in Colombia "is likely to reinforce the perception that the rebel group is not fully committed to the terms of the peace agreement, particularly when it comes to using its assets to provide reparations for victims," reports InSight Crime. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The U.N. warned that criminal gangs battling over drug trafficking routes in the wake of FARC demobilization have displaced more than 800 people in northern Colombia, reports Reuters.
  • The FARC political party is analyzing resuming its presidential campaign, suspended nearly two weeks ago due to lack of security guarantees, reports El Espectador.
  • Candidates for Mexico's main political parties formally launched their presidential campaigns on Sunday: Andrés Manuel López Obrador for Morena, Ricardo Anaya for a coalition between the the conservative National Action Party and leftist Democratic Revolution Party, and José Antonio Meade, the first non-member presidential candidate for the governing PRI, reports the Associated Press.
  • A Mexican bishop uses his religious status to negotiate with cartel bosses and attempt to reduce violence in Guerrero, reports the Guardian.
  • At least 500 children were illegally adopted by foreigners during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet according to an investigation by a Chilean judge. The practice was common during the authoritarian regime and affected mostly poor women, reports TeleSUR.
  • Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera, known for her politically charged art, will be the Tate Modern's next commission for the Turbine Hall, reports the Guardian.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Military intervention in Rio criticized (Feb. 20, 2018)

Brazil's lower chamber of congress approved a presidential decree authorizing federal military intervention in Rio de Janeiro state's security. The senate is expected to pass the measure later today, reports Reuters. (See Friday's briefs.)

It is the first military intervention since the country's return to democracy three decades ago, and critics say it is a play to improve President Michel Temer's rock-bottom popularity ratings more than a policy solution, reports the New York TimesOpponents to the measure sought a Supreme Court stay before the vote, arguing the decree was politically motivated and that it was procedurally improper.

Temer signed the decree on Friday, after Carnival celebrations were marred by mass robberies and shootouts between gangs and security forces. It grants the military broad powers to restore order, and police forces, which have had shortages of personnel and equipment, under the command of a general. The measure could stay in place through the end of the year, when Temer's mandate ends.

Yesterday Defense Minister Raul Jungmann said the government is preparing a series of collective search and seizure warrants for entire Rio neighborhoods, reports El País. The collective warrants, would, for example, allow security forces to search any house in specific communities, even if residents themselves are not suspected of a crime. The measure has been used in the past, but was banned by Rio de Janeiro justices. Experts say it is likely there will be legal challenges.

While officials are touting intervention as a solution to rampant violence, rights groups, including Amnesty International, say it doubles down on violations committed by security forces. Rio is already the state with the most deaths during police operations, notes the Associated Press. Favela residents criticized the decree, saying previous interventions did not represent solutions, reports the Guardian.

And many military leaders themselves are opposed to being considered a public safety solution, notes the NYT. "Combating organized crime requires effective action by the government in economic and social spheres, in order to make drug trafficking less appealing in areas where a large segment of the population is grappling with unemployment," wrote the top military commander, General Eduardo Villas Bôas. "Even as the military has been called to act in different areas, sometimes for lengthy periods,” he added, “we don’t observe considerable changes due to lack of engagement by government agencies responsible for other areas."

Experts say there is no quick fix, and question the approach. Sociologist Julita Lemgruber is cited in AFP arguing that it may give short-term results, but won't allow for necessary police reorganization.

Rights and constitutional concerns notwithstanding, some Brazilian leaders argue the military intervention model could serve as a policy solution in other violent parts of the country, reports the Associated Press. While Rio is not Brazil's most violent state, according to data from the Brazilian Forum of Public Security, the piece notes the symbolic weight of its deteriorated security situation.

In an electoral year, many experts question the true motivation of the measure. A poll last month found 38 percent of Brazilians feel public security is a major concern in determining their vote.

And the intervention decree blocks any constitutional changes during its duration, effectively tabling an unpopular and oft-postponed pension reform bill vote in Congress. It is also probable, however, that the government would not be able to muster up votes for the measure, reports Reuters separately. The reform was a centerpiece of Temer's political agenda and is considered a key move by investors and economists, according to the Financial Times. Lawmakers are anxious to avoid the unpopular reform in an electoral year.

News Briefs
  • Riot police freed 18 hostages held in a Rio prison riot this weekend, reports the BBC. Officials at the Milton Dias Moreira prison said the riot could have been in response to the new security measures.
  • Brazilian officials are seeking to crack down on fake news, and argue that freedom of expression cannot come at the expense of illegitimate elections, reports the New York Times. Judicial and police authorities recently created a task force of law enforcement and intelligence personnel, which is developing strategies to prevent fake news from being produced and to limit its reach once misleading content starts spreading online. (See Jan. 11's post.) However, their efforts are bumping up against a 2014 law that gives internet users in Brazil strong privacy and freedom of expression protections, notes the NYT. A bill in Congress would penalize intentionally spreading false information with two years of jail, though it is unlikely to pass before this year's election. (See Feb. 12's briefs.)
  • False internet rumors about the dangers of yellow fever vaccines are circulating in Brazil, undermining a public health push to inoculate residents in the midst of an outbreak of the of the potentially deadly mosquito borne disease, reports the Washington Post. (See Feb. 12's briefs on the issue of fake news in this year's election campaign.)
  • A Peruvian court ordered former autocratic leader Alberto Fujimori to stand trial in the case of six victims of an alleged death squad killing in 1992. Fujimori received a controversial Christmas Eve, presidential pardon for crimes against humanity at the end of last year, but the court said that does not apply in this case, reports the BBC. Prosecutors charged 23 other people along with Fujimori in the case, including former paramilitary and military officers, reports El País.
  • The U.S. government has rebuffed Mexican authorities' request to help investigate the use of government surveillance technology against critics. The U.S. is concerned about being used as a cover in a sham inquiry, reports the New York Times. A serious inquiry would likely implicate top government officials. And more than six months after the case came to light, the Mexican investigation has yet to make any headway. The group of forensic analysts that discovered the improper use of the Israeli developed technology countered government assertions that authorities were in contact with them regarding the case.
  • Venezuela's MUD opposition coalition is still debating whether to participate in upcoming snap elections called by the government, in a context of unresolved electoral irregularities and lack of guarantees. A majority of the coalition's parties are inclined against participating, but the slow decision making process is indicative of the opposition's broader problems, reports El País.
  • The international community has an important role to play in restoring democratic rights in Venezuela, argues David Smilde, who outlines positive and counterproductive measures in a Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights post. "As I have said before, at WOLA we do not have a principled opposition to sanctions, but we do have a principled suspicion of them. That is because most research is clear that sanctions do not “work,” in other words, do not achieve their stated objective, most of the time." He notes that effective sanctions tend to be multilateral, and the importance of an effective communication campaign to accompany them. "Let there be no doubt that the Maduro government is currently winning the communications battle around sanctions. It mentions the debt sanctions at every opportunity and blames them for all of Venezuela’s scarcities and shortages. In December, polls showed that 55,6% of Venezuelans rejected economic sanctions. Even people identifying themselves as opposition supporters are more likely to reject these debt sanctions than support them. This rejection has likely increased since December since the economic situation has dramatically deteriorated since then." He also urges for more international mediation, and potentially a system of transitional justice.
  • Venezuela is launching a petroleum backed crypto-currency today, a move aimed at sidestepping international sanctions, reports CNBC. It's estimated the government could raise about $6 billion with the move, reports Al Jazeera. Though it has been compared to the bitcoin, critics say it lacks the transparency and trust a stable digital currency needs, and that it will likely become a "shitcoin," reports the Guardian.
  • The New York Times reports on refugees fleeing Venezuela's crisis into neighboring countries.
  • Oxfam released a 2011 investigation into misconduct of its employees in Haiti, documenting accusations that three employees investigated for sexual misconduct also physically threatened a witness, reports the New York Times. The names of staff members were redacted.
  • Oxfam has lost 7,000 regular donors since it was revealed staff sexually exploited victims of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, reports the Guardian. The British charity offered its “humblest apologies” to the Haitian government, reports the Guardian separately.
  • Colombian authorities confiscated goods from businesses covering for the old FARC guerrilla, worth about $230 million, reports El País. A chain of supermarkets was key in supplying the guerrillas and whitewashing illicit funds. Marketed as a low-cost alternative, the stores offered some basic goods at below wholesale price. And testimony against the supposed owners indicates they may have also collaborated in identifying potential kidnapping victims.
  • The Los Angeles Times reports on the difficulties former FARC guerrillas are facing in reintegrating into society. Of the 7,400 fighters who reported to the camps starting in January 2017, about half remain. Given trouble many former fighters face, it is better if they stick together, Maria Victoria Llorente, director of the Ideas for Peace Foundation think tank in Bogota, said in the piece.
  • A 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Mexico’s Oaxaca state Friday morning, but did not cause any deaths, reports the New York Times.
  • A government helicopter carrying officials surveying earthquake damage killed at least 13 people and wounded dozens sleeping outside after the tremors, reports the Washington Post.
  • "The Trade,” a Showtime series about heroin shows how opium poppy is cultivated in Mexico's Guerrero state and how heroin is manufactured, packaged and shipped north to the United States. The Washington Post interviewed producer Myles Estey.
  • In the wake of a Chilean sexual abuse scandal, and accusations of lack of compassion by alleged victims, Pope Francis reactivated an abuse commission that had lapsed into dormancy, reports the New York Times. A Vatican statement said the panel would include some victims of clerical sexual abuse.
  • A perennial campaign to legalize abortion within the first trimester in Argentina, has gained traction and visibility recently, and activists are pushing lawmakers to approve a reintroduced bill, reports InfoBAE. Argentina passed socially progressive laws under the previous Kirchner administrations, but activists were hindered by the personal religious beliefs against abortion of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, according to El País. Though current President Mauricio Macri is also opposed, a few prominent members of his government have indicated support, as have opposition lawmakers.