Friday, March 30, 2018

Costa Rican elections showcase regional evangelical trend in politics (March 30, 2018)

Costa Ricans vote Sunday in a presidential race that has been dominated by the issue of gay marriage. The two candidates in the run-off are statistically tied in polls, reports the Associated Press.

Political outsider and conservative Christian Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz shot up in opinion polls in January when he denounced an Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling that called for legalization of same-sex marriage. The former television announcer, representing a small evangelical party, led the February election with 25 percent of the vote -- not enough for an outright win. 

He faces off against ruling-party candidate Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who served in the cabinet of President Luis Guillermo Solis.

The election is seen as a barometer for the mood in Latin America, where countries that passed laws favoring same-sex unions in recent years hold presidential elections over coming months, according to Reuters.

The Costa Rican campaign demonstrates how voter dissatisfaction with political elites has favored the rise of religious parties, writes former Costa Rican vice president Kevin Casas in a New York Times Español op-ed. As traditional politicians have lost credibility, voters turn to religious figures who "propose the return of moral certainties that have diluted in times of relativism, ideological ambiguity, and opportunism, that today define the democratic politics everywhere."

Alvarado Muñoz is part of a growing wave of evangelical political power in Latin America that could make the region into the new bible belt, reports the Miami Herald. In the region social conservativism transcends left-right divisions and is reflected by Central America's draconianly strict laws banning abortion.

Alvarado Muñoz has promised to fight the "secular state" and "gender ideology." The latter term in particular is appearing throughout the region as a bogeyman to rally social conservatives. In a recent New York Times Español op-ed, Silvio Waisbord analyzed how the discourse is used to oppose rights advances in the region. "As a hobbyhorse, "gender ideology" is a vague and opaque term, but is used strategically with a very clear objective: to oppose any group or action that represents the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, that is to say,dignity, justice, and equality."

That the term holds little (if any) concrete meaning has only contributed to its efficacy however, warns Gillian Kane in the Guardian. "The phrase is neither a legitimate academic term, nor a political movement. It is a theory drummed up by hard-right religious activists, who present it as a gay- and feminist-led movement out to upend the traditional family and the natural order of society. It’s a catchall phrase to sell a false narrative and justify discrimination against women and LGBT people. And it is winning elections."

Not that Costa Ricans don't have other concerns. The country has been downgraded four times over the past five years by the main ratings agencies, and the incoming government will have to implement measures to reduce the fiscal deficit, reports Bloomberg.

In a final debate this week, Alvarado Quesada criticized his opponent's governance plan as "poor," and lacking in concrete measures, reports EFE.

News Briefs
  • Even in a Venezuela increasingly accustomed to tragedy, the jail fire that claimed at least 68 lives this week is jarring, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's briefs.) Accounts so far indicate that gangs running the overcrowded jail were holding a party and fought with a guard. Police set fire to mattresses, which started a blaze that spread through the cells. And families outside demanding answers clashed with police and were tear gassed. Yesterday the United Nations human rights office criticized the attack on the relatives and reiterated reproach regarding dire conditions in prisons. Experts such as Roberto Briceño-León, the head of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, point to associated problems such as the country's reliance on temporary holding cells.
  • Switzerland announced sanctions against Venezuelan individuals, including seven Venezuelan ministers and high-ranking officials, reports Reuters
  • A Brazilian judge ordered Facebook to pull fake news published about assassinated Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco. Judge Jorge Novelle wrote that his decision targeted "propagation of crimes like slander against the dead, and hatred and racial and gender prejudice against someone who can no longer defend herself," reports the AFP. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • Colombia blocked access to a cell phone app it said might be connected with Cambridge Analytica, reports Reuters.
  • Peru's new president, Martín Vizcarra, will name opposition lawmaker Cesar Villanueva as his prime minister next week, according to Reuters. The move is aimed at bridging increasingly polarized political divides. Villanueva is characterized as a centrist who has worked with parties on the left and right, and led calls to impeach former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski on charges of corruption.
  • Last week Chile's new conservative government altered the protocols on a recent law decriminalizing abortion. The changes allow private institutions that deny women the possibility of carrying out an abortion to continue to receive public subsidies. Critics say the "conscientious objector" rule will effectively reduce access to legal abortions, reports EFE.
  • About a third of Brazil's cabinet will resign over the next week in order to start campaigning for Congressional seats in October's election, reports Reuters.
  • Police arrested two close friends of Brazilian President Michel Temer yesterday, in an investigation into alleged corruption in relation to a port concession, reports Reuters.
  • Six people have been arrested in connection with the murder of a Mexican journalist in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo, reports EFE.
  • Diplomatic sparring aside, Mexico and the U.S. are teaming up with Colombia to target drug smugglers off South America’s Pacific coast in an operation that starts on Sunday, reports the Associated Press.
  • This week at InSight Crime Managing Editor Josefina Salomón and Senior Editor Mike LaSusa discuss the latest developments in the never-ending Odebrecht scandal and its impacts on politics around the region.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Jail riot in Venezuela kills at least 68 people (March 29, 2018)

News Briefs
  • At least 68 people died in a fire caused by a jail riot in Valencia, in northern Venezuela. Anguished family members gathered outside the prison in the hours before the announcement and faced off against police, who used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Attorney General Tarek Saab said all the dead were prisoners, except for two female visitors. Local human rights organization, the Observatory of Prisons, said the death toll was even higher, placing it at 78,  reports the Washington Post. Preliminary accounts suggest the riot broke out when an armed detainee shot an officer, reports the Associated Press. Subsequently, prisoners lit mattresses on fire and the blaze quickly spread, reports the BBC. Though the facility had a capacity of 60 detainees, the New York Times cites InSight Crime research regarding the chronic overcrowding in Venezuela's prison system.
  • Two Mexican police officers have been sentenced to 25 years in jail for the 2015 killing of a journalist. It is a rare conviction in a country where journalists are regularly killed with impunity, reports the Guardian. Nonetheless, advocates and relatives of the victim, Veracruz newspaper owner Moisés Sánchez, point out that the local mayor – who is accused of ordering the murder – remains a fugitive, and six other police officers – accused of forming a drug-dealing gang and acting on the mayor’s orders – have not been prosecuted.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration has been marked by grave human rights violations, namely committed by security agencies, according to the national ombudsman. Luis Raúl González Pérez said the needs security, but not "at any cost," and that "without respect for human rights the security measures adopted cannot be accepted and will be like an authoritarian imposition," reports Animal Político.
  • There are indications that Mexico's most powerful criminal group, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, is fragmenting, which could mean even more violence in a country where homicides hit record levels last year, reports InSight Crime.
  • Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador made waves when he off-handedly proposed an amnesty for drug traffickers. The issue is polemic in a country where cartel violence is widespread. An amnesty for growers or foot-soldiers forcibly recruited has certain appeal, but the proposal would do little to actually reduce violence, argues Jorge Chabat in Nueva Sociedad. What is actually required, he posits, is a strengthening of Mexican institutions to effectively punish violent crime, and legalization of drugs in order to destroy the illegal market that fuels cartels.
  • Politics in Brazil are more polarized than ever, with less than a week to go before the Supreme Court determines whether former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva can remain out of jail while exhausting appeals on a corruption conviction. Magistrates have said they are receiving threats, while an army general warned in a tweet that the anger of the masses could be unleashed if the former leader -- a frontrunner for October's election -- is jailed, reports El País. In the meantime, Lula's campaign caravan was shot at this week and protesters have pelted it with eggs. Though President Michel Temer lamented the attack on Lula's campaign, other politicians effectively said that the Workers' Party got what was coming to it.
  • It is still not clear who was behind the assassination of Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco earlier this month. Informally, Security Minister Raul Jungmann has floated the possibility that a "rotten" band within the police was retaliating against a federal military intervention. But Franco supporters dismiss this as conveniently supporting the government's criticized intervention. Other hypothesis blame militias operating in areas of the city. Franco was a long-time aide in a provincial legislature commission investigating their actions. But increasingly it seems that the killing was a hate crime, likely carried out by fascist members of the security forces, writes Bruno Bimbi in Nueva Sociedad. "After the crime, far-right politicians and fascist sectors of security forces, the army and the judicial power promoted an intense post-mortem defamation campaign against Marielle in social media, spreading fake news that linked her to drug trafficking and disqualifying her as a "defender of criminals." Threats against other legislators of her party intensified more than ever." (See Monday's briefs.)
  • Haiti police are investigating whether part of a body found in an area where a freelance Haitian photojournalist disappeared March 14 are those of Vladjimir Legagneur, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Colombian authorities dismantled an 11 person drug-trafficking network that used private planes and motorboats to transport drugs from southeastern Colombia to Mexico and the U.S. through Pacific routes, reports AFP.
  • Shipping food in Venezuela has become increasingly anarchic, as police stations along routes charge illicit commissions and even municipal governments attempt to commandeer parts of the shipments, reports El País.
  • The Trump administration's hostile stance towards immigration is having potential repercussion for baseball in the U.S., where about 31 percent of professional players are Latino. The number rises to about half in minor league baseball, whose players are now exempt from federal minimum wage laws. The Guardian details how all 30 baseball teams run dormitory style academies throughout Latin America, which allow them to skirt League rules about minimum signing age and pay players considerably less than their U.S. counterparts.
  • Wall Street Journal columnist Mary O'Grady accused the U.N. backed international anti-corruption mission in Guatemala of acting against Kremlin enemies. She said prosecution against three Russian nationals led by the Public Ministry and the CICIG was the result of a claim by a Russian state bank that it was owed money. Instead the Bitkov family was convicted for assuming false identities in Guatemala -- where they never presented claims for asylum -- where they purchased local citizenship papers from a criminal network operating within the country's migration authority, responded the CICIG. While the case against the three initially came to Guatemalan authorities' attention due to a Russian bank filing a report, the case was not pursued based on the VTB Bank's claims, explains the CICIG, which also notes that at no point in the case did the Bitkov family present evidence of political persecution. El Periódico notes that O'Grady's allegations were picked up by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio who is a supporter of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who in turn has attempted to oust the CICIG.
  • Ecuador cut off Julian Assange's internet access in its London embassy, where the WikiLeaks founder has been living for six years in order to avoid arrest, reports the Guardian. The Ecuadorian government said Assange violated an agreement to refrain from communications which might affect the country's diplomatic relations. Assange tweeted on Monday challenging Britain’s accusation that Russia was responsible for the nerve agent poisoning of a Russian former double agent and his daughter.
  • The tiny mummy found in a remote Chilean mining town is definitely not an alien. (See last Friday's briefs.) But Chilean scientists and authorities are denouncing that the stillborn child that forms part of a private collection in Barcelona were illegally smuggled out of the country and that the research conducted was unethical, reports the New York Times.
  • Up to 500 iguanas are consumed daily over Semana Santa in Juchitán, Mexico. Traditional iguana tamales are part of the Easter celebrations in the Oaxaca locality, despite environmentalist warnings that the animal is in danger of extinction, reports El País

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Under-regulated private security is a threat in the region (March 28, 2018

News Briefs
  • A new Inter-American Dialogue report explores the challenges associated with the proliferation of private military and security companies in Latin America. Though private security guards outnumber police around the world, the gap in violence plagued Latin America is far greater, according to authors Sarah Kinosian and James Bosworth. In Brazil, the ratio is four to one, in Guatemala, five to one, and in Honduras there are almost seven private guards for every public officer. And "... lack of oversight and enforcement has led to instances where corruption, human rights abuses and excessive use of force have gone unchecked," they write, citing the case of assassinated Honduran activist Berta Cáceres. And they note that private security firms have become major suppliers of weapons for criminal groups. 
  • More than a dozen political figures have been murdered in Mexico since the start of this year — an average of more than one per week. The attacks have again drawn attention to the impact of organized crime on Mexican politics, reports InSight Crime. Experts have found that high levels of violence have increased abstention in elections in the past. Organized crime also deters citizens from serving in polls, a necessary role in elections.
  • U.S. Senator Marco Rubio warned the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela to toe the line, after the diplomat made a comment that differed from the Trump administration's stance on the country's upcoming presidential elections, reports the Miami Herald. Todd Robinson said in a media interview that "There are different theories about the outcome of the elections, and in the end Venezuelans will decide whether the elections are credible or not, and we will wait for the decision of the Venezuelans." The U.S. administration and other countries in the region have denounced the elections as illegitimate.
  • The U.S. First Son-in-Law, Jared Kushner, is quietly working behind the scenes to mend increasingly frayed diplomatic relations with Mexico, reports the New York Times. According to insider sources, Kushner has tried to keep President Donald Trump from publicly discussing who will pay for a wall along the Mexican border, and to keep him from ripping up NAFTA.
  • Earlier this week Mexico and the U.S. announced three new accords to improve bilateral customs procedures and expedite the flow of agricultural produce across their shared border, reports Reuters.
  • International anti-graft commissions in Guatemala and Honduras have endured an onslaught of attacks by entrenched political elites in recent months, reports InSight Crime. In Guatemala the government removed 11 agents who had been working with the U.N. backed CICIG. (See last Wednesday's briefs.) While in Honduras lawmakers accused of corruption are seeking to declare the country's agreement with the OAS regarding an anti-corruption mission unconstitutional. (See last Wednesday's post.)
  • Conservative Colombian presidential candidate Iván Duque is leading in polls for the June elections. With 41.6 percent he has a 16 point lead over his closest opponent, leftist Gustavo Petro, reports El País.
  • Colombia's association of coca growers said it is considering suspending participation in the country's voluntary crop-substitution program, reports Contagio Radio.
  • Peru's new president, Martín Vizcarra, did not fully ratify his predecessor's ban on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's presence at the upcoming Summit of the Americas. Vizcarra said the issue would be determined by top diplomats, reports Reuters.
  • Vizcarra promised to increase infrastructure spending, reports Reuters.
  • Peruvian lawmaker Kenji Fujimori raised the stakes in his family feud by offering to testify against his sister, Keiko Fujimori, in corruption investigations, reports Gustavo Gorriti in El País.
  • Two buses in Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's presidential campaign caravan were hit with gunfire yesterday. The former leader's Workers' Party also said nails were placed along the caravan route, piercing a bus' tires. Lula was not in the bus when it was attacked, reports Reuters.
  • Lula's candidacy and the ratification of his corruption conviction open a confusing legal path to the October elections, reports El País.
  • Brazilian police detained a priest who defended the rights of small landholders in the Amazon was arrested yesterday on charges of extortion and sexual harassment. But defenders say the charges are trumped up powerful agricultural interests affected by Father Amaro Lopes' activism. He is the best-known follower of the American-born nun, Dorothy Stang, who was murdered in 2005 in a killing orchestrated by landowners during a dispute that continues today, reports the Guardian. "The police operation to arrest Lopes involved 15 officers, a large number for a single priest – and a sharp contrast to the resources devoted to investigating the 10 killings carried out in Anapu since 2015."
  • Brazil's government announced plans to vaccinate the entire population against yellow fever, but already it has been unable to fulfill plans in states affected by the virus, raising concerns that it will not be able to obtain the 77 million vaccinations needed by the end of 2019, reports the Guardian.
  • The Los Angeles Times profiles a Rio de Janeiro hospital flooded with gunshot victims. "Nova Iguacu General Hospital, or HGNI, last year treated 687 people who had been shot, up from 475 the previous year, dozens of them fatalities. As of mid-March, the trauma center known as Rio’s war hospital had treated 159 shooting victims this year, including 31 who died of their wounds, putting it on track to surpass last year’s total if the violence does not ease."
  • Satellite imagery of the Amazon is revealing archeological evidence of settlements in areas previously believed to have been sparsely inhabited before European colonization, reports the Guardian. Models based on the research suggest that at the time, the southern rim of the Amazon alone could have been home to between 500,000 and one million people, before diseases brought from Europe took a heavy human toll.
  • Ninaj Raoul, co-founder of the organization Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees spoke with The Intercept about the U.S.'s mistreatment of Haitian refugees fleeing a military coup between 1991 and 1993.
  • Chile’s constitutional court struck down a law that would have banned universities operating for profit, dealing a blow to free tuition reforms brought in by former left-wing president Michelle Bachelet, reports the AFP.
  • Two Ecuadorean journalists working for El Comercio and their driver have been kidnapped in a conflictive area of the country's border with Colombia, reports the Associated Press. Dissident FARC guerrillas operate in the area, reports the BBC.
  • Haitian journalists planned a protest for this morning against government inaction in the case of a photojournalist who has been missing for two weeks, reports the Miami Herald. Vladjimir Legagneur was working in the gang-ridden Grand Ravine neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Haiti ranked 53rd out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index.
  • Over the past two years workers cooperatives took over at least Argentine media companies that had shut their doors or declared bankruptcy. The move represents "a reconfiguration of the country's media landscape that is connected to the relationship between media and governments, but also represents new paths for journalism in Argentina," according to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
  • Fear not repressed heterosexuals of the world, the Argentine government's human rights office is watching out for you. A tweet by the Human Rights Secretariat stating that heterosexuality is also part of sexual diversity met with widespread mockery, reports the BBC.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Haiti's new army has heavy baggage (March 27, 2018)

Haiti has a new army is supposed to focus on protecting the country’s borders, responding to natural disasters, and civil engineering project. But the argument that the new armed forces will leave behind the human rights violations and anti-democratic actions of the one disbanded in 1995 is undermined by the appointment of leaders from the old army, reports the Miami Herald.

All six former soldiers appointed to head the Armed Forces of Haiti (FAD’H) once had their assets frozen by the U.S. as punishment for supporting the military coup that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And one, Col. Jean Robert Gabriel, was accused of masterminding the 1994 killing of thousands of Aristide supporters in a military-linked raid in the seaside shantytown of Raboteau in Gonaives, according to the Herald. He was convicted in a landmark human rights case, though conviction was later overturned during a 2006 interim government after Aristide was again ousted.

Another of the newly appointed leaders was a member of a committee to sought to cover up the massacre, and at least three of the officers appear to have held senior positions within the early-‘90s military coup regime, according to a CEPR report from earlier this week, that reviews the cases in depth.

News Briefs
  • Peruvian leaders are falling to corruption scandals, a big advance in the fight against graft. But the jailing of former presidents does not resolve the underlying problem of a political system shot through with illicit financing and improper contacts, argues Sonia Goldenberg in a New York Times op-ed. "A crucial issue is that the lack of control of illegal and foreign financing of presidential elections combined with extremely weak party structures have turned campaigns into an easy way for adventurous newcomers to become millionaires even before reaching power." Martín Vizcarra, a relatively unknown politician with an untarnished public record sworn in last week after former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned amid scandal, could hold the key to finally implementing anti-graft reform, she argues. "The one card the Mr. Vizcarra still holds is the widespread disillusionment with Peru’s Congress. If he can mobilize public opinion to support a new anticorruption campaign, he may force lawmakers to go along with it for fear of being exposed. Mr. Vizcarra is the accidental president, but the fact that he never aspired to this job may prove to be his strongest political weapon."
  • Confused by the Fujimori's popping up on all sides of the Peruvian political crisis? (See yesterday's post.) The Financial Times reports on the family feud of the century.
  • The United Nations will not provide electoral assistance to Venezuela in upcoming presidential elections, reports the Associated Press. Representatives of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and independent candidate Henri Falcon traveled this month to U.N. headquarters seeking to persuade the body to send experts for the May 20 vote.
  • Venezuela's health care crisis claims lives each day, but the government has consistently treated the issue frivolously and insists on blaming an imperialist conspiracy for the shortages that have caused surges in mortality and previously controlled diseases. "Political frivolity should be a crime," argues Alberto Barrera Tyszka in a New York Times Español op-ed. "Maduro plays the lyre while Venezuela is devoured by diseases and epidemics. It's not only a national problem: with the enormous migratory movement, the issue begins to be a great concern for the region. The attitude of the Venezuelan government regarding the country's crisis is becoming an international emergency." He highlights the solidarity groups that have sprouted to try to fill the gaps in official policies and obtain medical supplies to distribute.
  • A Mexican marine and four alleged criminals died in different clashes in Mexico's Nuevo Laredo along the U.S. border over the weekend, reports Animal Político. Twelve members of the marines were wounded when they were ambushed while on patrol. A civilian family was apparently caught in crossfire, though the Navy denied the shots were fired from a helicopter it deployed on Sunday, reports EFE.
  • Eleven U.S. members of Congress expressed concern for the lack of progress in the Mexican government’s investigation into the illegal use of government-exclusive Pegasus spyware against prominent activists and journalists in Mexico, reports WOLA.
  • U.N. special rapporteur on human rights Michel Forst urged Mexican authorities to name an independent head prosecutor, with broad social backing and without ties to political parties, reports Animal Político.
  • Recent high-profile cases of criminal violence in Mexico's Jalisco state illustrate police involvement in criminal activity, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Costa Rican presidential candidates closed off their campaign for the run-off election to be held next Sunday. Predictions over who will win remain inconclusive, reports AFP. Fabricio Alvarado from the conservative National Restoration Party will face-off against Carlos Alvarado from the governing Citizen Action Party. The first round of voting in February was dominated by the issue of gay marriage. (See Feb. 5's post.)
  • Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón and former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana tweeted a fake document purporting to demonstrate Venezuelan intervention in elections in their respective countries, according to
  • A U.S. immigration court is expected to decide this week whether to deport a Guatemalan man living in Providence, accused of dozens of murders, rapes and kidnappings during Guatemala's civil war in the 1980s, reports the Rhode Island Public Radio.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro awarded Odebrecht almost $4 billion for public works in exchange for campaign donations, reports AFP based on a Estado.
  • Brazil's conservative congress is rushing a bill that would allow sugarcane production for ethanol fuel in the Amazon. The move has been criticized by environmentalists, business associations, and even the union of sugar cane producers. It will likely increase deforestation and make it harder for the country to meet it's Paris Climate Deal commitments, reports the Guardian.
  • Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff says a new Netflix series distorts reality and spreads lies about her and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. "The Mechanism," is loosely based Operation Car Wash. The release comes six months before Brazilians choose a new president. Lula is still polling first, though he might be in jail before the vote due to a corruption conviction. Rousseff said Netflix's series was using character assassination techniques, and compared the tactic to what she identifies as biases in mainstream Brazilian press, reports the BBC.
  • A Brazilian federal court on Monday rejected Lula’s appeal of its own earlier decision to sentence him to 12 years in prison for corruption. He will remain free until at least April 4, when Brazil’s Supreme Court is set to hear a motion that seeks to keep Lula out of prison until he has exhausted all appeals, reports EFE.
  • In a New York Times op-ed, Vanessa Barbara criticizes Brazilian left wing politicians' blaming of radical protesters as responsible for the country's turn to the right and defends the protests, though they did not achieve their stated objectives. "In 13 years of Workers’ Party rule, the traditional left missed many crucial opportunities to effectively change Brazil. Now they need someone else to blame for their losses. And the current scapegoat seems to be the protesters of the far left — those who dared to criticize the Workers’ Party’s decisions in the past."
  • A series of attacks on public buildings and vehicles over the weekend prompted Fortaleza police to escort public buses yesterday. The incidents could have been in retaliation for a move to block mobile phones in prisons or in relation to a war between rival gangs, reports the BBC.
  • Female sports journalists have launched an anti-harassment campaign with a simple demand: #DeixaElaTrabalhar, or "Let Her Do Her Job." They say they are exposed to everything from unwanted advances to violent threats as they work, reports the Guardian. The group of 52 reporters say they have been sent abusive messages and even rape threats online. On a promising(?) note, on the same day the campaign was launched a man was arrested in a Porto Alegre stadium after allegedly harassing a female reporter with sexist language. Television commentators were heard discussing the incident during the match and condemning the man's behaviour in reference to the new campaign, reports the BBC.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Corruption undermines democratic governance (March 26, 2018)

Peru's Congress accepted Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's resignation from the presidency Friday, and swore in first vice president Martín Vizcarra later that same day. (See Friday's post.) PPK is the first sitting president in the region forced out by the revelations of Odebrecht corruption, which has tainted almost all of Peru's major political figures. But he was further hurt by a tactical error -- an apparent negotiation with opposition legislators in December to free former dictator Alberto Fujimori from jail in exchange for votes against his ouster. With this he alienated the many members of the main opposition party, run by Fujimori's daughter Keiko Fujimori, and also his allies on the left, many who backed his ouster last week, reports the Guardian.

In his inaugural speech, Vizcarra said this was "a difficult moment" for Peru and vowed to fight corruption, reports the New York Times. He will face an uphill battle, with few political allies in Congress.

But corruption is undermining governance around the region. Faith in democracy is declining around the world, but is especially marked in Latin America, where support has fallen for five consecutive years. The latest Latinobarometro poll found that only 53 percent of the population supports democratic governance. And German think-tank Bertelsmann Stiftung says part of the reason is a lack of satisfactory solutions from the traditional political elite, reports El País. The crisis in faith is intimately linked to corruption scandals that have affected established political parties on all ends of the spectrum.

News Briefs
  • A police operation in a Rio de Janeiro favela has left at least eight people dead. There are allegations that some of the victims are innocent victims, killed in revenge after a police officer was killed in Rocinha favela last week, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazilians, tired of increasing violence, are welcoming heavy handed security tactics, despite human rights criticisms --- -- an increasing evidence that they don't work, according to the Washington Post.
  • But in part that support stems from a political discourse portraying all favela residents as criminals, and distracts from the less flashy policies that actually work, argue Pedro Abramovay and Manoela Miklos in Folha de S. Paulo. Fake news, linking assassinated Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco to organized crime is an example of how the government propagates the idea that all favela residents are linked to trafficking or consume drugs,  "The fake news about Marielle is another example of a story common to dwellers of favelas and Brazil's peripheries. It is the most serious "fake news" phenomenon in contemporary Brazil, because it illustrates the cruel relationship of the state with the most vulnerable part of the population. Make no mistake: this misinformation is not a product of the internet, Facebook, or the 21st Century. It's the result of something older: the war on drugs. ... Between populist politicians hunting for votes and technocrat recipes that don't produce media spectacles lives Rio's population (though not only them): dazed, repeating the mantra of "criminal favela dweller" and "fake news" about Marielle, without perceiving that this sustains the impossibility of constructing a safe city for all its citizens."
  • Militias composed of former and current security agents control territories in Rio de Janeiro with over 2 million of population, and could be behind the killing of Franco, reports El País. Little has been done to check their power over the years, and have not been confronted by successive interventions in the territory.
  • Brazilian President Michel Temer, known for shockingly low approval ratings, has decided nonetheless to run for election in this year's presidencial race. Though he had frequently assured citizens that he had no intention to run, in an interview published this weekend, he appealed to the need to defend his legacy. A win would also allow him to maintain immunity from prosecution for crimes committed before he assumed office, notes the New York Times. His bid may also complicate efforts for a unified centrist candidate, as several Temer allies, including Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles and House Speaker Rodrigo Maia are also considering bids. Right-wing firebrand Jair Bolsonaro is currently polling second, while former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is first, but likely will not be allowed to run due to a corruption conviction.
  • A December law allows the Mexican military to be used against internal threats, such as organized crime. The  Internal Security Law ratifies the role the army already has, but has been questioned by human rights activists who point to gross abuses, mostly unprosecuted, reports The Intercept. U.S political posturing aside, Trump administration funding for Mexican security forces has continued, even while funding to strengthen the country's criminal justice system has been cut. "In standing staunchly behind Mexico’s war on drugs, Congress and the Trump administration are funding a force that has routinely been implicated in violence against its own people."
  • The incoming U.S. national security advisor, John Bolton will likely advocate a harder line against Venezuela and could raise fears in the region of a more intervention-inclined U.S. policy, reports the Miami Herald. He has consistently emphasized that Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua undermine national interests in the region, according to a senior government official cited in the piece.
  • The U.S. is considering contributing $10 million more to help Venezuelan refugees. The funds would go to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ $46 million special request to address what the UN group describes as the “biggest population movement in the Americas” in modern memory. It would be in addition to the $2.5 million in USAID support offered earlier this week, reports the Miami Herald.
  • U.S. Southern Command announced that it will be participating in military exercises just a few miles off Venezuela’s coast next month, as part of a multilateral exercise hosted by Trinidad and Tobago, reports the Miami Herald.
  • U.S. gun sales are not only a domestic policy matter. They are also fueling crimes in the region, particularly in Central America, where gun laws are strict, but homicides are very high, reports the New Yorker. In turn, the violence has fueled a massive refugee crisis that affects the U.S. "Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras do not have substantial gun industries of their own. The governments of these countries rely on imports from abroad to supply their militaries and security forces. Most of the guns otherwise in circulation on the street are illegal and unregistered—and many come from sellers in the United States. Seventy per cent of guns recovered by authorities in Mexico, for instance, were originally sold in the U.S.—most of them in Texas, California, and Arizona, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Forty-nine per cent of weapons recovered in El Salvador came from the U.S., compared to forty-six per cent in Honduras and twenty-nine per cent in Guatemala."
  • The New York Times has moving photos from a new book on the story of Latin American immigration to the U.S. While photographer John Moore has focused on the border, for him "immigration begins and ends well beyond the physical border — a line where fear and hope collide to shape American politics. ... Mr. Moore’s border drops down to the gang-controlled neighborhoods of Honduras, where violence and insecurity are forcing record numbers of families to flee. It stretches north for hundreds of miles, from the auburn deserts of Arizona into the farmlands of Colorado, where migrant workers grow and harvest organic kale."
  • Reintegrating into a country they have never known can be hard for Mexican migrants who spent most of their life in the U.S. before being forced back, reports the New York Times.
  • The Trump administration declined to donate $11 million in unspent funds for the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti to a fund to alleviate cholera impacts there. But the $1.3 trillion spending package that was passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump on Friday includes $10 million to help Haiti fight cholera, thanks to the efforts of Sen. Patrick Leahy who pushed to contribute to small, locally based projects in communities severely impacted by the deadly waterborne epidemic, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The government of former President Rafael Correa abused the criminal justice system to target indigenous leaders and environmentalists who protested mining and oil exploration in the Amazon, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The groups are operating more freely under President Lenín Moreno, but the abusive prosecutions set in motion by his predecessor remain unaddressed. A new report shows that prosecutors in three prominent cases failed to produce sufficient evidence to support serious charges or justify the years-long continuation of a criminal investigation.
  • A delegation of Amazonian indigenous women have asked Moreno to limit oil drilling and mining in their traditional territories, and to combat the risks environmental activists face. They said women are particularly at risk, and that sexual violence and death threats accompany the extractivist industries, reports the Guardian.
  • Some days in Argentina it's hard not to feel like you're trapped in an economic version of Groundhog Day. Periods of economic bonanza, chased by austerity, borrowing and neoliberalism. But the Macri administration is applying a form of gradualism that seeks to check the worst ramifications of economic austerity while breaking with recent populist governments, argues Richard Lapper in Americas Quarterly
  • An international effort to trace Argentine soldiers killed in the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War has succeeded in identifying 90 men buried in anonymous graves. The families of the fallen soldiers will visit the graves today, in a meticulously planned ceremony that will feature neither Argentine nor British flags, reports the Guardian.
  • José Abreu, the founder of a program that teaches music to poor Venezuelan children, died on Saturday, reports the BBC. El Sistema's focus is combat poverty through music, teaching classical works in free afternoon lessons in poor areas. Though Abreu started his program in 1975, it was heavily supported by the late President Hugo Chávez. Graduates of the system, notably Gustavo Dudamel, director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, have broken with the government in recent years, reports Reuters.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Peru in political crisis (March 23, 2018)

Peruvian first vice president Martín Vizcarra is set to assume office today, after Pedro Pablo Kuczynski offered his resignation on Wednesday amid growing allegations of wrongdoing. Last night Congress was debating whether to accept PPK's resignation, but suspended the debate until this morning, when Vizcarra will be sworn in, reports La República.

In a new twist this morning, a leaked version of the congressional resolution accepting the resignation calls Kuczynski a traitor to his country. PPK said he would not accept such a resolution and would retire his letter of resignation and face impeachment proceedings instead, reports La Mula.

Vizcarra assumes in the midst of a wider political crisis -- nearly half of the electorate supports calling early elections. About 3,000 people marched outside the Congress in Lima yesterday evening, demanding general elections, reports La Mula

Several parties yesterday called for government focused on unity and targeting corruption, and transitioning to an early election. Fuerza Popular, the main opposition party that is also responsible for undermining PPK's ability to govern, was initially opposed to the call for an early election, reports La República. Vizcarra has received assurances from opposition lawmakers that he will be allowed to govern, reports Reuters.

During yesterday's session, many lawmakers rejected the terms of PPK's resignation, saying he had not apologized to the country nor admitted his role in the political crisis, reports La Mula.

Peruvian anti-graft prosecutors sought to bar PPK from leaving the country yesterday, reports Reuters. He will lose presidential immunity later today.

The Odebrecht scandal has impacted most major Peruvian figures, and some analysts are starting to compare its impact to that in Brazil, reports the Washington Post.

Videos released this week purportedly showing PPK supporters buying votes against an impeachment motion pushed the teetering government over the edge. The videos implicate Kenji Fujimori, and were taken by a supporter of his sister Keiko Fujimori, leader of the dominant Fuerza Popular party. "For many Peruvians, the surreptitious recording brought back painful memories of the corruption and blackmail techniques used by the Fujimori regime two decades ago," notes the WP.

But the crisis also shows the fragility of Peru's democracy say some analysts. Over the past 19 months of the Kuczynski administration, Congress either fired or forced the resignation of three ministers and at one point it fired the entire cabinet, and lawmakers tried to fire the attorney general and four judges of the Constitutional Court, reports the New York Times. Lawmakers twice accepted impeachment motions against Kuczynski.

News Briefs
  • Uruguay's groundbreaking cannabis legalization and its experiences implementing regulation could hold valuable lessons for other jurisdictions evaluating how to regulate cannabis, according to a  new WOLA-Brookings Institution report. The report "examines the conditions that led Uruguay’s government to pass its cannabis law in 2013, studies its progress so far, and identifies areas that policymakers should consider addressing in order to maximize the law’s potential benefits." It particularly recommends that Uruguay consider measures to help cannabis businesses have access to financial institutions and that authorities may need to tinker with rules regarding how consumers can access cannabis, and increase legal points of sale. The reports authors, John Hudak, Geoff Ramsey, and John Walsh also note the need for substantial training for medical and law enforcement sectors, "particularly regarding the aims and expected benefits of cannabis regulation, how to broaden access to medical cannabis, and the new enforcement rules under the law."
  • A fourteen-year-old Paraguayan rape victim died giving birth. Abortion is prohibited unless the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. A 37-year-old man who raped and impregnated the girl was arrested yesterday, reports the Guardian.
  • In recent years Venezuela's president, Nicolás Maduro, has moved away from his initial system of consensus with close Chavista allies, and angling for increased hegemony and independence from old ruling structures, writes Dimitri Pantoulas at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The piece traces the new generation of Maduro's high command, and the emerging divisions among Chavistas. He marks that "a new political era may be starting" in the country, though the moment is characterized by volatility and instability.
  • The U.S., Canada, and the European Union have all implemented targeted sanctions against certain Venezuelan officials. At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Geoff Ramsey compiles information on who exactly has been targeted and looks at some of the broader ramifications. The policy has some of the benefits of multilateral sanctions, though, the fact that they are not coordinated between countries can also make it difficult for other country's to ramp up the pressure on targeted officials. Nonetheless, the discrepancies could also be a strong-point, argues Ramsey. And though the sanctions have little impact on those targeted, who continue to participate in the government, they could have a deterrent effect on other officials who seek to avoid joining the list. "However, a simple look at the timeline of the country’s trajectory since then shows the sanctions have not been effective at modifying the Maduro government’s behavior. This is not to say that sanctions are not restricting where targeted officials’ can travel or invest, or potentially serving as a signal to those who have not yet been named. But it is clear that the deterioration of Venezuelan democracy has continued despite the rollout of targeted sanctions. Indeed, further research could show these sanctions may have even contributed to this deterioration." His analysis also points to some interesting gaps in the officials targeted by U.S. sanctions, including PSUV leader Diosdado Cabello, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, and Jorge and Delcy Rodríguez. "All are significant powerbrokers in Maduro’s inner circle. The fact that the United States has avoided sanctioning them ... may be an implicit recognition of targeted sanctions’ ability to bind officials to the Maduro government rather than encourage a split. This, then, raises the question of the other ways in which the U.S. government may be reaching out to them, and what messages it may be communicating."
  • U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he will meet with counterparts from the European Union, Canada, the U.K. and many Latin American countries in Washington in April to coordinate efforts to tighten economic pressure on Venezuela, reports Bloomberg.
  • The Miss Venezuela beauty pageant has been suspended as the organization investigates allegations that contestants benefited from government corruption, reports the BBC.
  • The International Labour Organization launched a commission of inquiry on Wednesday into complaints that Venezuela is violating standards including freedom of association and workers' rights to organize, reports Reuters.
  • International activists, writers, journalists, film-makers, politicians and actors have called for an independent commission to investigate the murder of Rio de Janeiro council-woman Marielle Franco, reports the Guardian. In an open letter they say "she vehemently challenged the impunity surrounding extrajudicial killings of Black youth by security forces," and that her "activism earned her many powerful enemies."
  • BBC investigation has found that fake social media accounts and blogs were used to back the candidacy of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil during the 2010 election campaign.
  • A Brazilian federal appeals court will make a final ruling next week on a corruption conviction of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, potentially sending the popular leader to jail, reports Reuters.
  • Ecuadorean authorities say the a faction of the Colombian ELN guerrillas is responsible for an attack that killed three soldiers, reports the Associated Press.
  • The Miami Herald has a critical analysis of the Cuban electoral system, a single party list for National Assembly members who will soon choose a new president, likely Miguel Díaz Canel.
  • Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico will be among several allies exempt from steel and aluminium tariffs to be implemented by the U.S., reports the BBC.
  • A tiny humanoid mummy found in Chile's Atacama dessert was so malformed that it fueled theories of alien life-forms. Instead, DNA analysis has revealed it to be the remains of a baby girl, who was likely stillborn or died soon after birth, reports the Guardian.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

PPK resigns amid scandal (March 22, 2018)

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski offered his resignation yesterday, amid a growing scandal regarding ties to a corruption plagued Brazilian firm. PPK denied wrongdoing, but said he would offer his resignation in order to avoid being an "obstacle" to the country, reports the Guardian. Just over a year and a half after assuming office, PPK is the first sitting president to be forced out due to links to Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Lawmakers yesterday voiced anger that PPK did not apologize for wrongdoing, and could choose to reject his resignation and impeach him anyway, reports the New York Times.

Vice President Martín Vizcarra, who was serving as ambassador to Canada, is returning to Peru today to assume office, reports La República. He plans to maintain the upcoming Summit of the Americas meeting in Lima. Regional leaders had voiced concern over attending, but consider the resignation to be a democratic transition.

However half the population favored calling new elections in the event of PPK's resignation, even before the release of videos this week apparently incriminating PPK supporters in attempting to buy lawmakers' support, reports La República. Only 26 percent of the population supported Vizcarra finishing the current presidential term, through 2021.

Lawmakers were set to vote on impeachment proceedings against PPK today, in relation to consulting fees from Odebrecht. PPK denies wrongdoing, noting that the fees were paid when he did not hold political office. Nonetheless, his administration was marked by scandal and further hit this week with the release of videos in which a government official and supporters in congress apparently buying another lawmakers vote against impeachment, reports the Miami Herald.

Kuczynski was also harmed by a last minute Christmas pardon to former dictator Alberto Fujimori, which many observers considered a quid-pro-quo after his son Kenji Fujimori broke with the main opposition party in a December impeachment vote that PPK narrowly survived, reports the Washington Post.

The five lawmakers implicated in videos released this week -- including Kenji Fujimori -- will be the subject of a congressional commission that could oust them, reports La República. (See yesterday's briefs.) Government officials denied that the videos represented vote buying, and Kuczynski said they had been selectively edited to look bad. Kenji Fujimori said they reflected typical negotiations.

In the Miami Herald, Andrés Oppenheimer notes that while it's a sign of institutional strength that PPK resigned in relation to the Odebrecht corruption case, "there’s huge irony here: Other Latin American governments — such as Venezuela’s — were much more tainted by the same corruption scandal and haven’t suffered any consequences."

In the meantime, Peru's decision to exclude Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro from the upcoming Summit of the Americas is causing a rift among the region's governments. Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the eastern Caribbean and a staunch Maduro supporter, said that "several countries are writing letters ... urging the president of Peru to not disinvite Maduro," reports the Miami Herald.

News Briefs
  • Veracruz journalist Leobardo Vázquez Atzin was killed yesterday in his home, the third Mexican reporter killed so far this year, reports Animal Político. An Artículo 19 report released this week found that attacks against the press rose to record levels under the Peña Nieto government's years in power. Since December 2012 there have been 1,986 attacks, a 212 percent increase in 7 years. Twelve reporters were killed last year, reports Animal Político. The report emphasizes the role that the government plays in the persistence of these crimes, notes InSight Crime. Though organized crime bears some of the blame, Article 19 clarifies that a large share of the blame also lies with corrupt government officials. Of the 1,986 cases of aggression against journalists documented in the last five years, 8 percent are thought to have been committed by members of organized crime groups, while 48 percent are attributed to government officials at the local, state and federal levels, explains InSight. The report did not specify the actors suspected in the remainder of the cases.
  • Mexican opposition presidential candidates, Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Ricardo Anaya, have called for the country's electoral authority to investigate reports that Cambridge Analytica is operating in Mexico ahead of this year's elections, reports Animal Político. In November, Buzzfeed reported the company was staffing up to work on seven gubernatorial campaigns, though it was not legally registered with electoral authorities. (See briefs for Nov. 3, 2017.) AMLO has previously charged that Cambridge Analytica has carried out actions against his campaign, though it's not clear who employed the firm.
  • Nearly half of Mexico's voters, 46 percent, believe there will be fraud in the upcoming elections. And 40 percent believe their vote is not important in defining the country's path, reports Animal Político.
  • Social leaders in Colombia have become mortal victims at an alarming rate since the FARC peace agreement, reports InSight Crime. A total of 282 social leaders have been killed in Colombia between 2016 and the end of February 2018, an average of 11 per month. And nearly a third of these killings occurred in 2017 alone. Most of these deaths can be ascribed to a realigning of the country's criminal underworld after the FARC demobilization, and struggles to control territories (coca cultivation and illegal mining) formerly under guerrilla domination.
  • Though the new FARC's results in recent legislative elections were bad, their transformation into a political party is an inescapable step in achieving a lasting peace in the country, argues Darío Villamizar in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • Guyanese campaigners have legally challenged oil companies preparing to drill off their country's shores. The citizens' group is funding the battle against oil giants Exxon Mobil, Hess Corporation and Nexen through the crowdfunding site CrowdJustice, reports the Guardian. Campaigners say the companies lack the necessary environmental permit, making their licenses illegal. Their actions are interfering in one of the most sought after prospects in the oil world.
  • Brazilian environmental campaigners highlighted the life-threatening drought and contamination faced by communities in the world's most water-rich country. They participated in an alternative forum in Brasilia, outside the World Water Forum held by technical experts, reports the Guardian. They emphasized the mortal attacks campaigners often face as they seek to defend communities' environments. 
  • Brazilian football star Ronaldinho joined the PRB party, with links to a conservative Evangelical church. He might make a run for Congress, though his World Cup commitments would likely interfere, reports the Guardian.
  • Venezuela's Petro is not very solid, but the idea of a cryptocurrency to target hyper-inflation is promising, according to the Economist.