Monday, April 30, 2018

Nicaragua's Spring (April 30, 2018)

Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans joined a march for "Peace and Justice" called by the Catholic Church on Saturday, reports the Associated Press. The march was the largest the country has seen in decades, but  no disturbances, confrontations or injuries were reported, according to the Miami Herald. Police and government supporters, accused of causing violence in April protests, were absent.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes told Managua demonstrators in the capital that the church would give President Daniel Ortega's government one month to reach agreements that satisfy society's demands in the wake of deadly protests and looting in April. No date has been set for talks aimed at bringing peace after the brutally repressed protests, which stemmed from changes in the social security system, but morphed into wider demands for Ortega's resignation.

Church leaders told El Confidencial that if no progress has been made in a month, they will retired from the dialogue process, reports El Confidencial. Groups of university students said they too would participate, though they asked for more time to organize representation, reports El Confidencial separately. Student leaders also requested the discussions be open to media and include relatives of people killed in the protests. Their demands include a new electoral council and early presidential elections. The movement is still unorganized, but channelling considerable discontent, , according to the New York Times, which asks "can the students, who astonished and awakened this Central American nation of six million people, transform their street activism into actual political change?"

The Permanent Human Rights Commission (CPDH) has raised the death toll from the protests to 64, and more than 160 people wounded by gunfire. Fifteen people are still unaccounted for and nine known to be in serious condition in intensive care, reports the Financial Times. The government released many protesters who had been detained, but there are reports of torture in prison and some might still be in custody. 

Nicaragua's protests, and the government's harsh crackdown and tone-deaf discourse, are a sign of the ruling couple's disconnect from popular sentiment, writes Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker. He notes the many ironies of the former Sandinista revolutionary potentially falling to a democratic protest movement, and the broader regional swing towards conservative governments. The piece mentions the work of el Confidencial, "arguably the only other independent Nicaraguan media outlet of note," next to La Prensa.

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed Ben Radestorf and Bruno Binetti call on the U.S. and regional governments to press for democratic reform rather than isolation. "Without a clear path forward, this Nicaraguan Spring may meet the same fate of protest movements past: lasting instability, violence and even more repression."

It may seem odd that pension reform is the issue that could finally topple Ortega's increasingly autocratic government. In the Washington Post, Francisco Toro and James Bosworth argue that it's a tricky issue everywhere, that cannot be carried out without government legitimacy. They point to Argentine President Mauricio Macri's difficulties in passing reform in December, and Brazilian President Michel Temer's ongoing failure to follow through with a signature pension reform bill.

It is also key that the protests appear to have alienated Ortega from a key pillar of support, the business community in Nicaragua, argues Marc Margolis at Bloomberg.

News Briefs

  • A caravan of hundreds of Central American families crossing Mexico, trying to reach the U.S., have become an unlikely showdown between the Trump administration migrants fleeing terrible violence at home, reports the New York Times. U.S. authorities stopped about 100 who planned to apply for asylum today saying the crossing was at capacity, reports the Associated Press. The group self-identified with white arm bands, and defend their right to seek asylum, reports the Washington Post. Many however are concerned as they learn about the difficulties they could face in the asylum process, especially separation of families.
  • In fact, U.S. authorities appear to be aiming to separate immigrant children from their families as traumatically as possible in order to discourage migrants, write Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.
  • If current rates of Venezuela's exodus remain, more than 1.8 million Venezuelans could leave by the end of this year, joining the estimated 1.5 million who have already fled the economic crisis, reports the New York Times. The flows are testing the region's generally friendly immigration policies. The piece focuses on Brazil, where social services and public spaces in the border state of Boa Vista have become overwhelmed by refugees, and local residents resent the influx.
  • WOLA researcher Geoff Ramsey has been interviewing Venezuelan migrants along the Brazilian and Colombian borders. At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights he explains how these are often people from low and middle income backgrounds who lack resources to travel further from Venezuela. Many seek work in the informal economy and send funds to relatives back in Venezuela. In an NPR interview speaking from Brazil Ramsey says about half the migrants aim to seek formal status as residents, while others aim to stay in the border area.
  • Civilians in Colombia's Catacumbo region are caught in the crossfire of criminal groups fighting over former FARC controlled territory. More than a month of clashes between rival guerrilla factions has forced more than 6,000 people in the region to flee their homes, and human rights groups say about 30 people have been killed, reports the Guardian
  • An encampment of Lula supporters in Curitiba was shot at on Saturday injuring two people, reports the Guardian. There are reports that the weapon is one only used by armed forces and police in Brazil.
  • Contracorriente reports on how the Honduran National Party allegedly employed irregular moves to ensure reelection last year.
  • Cuba's new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel has ushered in a period of generational change for the island's government. Forty-two percent of the 31 members selected for the Council of State are new, and women now hold 48.4 percent of the council seats. Black and mixed-raced representation on the council has reached 45.2 percent, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Argentine writer Martín Caparrós remembers Díaz-Canel when he was just a young Communist Party official 20 years ago in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • A group of U.S. lawmakers want the Trump administration to help Haiti crackdown on contraband from the Dominican Republic, which is costing the Haitian government $400 million a year in uncollected revenues, reports the Miami Herald.

Gender violence
  • Guyanese activists are calling for public action in the midst of a spate of domestic violence -- which has increased 40 percent over the past decade -- and several recent femicides, reports Kaieteur News
  • The horrific murder of a traditional healer in Peru and the subsequent lynching of the alleged killer, a Canadian studying indigenous medicines, "has cast a harsh spotlight on the unregulated world of ayahuasca tourism," reports the Guardian

Friday, April 27, 2018

CICIG under fire (April 27, 2018)

Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned prison sentences for a Russian family convicted on charges of using false identities. The court ruled that the trial judge did not have a firm enough basis for his decision to convict the three adult members of the Bitkov family, reports the Associated Press. Earlier this year Igor Bitkov was sentenced to 19 in jail and Irina and Anastasia Bitkova received 14 year sentences. 

The case against them is part of a wider investigation into a criminal network operating in Guatemala's migration authority, prosecuted by the U.N. backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Guatemalan prosecutors. (The Constitutional Court's decision yesterday applies only to the Bitkovs, not the other 36 implicated in the case, notes Prensa Libre.)

But the Bitkovs say they are victims of a shadowy conspiracy by Kremlin allies -- and have found allies in the U.S., who are questioning the integrity of the CICIG and potential Russian influence on the international commission. The case is being heard today in the U.S. Congress's Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. (Live broadcast of the hearing.)

The allegations of CICIG wrongdoing came to prominence in a recent Wall Street Journal column by Mary Anastasia O'Grady, in which she accuses the U.N. backed international anti-graft commission in Guatemala -- the CICIG -- of acting on behalf of the Kremlin and unfairly persecuting its enemies. The CICIG responded that the prosecution of the Russian Bitkov family was part of a wider case of a criminal network operating within the country's migration authority. (See March 29's briefs.) 

Nómada investigation further unravels O'Grady's allegations -- noting that the investigation started in 2010, three years before a Russian bank tipped off authorities about the Bitkov's illicit immigration status. The January sentence included 36 other people involved in the selling of falsified identification documents. The piece notes that the CICIG receives no funding from Russia. Its $18 million annual budget comes from the U.S., Sweden and the European Union. (See April 10's briefs.)

The U.S. has been key in defending the CICIG from Guatemalan government attempts to defang its anti-corruption efforts. The Morales administration has sought to expel the CICIG head, Iván Velásquez, last year and undermine the anti-graft commission's efforts. Which is why the allegations of Russian influence could be so dangerous for a regional success story, notes the Economist, which says the CICIG has become a pawn in a battle between U.S. financier Bill Browder and the Kremlin.

The fight comes at a critical time for Guatemala's anti-corruption efforts. Last week the CICIG and the Public Ministry accused the ruling party of accepting over a million dollars in illicit campaign financing from a group of business leaders. (See Monday's briefs.) The allegations of Russian influence play directly into the hands of President Jimmy Morales, who has been angling to oust the CICIG since last year -- amid allegations that he and his party benefitted from illicit donations, notes Nómada's Martín Rodríguez Pellecer.

This week Morales and ministro de Gobernación Enrique Degenhart have been accusing the CICIG of misuse of power on social media, reports Nómada separately. The government also launched an inquiry into whether the CICIG acted in accordance to the agreements signed with the country.

All of which comes as Morales must select a new public prosecutor by May 17 from a six-candidate short list selected by a nominating committee. Earlier this month, InSight Crime detailed the inner workings of the commission and potential avenues for interference from those seeking to undercut anti-graft efforts. (See April 11's briefs.) 

Amnesty International highlighted the importance of the prosecutor's office in serious human rights cases, and called on Morales to "appoint an Attorney General who guarantees prompt and effective justice for all, and who complies effectively with Guatemala’s international human rights obligations."

Other Guatemala news
  • Seven inmates were killed and at least 25 wounded in a prison riot near Guatemala City, reports AFP.
News Briefs

Ortega's government on shaky ground
  • Upheaval in Nicaragua has calmed down (see yesterday's post) but the Ortega government is still facing its most significant challenge ever, reports the Washington Post. In the same vein, the Economist writes: "Everything indicates that the ruling couple have lost the consent of their people. It is often forgotten that authoritarian governments tend to depend even more on popularity than democratic ones do."
  • Human Rights Watch documents some of the alleged abuses since April 18, including "credible accounts that suggest that police officers used excessive force to shut down demonstrations in several places across the country and that pro-government groups attacked peaceful protesters."
  • Hundreds of Central America who formed a caravan to cross Mexico will walk en masse on Sunday to the border crossing leading to southern San Diego. Many plan to apply for asylum in the U.S. and will themselves to American border officials, reports the New York Times. Originally numbering over 1,200 people, the caravan would have not attracted much attention were it not for tweets by U.S. President Donald Trump who portrayed it as a national security threat and deployed National Guard troops to the border. (See April 4's post.)
  • By some accounts, up to 4 million Venezuelans have fled their country's crisis. Americas Quarterly has a map illustrating where the diaspora has gone.
  • The U.S. has promised aid for fleeing Venezuelans, but it has nonetheless been quietly deporting Venezuelans who came to the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visas out of fear of returning home, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The Maduro administration is planning a constitutional reform that would create a Cuban-style voting system, where government-controlled “mass organizations” elect local officials who in turn elect legislators, who ultimately pick the country’s top leaders, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer.
  • Foreign influence on Venezuela is intimately tied to oil exports -- Americas Quarterly illustrates.
  • It's not clear what will happen in Venezuela after next month's presidential election -- sorely lacking in democratic credentials -- but eventually rebuilding will have to happen. Americas Quarterly focuses on some of the challenges ahead and some of the leaders from diverse sectors that could help.
Colombian peace deal faltering
  • FARC leader Iván Márquez said he would not take the Senate seat proffered as part of the 2016 peace deal between the guerrilla force and the government. The announcement could further weaken the faltering peace process, argues InSight Crime. The former guerrilla force is divided over how to react to the arrest of one of its leaders on charges of drug trafficking after the peace deal was signed, and the schism could have "dire" consequences for the country's criminal landscape. 
El Salvador's abortion ban remains
  • El Salvador's Legislative Assembly adjourned yesterday without voting on proposals to relax the country's absolute ban on abortion. It's a loss for reformers who sought to allow doctors to end pregnancies under limited conditions, defeated by an alliance of social conservatives and religious organizations, reports the New York Times. Advocates hoped to allow abortions in cases where the pregnant woman's life is in danger, or when she is a minor who was raped. But the window of opportunity before a new, conservative-dominated legislature is sworn in next week, was lost.

  • Mexico First: Presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador is proposing energy sector reforms emphasizing independence from the U.S. -- a situation that has U.S. oil companies worried, reports the New York Times. And the proposals are resonating in Mexico after the Trump administration's efforts to restrict immigration and threats against NAFTA.
  • AMLO would however respect a renegotiated NAFTA deal if agreement is reached before the Mexican election in July, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A Roman Catholic priest was found dead in Mexico, after a presumed kidnapping, the third cleric to die under suspicious circumstances in the country over the past week, reports the Associated Press
  • A Mexican rapper confessed to disposing of the bodies of three missing film students by dissolving them in acid. He said he was paid $160 a week by the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel, reports the BBC. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
Peru's Fujimori accused of human rights violations again
  • Former dictator Alberto Fujimori is set to face charges of alleged forced sterilization again, reports the BBC. Three of his former health ministers will also be indicted, the country's chief prosecutor said.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Que se rinda tu madre! (April 26, 2018)

Unrest in Nicaragua appeared to subside yesterday amid renewed calls for dialogue from the government, the release of protesters detained over the past week, and the reestablishment of suspended television channels. (See yesterday's briefs.Schools yesterday reopened, after being suspended during the protests, and Managuan streets were relatively calm, reports AFP

But the protests, which started over changes to country's social security system, have turned into the biggest uprising in the country since the civil war ended in 1990, reports the New York Times. Tensions over the past week boiled over as a heavy handed security response to demonstrations led to an estimated 34 deaths.

Protesters are now calling for President Daniel Ortega's resignation, though yesterday students at Managua's Polytechnic University -- a focal point in the protests -- agreed to join a dialogue with the government mediated by the Roman Catholic Church.

The protests "represent a national rejection of President Daniel Ortega’s blatant aspiration to perpetuate himself and his family in power at any cost," argues Mateo Jarquín Chamorro in a New York Times op-ed. "The people on the streets have shown that their indifference has come to an end. The government has been unable to stop them from tearing down the ubiquitous propaganda billboards and some of the garish, tin-metal “trees of life” erected on hundreds of streets and roundabouts by the first lady as symbols of her government’s supposedly divine mandate. Nicaragua will never be the same again."

NYT has a video of the disturbances that have suddenly changed the country's course.

"The violence was particularly jarring in a country that has been a relative bastion of calm in a volatile region," according to the Economist, which links Ortega's new fragility to lack of funds in the wake of allied Venezuela's economic crisis.

News Briefs

Homicides set to keep increasing
  • A new Igarapé Institute study warns that the region's dramatic rates of criminal violence and homicide are likely to continue rising if nothing is done. “The overall trend right now in Latin America is one of increasing homicides and deteriorating security,” Robert Muggah told the Guardian. The report also notes the large role of guns in the region's violent crime.
Migrants have become unrecognized refugees
  • Univision News and El Faro received the 2018 Hillman Prize for Web Journalism for their coverage of the dangers faced by Central American migrants in a special feature: From migrants to refugees: the new plight of Central Americans. "The migrant shelters that were once pit stops for people pursuing a better future have now become refugee camps, filled with people often narrowly escaping death and experiencing profound trauma. In contrast to the plight of refugees in other areas of the world, very little has been told here about the struggles, fear, stress, and desperation that are experienced by refugees from Central America."
  • Inter-American Court of Human Rights starts hearing a landmark human rights case regarding three cousins who were disappeared in 2009 by soldiers deployed within Mexico as part of the country's "war on drugs" policy. The court is expected to rule that Mexico is guilty of human rights violations for failing to bring justice in the case and require the government to make reparations to the victims' family, reports the Los Angeles Times. But more broadly, the case is a trial of Mexico's use of armed forces for internal security, a policy criticized by human rights organizations and formalized recently by a new law. Rulings issued by the Inter-American Court, based in Costa Rica, are legally binding in Mexico, and the court's opinion on the law could influence the Supreme Court. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The tragic deaths of three cinema students -- apparently killed by a criminal gang that mistook their identities -- has drawn attention to the massive enforced disappearance problem in Mexico, where about half of the country's 34,000 missing were under 29 years of age, reports El País.
  • Mexico's Senate passed a bill regulating government ad spending. But critics -- including Artículo 19 and Fundar -- say the so-called Ley Chayote only institutionalizes discretional spending that impacts media freedom, reports Animal Político. (See April 16's briefs.)
  • Independent presidential candidate Jaime "El Bronco" Rodríguez suggested cutting off the hands of corrupt public officials in a debate on Sunday. He later doubled down on the proposal, saying "It’’s something we have to do to end corruption in Mexico, which is a cancer." Hours later, a drug cartel dumped a dismembered corpse in Acapulco with a sign saying that they were already enforcing the punishment, reports the Guardian.
  • Buzzfeed profiles Tatiana Clouthier, the campaign manager who might help perennial presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador win office in July.
  • Opposition presidential candidate Henri Falcón accused President Nicolás Maduro of violating electoral rules in his reelection campaign, reports EFE. Falcón pointed to promotion of Maduro on official government websites, state media support for the incumbent, and government pressure on private media to provide Maduro with coverage. He asked electoral authorities to enforce both legal regulations and the accord signed by presidential candidates in March, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Falcón also challenged Maduro to a public debate.
  • Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to irregularities, which are of such magnitude that the country's major opposition parties have called for a boycott on the upcoming May 20 vote. Efecto Cocuyo lists the top 10 irregularities.
  • The only other challenger to Maduro, little known evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci said he'd be open to supporting Falcón's bid, but that he is also considering stepping down due to electoral irregularities, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • The U.S. consulate in Caracas called on the government to allow humanitarian aide to enter the country. Vía Twitter, the consulate said this could include medicine for preventable diseases, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights Geoff Ramsey analyzes the status of international sanctions against Venezuela. He notes the particular significance of Panamanian sanctions against officials announced in late March, as its the first time a Latin American country has joined efforts to isolate the Maduro regime. "Panama’s announcement may be a sign that other Latin American countries could join in applying sanctions in the future, and this does not appear to be lost on Venezuelan officials."
El Salvador
  • "Becoming an active member of a religious community remains virtually the only way someone can leave the notorious gang Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, alive," writes InSight Crime co-director Stephen Dudley in a New York Times op-ed. And that is a clue into how to best diffuse the threat posed by the criminal organizations, he argues. "The gang carries out horrific crimes, but after spending three years studying MS-13, my colleagues and I concluded that the best way to diminish the gang’s appeal to vulnerable young men is to think of it as more of a social organization than a criminal enterprise."
  • A witness in a case against former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe was killed earlier this month, and others have bene threatened, denounced Human Rights Watch today. The Colombian Supreme Court's criminal chamber is investigating whether Uribe with witnesses linking him and his brother to paramilitary atrocities in the 1990s. 
  • Colombia's new ambassador to Seoul is a former commander of the country's military, accused of participating in war crimes and supporting cyberespionage against human-rights activists, reports the Washington Post.
  • Tumaco bishop Orlando Olave Villanova told EFE that the Colombian city near the border with Ecuador is suffering government neglect and the rise of armed criminal groups in the wake of FARC demobilization. The situation is such that some citizens long for the days when the guerrilla group dominated the Nariño area, he said. 
  • Alleged Colombian drug-lord "Don Mario" was charged with leading a continuing criminal enterprise in the U.S., reports the Associated Press.
  • Brazil's Supreme Court undercut crusading anti-corruption Judge Sergio Moro this week. Magistrates accepted an appeal by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's lawyers that would take Odebrecht plea bargain testimonies from Moro's hands, giving them to Sao Paulo justices instead, reports Folha de S. Paulo.
  • Former Brazilian finance minister Antonio Palocci has struck a plea deal with federal police. Palocci served under Lula, and as chief of staff of former president Dilma Rousseff. His testimony could lead to new investigations and arrests in the landmark Lava Jato corruption investigation, reports Reuters.
  • The United Nations’ environment chief called for an investigation into the killings of three environmental activists recently, and said the escalation of violence against environmental defenders in Brazil is of "deep concern," reports Reuters.
  • A bill in Brazil's congress could totally ban abortion in Brazil, where already restrictive clauses push most women into illegality to terminate pregnancies. As many as one in five women in Brazil are estimated to have had an abortion, and some estimates say as many as four women die from unsafe abortions each day, reports the Guardian.
Cabinet shuffles
  • Haiti's government shuffled its new cabinet, named earlier this week, in response to pressure from lawmakers who support President Jovenel Moise, reports AFP.
  • Peru's new president lost his first minister to scandal already -- Production Minister Daniel Cordova resigned yesterday after a local TV channel revealed he had offered to fire his deputy minister to avert a strike by fishermen, reports Reuters.
  • Argentina's government said it received over 30 bids in for six road projects to be built through public private partnerships (PPPs). It's the starting point for a total of $26.5 billion in PPP investment planned through 2022, reports Reuters.

Stay out of our backyard!
  • A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a resolution calling on Russia not to interfere in Latin American elections happening this year, reports the Hill. Though there have been allegations and rumors, no substantial evidence of Russian interference has been presented. Mexico particularly rejects the accusations.
  • Mexican authorities arrested a Chinese airline passenger transporting 416 swim bladders from the endangered totoaba fish. They were tipped off by the strong smell emanating from his suitcases, reports AFP.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take?  Let me know ... 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Paraguay election results questioned (April 25, 2018)

The second-place finisher in Paraguay's presidential election demanded a recount yesterday. Efrain Alegre said he had evidence of fraudulent voting in Sunday's election, in which ruling party candidate Mario Abdo was declared the winner. The race was closer than expected. With 97.67 percent of ballots counted on Sunday, the tribunal said Abdo won 46.44 percent to Alegre’s 42.74 percent. (See Monday's post.)

International observers who monitored Sunday’s election reported no major irregularities, reports Reuters. The head of the European Union's electoral mission said the elections were carried out well, but in a context of "institutional weakness," reports EFE.

Alegre said on social media that the country’s official elections tribunal was too quick to announce the results on Sunday.

The allegations come as Abdo said he may seek to reform Paraguay's constitution in order to permit presidential reelection -- though he promised not to seek a second mandate himself.

The issue is controversial. Last year protesters set Congress on fire in response to President Horacio Cartes' plan to seek reelection.

The tight results spell trouble for governability in Paraguay though, according to El Pais. The emboldened left will likely have more seats in Congress (final results aren't expected for a couple of weeks) which could be challenging for the ruling Colorado party. Analysts expect the Colorados to lose a majority in the Senate, and possibly in Congress outright, reports Americas Quarterly.

News Briefs

  • The migrant caravan that U.S. President Donald Trump singled out as a national security threat (see April 2's briefs and April 4's post) has started to arrive at Mexico's northern border. Two buses carrying about 130 migrants, most of them women and children arrived in Mexicali yesterday, a month after the group started out from the country's southern border with Guatemala, reports the New York Times. More contingents of the original group were expected to arrive soon. Many of the Central Americans are fleeing violence at home and caravan organizers estimated that between 100 and 300 would apply for asylum in the U.S. The mass migrations are an annual rite around Easter, and are intended to provide migrants with safety in numbers from criminals. On Monday Trump said on Twitter that he had instructed the Department of Homeland Security "not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country."
  • Three Mexican film students who were killed and dissolved in acid have become the latest emblems of the country's crisis of violence, reports the Los Angeles Times. Protesters and human rights organizations gathered yesterday to demand an investigation into the deaths of Jesús Daniel Díaz García, Marco Francisco García Ávalos y Javier Salomón Aceves Gastélum, reports Animal Político. Authorities say the three students were abducted on March 19 in a Guadalajara suburb and later tortured and killed in a case of mistaken identity stemming from a rivalry between two criminal gangs. Demonstrators in Guadalajara called for the resignation of Jalisco Gov. Aristoteles Sandoval, a member of the ruling PRI party.
  • This week for the first time the Inter-American Human Rights Court will hear a case regarding human rights abuses committed by the Mexican military in the course of carrying out national security operations. WOLA presented an amicus curiae emphasizing abuses committed in Chihuaha state during military operations there. The case is particularly relevant as the Supreme Court is in the process of evaluating the constitutionality of a new national security law that would maintain the military in a national security role, said the organization.
  • With Mexican leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador firmly in the lead for July's election, his opponents have abandoned policy proposals in favor of attacking him directly. In a debate on Sunday, most of the candidates tried to weaken AMLO, reports the Washington Post. And a campaign ad by the conservative PAN party seeks to spook potential AMLO voters by comparing him to the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, reports Animal Político.
War on Drugs
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said the war on drugs has not been successful. Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly, he called for a different international focus and said drug trafficking is a major threat to peace in Colombia, reports EFE.
  • Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sought to diffuse street protests against his government by releasing dozens of protesters arrested in demonstrations over the past week. Student protesters were dropped off along a highway in the outskirts of Managua. And all the television channels blocked for showing anti-government protests were back on the air by yesterday, reports the Associated Press. The Roman Catholic Church agreed to act as a mediator in a national dialogue. Nonetheless, the situation remains tense after at least 27 people were killed in clashes with security forces over the past week, reports AFP. (See yesterday's post and Monday's.) Yesterday the White House accused Nicaragua's government of "repugnant" violence and repression against protesters.
  • Salvadoran police detained the husband of a journalist killed earlier this month. He is accused of killing La Prensa reporter Karen Turcios, reports EFE.
Militarized security failures in Jamaica and Brazil
  • Jamaican authorities had to redeploy security forces to a neighborhood where murders spiked after the recent withdrawal of a joint military-police occupation, reports InSight Crime. More broadly, the crackdown is likely worsening violence by splintering gangs.
  • Violent deaths increased by 24 percent last month in Rio de Janeiro over February's statistics. Police killings of suspects increased 34 percent last month, in the first full month of army intervention in the city's security, reports Reuters
  • Reuters interviewed leaders of Rio de Janiero's rival street gangs -- the Red Command and Pure Third Command -- who said the military intervention in the city won't solve Rio's pressing violence problem.
  • President Nicolás Maduro lambasted rival presidential candidate Henri Falcón's proposal to dollarize Venezuela's hyper-inflation plagued economy, reports EFE.
  • The arrest of a Guatemalan army colonel on charges of laundering money for MS-13 shows how street gangs are becoming more sophisticated in how they operate in the country, according to InSight Crime. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • Official statistics released this week show that poverty in Peru increased by one percent last year, a reversal after a decade in which poverty was reduced by over 20 percent, reports EFE.
  • Bolivia's government launched a Danish funded wind farm initiative that could soon have the country exporting electricity to its neighbors, reports EFE.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take?  Let me know ... 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Nicaraguans demand Ortega's resignation (April 24, 2018)

Tens of thousands of Nicaraguan protesters marched yesterday demanding the resignation of President Daniel Ortega. The demonstrations, which characterized Ortega and his wife, vice president Rosario Murillo, as dictators, came after six days of protests in which human rights organizations say 27 people died. (See yesterday's post.)

Today the United Nations called on Nicaragua's government to investigate the crackdown on protests, saying that a number of the killings may have been "unlawful," reports AFP.

The protests started in relation to social security reform last week, but are now tapping in to wider discontent with the president, now in his third term since being elected in 2007. Though Ortega announced a reversal in the policy which would have decreased pensions and increased payments by workers and employers, the streets show no signs of quieting down. In an editorial the opposition La Prensa said it's the first time the FSLN party has lost control of the streets.

Yesterday's protest, which occupied seven kilometers in Managua, was ignored by government supporting news channels, but broadcast by independent organizations, some of which have been censored since unrest began last week, reports EFE. Yesterday's march, called by the country's largest business lobby, COSEP, was however more peaceful than those of previous days, notes the Financial Times. And police stayed back from the crowds, according to Al Jazeera.

It was the largest protest so far in Managua, and was led by university students, who called for a release of demonstrators detained over the past week in addition to Ortega's resignation, reports Reuters. The Nicaraguan Center of Human Rights (CENIDH) said yesterday that 120 people had been arrested.

In an attempt to calm waters, Ortega and Murillo held a press conference promising to free those arrested, in order to create space for dialogue, reports AFP

Yesterday's march ended at the Politechnical University campus, which has become a focal point of disturbances and clashes with security forces, report the Associated Press and Univisión. Late last night police raided the campus for the second night in a row, according to AFP. At least one person was killed in clashes there on Sunday night, reports El Confidencial.

In the midst of the ongoing unrest, the U.S. State Department ordered nonessential employees and all embassy family members to leave Nicaragua yesterday, a sign that Washington sees the situation as dangerously unstable according to the Miami Herald.

Yesterday Silvio José Báez, auxiliary bishop of Managua, tweeted that the sides remained too far apart to talk. “I see no conditions for any dialogue with the government of Nicaragua,” he posted. Over the weekend Ortega invited Catholic Church officials to participate in dialogue between the government and business leaders.

News Briefs

Gender-sensitive drug policies in Bolivia
  • A new report by WOLA and the Andean Information Network focuses on the success of gender-focused initiatives to reduce prison populations in Bolivia. Together with poverty reduction and increased state support for mothers, these contributed to an 84 percent decrease in the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses between 2012 and 2017, write authors Kathryn Ledebur and Coletta Youngers. They also note that this is counter to the regional trend of increasing rates of incarceration for women on drug-related offenses.
Colombia accused of detaining social leaders
  • Human rights organizations protested the arrest of 30 people in Colombia's southern Nariño state. Authorities say those arrested have links to the guerrilla ELN group, but various social organizations said they were community leaders with links to indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, reports El Espectador.
Cuba's new president
  • Cuba's presidential hand-over was mostly focused on the theme of continuity, leading some commentators to wonder if all the excitement about the first non-Castro leader in 60 years was somewhat overblown. But the significance of the generational transition should not be underestimated, argues William LeoGrande in World Politics Review. "The new leaders take office in the face of economic distress and popular impatience that will test their mettle immediately, revealing who is up to the job and who is not."
  • Miguel Díaz-Canel's ascent marks the first time the island's government is led by somebody with no influence over the Armed Forces, and opening a potential area of dispute between Cuba's formal leaders and its economic power, argues Carlos Manuel Álvarez in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • Paraguay's new president elect, Mario Abdo Benítez has expressed regret for human rights violations committed by dictator Alfredo Stroessner, but has refused to condemn the long authoritarian regime outright. But the country's young voters, who represent more than half the population don't see much relevance in that history, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Hundreds of members of Brazilian indigenous communities are camping out in Brasilia to ask President Michel Temer to request more favorable policies towards native peoples, reports EFE
  • A new report last week from rural violence watchdog Comissao Pastoral da Terra (CPT) showed there had been at least 70 killings related to land and resource conflicts in 2017, the bloodiest year on record since 2003, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Corruption investigations affect at least 15 of the 20 potential presidential candidates for Brazil's October elections, reports Folha de S. Paulo.
  • Mexico's presidential debate on Sunday was a wash, and demonstrated the disconnect of the country's leading politicians from reality on the ground, argues Emilio Lezama in a New York Times Español op-ed. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • There were few ideas of substance in relation to insecurity and homicides in the debate, reports InSight Crime.
  • The Mexican peso has plummeted as investors fear that leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador will win July's election, reports Bloomberg.
  • Mexican authorities said they detained the alleged killer of Veracruz journalist Javier Valdez, reports AFP.
  • U.S. President Trump said that forcing Mexico stop undocumented migrants traveling towards the U.S. border could be a condition for a new NAFTA deal, reports AFP.
 Rectifying colonial canards
  • Archeologists in Antigua hope say early colonial accounts of savage cannibal tribes in the Caribbean are false, based on new evidence from excavations, reports the Guardian.
All that's fit to print
  • A group of transgender Bogotá sex-workers are publishing a newspaper, focused on security, health and local issues, reports the Guardian. The most popular edition? The one taped up to street corners for sex-workers to read while waiting for customers.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take?  Let me know ... 

Monday, April 23, 2018

25 dead in Nicaraguan protests (April 23, 2018)

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega backtracked a social security reform on yesterday, after days of protests in which over 20 people died. Human rights groups say 25 people have been killed since last week, including a reporter presenting a live broadcast, reports the Guardian. At least 67 people have been shot by the police with live rounds or rubber bullets, or beaten by members of pro-goverment groups. A further 43 people were reported to have “disappeared” over the weekend. There were reports of looting in some areas of Managua yesterday. Last week the government took several channels off the air for broadcasting the protests. (See last Friday's post.)

The pope, the U.S. government and business leaders all urged Ortega to stop the violence, before he made the announcement to reverse the reform yesterday, reports Reuters.

Ortega asked the Roman Catholic Church to participate in dialogue between the government, the private sector and workers unions, reports El Confidencial. The reforms would have lowered pensions and increased payments by employers and workers. The move was a bid to rescue a social security system that the IMF has said could run out of cash by next year, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Ortega offered to negotiate on Saturday, but the announcement inflamed protesters, who are now targeting the government more broadly, reports the New York Times. Ortega's accusations that demonstrators are manipulated by right-wing parties with U.S. funding only brought out more protesters. Leading business associations said over the weekend they would not enter talks until the government ended repression of protests and guaranteed freedom to demonstrate, reports El Confidencial. A leading business lobby, COSEP, which has been allied with the administration since it came into power in 2007, called for renewed protests today. Experts told La Prensa that the COSEP's leadership is at a turning point, and that the crisis will require a multilateral negotiation.

The move breaks the "dialogue and consensus" model that has characterized the regime's relationship with the business sector, explains Carlos Fernández Chamorro in Nómada

Critics say Ortega's statements show a cynical divorce from reality on the ground, reports El Confidencial separately. Ortega said those detained would be brought to trial, and made no mention of lifting restrictions on broadcasting, notes the Wall Street Journal.

Protests that started last week become more violent as of Friday afternoon, with police using teargas and live rounds against protesters armed with stones, according to the Guardian. Some protesters in Managua took refuge in the city's cathedral, and the army reportedly deployed snipers to shoot at them. Angry protesters pulled down "Trees of Life" sculptures in Managua, erected by Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega's wife.

Regardless of whether protesters back down, the damage to the Ortega administration could be a watershed, argues Kenneth Coleman at AULA blog. "Mass movements can start from little sparks and grow into society-wide convulsions.  The outcome of these new confrontations with the Ortega-Murillo government cannot be foreseen at this point, but the parallels with other governments on their last legs are striking. "

Paraguay elects Colorado candidate

Mario Abdo Benítez won Paraguay's presidential election yesterday. He had 46.49 percent of the votes with 96 percent of the ballots counted, reports Reuters. The margin of victory was however tighter than predicted, his closest opponent Efrain Alegre had 42.72 percent.

Alegre declined to concede, saying he would wait for the final count, though electoral officials said there were not enough ballots left to be counted to change the result, reports the Associated Press.

Though Abdo is of the ruling Colorado party, his election represents a right-ward shift for the country, in keeping with similar conservative turns in other countries in the region, reports the New York Times. The party has held power since 1945 (in dictatorship and democracy), with only the exception of Fernando Lugo who was elected in 2008 and ousted in 2012.

Nonetheless, Abdo's platform and Alegre's had significant overlap, notes the NYT. Both promised to strengthen the country's judiciary, sought to overhaul the tax system, and opposed legal abortion and gay marriage.

Abdo is the son of dictator Alfredo Stroessner's private secretary. During the campaign, Abdo did not repudiate the abuses carried out by the region's longest dictatorship, from 1954 to 1989, but he did not "overtly pay homage to the era," according to the NYT. He visited his father's grave yesterday after voting.

News Briefs

Cuba post-Castro
  • The incoming Cuban Council of State is unusually diverse for the island: Over half of newly appointed vice presidents in Cuba are black, and three are women. The mix is even more notable considering that it's the first time a non-Castro is leading the government in 60 years. Economic racial disparities have only grown in Cuba with increased private business opportunities. The move is a reflection of the growing significance of the Afro-Cuban movement, reports the New York Times. Critics however say the new leadership is just window dressing and won't address the socio-economic difficulties faced by black Cubans.
  • Incoming President Miguel Díaz-Canel "faces the daunting challenge of providing both continuity and change to address competing social, economic, and ideological pressures as Cuba moves forward," argues Peter Kornbluh in The Nation. "To succeed, he will have to lead the country through this historic political transition toward a far more significant socioeconomic transformation."
  • While outgoing President Raúl Castro is likely to remain a major power in the country, the next generation of Castro's may have influence behind the scenes, but lies low, reports the Washington Post.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro met with Díaz-Canel on Saturday, the first foreign leader to do so. The meeting shows the importance of the Venezuelan-Cuban alliance, reports Reuters. Cuban state-run media also reported that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had spoken by phone with both Diaz-Canel and Castro, who will remain head of the ruling Communist Party until 2021.
Venezuelan campaigns officially kick-off
  • Campaigns for Venezuela's May 20 presidential elections officially kicked off yesterday. The poll is being boycotted by much of the political opposition, and is considered illegitimate by much of the international community. Maduro is running for reelection. His primary opponent is Henri Falcón, who hopes to capitalize on widespread discontent to overcome the uneven playing field, reports AFP. The candidate is a little-known evangelical pastor Javier Bertucci.

Brazil -- Lula and elections
  • Thousands of people have camped out in Curitiba and in occupations around the country in support of jailed former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, reports The Nation.
  • Lula's imprisonment seems like a turning point, but it remains to be seen whether its a momentary crackdown or "or heralds a sustainable shift in how Latin America governs and does business," according to the Washington Post.
  • Though Lula remains a favorite among voters ahead of the October presidential elections, he likely won't be allowed to run due to Brazilian legislation blocking people with corruption convictions. A former Supreme Court judge, Joaquim Barbosa might join the race with the center-left Socialist Party. The country’s first black Supreme Court justice could potentially upend the contest. He is third in voter intention, if Lula is left out of the setup, according to the most recent Datafolha poll, and his biography -- rising from poverty to become an anti-corruption crusader -- resonates with voters, reports the New York Times. It is not yet clear if Barbosa will run, however.
  • The U.S. DEA is investigating a former undercover agent suspected of providing intelligence to Colombian drug traffickers, reports Buzzfeed. The allegations could make it more difficult for U.S. law enforcement officials to earn the trust of confidential informants related to drug smuggling, according to the New York Times.
  • Mexican presidential candidates held their first televised debate yesterday -- with most focusing attacks on front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador. AMLO rarely responded directly to the criticism, but about a quarter of the way into the debate focusing on security, corruption and democracy, his patience wore thin, reports Reuters.
  • The European Union and Mexico concluded negotiations for a new trade agreement that will eliminate tariffs on virtually all products, reports EFE.
El Salvador
  • A Salvadoran court absolved the late President Francisco Flores of civil responsibility in a case in which he was accused of diverting earthquake relief funds donated by Taiwan, reports the Associated Press.
  • A Guatemalan military colonel was detained on charges of money laundering and links to street gang MS-13, reports El Periódico. Ariel Salvador de Leon worked with the U.S. Southern Command in border security operations, according to TeleSUR.
  • Six members of UNASUR pulled out of the South American bloc. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru said they will leave the bloc for a year, due to differences over how to choose a secretary general, reports the Associated Press. Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Surinam, Uruguay and Venezuela remain in the bloc created by Hugo Chávez to counter U.S. influence in the region.
  • Uruguay rejected a U.S. request to expel Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a Russian spy in Great Britain. Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa called the request "impertinent," reports the Associated Press.
  • About 10,000 people marched in Santiago yesterday demanding an end to the privatized pension system created under the Pinochet dictatorship, reports AFP.
  • A Canadian man was beaten and lynched in the Peruvian Amazon after locals accused him of killing an 81-year-old indigenous healer, reports the Guardian.
Latin America Daily Briefing