Friday, May 4, 2018

Third time's a charm in Guatemala (May 4, 2018)

Guest post by David Holiday

For a third consecutive time in Guatemala, a woman will be sworn in as Attorney General. On Thursday, President Jimmy Morales announced that he had selected Maria Consuelo Porras Argueta, a 64-year-old alternative magistrate in the Constitutional Court. She worked in various justice posts for the past 30 years, first as a prosecutor in the Attorney General’s office, followed by a stint as an appellate court judge. She was one of the two highest ranked finalists on the list sent to Morales by a nominating commission comprised largely of deans of the country’s law schools.

Porras Argueta will follow in the footsteps of the current Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, as well as her predecessor, Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey, both of whom were close collaborators of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CIGIC) and distinguished themselves in the fight against impunity and corruption. The new Attorney General will take office at a challenging time in the fight against impunity and corruption. (See last Friday's post.) Last August of 2018, President Morales -- who is himself a target of at least two corruption charges -- sought to oust CICIG commissioner Ivan Velazquez by declaring him “persona non grata.” (See post for Aug. 28, 2017.) When that failed, the President has sought to remove Velazquez through a more formal, but slower process, one allowed for in the agreement between the UN and Guatemala that established the CICIG.

Despite the fact that this is the third time Porras Argueta has sought the AG role (she was one of three top-scoring candidates in 2014), her views are little known. During the selection process, she gave few interviews to the press, and in recent weeks failed to appear at public fora with other finalists. In a press conference yesterday, as well as in another recent interview with Prensa Libre, however, she said she would work with CICIG, and yesterday characterizing CICIG’s support for the AG’s office as “very important” and that she would take advantage of all the technical capacities the CICIG can offer. For its part, CICIG issued a statement congratulating Porras Argueta, and expressing a desire for continued collaboration.

Given the dearth of solid information, many observers have only speculated as to how Porras Argueta will comport herself once in office. Nómada notes that, during her recent tenure with the Constitutional Court, she has been careful not to participate in decisions that would bring her in direct conflict with the President, while also noting her deeply held religious views. The most serious concern raised has more to do with the report that her husband was once in the military – although she has studiously avoided allowing herself to be defined by her husband, responding in an interview with Prensa Libre: “to be clear, I don’t know any military people. I’ve not had contact with the military or the Army.”

Guatemalans will not have to wait long to see what kind of Attorney General Porras Argueta will be. It will be key to see how she handles her first cases, how she interacts with CICIG, and whom she brings on to work with her in key positions. It is worth recalling that, when Thelma Aldana took office four years ago, many predicted that she would reverse course on anti-corruption cases. That didn’t happen. Now, when Porras Argueta assumes office on May 18, however, the situation will be quite different – a number of high-profile cases are already in process, and there is a higher civic demand for justice in these than was the case four years ago.

News Briefs
  • Brazil's Supreme Court decided yesterday to somewhat limit lawmakers' protection from prosecution. Currently the federal lawmakers can only be tried by the Supreme Court, which has provoked a long backlog of cases, a sort of de facto immunity for elected officials, reports Reuters. Yesterday's ruling means lawmakers will only fall under Supreme Court jurisdiction for crimes allegedly committed while in office and related to their official roles. The special rights have been a huge hurdle for Brazilian prosecutors in relation to the massive Operation Car Wash investigation, notes the Wall Street Journal.
  • A deadly fire in an irregularly occupied São Paulo high-rise has cast a spotlight on the city's housing woes. Thousands squat in precarious abandoned lots, and the city has a housing deficit of 1.3 million homes, reports the Guardian. Activists expect that the fire, which is suspected of killing at least four people, will have a backlash against squatters, but leave underlying issues regarding affordable housing untouched. The roots of the housing shortage go back to Brazil's slavery era, writes Patricia Rodrigues Samora in the Conversation. She traces the history of Brazil's powerful homeless workers' movement. "Currently, an average of 70 buildings in downtown São Paulo are occupied on any given day, though reliable data is scarce. The Roofless Workers Movement reports that 40,000 families in six states are currently on its waiting list."
  • A dialogue process between Nicaragua's government and his newly empowered opponents is due to start soon, but observers warn that temperatures could rise again rapidly if talks don't prosper, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is likely to win another term in May 20's highly questioned presidential elections, which most of the opposition is boycotting due to electoral irregularities and lack of guarantees. Maduro promised to take up arms should a "pro-imperialist" government come into power, reports the Miami Herald. His main opponent, Henri Falcón has proposed dollarizing the country's crisis ridden economy, apparently spurring Maduro's allegation yesterday that the opposition’s "only offer" is to "hand over the country to the gringos and the European oligarchs."
  • From the other side, Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer accuses Falcón of being a bogus candidate, "Venezuela’s top traitor du jour."
  • Journalist Sylvia Colombo defends Falcón as the least bad option for Venezuelans in a New York Times Español op-ed, criticizing the MUD opposition coalition's boycott plan as a way of giving oxygen to the Maduro government. She interviewed Falcón, and found he was short on details of how he would govern, but highlights positive references to leading a "transitional government."
  • Americas Quarterly's new podcast, "Deep South," features exiled Venezuelan mayor David Smolansky arguing that the upcoming election is a sham.
  • The IMF censured Venezuela this week for failing to provide statistics on its economy, reports El País.
  • Venezuela announced yesterday that it will take over the country’s leading private bank Banesco for 90 days, reports Reuters. Authorities announced the arrest of 11 top executives accused of "attacking" the country's currency.
  • The withdrawal of half of UNASUR's member countries -- tactfully couched as a "one year suspension" -- received little attention, but "points to a worrying rise in the level of ideological friction within South America at a time when leaders are struggling to deal with the implosion of Venezuela and benign ignorance from Washington," writes Sean Burges at Americas Quarterly. (See April 23's briefs.)
  • China's lack of soft-power in Latin America contrasts with the vast influence of U.S. culture. But flying under the radar can be strategic for Beijing's economic approach, argues Oliver Stuenkel in Americas Quarterly. "China mostly instills neither fear nor admiration. By and large, people simply have no opinion of it."
  • Colombia's bruised peace process stands to take further hits in the lead up to the country's upcoming presidential election. Violence in Catacumbo and Tumaco is seriously affecting the political consensus to move ahead with the implementation of the deal, writes Christian Wlaschütz at Aula Blog. "Most worrying in the long run is the polarization demonstrated by the inappropriate behavior of most of the presidential candidates."
  • Violence is one of the main issues in Mexico's upcoming presidential elections, reports the Economist, blaming "... a weak state, and especially of inadequate policing, prosecution and courts. Widespread corruption greatly worsens the problem ...
  • At least three presidential candidates, including front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador, will meet with victims of violence and human rights organizations next week, reports Animal Politico.
  • Municipal officials, namely mayors, are particularly vulnerable to violence. Ten current or former mayors have been killed so far this year, 42 between 2010 and 2017, reports the Economist.
  • Political violence in Veracruz ahead of July elections has led members of the PRI and Morena parties to security details and government response, reports Animal Politico.
  • Mexico's national human rights commission criticized the country's penitentiary system again in its yearly report on the issue. Violence, riots and mutinies are common in the overcrowded and overpopulated jails, reports El País.
  • Nearly 20,400 people were forcibly displaced from their homes in Mexico last year, most of them indigenous groups from Chiapas, Chihuahua and Guerrero fleeing paramilitary groups and criminal organizations, reports El País.
  • Argentina's peso has strongly depreciated over the past week, leading officials to bump up the benchmark interest rate to 40 percent and calling into question the Macri administration's ability to enact an ambitious reform agenda, reports the New York Times.
  • Stabilizing the economy has proved more difficult than President Mauricio Macri expected when taking office in 2015 and the public is impatient with measures that hit hard at their pockets, reports the Economist.
  • Peru's recently discovered "rainbow mountain," striped with sediment created from mineral deposits over millions of years, has already become a major tourist attraction, but prompts concerns about possible environmental damage, reports the New York Times.
  • The biggest Cuban cultural extravaganza ever held in the United States will get under way next week at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., reports the Miami Herald. It will feature 420 Cuban performers, 240 from the island.
  • The New York Times' "Overlooked" series of obituaries features Puerto Rican writer Julia de Burgos.
  • Brazilian Cinema Novo director Nelson Pereira dos Santos died. He was considered "the father of new Brazilian cinema," best known for a film depicting five peanut vendors who leave their slum dwellings to sell their wares in the wealthy suburbs, one of the first films shot in favelas and featuring Afro-Brazilian leads, reports the Guardian
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take?  Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing
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