Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Maduro assumed responsibility for economic failure (July 31, 2018)

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was reelected PSUV party leader yesterday, in the midst of a blackout that affected the convention and much of Caracas. He will have the power to handpick the rest of the party leadership, despite calls from within Chavismo to delegate that power to party activists, reports Efecto Cocuyo. (Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights goes more in depth.)

Maduro recognized Venezuela's economic crisis, and assumed responsibility for the failure of the Chavismo's "productive models." He called for an end to blaming imperialism for economic problems, though that has been his standard speech since assuming office in 2013. (Efecto Cocuyo and EFE

The mea culpa comes amid several announcements of economic measures, including some form of (possibly politicized) gas rationing and reform of the economic exchange law. Nonetheless, experts say comprehensive reform is needed to change the country's course, writes David Smilde in his Venezuela Weekly.

In another perspective, Carlos Hermoso argues the reforms are tantamount to dollarization and will have devastating effects for poor Venezuelans. (Efecto Cocuyo)

Yesterday also marked the one year anniversary of the election of the National Constituent Assembly, a supra-congressional body of government loyalists. (See post for July 31, 2017.)The assembly could extend its term for up to four years, its government loyalist president Diosdado Cabello said. (AFP)

In the midst of a hyper-inflationary crisis in Venezuela, Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer outlines three possible comparative cases for the country: Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, Cuba, or the Brazilian and Argentine government changes precipitated by economic crisis. 

On the depth of Venezuela's crisis, Smilde cites an interview with nutritionist and food security expert Susana Raffalli, who suggested that 16 states had crossed the line into humanitarian crisis, with 15% of children in danger of dying from malnutrition.

More from Venezuela
  • A new WOLA report looks at how Colombia and Brazil are dealing with the Venezuelan refugee crisis. The report recommends Colombia avoid politicizing the issue of Venezuelan migration, and that Brazil decrease reliance on armed forces for its response to migrants along the Venezuelan border. Among other policies, the report calls on the U.S. to a special refugee category for Venezuelans who fit the proper criteria.
  • Opposition parties that boycotted the May presidential election will have three days in August to gather signatures in order to maintain party status. (Efecto Cocuyo)
  • Opposition legislator José Manuel Olivares fled the country, joining senior opposition leaders who say official harassment has made them fear for their lives. (BBC)
  • A criminal complaint filed in the U.S. last week alleges that Venezuelan businessmen and officials embezzled more than $1.2 billion from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA) between 2014 and 2015, and later attempted to launder the funds through US and European banks. InSight Crime calls it an example of the "pervasive corruption that has pillaged not only PdVSA, but much of the Venezuelan government’s coffers in recent years."
  • Alberto Barrera Tyszka explores the government's political manipulation of history in the form of independence fighter Simón Bolivar in a New York Times Español op-ed.
News Briefs

  • Mexico's homicide rate rose sharply last year, by 27 percent according to new government statistics. That makes 2017 the bloodiest year on record, going back to 1990, reports the Wall Street Journal. Trends indicate that murders continued to rise this year. (See last Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said he'd be willing to resume dialogue with protester, with mediation from the Catholic Church and the U.N., reports EFE. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The White House announced yesterday that it has confiscated U.S.-donated vehicles from Nicaraguan security forces and suspended future donations and sales in response to the government's repression of protests, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe said soon-to-be-released audio recordings will exonerate him from allegations of witness tampering and bribery, reports the Associated Press. (See last Wednesday's post.)
  • Cuba's new draft constitution is effectively a continuation of Raúl Castro's reform program, but the changes outlined "are nevertheless significant milestones along the road to a more market-oriented socialist system," argues William LeoGrande in World Politics Review. New regulations that will go in effect at the end of the year aim to give the state a greater share of privately generated revenue, and also minimize illegal behavior and protect public safety. Still, the restrictions are too many for a thriving business sector, he argues.
  • Abortion activists in Argentina draw parallels between Margaret Atwood's dystopian "Handmaid's Tale" and conservative opposition to legalizing abortion, writes Sylvia Colombo in a New York Times Español op-ed ahead of an upcoming Senate vote that's too close to call. Indeed Atwood personally called on Argentine lawmakers to legalize abortion, saying that forcing women to give birth is slavery. (Clarín)
Animal safety
  • A string of animal fatalities -- a giraffe and a rhino this month -- at Buenos Aires' closed zoo belies authorities' promises to turn the 140-year-old institution into an "ecopark." (Guardian)
  • An order of Mexican nuns Pátzcuaro cares for a colony of about 300 salamanders that could be key to saving the species in the wild. (New York Times)

Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing

Monday, July 30, 2018

Colombia's Urabeños put off surrender (July 29, 2018)

Gulf Clan members said they will not surrender immediately under a new law allowing paramilitaries to halve eventual sentences if they collectively turn themselves into authorities. The group also called the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia and the Urabeños said Friday they were analyzing the new law. (El Espectador and El Tiempo) It was rumored earlier this month that the group's surrender was imminent. (See July 12's post.)

La Silla Vacía reports from a San José de Uré, where three social leaders have been killed so far this year. The town is dominated by the Gulf Clan, which influences everything from drug sales to mediation between neighbors.

Several high-profile Colombian journalists have received death threats over their coverage of the country's peace process, a reflection of an "ugly and dangerous new atmosphere" since Iván Duque won the presidency last month, reports the Guardian. Journalists from Semana, El Tiempo and Silla Vacía have been threatened recently. (See July 18's briefs.)
People aren't the only ones threatened in Colombia. The Gulf Clan recently put a $7,000 bounty on a police dog responsible for sniffing out more than 2,000 kilos of cocaine. Officials quickly moved "Sombra" to a new post in Bogotá's El Dorado airport. (Guardian)
Colombia's anti-corruption referendum
  • There's just a month to go before Colombians vote in n anti-corruption referendum which will ask citizens to determine among seven measures aimed at reducing graft. (See June 7's post.) Though there was a high political cost for politicians to vote against holding the referendum, many parties are holding back from actively campaigning on the issue, explains la Silla Vacía.
  • The Consejo de Estado accepted a suit against the referendum last week. The case alleges that the vote is misleading, because voters will be asked whether they back a salary reduction for lawmakers, an issue that would actually require a constitutional amendment. (El Tiempo)
News Briefs

  • It's been a hundred days since protests against President Daniel Ortega swept the country and have been met with brutal repression, and the possibility of reach change has never been so close for Nicaragua, writes Carlos Chamorro in Confidencial. Though Ortega is, paradoxically, stronger now than he was in April, the cost of staying in power will be more repression. Eventually the military will have to pick a side, he warns.
  • In an interview with CNN and the Miami Herald, Ortega said he wants to strengthen a dialogue with protesters by adding international organizations to the mediation process led by the Catholic Church. He said he was in discussions with the U.N. secretary general and the European Union.
  • Thousands of Nicaraguans are fleeing political violence in their country -- most cross the country's southern border to refuge in Costa Rica, according to the Guardian. Activists denounce that people who have participated in anti-government protests are targets for paramilitaries and security forces. A new anti-terror law allows the government to broadly classify political dissent as terrorism.
  • A judge freed 24 people detained in the Pandora case, leaving just one person behind bars, reports Criterio. Judge Lidia Álvarez Sagastume requalified their crimes from money laundering to cover-up, reports el Pulso. The decision indicates that Honduras is a country of impunity, said the National Anti-corruption Council. (Tiempo)The case involves 38 politicians, officials and private citizens, who have been accused of illegally funneling some $11.7 million in public funds to political parties. (See July 24's briefs.)
  • The family of Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist assassinated in 2016, asked for the organization she co-founded -- Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras -- to be included as a victim in the case against the alleged material authors of the murder. (Pasos de Animal Grande) A hearing in the case scheduled for last Friday was postponed for a month, reports Proceso.
  • Former president Mel Zelaya told a visiting Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that Honduras faces grave issues of rights violations and impunity. In particular he pointed to fraud in last year's elections and repression of social protests. The OAS called for new elections at the time, but there has been no official move to do so. (Criterio)
  • Three women were stabbed at a Chilean pro-abortion march in Santiago last week. (Guardian)
  • Cuba's move towards legalizing gay marriage last week, with a draft constitution that would define marriage "the consensual union of two people, regardless of gender," has been coming for quite some time, WOLA's Geoff Thale told Newsweek. He referenced initiatives such as Mariela Castro's National Center for Sex Education in Havana.
  • Indeed, the new constitution's liberalizing reforms largely reflect the reality on the ground, notes the Economist.
  • A $50 million satellite and space mission control station built by the Chinese military in Argentina's Patagonia has raised questions over the risks and benefits of close relations with China, reports the New York Times. It's part of a broader debate in the region after a decade of increased Chinese investments and loans in Latin America. The capabilities of the Patagonia station could also be applied to military and intelligence objectives.
  • Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra challenged the opposition-run Congress to call a referendum on judicial and campaign financing reform. If lawmakers don't back the appeal, Vizcarra would have to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures in order to call the referendum. (Reuters)
  • Three farmers imprisoned in relation to the so-called Curuguaty massacre were released Friday when the Supreme Court overturned their convictions. They were serving 30 year sentences, reports EFE.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is under investigation as part of a U.S. probe into a massive scheme that authorities say has pilfered more than $1 billion from the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Slashing five zeros off Venezuela's ever-more worthless Bolivar currency, as the government intends to do, will not help much with the country's hyperinflation problem, reports AFP. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva promised to overturn privatizations if he is returned to office in October. (Reuters)
  • A Mexican journalist held in U.S. immigrant detention since last year was released, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Mexican president-elect Andres Manuel López Obrador announced a $16 billion investment plan to boost flagging oil production, refinery capacity and electrical generation. (Reuters)
  • AMLO has not yet outlined what his security strategy will look like. Based on what is known so far, it will likely comprise "three broad lines of attack: changing institutional structures; refocusing the strategy; and engaging in a broader public discussion on priorities," writes Eric Olson in World Politics Review. Controversial policy decisions, such as decriminalizing illicit drugs would likely be put to referendum.
  • Santa Muerte, a Mexican cult revering a folk saint by the same name, is the fastest-growing new religious movement in the region, reports the Daily Beast. There are are currently an estimated 10 to 12 million devotees, including "narcos."

Friday, July 27, 2018

News Briefs (July 27, 2018)

  • Corruption is one of the region's major transversal themes. InSight Crime reviews five proposals to help countries fight graft, including increasing judicial independence, multilateral cooperation and transparency in public contracting.
  • The head of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, Alvaro Leiva, called on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to disband paramilitary groups, dubbed Camisas Azules. (AFP)
  • Ongoing support for Ortega from much of Latin America's left is making it harder for mediation efforts in Nicaragua to succeed, writes Jorge Castañeda in a New York Times op-ed. The other obstacle is Mexico, which president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised to return to uninvolvement in other countries' politics, he argues.
  • Officials from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico asked the U.S. to provide more details on migrant children still separated from their parents, reports Reuters.
  • Executions linked to organized crime rose to record levels in the first half of this year, according to a new report from the watchdog agency Semáforo Delictivo and Lantia Consultores. (InSight Crime)
  • President Jovenel Moïse is increasingly alone in his government and facing high levels of food scarcity and inflation, writes Jake Johnston in The Nation.
  • And the Conversation examines the decade of austerity measures that fueled anger earlier this month.
  • The "cure has been worse than the disease" when it comes to the drug war, outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos wrote in Americas Quarterly.
  • Faith in Colombia's peace process is dissipating fast. Last week several prominent former guerrilla leaders declined to assume Senate seats due to them as part of the peace deal with the government, and the ranks of dissidents are growing, reports InSight Crime.
  • Venezuela will slash five zeros off its current currency, rather than the three previously planned. The move, aimed at targeting the country's hyperinflation, would make 4 million bolivares suddenly worth 40. But the move could further complicate a system already starved for cash, and people wonder whether they will be able to carry out simple transactions. (Reuters)
  • It seems as if experts have been calling the end of Venezuela's Maduro administration for years. Yet, despite the country's ever worsening crisis, he remains in power. The Conversation reviews five grim reasons Maduro will likely stay, including military participation in his government, brutal repression tactics against protesters, a neutralized opposition, the difficulty of finding food, and lack of international leverage to pressure change.
El Salvador
  • El Salvador is in the midst of a severe drought, that has affected more than half the country. About 77,000 corn farmers have been hit particularly hard. (Reuters)
  • About 50,000 people marched against an Argentine government plan to deploy military troops in internal security. Though they would only be used for logistic purposes, to aid security forces, critics say it breaks down an iron-clad barrier established in the 30 years since the last dictatorship. (El Cohete a la Luna)
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri met with his Russian counterpart yesterday in Johannesburg, where they are participating in a BRICS summit. (EFE)
  • Thousands of Chileans marched in Santiago yesterday, many sporting the green bandanas that have come to symbolize Argentina's pro-abortion movement. They demanded broader access to abortion, which just last year was permitted in cases of rape, danger to woman's life or fetal inviability. (AFP)
  • Half of Colombia's incoming cabinet will be comprised of women, many heading ministries with political clout. (Reuters)
  • Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno distanced himself from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who has been protected from arrest in Ecuador's London embassy since 2012. He confirmed reports the Britain and Ecuador are in talks to end the impasse over Assange, reports Reuters. Speculation is "swirling" about what will happen next, according to the Guardian. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • A Peruvian government commission recognized the existence of the Isconahua and Mayoruna peoples, isolated groups living without ties to the rest of society, in a new proposed indigenous reserve. (TeleSUR)
  • Brazilian health officials are alarmed by drops in vaccination rates, in the midst of a measles outbreak in the country's northeast. (EFE)
  • Brazil's centrist political coalition backed Gerardo Alckmin to run for October's presidential election. The business-friendly former Sao Paulo governor is an investor favorite, reports Reuters.
Guyana's "Watery Wilderness"
  • The gloomy picture painted by a recent New York Times piece on Guyana (see last Friday's briefs) has pushed many to try and highlight a more positive side of Guyana on Twitter under the hashtag #LifeInTheWateryWilderness. (BBC)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Two detained for Marielle's killing (July 26, 2018)

  • Brazilian authorities arrested two people suspected of involvement in councillor Marielle Franco's assassination in March. The two men are former military police officer Alan Nogueira, known by the nickname "Crazy Puppy," and former fireman Luiz Claudio Barbosa, reports AFP. Both men were detained on suspicion of being part of a militia group controlled by Orlando Oliveira de Araujo, also known as Orlando da Curicica, reports TeleSUR. They were arrested in connection with another double homicide and a witness linked the two to the killing of Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes. However lawyers for Franco's family say they have not yet seen evidence linking the two to the councillor's death, reports the Associated Press.
  • A group of 29 U.S. lawmakers  -- including Senator Bernie Sanders -- are sending a letter to the Brazilian ambassador in Washington, denouncing the "intensification of attacks on democracy and human rights in Brazil," reports Folha de S. Paulo. The letter references the “highly questionable and politicized” imprisonment of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, criticizes the reduction of social programs under President Michel Temer and the potential implication of state security forces in Franco's killing. (TeleSUR) Several high profile international visitors haven't been authorized to visit Lula in jail, reports Página 12.
  • Jeffrey Gould grapples with with the narrative of the Nicaraguan crisis in NACLA. He notes there are some flaws in the mainstream repression story, including the deaths of police that discredit the notion of completely disarmed protesters. That being said, he considers that President Daniel Ortega has betrayed his revolutionary roots, noting that most of the 300 deaths so far can be attributed to pro-government forces. "The international Left cannot contribute to a more permanent peace rooted in social justice by providing the regime with a legitimacy that it has squandered in violence. The FSLN, with its 57 years of struggle and resistance must now remake itself—cobblestone by cobblestone."
  • La Silla Vacía reviews the main points of the case against former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, accused of witness tampering. (See yesterday's post.) Yesterday Uribe accused the British intelligence agency MI6 of colluding with his former defense minister, current President Juan Manuel Santos, to supply recordings that implicate him in crimes. (Guardian)
  • The case is the first crisis for the incoming government of president-elect Iván Duque, set to assume office on Aug. 7, argues Silla Vacía's Juanita León. Among other issues, it undercuts Duque's ability to maneuver in Congress and will potentially deepen Colombians' polarization.
  • Dozens of Swiss organizations of civil society petitioned the government to condition financial aid to Colombia, in light of the murder of over a hundred human rights defenders so far this year. (Swiss Info)
  • Yesterday U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed concern at the spike in killings since president-elect Iván Duque's victory last month, and that Colombia’s new government must consolidate peace. (Associated Press)
  • After 2017 had a record low in landmine victims, the number has been creeping back up this year. (Silla Vacía)
  • Relatives of the 43 Ayotzinapa disappeared called on Mexican president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador to meet with their lawyers and for the case to be impartially investigated by the Supreme Court. (TeleSUR)
  • AMLO has promised to drastically reduce public officials' salaries and perks, a move some fear will lead to an exodus of experts from the incoming government, reports the BBC.
  • AMLO's Morena party presented a bill in Congress that would slash public funding for political parties, aimed at reducing spending and also political corruption. The Morena party also plans to reject the funding it is allocated for next year. (Animal Político)
  • AMLO's intended foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, announced foreign companies in Mexico will have to meet the same labor and environmental standards as in their own countries. (Reuters)
  • Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro announced a two week delay in launching a new currency, which will cut 5 zeroes off the increasingly worthless Bolivar. The new Sovereign Bolivar will be anchored in the country's oil backed cryptocurrency. Its rollout has already been delayed twice since June. (Bloomberg)
  • Eight former Venezuelan officials and businessmen were charged with operating a massive $1.2 billion international money-laundering racket funded with stolen government money, invested in South Florida real estate and other assets, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Jamaican officials will review decorum rules that frequently lead to women turned away from hospitals, libraries, clinics and government buildings for wearing sleeveless shirts, flip-flops, short skirts or shorts. (Guardian)
Latin America Daily Briefing

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Latin America deadliest region in the world for land activists (July 25, 2018)

Global Witness' latest report on killings of land defenders shows that 2017 was the deadliest year so far: at least 207 environmental activists were killed last year. The report “At What Cost?” shows that agribusiness has overtaken mining as the industry most associated with these attacks.

Latin America is particularly dangerous for indigenous leaders, community activists and environmentalists trying to protect their homes and communities from mining, agribusiness and other destructive industries, according to the report. Sixty percent of recorded murders were in the region. Brazil recorded the largest number of killings in the region with 57 -- the worst year on record for any country in the world. Nearly half died in three horrific massacres. Colombia and Mexico recorded the next highest with 24 and 15, respectively, according to the report. Mexico and Peru saw marked increases in killings, from 3 to 15 and 2 to 8, respectively. Nicaragua was the worst place per capita with 4 murders.

Interestingly, the report marks "a large decrease in killings of land and environmental defenders in Honduras, although repression of civil society in general is worse than ever."

InSight Crime notes the particular threats land defenders face when their activism threatens organized crime groups' economic activities. The Global Witness report links the increase in environmentalist murders in Mexico to the rise in organized crime murders generally. 

The Guardian has profiled several defenders at risk in the region this week. See this one on Maria do Socoro Silva, an activist in Brazil's Pará state.

Uribe investigated for witness tampering and bribery, resigns senate seat

Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe resigned his senate seat yesterday. The Supreme Court called on Uribe to testify in an investigation into whether he participated in witness tampering and bribery. The case originated with Uribe himself, who accused leftist Senator Iván Cepeda of conspiring to falsely link him to paramilitary groups. But in February the Supreme Court determined that Cepeda had not pressured or paid former fighters for information incriminating Uribe.  (Reuters and El Tiempo)

The alleged crimes occurred after Cepeda was cleared and involves convincing witnesses to retract testimony incriminating the former president. The accusations --  including attempts to get witnesses to falsely implicate Uribe enemies in grave crimes -- were made in a series of columns by journalist Daniel Coronell in Semana. (La Silla Vacía and Semana)

On Twitter, Uribe said that the investigation had left him “morally impeded to be a senator” and that he was leaving Congress to prepare his defense. It is not the first accusation against Uribe, who has been accused of many crimes in the past, notes the New York Times.

Uribe is vastly influential in Colombian politics, where he has been a dominant figure for nearly 20 years. He was elected to congress in March with the highest number of votes in the country, and his backing catapulted Iván Duque, a relative unknown, to victory in this year's presidential election.

Some analysts -- including WOLA's Adam Isacson -- say Uribe's setback will give Duque an opportunity to govern more independently from his mentor's hardliners. It will however also remove an important source of support for the government agenda in Congress. (Bloomberg)

Duque refrained from attacking the court yesterday, and did not echo his party's accusations of politically motivated judicial persecution. However he did praise Uribe's "honorability, rectitude, patriotism, and unquestionable service to the country," reports la Silla Vacía, which praised his institutional tone. Nonetheless, Juanita León posits the case could lead to a break between Duque and his Centro Democrático party.

Uribe's resignation yesterday could send the case to the attorney general's office instead of the Supreme Court, with which the politician has often clashed, notes the Wall Street Journal. In fact, it is a strategy employed by several lawmakers accused of "parapolitics," according to La Silla Vacía and Semana

Colombia asides
  • Killing illicit coca crops with herbicides aerially sprayed by low-flying drones will not avoid the complicated ramifications of forced eradication programs such as cocalero protests, writes Vanda Felbab-Brown at the Brooking Institution's Order from Chaos blog.
  • The Special Jurisdicción for Peace (JEP) announced it will take on the so-called "false positives" case -- 2,000 extrajudicial executions of civilians presented as war casualties by the Colombian army. The majority of cases occurred under Uribe's presidency. It will be the third case taken on by the transitional justice system established by the 2016 peace treaty with the FARC. (El País)
  • Apologies for the late reporting on Antanas Mockus' latest public mooning episode, on the floor of the Senate where he took a seat on Friday. (BBC)
News Briefs

  • The Mexican government has repeatedly failed to make progress in respect for human rights, write eight civil society organizations in a memo to the U.S. State Department. The group, which includes Amnesty International, WOLA, and Centro Prodh, particularly notes "a continued failure to hold accountable members of security forces that perpetrate human rights violations."
  • The director of a Mexican news website has been shot dead in the beach resort of Playa del Carmen. Rubén Pat was the second employee of Semanario Playa News killed in under a month. (Guardian)
  • Venezuela's hyperinflation has made cash simultaneously worthless and hard to come by -- leaving many people either paying for transactions electronically or bartering, reports the Guardian, citing WOLA expert Geoff Ramsey. (See also yesterday's briefs and July 17's.)
  • Nicaraguan writer and former Sandinista Sergio Ramírez criticizes the "left's" continued support of the Ortega administration in light of ongoing repression of protesters. In a column in El País he contrasts the Sao Paulo Forum's defense of Nicaragua's government, contrasted to José Mujica's lament that President Daniel Ortega has lost his way. "The ethical job of the left was always to be on the side of the most poor and humble, with sentiment and sensibility, like Mujica. In contrast, the bureaucratic chorus winds up justifying crimes in the name of an ironclad ideology that doesn't accept narrative change. Defending Ortega's regime as leftist is just defending its alignment within what's left of ALBA, which isn't much, after the end of the golden age of free Venezuelan oil ..." (See yesterday's post.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Nicaragua's controversial crisis (July 24, 2018)

  • President Daniel Ortega spoke with Fox News, and denied responsibility for bloodshed that has claimed at least 300 lives over the past three months in Nicaragua. He said the uprising agains this government was already dying down (see last Wednesday's post of an example of the brutal repression opponents face) and blamed discontent on political conspiracy aimed at overthrowing his administration. Ortega insisted that peaceful protests have not been targeted by repression, despite well-documented cases to the contrary, reports the Guardian (See May 31's post on the Mothers' Day March crackdown, for example.)
  • The latest estimates from the Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (Cenidh) put the death count at nearly 300 since April 18, and 400-500 people in detention around the country. (Confidencial)
  • Roman Catholic leadership defended their mediation role in the conflict, after Ortega accused them of supporting a coup against his government, reports Confidencial. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • A Nicaraguan youth has denounced that he was tortured for a week in a clandestine jail at the end of May, after being kidnapped by pro-government paramilitaries. (Confidencial)
  • A longtime reader to Latin American Daily Briefing asked to unsubscribe last week in light of my coverage of the Nicaraguan case, which he called neo-liberal and pro-imperialist. Indeed, that is how Ortega himself has characterized international condemnation of his regime, as has the Venezuelan government. The Sao Paulo Forum held last week in Havana condemned "coup attempts" in Nicaragua. And Atilio Borón, for example, compares the uprising to the recent overthrows of leftist governments in Honduras and Paraguay, noting that they have been accompanied with worsening human rights situations. But many other voices have been more critical, while still noting the complexity of the case. Costa Rica's Frente Amplio marked disagreement with the Sao Paulo Forum's statement regarding Nicaragua. Former San Salvador mayor Nayib Bukele strongly criticized repression of Nicaraguan protesters. In The Nation last month, Rebecca Gordon warned against viewing the current face-off as a reprise of the Contra war, noting that "although leftists around the world hailed Ortega’s return to power, his is not the revolutionary government of the 1980s." In Página 12, Boaventura de Sousa Santos challenges characterizations of the Ortega administration as leftist at all, noting its increasing authoritarianism, kleptocratic nature, and cozy relations with business elites. Former Sandinista Gioconda Belli takes on the Ortega characterization of protesters as terrorists, which apparently justifies killing them. And former Uruguayan President José Mujica spoke last week of a revolution that has lost its way, urging Ortega to step down.
News Briefs

  • Nineteen people -- including three lawmakers -- were detained yesterday in relation to the Pandora case, in which 38 politicians, officials and private citizens have been accused of illegally funneling some $11.7 million in public funds to political parties. An investigation by the OAS backed international anti-corruption mission (MACCIH) and public prosecutors said the funds were used for the campaign of President Juan Orlando Hernandez in 2013, to pay debts of the opposition Liberal Party and to finance other campaigns. Former presidential candidate and current Liberal party lawmaker Elvin Santos is among those detained. (ReutersEl Heraldo, and La Prensa)
  • Honduran unions called a 48 halt in what has been a three-day public transportation strike, in order to negotiate with the government. Drivers are demanding a 92 cent reduction in the price of gas, the government has offered a two cent reduction. (La Prensa and TeleSUR)
  • Earlier this month the Guatemalan Interior Ministry withdrew 20 officers assigned to the CICIG. The decision likely indicates that President Jimmy Morales has chosen the ministry as a vehicle to undercut the U.N. backed international anti-impunity mission in Guatemala, according to InSight Crime.
  • Former attorney general Thelma Aldana is preparing for a 2019 presidential run. She met this weekend with leadership from Movimiento Semilla -- which is preparing to obtain status as a political party -- as well as  Encuentro por Guatemala, LIBRE, and Clase Media Organizada (CLAMOR). The groups are analyzing an alliance for the next electoral cycle. (República) Aldana's team is headed by journalist Oscar Clemente Marroquín, head of La Hora newspaper, who is rumored to be her potential running mate. (Nómada)
  • Former Guatemalan congressman Luis Rabbé was arrested in Mexico, after nearly two years on the run from charges of corruption. (El País)
  • Venezuela's fractured opposition was reinvigorated by the return of  Henrique Capriles Radonsky, and the leadership of the main parties met to discuss a possible agreement. One proposal under discussion is primary elections to decide opposition leadership, writes David Smilde in his Venezuela Weekly.
  • At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, José Ignacio Hernández González, argues for a transitional justice system to create incentives for a democratic transition in Venezuela.
  • Smilde also writes about increased workers' strikes demanding higher pay, and the delay in releasing a new currency.
  • The IMF predicted Venezuelan inflation will hit one million percent by the end of the year in a report that compares the situation to that of Germany in 1923 and Zimbabwe in the late 2000's. (New York Times)
  • A study by Cáritas Venezuela, following 725 children, found that 78 percent presented some form of malnutrition. (Efecto Cocuyo)
  • Facing acute shortages of medicines, Venezuelan HIV patients are resorting to home remedies in hopes of saving their lives, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Over 300 social leaders have been murdered over the past two years in Colombia -- the national ombudsman's office has described recent killings as an "extermination," and some observers fear the violence will only get worst under the incoming right-wing government. (Al Jazeera)
  • Colombia is among the most dangerous countries in the world for land defenders -- 32 were murdered last year. The deaths are associated with paramilitary groups filling the power void left by the FARC, which demobilized in 2016, reports the Guardian.
  • Mexico's homicide rate grew 16 percent in the first half of this year, breaking the country's own record, reports the Associated Press. However, there are some signs that the rate of increase may be flattening. Security expert Alejandro Hope told the AP that the numbers reflect increased homicides in certain concentrated areas, while homicides in other areas are dropping.
  • President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador plans to personally take command of the national security strategy, though his team has given few details of how he will do so, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Guardian profiles nurse-turned environmental activist Isela Gonzalez, who lives with bodyguards after constant threats to her life. Mexico is increasingly dangerous for land defenders: In 2017, 15 were killed (a more than fivefold rise over the previous year).
  • Aid programs targeting women can hurt their recipients even as they help lift families out of poverty, writes Nora Haenn in the Conversation. She studied Mexico's Prospera program, and found the subsidy actually liberated men from some of the burden of maintaining their families, forcing women to shoulder more responsibility.
  • Basic costs of life are spiraling out of reach for Haitians, a malaise at the heart of four days of unrest earlier this month in relation to fuel price hikes, reports the Associated Press.
  • Several events in Brazil yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the Candelaria massacre, in which police opened fire on 43 children sleeping on the steps of a Rio de Janeiro church, killing eight. (EFE)
  • In the midst of the trade war with the U.S., China is increasingly investing in Brazil. (AFP)
Dominican Republic
  • Some of the DR's most picture perfect tourist beaches are inundated with garbage, a sign of the world's growing problem with plastic in oceans say environmentalists. (New York Times)
Fake News
  • The increasing impact of fake news poses difficulties -- regulation has tended to backfire, writes John Dinges at Aula Blog. "In the ongoing asymmetric war between journalism and fake news, investigative journalism, if protected and funded, would appear to offer the most efficient defense for democracy.  Digital platforms have created new tools and platforms for investigative journalism, and new organizations, such as ProPublica, the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, among others, are raising the skill level of professional journalists and enhancing their best practices." (See yesterday's briefs.)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Cuba's new constitution (July 23, 2018)

Cuban lawmakers approved a draft constitution that aims to modernize the island -- including the right to private property and potentially gay marriage. The Magna Carta, as it is dubbed, it would encourage -- and guarantee --foreign investment. (Washington Post) It would also implement judicial reforms, such as recognizing the presumption of innocence. (New York TimesMany of the economic reforms included in the new document would provide a legal framework for market reforms that have already taken place, but also seek to limit the impact of capitalism on the island.

WOLA's Geoff Thale told the Washington Post that the project ratifies economic and political reforms that have been debated for years, but maintains the slow pace and government control that has defined the process until now.

The new Magna Carta, that would replace the current Soviet-era constitution from 1976, will be presented to citizens in meetings around the country until November and eventually voted on in a national referendum. "Every Cuban will be able to freely express his opinions and contribute to reach a constitutional text that reflects the today and the future of the country," said Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. "There is not much left to say, but to do, correct and create." (Miami Herald) Nonetheless, major changes are not expected to emerge in the public debates, which will likely only ratify the proposal. The process will unify Cubans and strengthen the country's democracy, according to Díaz-Canel. Already some observers have emphasized that the document is the result of legitimate debate in the Cuban National Assembly, itself an innovation.

Addressing the National Assembly yesterday, Díaz-Canel called on citizens to join in the battle against corruption -- in particular the widespread practise of government employees who sell scarce goods in the black market, increasing prices. He also focused on the country's weak economic growth, which will entail belt-tightening he said. (EFE and Reuters)

The new constitution will maintain the substance of a one-party socialist state. However, in a semantic twist, the new Constitution eliminates an old objective of achieving a Communist society. (AFP) A radical change in-and-of itself, writes Reinaldo Escobar in 14 y Medio

The new bill would create the post of a prime minister who would share power with the president, and head the council of ministers. And the National Assembly president will head the council of state. The new constitution would also limit the age of incoming presidents to 60, a bid to maintain generational turnover.  (Reuters)

The new council of ministers approved this weekend includes nine new members, but also maintains members of the old-guard, indicating continuity with the Castro governments, reports the Miami Herald.

The same-sex marriage issue led to rare, open political debate on the island, with campaigns both for and against, reports the Guardian. The pro-gay marriage campaign was led by Mariela Castro, the director of the National Centre for for Sex Education (CENESEX), a lawmaker, and daughter of former President Raúl Castro. Its inclusion in the new constitution is an important about-face in a regime that was characterized by hostility towards gay people in previous decades, notes the Miami Herald.

Even as politicians debated extending rights to LGBTs, activists have taken on a hip Havana bar that allegedly kicked out a gay couple who took a selfie of themselves kissing there. (14 y Medio and El Estornudo)

The old Cuba is alive and well though -- El Estornudo brilliantly covers a recent meeting of the country's journalists union. "The Cuba that Fidel created was a copy of the real European socialist states, and Cuban journalism is still, structurally and ideologically, on a fundamental level, similar to that of the Soviet Union in the Brezhnevian sunset, pre-glasnost."


Battling Latin America's Homicide Epidemic - Americas Quarterly

The newest issue of Americas Quarterly focuses on strategies to lower the murder rate in the region -- which accounts for eight percent of the world's population but a third of its homicides. And the rate of 21.5 per 100,000 people could double by 2030 if the current trends continue, according to the Igarapé Institute -- though innovative policies implemented in cities point to democratic and relatively simple ways to revert the tendency.

Another piece reviews key strategies and their track record for effectiveness -- especially military intervention's negative impacts.

  • Colombian homicide prevention protocol helps evacuate citizens at risk from criminal organizations, targeting victims of gang violence who often know in advance that they are in danger.
  • Richard Lapper profiles a Ceará state congressman battling against mano dura policies to combat violence.
News Briefs

  • In Nicaragua the Roman Catholic church is increasingly on the front-lines of the battle between the government and opposition activists -- initially as mediators, but increasingly as defenders of the protesters who have been targeted by lethal repression. It's a risky strategy given the high regard the Episcopal Conference has in Nicaragua, note some observers. On Sunday, in response to a request from the Council of Latin American Bishops, priests around the hemisphere led the faithful in a day of prayer to express solidarity with Catholics in Nicaragua.  (New York Times and Miami Herald)
  • Brazilian right-wing firebrand Jair Bolsonaro formally kicked off his presidential campaign yesterday, criticizing the political center but avoided previous incendiary comments on blacks and gays, reports Reuters.
  • After 30 years of staying out of politics, retired military officers are mounting a broad campaign to take power through the ballot box -- backing about 90 military veterans running for an array of posts, including Bolsonaro's run for presidency, in October. The move is causing discomfort for many Brazilians who are protective of the separation of politics and the military, especially in light of the country's long history of military dictatorships, reports the New York Times. The move comes as support for democracy is increasingly eroded in a country hard hit by corruption scandals. Already President Michel Temer has given military officers unusual power in his cabinet, a reflection some say of citizens' favorable view of the armed forces.  (See June 1's briefs on a poll demonstrating support for military intervention and what a military incursion through the ballot box might look like.)
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri announced changes to regulations limiting military deployment for internal security this morning, pushing forward with a reform that has been criticized by human rights organizations. (Clarín)
  • Argentine judicial authorities are investigating campaign donations to the ruling Cambiemos party in the past two electoral cycles, after an investigation by online newspaper El Destape found hundreds of beneficiaries of social programs figured as donors in the 2017 Buenos Aires province campaign. Since then, the number of "donors" surprised to find themselves listed as campaign financiers has only grown. (Perfil) An earlier Chequeado investigation found that Macri's successful 2015 campaign received significant funding from individuals working for Buenos Aires contractors. Horacio Verbitsky susses out the nitty gritty detail -- including how municipal officials around the province "donated" identical sums based on their hierarchical position -- in El Cohete a la Luna.
  • Peru is in the midst of a judicial corruption crisis, after secret audio tapes revealed high-level corruption and influence trading. Bloomberg notes that secret recordings are a perennial source of scandal in Peruvian politics.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos welcomed former FARC members who assumed seats in Congress on Friday. (BBC)
  • The border between Mexico and Guatemala is relatively porous. Thousands of people cross illegally each day -- though some are day laborers and undocumented migrants, most are people looking to buy and sell merchandize without going through customs and immigration, reports the New York Times.
  • A fifteen-month-old boy was reunited with his parents in Honduras, five months after being separated from his father when the two entered the U.S. illegally. The case came to symbolize the cruelty of the Trump administration's family separation policy, since suspended, reports the Guardian.
  • Meanwhile, hundreds of parents suddenly find themselves debating whether to prioritize reunification with their children or permitting them to stay alone in the U.S. (Washington Post)
  • President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador pulled out of a an international trade meeting being held this week in Mexico. Representatives of the Latin America bloc of the Pacific Alliance -- Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru -- are gathered in Puerto Vallarta. But AMLO ducked out from his international debut, reports AFP.
  • AMLO called on U.S. President Donald Trump to pursue renewed North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations aimed at a final agreement including all three countries in the pact. The message was delivered in a letter handed to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this month, and read out loud in a press conference by proposed foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard  yesterday. (Bloomberg)
  • Though AMLO was chosen by voters seeking a solution to rampant violence, corruption and economic inequality, he could also catapult the country to leadership in renewable energy, argue Lisa Viscidi and Nate Graham in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • "Some presidents of the United States talk about peace, but they never speak about social justice. Peace without social justice is not peace," Bolivian President Evo Morales told former Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on an RT program.
  • Ecuador is in negotiations with Britain to withdraw asylum protection from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up in the country's London embassy since 2012, reports The Intercept.
Fake News
  • In El Cohete a la Luna, Argentine freedom of speech experts Damián Loreti and Diego de Charras review the legislative difficulties in addressing freedom of speech and combating misinformation.  "Independently of technological change, the answer is the balance found long ago by human rights protection systems: more sources, more digital alphabetization and media education, more public media, more right to rectification, more government support to diversity, more pluralism. Less concentration and monopolies, less government or private Ministries of Truth ..."