Monday, May 6, 2019

Cortizo wins in Panama (May 6, 2019)

Laurentino "Nito" Cortizo won Panama's presidential election yesterday, in a race that turned out to be unexpectedly close. 

Cortizo had 33 percent of the votes, while his closest opponent, Romulo Roux, had 31 percent. Roux, from former President Ricardo Martinelli's right-wing Democratic Change party, alleged irregularities and refused to concede. (There is no runoff in Panamanian elections.) Panama's electoral authorities unofficially declared Cortizo the winner this morning, with 95 percent of the votes tallied. The final announcement will be Thursday. (BBCDeutsche WelleBloomberg)

Cortizo, a member of the Democratic Revolutionary Party candidate held a double-digit lead in most polls ahead of the election. Voters were outraged by a recent spate of government corruption scandals, reports Al Jazeera.

Citizens also cast votes for 71 legislators, and hundreds of local officials. Corruption scandals implicating the past two administrations and all three main political parties have helped create favorable conditions for independent candidates.


Venezuela's ongoing power struggle

Protests this weekend in Venezuela were small, perhaps reflecting frustration with last week's botched ouster attempt, reports the Guardian. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó defended the plot this weekend. Though President Nicolás Maduro's top aides ultimately didn't defect, he said the efforts deepened fractures among Venezuela's military and government, reports ABC News

However, the greatest threat to the push against Maduro may be fractions within the opposition itself, reports the Washington Post. Guaidó must face the enmity of the Maduro government, but also the challenge of maintaining unity within the factious oppositions ranks and disillusionment among citizen supporters of his cause, reports El País.

The existence of a plan to turn against Maduro by high-level officials, though failed, still indicates schisms that could grow, said Guaidó's mentor Leopoldo López and U.S. special envoy to Venezuela Elliot Abrams, among others. But analysts say divisions in the military are not so clear. "There is no evidence of deep rifts within the [Venezuelan] armed forces," WOLA expert David Smilde told the Los Angeles Times. "If there were, Maduro would quickly act upon it." (Several experts believe instead that the opposition and U.S. officials, were duped by Maduro allies, see below.)

Guaidó told the BBC that he would consider asking the U.S. to intervene. He welcomed U.S. statements that all options are under evaluation, but also said he will take any U.S. offer to the National Assembly for a vote, he told the Washington Post.

The U.S. in turn might not seek Congressional approval of a military plan, according to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He said the Trump administration is preparing a broad range of options to support Guaidó, that include "diplomatic options, political options, options with our allies and then ultimately a set of options that would involve use of U.S. military." He also called for (other) countries to stop meddling in Venezuela: "We want the Venezuelan people not to have interference from any country, whether it's China or Russia. (Washington PostNPRFox News)

In turn, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged the United States to abandon its “irresponsible” plan to overthrow Maduro. He spoke with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza in Moscow yesterday. (GuardianReutersEFE)

The back-and-forth belied the good-will apparently expressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump in a Friday phone call. Trump said they agreed that humanitarian aid is a priority for the country. (Reuters) Russia said that Trump initiated the phone call, and that Putin emphasized that outside intervention in Venezuela only undermines prospects for a political settlement. (Washington Post)

Maduro appeared with troops at a military academy in Cojedes state, on Saturday, an attempt to portray strength in the wake of the attempted uprising, reports the New York Times. Seven Venezuelan military officers were killed over the weekend when their helicopter crashed on the way to Cojedes.

The International Contact Group for Venezuela meets today in Costa Rica on a ministerial level, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said he spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about finding a dialogue-based solution to Venezuela's crisis, reports EFE.

Operación Libertad

Luz Mely Reyes provides the most complete account of what is known about last week's attempted ouster. She emphasizes that a Supreme Court ruling was to form the backbone of Operación Libertad. It would have empowered the National Assembly to take executive actions, eliminated Maduro's supra-congressional National Constituent Assembly, freed political prisoners, and called new elections. 

The basics of Operación Libertad are now known: key figures of the armed forces would defect, sending a message to the military at large to switch sides. Maduro would leave to Cuba "in dignity," while the rest of his cabinet would keep their jobs. This much had been written out in a document. What is less clear is if Operación Libertad was a real plan or a trap, reports the Guardian in a good recap of the last week in Venezuela's crisis.

Others hypothesize that Maduro officials were spooked when opposition leader Leopoldo López was sprung from house arrest and appeared in Guaidó's video calling for an uprising, reports the Washington Post.

Guaidó suggested he overestimated military defections against Maduro when he called for an uprising last Tuesday, reports the Washington Post.

But the Associated Press reports that in recent years the U.S. rebuffed opportunities for back-channel contact with high level Venezuelan officials -- including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez and Gen. Ivan Hernández, head of both the presidential guard and military counterintelligence, two key supporters who allegedly were planning to defect as part of Operación Libertad, but ultimately didn't.

The ultimate lesson of the past week is that "it is not time to improvise, but to design and agree on an institutional exit," writes Alberto Barrera Tyszka in a New York Times Español op-ed.

More from Venezuela
  • A military ouster of Maduro does not necessarily mean a Guaidó government or an immediate democratic transition warn Michael Shifter and Bruno Binetti in a New York Times op-ed from last week.
News Briefs

  • U.S. officials constantly offer praise and sympathy to Venezuelans -- but they are not offering asylum. The Trump administration has resisted using Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a program that allows people of certain nationalities to remain and work in the U.S. for a period of time. (Guardian)
  • The U.S. Trump administration is still pushing for Mexico to sign a "safe third country" agreement, which would allow U.S. authorities to turn back asylum seekers at the border with Mexico. The problem is, Mexico has little incentive and still less resources to do such a thing, argues León Krauze in a Washington Post opinion piece.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has done a complete about face on migration in just three months: from promises of welcome and humanitarian treatment, to roundups and deportations, writes Oscár Martínez in a New York Times Español op-ed. On the issue of migration AMLO accepted an "absurd game of opposites," he writes, that Mexico must either be the U.S.'s anti-immigrant wall, or just let everybody pass freely. In the middle, are viable solutions, Martínez argues. 
  • AMLO's war on fuel theft made impressive gains in just a few months -- 95 percent reduction since January. But critics say the gains against the criminal networks behind the industry are just temporary, reports the New York Times.
  • Mexican radio journalist Telésforo Santiago Enríquez was killed last week in Oaxaca state, underscoring Mexico's ongoing status as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters. (Washington Post)
  • Violence against women in Mexico has been met with indifference and impunity say rights groups, particularly notable in femicide investigations -- or lack thereof. (Wall Street Journal)
  • A year after Nicaragua's massive protests, street demonstrations have died down, but government repression has not, writes Carlos Salinas Maldonado in Americas Quarterly. "Nicaragua has become a grim example of how quickly press freedom can be eroded, with journalists threatened, criminalized and attacked for doing their jobs. My case is a prime example."
  • Odebrecht corruption investigators and witnesses are facing threats from a “radical group” dubbed the “Fuerza de Choque,” or “Shock Force,” within Peru's Partido Aprista Peruano political party, said a Peruvian prosecutor. Indeed, whistleblowing on Odebrecht seems to come with risks, notes InSight Crime, in Colombia, at least four individuals key to the Odebrecht investigation have either died mysteriously or been seriously injured.
  • Police killed 434 people in Rio de Janeiro state in the first three months of the year -- an increase of 18 percent over the same period last year, and a record high, reports the Associated Press. Governor Wilson Witzel, who took office in January, campaigned on a promise of zero-tolerance against criminals. He confirmed plans this year for a "shoot to kill" policy.
  • A Brazilian movement that claims teachers are indoctrinating students with leftist ideology has gained traction, and support from President Jair Bolsonaro. They have called for students to film their teachers to prove partisanship, a move critics say distracts from real issues affecting Brazil's education system, reports the Guardian.
  • Amid a growing wave of protest, Bolsonaro cancelled his upcoming New York trip. He was to be feted by the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce, but faced mounting criticisms from venues and sponsors who refused to back his history of homophobic, racist and misogynist remarks, along with detrimental environmental policies. (GuardianWashington Post, and New York Times)
Literary Corner
  • After Maria is a graphic novella by Dr Gemma Sou and John Cei Douglas about a Puerto Rican family’s recovery from Hurricane Maria. Excerpt at the Guardian.

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

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