Monday, December 21, 2020

Latin America: 2020 in Review

 Dear Readers,

The Daily Briefing is on a much-needed break until the first week of January -- I'll be back in full swing then. 

It’s been a rough year for many people, and difficult in novel and unexpected ways. Throughout it, the Briefing’s reader community has been a comfort to me. Many of you reached out with tips, corrections, words of support and gratitude for the daily missives. Thank you for that, and thank you all for reading, even when it's a slog. Putting together the report has been a sort of rope through an ongoing snowstorm for me, and on my more optimistic days, I hope it serves a similar purpose for its readers.


I wanted to take the opportunity to take a look back at new from Latin America over 2020, and some key issues for next year.


2020 has been Covid all the time – since March anyway -- but also a lot of other things.






Blazes raged across rainforests and wetlands in Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina this year for months this year.  In all four countries the fires have been driven by a number of forces, but particularly the extensive deforestation of the past two decades. Experts also cite long-term poor enforcement of environmental rules, which has been made worse by the pandemic crisis which has weakened governments' ability to act. (See Oct. 9’s post.)


In Brazil, Amazon rainforest deforestation hit a 12-year high in 2020:  at least 11,088 sq km of rainforest was razed between August 2019 and July this year – the highest figure since 2008. (Guardian) Climate change -- rising temperatures and more extreme droughts -- are combining lethally with fires used to clear land for cattle and agricultural use. As a result, the previously fire-resilient Amazon rainforest is burning, and may be approaching the tipping point when large portions of the forest turn into tropical savannas, wrote Bruno Carvalho and Carlos Nobre in a New York Times op-ed. (See post for Oct. 2.)


In October reports indicated that roughly a quarter of the vast Pantanal wetland in Brazil, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, burned in wildfires worsened by climate changethis year. Fires occur naturally in the Pantanal, and are also used by ranchers to clear land for agriculture -- a drought this year made those fires blaze out of control. NASA analysis found that at least 22 percent of the Pantanal in Brazil burned between January and October, with the worst fires, in August and September, blazing for two months straight. (See Oct. 14’s briefs.)


Argentine lawmakers, moved by intense fires in the country's Paraná delta wetlands this year, passed a bill to protect forested areas against the fires, which have been linked to speculative business interests. As of October hotspots were detected in more than 175,000 hectares in 13 of Argentina’s 23 provinces, according to data from NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). These figures surpass records from previous decades, reports Nacla.




The hurricane season in the Caribbean was the worst on record -- 30 named storms, 13 or which developed into hurricanes, six of which became major hurricanes. Weather experts say that global warming has upended old assumptions about Atlantic hurricanes -- storms are more frequent, stronger and later in the season than before. A larger portion of Latin America and the Caribbean may now be vulnerable to them. (See Dec. 9’s Caribbean News Updates)


In November the one-two punch of Eta and Iota devastated parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala –many are comparing the destruction to that caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The devastation compounds preexisting emergencies – including the climate-change induced drought that has made even subsistence agriculture impossible in the Central American “Dry Corridor” – and could add to migration from the region. (See Nov. 25’s post.)




Migration is expected to be a key challenge for the incoming U.S. administration. 70,000 migrants were caught crossing the Southwest border of the U.S. last month — a 64% increase compared to last November that came in spite of the pandemic and strict immigration enforcement policies, reports Axios.


President-elect Joe Biden's promise to reverse many of the current Trump administration's most controversial measures could add to a potential mass migration, according to some experts. "There are very real risks that sudden changes in policy could generate a surge of unauthorized migration," warned Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute in Americas Quarterly in November.


The current Trump administration essentially shifted the U.S. border further south, by pushing Mexico and Guatemala to enact significant migration control policies. “If before Central American walkers dreamed of crossing the U.S. Tijuana wall ... now they will dream of crossing the Mexican wall," wrote Carlos Martínez in El Faro nearly a year ago. "The Border, like that with capital letters, moved south ..." (See post for Jan. 21.)


The Trump administration’s controversial efforts to stymie migration, such as forcing asylum seekers to await proceedings in Mexico or deporting asylum seekers to “safe” countries in Central America, were supplanted by international travel restrictions and U.S. pandemic excused efforts to shut-down asylum claims. The Trump administration announced last week that it’s ready to implement an agreement that would permit sending asylum seekers from Central America who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border to El Salvador. (Vox) It is one of three such pacts that the U.S. has made in an effort to discourage regional migration. The other agreements are with Honduras and Guatemala, although only the latter has been implemented so far. The so-called “safe third country” agreements have been strongly criticized by advocates, who say the receiving countries are not able to guarantee basic safety measures for asylum seekers. A report by Refugees International and Human Rights Watch found extensive problems with the implementation of the agreement in Guatemala, where the United States sent nearly 1,000 asylum seekers between November 2019 and March 2020. Just 2 percent of the migrants who were returned to Guatemala applied to seek asylum there, with the rest apparently giving up and going home, according to the report. (Washington Post)


What did continue, and actually exacerbated coronavirus spread in several cases, were deportations from the U.S., often of people who turned out to be infected with Covid-19. This was particularly an issue for Guatemala, which received hundreds of infected deportees, and eventually moved to cap the number it would accept from the U.S.  The U.S. failed to consistently test for Covid-19 infections among those it plans to deport and immigration detention centers are hotspots for contagion, reported The Intercept in an in-depth, damning piece in June. The situation is particularly dangerous for Central America's Northern Triangle, which received the vast majority of deportation flights during the pandemic. Guatemala was the top recipient with 100 flights, according to flight data analyzed by CEPR also in June. Haitian officials are also particularly concerned. (See June 25’s postJune 29’s post and Oct. 29’s briefs.)


Protests and Police Violence


Protests were a major theme in 2019 that carried over, though altered by coronavirus restrictions and contagion concerns: it’s not just protests, but their repression. This year protests were highly relevant in Colombia again, but also in Peru where they checked what many people consider a parliamentary coup. In both cases there was severe police repression, that builds on the trend from last year in the cases of Chile and Ecuador’s protest movements. "Police abuses in Latin America tend to be the result of generalized impunity, lack of supervision and an institutional culture of opacity that tolerates, and, on occasion, encourages abuse," wrote Human Rights Watch investigators Juan Pappier and César Muñoz Acebes in a New York Times Español op-ed that reviewed many of last year’s violations. (See Nov. 18’ briefs.)




Peruvian protesters poured out in anger when lawmakers ousted President Martín Vizcarra in November, but the underlying cause was rejection of decades of corruption and authoritarian governance in the country according to some commentators. Many demonstrators were moved by frustration with democracy’s failure to strengthen institutions, social and economic structures, wrote Álvaro Vargas Llosa in the Washington Post. This new generation of protesters sought to break with the past and claimed that the government "messed with the wrong generation,” wrote Ñusta Carranza Ko in the Washington Post. The protests were coordinated by hundreds of small, decentralized organizations formed through social media, reports Nacla. The week-long protests in Peru show new dynamics of social mobilization fostered during the Covid-19 pandemic. (See Nov. 19’s briefsNov. 16’s post and Nov. 13’s post.)




In Colombia, protesters were galvanized by the police murder of Javier Ordóñez in September, the resulting heavy handed response to demonstrations, and the faulty implementation of the 2016 peace deal with the FARC. Social concerns that drove protests last year remain on the agenda as well, many made more pressing by coronavirus economic effects. (See Sept. 22’s post and Oct. 22’s among others.) Assassinations of social leaders by diverse armed groups was an issue before, but escalated significantly this year, as armed groups fight to control territories and impose draconian restrictions on local communities. Further, the government has reduced protections for activists, even as it has  authorized activities that increase the risk to communities, such as the extraction of natural resources, police operations and the forced eradication of illicit crops, according to Amnesty International. (See Oct. 8’s briefs.) The United Nations has recorded the deaths of 255 people in 66 massacres in Colombia this year, as well as the killing of 120 human rights defenders, the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights reported last week. The killers seek to sabotage the country’s 2016 peace agreement and the rural economic reform it promised, according to an October report by the International Crisis Group




Brazilian protesters have poured out in anger over structural violence against Afro-Brazilians, who are disproportionately killed by police violence. The movement has links to this year’s Black Lives Matter in the U.S., but responds to national dynamics. Perhaps few cases are more heartbreaking than the eight children killed by stray bullets related to police operations over the course of the year in Rio de Janeiro favelas (see Dec. 8’s briefs), or Miguel, the five year old who died due to racist negligence on the part of his mother’s white employer (see June 8’s briefs.) "Yet, protests against police violence are not only about police killings,” wrote Thiago Amparo in Americas Quarterly in June. “Protesters read those killings as part of a necropolitics which aims to destroy black bodies, either by killing them directly or letting them die.”




The San Isidro Movement protests against Cuba’s government – and their quashing, which garnered unusually broad local support and international attention – have some commentators hoping activists on the island will have greater impact next year. (See Nov. 26’s post and Dec. 10’s post) The incoming U.S. government is expected to drastically change current policies towards Cuba, returning to the Obama era détente, to a point.




In late November Guatemalans poured out into the streets and forced the government to walk back on a budget plan that cut social spending but increased lawmakers’ stipends. The indignation harkened back to 2015 protests that toppled then president Otto Pérez Molina, but there was an added component of exhaustion and irritation about the country's trajectory. (See Nov. 23’s post.)




Sanitary measures aimed at limiting contagion raised alarm bells in a region where security forces have historically been linked to significant human rights violations under authoritarian and democratic governments. Many of those fears proved relevant, as did vigilance by civil society and activists who denounced excesses.


El Salvador


In El Salvador there have been security force excesses within a broader context of authoritarian slide. The Bukele administration enacted some of the strictest restrictions in the region, ducking attempts by civil society and lawmakers to control measures and spending. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele portrayed his heavy-handed Covid-19 response as one that prioritized human lives over lesser concerns over due process. But critics countered that Bukele's actions have nothing to do with public health, and many moves were, in fact,  counter productive towards battling the pandemic. (See May 4’s post and June 15’s.)


It’s worth noting, however, Bukele’s push against institutions began well before the pandemic, and included leaning more on security forces, violating prison inmates' rights, weakening protections for LGBT people, and undermining freedom of expression. In a particularly egregious episode in February, Bukele led a brief military takeover of the National Assembly building. (See June 2’s postFeb. 10’s, and Feb. 11’s)


El Salvador will hold legislative elections in February 2021 – in which the entire 84 seat National Assembly will be renewed. There are also 262 municipal government’s up for grabs. Bukele was elected two years ago on a third party ticket, but his Nuevas Ideas party is expected to win a majority in congress this time around. Nonetheless the government has also started warning of potential fraud. (EFE)




Venezuela held legislative elections earlier this month that were widely recognized as neither free nor fair. (See Dec. 7’s post.) However, they also mark the end of the mandate for opposition lawmakers who are currently the majority in the National Assembly. They are a turning point for the opposition to Nicolás Maduro, whose government is more consolidated than it has been for two years. As of January, opposition leader Juan Guaidó loses his main claim to the country’s interim-presidency, which is linked to his post as National Assembly president. WOLA experts Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde note that opposition leaders face increasing repression and greater challenges to their mobilizing capacity on the ground. In a new policy memo they recommend the incoming Biden administration change the U.S. approach towards Venezuela – particularly pivoting towards multilateral diplomacy. Negotiations should contemplate partial agreements working towards free and fair elections, they argue, and the U.S. should improve communication with rivals China and Russia on Venezuela issues. They also suggest the new U.S. government “convene an inter-agency task force to review Venezuela sanctions and related indictments, with the goal of reforming policy in ways that alleviate the humanitarian crisis and more effectively contribute to a return to democracy.”




Bolivia, on the other hand, pulled of a startling turn-around, a year after former president Evo Morales was ousted from office due to military pressure and forced into exile. Voters overwhelmingly backed his candidate, Luis Arce in October in an election that was widely perceived as a referendum on Morales’ 14-year government, and a rejection of interim-government that succeeded him. A year of anti-indigenous, theocratic and neoliberal ideology pushed by the interim-government and anti-MAS leadership also helped push voters towards Arce. The incoming president will, however, face significant challenges, particularly a poor economic situation. Human rights activists are watching to see how he addresses violations committed by the interim government, including two massacres of protesters in 2019. (See post for Oct. 20)




It’s been said over and over again this year that Covid-19 demonstrated the region’s pre-existing weaknesses – particularly in regard to social inequality and infrastructure. The gaps between haves and have-nots have never been more evident. Staying home was never an option for a vast majority of the region’s numerous informal workers, who also knew they didn’t have the luxury of adequate health services in the case of infection. Covid-19 has stalled the education of over 137 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean. A November report by UNICEF warned of a "generational catastrophe": 97 percent of the students in the region have missed out on an average of 174 days of learning and are at risk of losing an entire school year. More than 3 million children may never return to school.


The region’s prison populations were evidently a great risk, and the pandemic pushed many countries to carry out releases of non-violent prisoners. Unsanitary conditions pushed other inmates to riot, particularly in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina.


Covid works into another major issue in the region: gender violence and the push for broader women’s rights. Both became even more pressing in the pandemic context, with higher rates of abuse in lockdowns and the spectacular cost of care work increasing and obvious to all. (See Aug. 20’s post.)


Beyond the lockdowns, the feminist year kicked off with a massive demonstration against femicides in Mexico – where AMLO denied the relevance of the phenomenon – (see Feb. 19’s post) and will hopefully close off with landmark abortion in Argentina next week. (See Dec. 11’s post.)


This is by no means comprehensive. There are countries I didn’t mention, and issues I didn’t get to. But I wanted to take a stab at going over some of the relevant themes from the year and what should look out for next year.


I went over these and other topics with Hector Alamo, who kindly invited me to participate on his Remember the Show podcast last week. I recommend listening to it. Hector likened reading the daily every day to a telenovela, or many novelas all at once, which really resonated for me. On that note, I hope you continue to join me next season: 2021. (Cue ominous music.)

Friday, December 11, 2020

Abortion on Argentina's horizon (Dec. 11, 2020)

 Argentina's lower chamber of congress passed a bill that would legalize elective abortion up to 14 weeks after conception. Green masked masses spent the night waiting outside of Argentina's congress as lawmakers debated the bill for 21 hours. The bill now passes to Argentina's Senate, where it is not clear advocates have enough support for it to pass.

Lawmakers modified the bill sent by President Alberto Fernández, in hopes of winning more votes they introduced last minute changes allowing institutional conscientious objection to abortion, which would permit private clinics to refuse to carry out the procedure, though they would have to refer women to another facility where they could terminate their pregnancies. (Associated Press)

The legalization bill is an opportunity for Argentina to meet international human rights obligations, and respond to a grave public health crisis, argued Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco in Clarín. The debate this time around builds on a consensus established during the 2018 abortion discussions: penalization does not stop women from aborting, but criminalization does force them to carry out the procedure in unsafe circumstances.

Among the more stirring moments of the debate was lawmaker Blanca Osuna's speech in favor of abortion, given from a hospital bed where she is being treated for Covid-19. (Ambito) Another lawmaker, Alicia Aparicio, dedicated her vote to her grandmother, who died at 22 as a result of a clandestine abortion. (Infobae) Last week lawmaker Cecilia Moreau revealed she had an illicit abortion at age 16, an episode her father, lawmaker Leopoldo Moreau, also recalled with visible emotion with the press. (Infobae)

Lawmakers are now debating a bill that would extend social programs to cover the pregnant women and children until the third year of their life. The move has been portrayed as a conciliatory nod to anti-abortion activists who argued that women should be supported to avoid terminations due to economic necessity. But advocates reject the characterization of the measure as a flip-side to abortion, and rather portray it as a further expansion of rights that provide women with support for their choices regarding pregnancy.

News Briefs

  • In the aftermath of Venezuela's widely-questioned legislative elections last weekend, a major question is what will happen with opposition leader Juan Guaidó -- whose claim to the interim-presidency stems from his post as head of the National Assembly. The outlook for the opposition in Venezuela is bleak, and Nicolás Maduro will likely ramp up political persecution and repression of political dissidents in the coming months, writes Kristen Martinez-Gugerli in Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Already most of Guaidó's cabinet is in exile, and Martínez-Guglieri argues that the opposition coalition's focus on international support has distanced it from the everyday struggles of Venezuelans trying to survive a humanitarian crisis.
  • Guaidó has vowed to stay in Venezuela, and said it was time to revise U.S. economic sanctions. (Associated Press)
  • This week opposition leader Henrique Capriles called for the dissolution of Guaidó's parallel interim-government. (Reuters)
  • A Brazilian court sentenced President Jair Bolsonaro to a compensation for moral damages to journalist Bianca Santana, who he falsely accused of spreading fake news earlier this year. (Folha de S. Paulo, see her Guardian opinion piece on the case from June.)
  • Brazil's government will seek international sponsorship to protect the Amazon from deforestation, reports Bloomberg. Brazil seeks $10 billion a year to meet its Paris climate agreement commitments to reduce carbon emissions and eliminate illegal deforestation. Environmental groups have poured scorn on the proposal, reports the Financial Times.
  • Bolsonaro’s government is looking for a legal way to exclude Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei from 5G networks in Brazil, reports Reuters.
Regional Relations
  • The incoming U.S. Biden administration's likely crackdown on corruption in Central America could create short-term tensions, according to the Latin America Risk Report.
  • A new report by the U.S. Congress recommends sweeping changes to the country's drug policy in the Americas. It advocates for increased international coordination, a more holistic approach to policymaking and a review of antiquated punishments for countries not doing enough to meet annual goals, reports InSight Crime
  • Covid-19 has fueled growing conflict and displacement in Colombia, reports the New Humanitarian.
  • Mexico hasn't followed through on its commitment to train military forces in human rights, according to a new civil society report. (Animal Político, see yesterday's briefs.)
  • Mexico's coronavirus czar is increasingly under fire as the country's Covid-19 deaths soar -- Science
  • Mexican Maya leader Leydy Pech was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize this week for her defense of the melipona beecheii bee and it's native habitat in Yucatan. She is billed at they "Lady of the Honey" and stopped planting of Monsanto genetically modified soy in Southern Mexico. (EFE and BBC)
  • Another of this year's Goldman prize winners, Kristal Ambrose, had to overcome prejudice about class and race in her campaign against plastic waste in the Bahamas. Ambrose started her campaign close to home and among the young, before branching out to address the structural and political causes of the plastic problem, reports the Guardian. Ambrose helped draft the Bahamas' ban on single-use plastic that came into place this year.
  • An Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) delegation met with Fujimori-era victims of forced sterilization in Peru to support their struggle for justice. (Telesur)
Eduardo Romero will be covering the Briefing next week again, I leave you in his capable hands.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Cuba's possible protest movement (Dec. 10, 2020)

 Swiftly mobilized protests in support of Cuban artists are "a stark example of how having widespread access to the internet through cellphones is testing the power balance between the communist regime and its citizens," according to the New York Times. Protesters reacted quickly to videos of rapper Denis Solís' detention, and then later to recordings of San Isidro Movement demonstrators last month. (See Nov. 27's post.)

Protesters' focus is shifting from limits on artistic expression to pushing for more fundamental political freedoms, though it's not yet clear whether this incipient movement will gather momentum. "The Cuban regime no longer seems so impervious to criticism," writes journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez, who was detained last month as part of the San Isidro Movement crackdown, in a New York Times op-ed.

A new report by Human Rights Watch details how Cuba's government has used Covid-19 concerns to crack down on dissent, including the San Isidro Movement.

More Cuba
  • Thousands of Cubans have started to join other migrants in caravans heading for the U.S. southern border to apply for political asylum, reports the Miami Herald. Nearly 500 Cuban migrants, including children and pregnant women, are stranded in Suriname due to coronavirus border closures. Guyana suspended ferry service with Suriname to block access to Cubans seeking to transit through the country. (See yesterday's Caribbean News Updates.)
  • Cuba said it had attracted $1.9 billion worth of foreign investment over the past year despite tighter U.S. sanctions, reports Reuters.
News Briefs

  • Latin America, led by Brazil, is heading into a second wave of Covid-19 infections that experts predict will be even more lethal than previous peaks earlier this year. And, as elsewhere in the world, the current situation comes as populations are exhausted from restrictions over the course of 2020, and unwilling to maintain social-distancing measures, reports the Guardian.
  • Vaccine resistance will be another front in coming months, led by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who follows a long tradition of vaccine skepticism in Brazil, reports the Conversation.
  • Nonetheless, Brazilian Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello said that the government plans to vaccine the country's entire population against COVID-19 in 2021. (Reuters)
  • Argentina could become the largest Latin American country to legalize elective abortion -- a bill presented by President Alberto Fernández is expected to pass the lower chamber of Congress today but faces a bitter battle in the Senate. (Washington Post, see yesterday's briefs)
  • Venezuela's ruling PSUV party swept up 91% of the incoming National Assembly's seats with the 67% percent of the vote garnered in Sunday's elections, widely criticized for being neither free nor fair. (Reuters, see Monday's post.)
  • Venezuela's outlook is bleak: the opposition-led National Assembly's mandate is ending, and negotiations for free and fair elections have foundered. The political opposition faces an uphill battle to reconstruct legitimacy and create change in a country where the government has consolidated power significantly -- which will not help the country with regards to its humanitarian crisis, writes Luz Mely Reyes in a Post Opinión op-ed.
El Salvador
  • An audit of pandemic spending by El Salvador’s Court of Accounts found that hotels seized from accused Salvadoran drug kingpin Chepe Diablo were awarded lucrative government contracts to serve as quarantine centers. The report could serve as the basis for cases against officials accused of misusing funds, reports InSight Crime. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Military actions in El Salvador this year show the country still hasn’t escaped the legacy of its brutal civil war, reports Slate.
  • Since 2000, almost three-quarters of the 119 journalists murdered in Mexico were killed by firearms, most of which were imported – and Mexico’s laws and culture make tracing them impossible, reports the Guardian as part of Forbidden Stories' "Cartel Project."

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Venezuela's new political stalemate (Dec. 9, 2020)

 Pretty much everybody agrees that Venezuela's legislative elections on Sunday were not free and fair. Nonetheless, the end of the current opposition-led National Assembly's mandate effectively closes the last remaining space for legal opposition to Maduro's government. It leaves the country in a new political standoff -- as the current opposition coalition must prove its relevance and Maduro cements his position as an international pariah, reports the Associated Press. (See Monday's post.)

That means that serious opposition politicians must now engage in a more difficult path: supporting the construction of grassroots organizations that will permit, over time, the construction of a social revindication movement that can be the pillar of a political change," argues Ángel E. Álvarez in a New York Times Español op-ed.

Several experts gave their take in yesterday's Latin America Advisor. WOLA's Geoff Ramsey emphasized how the U.S. undercut efforts by some opposition factions, supported by the European Union, to reach a deal with the elections rather than just boycott. "The Trump administration attacked the European diplomats and accused the European Union of engaging in ‘cowboy diplomacy.’ With the United States actively undermining them, negotiations fell through. This is par for the course for the Trump administration."

"Far from marking a victory for the hardline opposition pushing a boycott, the high abstention rate points to Venezuelans’ disgust with the political options they face: continuation of the monstrous status quo or an incoherent, increasingly divided opposition lacking a positive program," argued Gabriel Hetland. Dialogue and negotiations remain Venezuela's only option, but don't seem to be on the near horizon, he laments.

"The regime of Nicolás Maduro nevertheless may have succeeded in its principal aim in staging the election: to deal a final blow to the U.S.-backed campaign to force its ouster through economic strangulation, a popular uprising or a military coup," according to the Washington Post editorial board.

More Venezuela
  • U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet denounced government pressures in Sunday's vote, including threats that voters would lose social benefits if they did not participate. (Efecto Cocuyo)
  • The incoming U.S. Biden administration will be limited in what it can do to change the situation in Venezuela anytime soon, sanctions and U.S. indictments against Maduro officials will likely remain in place, reports the Washington Post.
  • Nonetheless, Joe Biden is expected to bring more subtle, diplomatic tone to policy on Cuba and Venezuela, experts told Univisión.
News Briefs

  • The Cuban government is using regulations designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to harass and imprison critics, Human Rights Watch said in a new report on the San Isidro Movement detentions. Cuban authorities broke up a hunger strike by protesters on Nov. 26, on the pretext that one had failed to follow Covid-19 rules. (See Nov. 27's post.) “Cuban authorities are using Covid-19 rules to expand their repressive tool kit against critics,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “This is part of a broader pattern in which Cuban authorities use any excuse to systematically repress dissent.”
  • There is growing anger regarding structural racism against Afro-descendants in Brazil, protests have spread this year in response to incidents of violence against Black Brazilians. (See yesterday's briefs, for example.) But "memory policy has not been a central element in the public debate over race. Nor is collective memory seen as central to advancing an anti-racist agenda," writes Luiza Duarte at American University's Brazil Research Initiative.
  • Twelve children were killed in shootings in Rio de Janeiro this year, all were Black. They form part of a grim statistic of young, Afro-descendent victims of shootings, many involving security forces. (Globo)
  • The Brazilian justice system's failure to convict anyone for the assassination of Marielle Franco is a disgrace, her loved ones told EFE on the 1,000 day anniversary of her killing in 2018.
  • A decision by Brazil’s Supreme Court barring the current leaders of the Senate and lower house of Congress from re-election in February has thrown open the race to replace them, reports Reuters.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is taking steps to control the country's independent health regulator, Anvisa, a move some health experts fear will give the coronavirus skeptic leader free rein over vaccine approvals, reports Reuters.
  • Latin America has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic -- and is woefully unprepared for the mass vaccination phase that will be the next Covid-19 challenge, reports Bloomberg.
El Salvador
  • El Salvador's deputy security minister Mauricio Arriaza resigned his post and faces allegations he has schemed to cover up financial wrongdoing by the government. Arriaza remains El Salvador's police chief, and is accused of undermining lawmakers' efforts to force Finance Minister Alejandro Zelaya to give account of the government’s spending during the coronavirus pandemic. The move is a blow to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, reports Reuters.
  • Mexico’s president is expected to congratulate U.S. president-elect Joe Biden next week on his victory once it is certified, reports Reuters.
  • The Sinaloa Cartel's expansion into the fentanyl trade shows how Mexican criminal organizations employ business strategies and international networks, reports the Guardian.
  • Mexico's government said it asked the United States to extradite former security chief Genaro García Luna, who currently faces trial in the U.S. for allegedly protecting a drug gang, reports the Associated Press. This comes on the heels of a Mexican request to release former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos, who was also charged with colluding with a drug cartel. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The request for Cienfuegos' release is indicative of the military's role in Mexico's current administration, writes Catalina Pérez Correa in Americas Quarterly. Despite President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's campaign promise to demilitarize public security, AMLO "has instead expanded the powers of the Mexican armed forces in an unprecedented manner, beyond national security tasks."
  • Argentina's House of Deputies votes on legalizing abortion tomorrow. The bill sponsored by President Alberto Fernández, fulfilling a campaign pledge, is widely expected to pass Congress' lower chamber, and could reach a Senate vote next week. Advocates have emphasized the issue as one of socio-economic equality: the current abortion ban has disproportionately affected poor women, who suffer negative health impacts and legal repercussions. Nearly 40,000 women were admitted to public hospitals for complications arising from illegal abortions in 2016 alone, according to a new report. Of these admissions, 6,400 corresponded to girls and teenagers ages 10 to 19, reports the Guardian.

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Brazil's deadly structural racism (Dec. 8. 2020)

News Briefs

  • Two little girls killed by stray bullets in a Rio de Janeiro favela have spurred Brazil's latest reckoning over structural violence that disproportionately claims Black lives, reports the Guardian. The tragedy is only the most recent in a long string of violence and deaths this year that demonstrate Brazil's deep-seated problem with racism, activists say. “There comes a point where tears can no longer express our pain,” Thiago Amparo wrote in Folha de São Paulo this weekend, demanding: “Who will answer for the genocide that is under way?” (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Black women have flocked to Brazilian politics in the wake of Marielle Franco's assassination in 2018 -- but the generation of leaders she inspired faces systematic online harassment and violent threats. Last month 35-year-old federal lawmaker Talíria Petrone went into hiding after an assassination plot was reported. The violence faced by Black women in Brazilian politics is another reflection of structural racism, Open Society Foundations' Latin America Director Pedro Abramovay told El País. The violent paramilitary groups believed to have killed Marielle have also been emboldened by alleged ties to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
  • Coronavirus vaccination will be mandatory for the 45 million residents of Brazil's São Paulo state, according to governor João Doria. It's the latest salvo in an ongoing political tussle between Doria and President Jair Bolsonaro, a vocal coronavirus skeptic and opponent of obligatory vaccination. Vaccines can be legally required in Brazil, though it's less clear whether and how such a law would be enforced, reports the Washington Post.
  • Cuban journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez describes the experience of being vilified by official media after participating in San Isidro Movement protests in a New York Times Español op-ed: "Anger is the generalized sentiment among Cubans, the constant discomfort, incorporated ... On the streets of communism we walk like one who wears high-heels to traverse cobblestone, until some, desperate by the contortions, sprain their ankle. ... What the San Isidro Movement expresses then, like a pained articulation, is the demand of a lesioned country."
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has proposed stripping U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agents of diplomatic immunity and requiring them to hand over all information they collect to the Mexican government. The move is apparently in response to the recent arrest (and subsequent release) of former Mexican defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos in the U.S., but will be a challenge for bilateral relations for the two countries moving forward, reports the Associated Press.
  • Mexico is a major importer of surveillance software, which officials say is critical to battle major cartel groups. But the surveillance kit has also been used to target individuals not accused of any wrongdoing, including human rights activists. And officials are accused of colluding with criminal groups, reports the Guardian as part of the Cartel Project series coordinated by Forbidden Stories.
  • The U.S. extended Temporary Protected Status benefits, which were set to expire early next month for an estimated 400,000 immigrants from Haiti, Nepal and Central America. The extension means that the TPS beneficiaries, including nationals of Sudan as well as Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, can continue to legally live and work in the United States for the next nine months and — for now — avoid being placed in deportation proceedings, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Contractors hired by the U.S. Trump administration to build the vaunted border wall with Mexico relied on illegal Mexican guards to protect construction sites, reports the New York Times based on whistleblower accounts. Additionally, the supposedly impenetrable wall has been repeatedly breached and required repairs as a result.
Regional Relations
  • Latin America is economically stagnating and marginal, as the rest of the world promotes greater diversification of its markets, argue Nicolás Albertoni and Jorge Heine in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • Access to abortion in Argentina, or lack thereof, is directly linked to women's socio-economic status, writes Estefanía Pozzo in el Post Opinión. As activists chant at marches in favor of legalization: "Rich women abort, poor women die."
  • Argentine officials are exploring how to use DNA testing to curb cattle rustling, "fresh methods to fight a deeply entrenched criminal economy," reports InSight Crime.
  • Former Uruguayan president Tabaré Vázquez, the Frente Amplio leader who ended 170 years of two-party dominance in 2005, died of lung cancer last weekend. (Washington Post) "The least flashy leader of the 2000s “Pink Tide” was one of its most effective," writes Nicolás Saldías in Americas Quarterly.

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

Monday, December 7, 2020

Maduro wins legislative vote boycotted by opposition (Dec. 7, 2020)

 Venezuela's legitimacy challenged President Nicolás Maduro claimed a sweeping victory in legislative elections yesterday that were boycotted by most political opposition parties. The elections have been widely criticized in the international community as lacking the basic conditions to be considered free and fair. The vote has been characterized as a political theater aimed at eliminating Venezuela's last opposition-controlled political institution, reports the New York Times

Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela and allied parties captured 67% of seats in the National Assembly in Sunday’s election, said Indira Alfonzo, president of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council. Just 31% of the 20 million registered voters participated in the election, she said. (Associated Press, Efecto Cocuyo) The participation rate is comparable to that of 2005 legislative elections, which the opposition also boycotted in protest of alleged fraud. (Efecto Cocuyo)

The day was characterized by nearly empty polling stations and unfulfilled promises of food bags in exchange for participation, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Voters have been scared by rumors that they will lose food benefits if they voted "wrong" in the election. And several articles noted that lines for fuel were longer than lines to vote, yesterday.

But the election's flaws run far deeper. Venezuela’s top court this year stripped three of four main opposition parties of their leadership, allowing the parties to be co-opted by politicians friendlier to the government. The Supreme Court also appointed a new election commission, including three members who have been sanctioned by the U.S. and Canada, without participation of the opposition-led Congress, as the law requires.

Regardless of the election's legitimacy, or lack thereof, the current National Assembly's mandate will end January 5. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó's claim to be the country's legitimate interim leader will also end, as the argument stems from his post as National Assembly president. It could be the final fizzling out of a coalition that promised to rapidly oust Maduro two years ago, but has become increasingly mired in disillusion and fragmentation. (Wall Street Journal, Associated Press) Though analysts expect Guaidó to remain on the scene in the short-term, the election marks the end of an era, reports the Guardian.

Guaidó's coalition is holding a referendum of sorts over the next few days, asking Venezuelans whether they want to end Maduro’s rule and hold new presidential elections. Guaidó's popularity has waned over the past two years, as his promises to rapidly oust Maduro fizzled. Many government critics were disappointed he chose to boycott this weekend's elections, despite their evident flaws. (Efecto Cocuyo)

In the meantime, Maduro's government has turned its electoral eyes on next year's gubernatorial elections, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

More Venezuela
  • An attempt by mercenaries to forcefully oust and kidnap Maduro this year -- "Operation Gideon" -- failed spectacularly. What is less clear is how it came to be. Rolling Stone interviews the operation’s leader, former U.S. Green Beret Jordan Goudreau.
"The Cartel Project"

Mexican journalist Regina Martínez was preparing to publish an explosive report on thousands of people who had mysteriously disappeared in Veracruz in the months before she was killed in 2012. This year a team of international and Mexican reporters continued her investigations of the two state governors — Fidel Herrera and Javier Duarte — and examined her homicide inquiry. (Washington Post

They are part of "The Cartel Project," a consortium of 60 journalists and 25 media outlets around the world, organized by Forbidden Stories, aimed at continuing the work of murdered Mexican colleagues. 

Martínez was not the first reporter to be assassinated in Mexico, but the killing of a high-profile correspondent for a national magazine marked the start of a wave of targeted violence which has made ​it the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, outside a warzone, reports the Guardian. Last month alone, three Mexican journalists were shot dead within 10 days, bringing the death toll to at least 119 since 2000, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Of those killings, 90% ​have gone unsolved.

News Briefs

  • Mourners buried two young girls killed by stray bullets in Rio de Janeiro. Emily Victória Silva dos Santos, aged 4, was hit in the head. Her cousin, Rebeca Beatriz Rodrigues dos Santos, who was 7, was struck in the abdomen. Eight children have been killed by stray bullets so far this year in the city. (Associated Press)
  • Brazilian singer Luedji Luna talks about the country's racism. (Guardian)
  • Brazil is in the midst of a deadly Covid-19 second-wave -- but politicians and citizens are unwilling to enact broad restrictions aimed at reducing contagion. (Washington Post)
  • Biden's win in the U.S. is inspiring for Brazilians who seek to prevent President Jair Bolsonaro from obtaining a second term in office, but reproducing Biden's winning strategy will not be straightforward according to Oliver Stuenkel in Americas Quarterly.
  • The magnitude of the devastation wrought by two November hurricanes in Central America is only beginning to be grasped. Eta and Iota affected more than five million people — at least 1.5 million of them children — creating a new class of refugees with more reason than ever to migrate, reports the New York Times.
  • Nearly 100,000 Hondurans are living in shelters, many of which have become coronavirus hotspots, and the economy has been paralyzed. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández warned in an interview with the Washington Post that in the absence of a coordinated international response, migration from Honduras to the United States could surge.
Regional Relations
  • U.S. president-elect Joe Biden has more Latin America visits under his belt than any previous U.S. president or vice president. While his agenda towards the region in general, and Argentina specifically, is unclear, Juan Gabriel Tokatlian argues that a new approach towards Venezuela -- hinged on multilateral diplomacy -- could be in the offing. (Cohete a la Luna)
  • The U.S. arrest of a former Mexican defense minister sparked anger among Mexico's military officers, a key reason President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pushed for Salvador Cienfuegos' release. (Wall Street Journal)
  • The so-called "Havana Syndrome" that afflicted U.S. and Canadian diplomats stationed in Cuba was most likely caused by “directed, pulsed radio frequency energy," according to a U.S. government investigation. (Guardian)
  • Talks between Cuba's government and the San Isidro movement, a collective of artists against legal restrictions of their work, reportedly broke down on Friday. While the government has called for peaceful dialogue after breaking up a hunger strike in November, artists reported police vehicles outside their homes and house arrests lasting hours. (Guardian)
    • Ancient rock paintings in Colombia hint at the history of human interaction with the Amazon rainforest, and give clues on how to manage its ecological riches, according to a Guardian editorial.
    Thank you Eduardo Romero for your excellent coverage of the news last week. As always, thanks to the readers as well, and comments are welcome.

    Friday, November 27, 2020

    Cuba breaks up San Isidro Movement hunger strike (Nov. 26, 2020)

     Cuban authorities broke up a prolonged hunger strike by demonstrators of the San Isidro Movement yesterday. The standoff between Cuban security forces and SIM protesters had been escalating throughout the month, 14 activists have been on hunger strike since Nov.16 demanding the release of the musician Denis Solis González, a musician arrested earlier this month. Cuban officials said they intervened late yesterday in response to Covid-19 concerns, but activists dismissed that as an excuse. Most of the protesters were detained briefly and released to their homes last night. (Reuters, El País)

    Writer Carlos Manuel Álvarez had joined the hunger strikers this week, after returning from Miami, and alerted yesterday that authorities would try to leverage Covid-19 concerns to disarm the group that has been increasingly visible in internationally. (CiberCuba) The SIM is a multifaceted group that has combined art and political activism in an irreverent key in opposition to Cuban government repression. (BBC) Though it has been active since 2018, SIM has gained international prominence this month. Numerous organizations of civil society and international groups had called on Cuba's government to guarantee their safety.(Amnesty InternationalHavana Times)

    The siege of the activists by security forces "has been read by independent media and social media, in and out of the island, as a potent gesture against censorship and the systematic repression exerted by an authoritarian state that does not permit the free realization oas such of its citizens," according to El Estornudo.

    "Both the danger that the members represent and the seduction they inspire can be explained by the fact that they are perhaps the only Cubans on the island today who are living in a democracy, exotic animals that no one has seen alive in the country in 60 years," wrote Álvarez in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

    News Briefs

    Trinidad and Tobago
    • Twenty-six Venezuelans who returned to Trinidad and Tobago in a small boat on Tuesday, following an initial deportation days earlier, will be permitted to stay temporarily pending legal challenges to the deportation. The group, which includes 16 minors and up to 13 adults, has attracted international attention, and demonstrates the difficulties faced by Venezuelans who continue to flee the crisis at home. The group initially arrived to TT in two small boats last Sunday and were escorted back to international waters by the Coast Guard. The whereabouts of the group, which included children as young as four months, were reportedly unknown for 24 hours, before they returned to Trinidad by boat on Tuesday, though the details are still unclear. (NewsdayTrinidad ExpressReutersCaracas ChroniclesAFPNewsday)
    • Heat and heavy loads combine to cause widespread kidney failure among Nicaraguan sugarcane workers, reports the Guardian. Chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu) is believed to kill roughly 40,000 people a year, primarily from marginalised agricultural communities living along the equator. After years of denying work-place causes for the disease, some Nicaraguan sugar mills are implementing measures like mandatory shade, rest, water and electrolyte breaks. Experts believe this could reduce CKDu incidence by 70%.
    • Venezuela's PSUV party will definitely win the upcoming legislative elections, widely denounced as rigged. But the results still matter, because it will cement Nicolás Maduro's hold on the last remaining branch of government with opposition leadership, "a big step in its march towards full dictatorship," according to the Economist. As a practical matter, the vote will strip Juan Guaidó of his claim to the interim presidency. And constitutional experts are divided over what occurs legally after the current National Assembly mandate ends if the election is considered illegitimate.
    • Guatemalan protests last weekend reflected citizen fury, not just discontent, writes Álvaro Montenegro in El Faro. And police repression only fanned the flames of their ire. (See Wednesday's briefs, and Monday's post.)
    • Mexican feminists occupied the national Human Rights Commission building in September, and have turned it into a shelter for women and children suffering domestic abuse. The Washington Post calls it "one of the most extreme acts of a feminist movement that has grown more aggressive amid the intensifying violence and what its members say is official inaction."
    • The economy is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's Achilles heel when it comes to reelection, according to the Economist's Bello column. His best bet for a second term would involve an alliance with the centrão -- though it would undermine his position as a political outsider "it would offer the kind of political machine that historically helped to win Brazilian elections—useful since social media alone are unlikely to give him such a competitive edge twice."
    El Salvador
    • Salvadorean attorney general Raúl Melara has asked lawmakers to create a specialized police force to support the general prosecutor's office. The new force would be independent from the National Civil Police, at a time when the national force has increasingly blocked prosecutors' attempts to investigate the Bukele government, reports El Faro.
    • Drones that rained contraband on Panama's largest prison complex -- including marijuana, cell phones and pistol parts -- challenge the success of recent penitentiary security reforms, reports InSight Crime.
    • Disturbances as tens of thousands of fans gathered to say goodbye to Diego Maradona yesterday are yet another sign of Argentine political polarization and lack of planning argues Hugo Alconada Mon in a New York Times Español op-ed. Indeed, images of soccer fans cooling their feet in the Casa Rosada fountains will be interpreted along the same emotionally polarized lines that have divided Argentines since 1945, when a massive group of workers first splashed in the outdoor Plaza de Mayo fountains. As Página 12 puts it: "Without organization, messy and sometimes excessive, but with fervor and unconditional love, the people sought a way to accompany their idol to the door of his final resting spot."
    I will be off next week -- but Eduardo Romero will be sending out the Daily Briefing in my stead.