Tuesday, March 31, 2020

U.S. presents transition plan for Venezuela (March 31, 2020)

The U.S. is expected to present a proposal for political power-sharing in Venezuela in return for easing sanctions. The plan, which is supposed to be presented today, would require that Nicolas Maduro step down, and that officials from his government collaborate with opposition forces to create a short-term government that would coordinate new presidential elections later this year, reports the New York Times.

"We present this framework as a path for Venezuela to emerge from years of repression and political conflict," writes Elliot Abrams, special representative for Venezuela at the U.S. State Department, in the Wall Street Journal. "It proposes that both Mr. Maduro, the former president who has clung to power, and Juan Guaidó, the interim president, step aside so that the elected members of the National Assembly from both sides can create a Council of State to serve as the transitional government, which would hold free and fair presidential elections." The plan builds on a proposal presented by Guaidó in negotiations with the Maduro government, last year, he says.

The council would be named by the opposition dominated National Assembly, but would require a two-thirds majority from lawmakers, reports the Associated Press.

The U.S. “Democratic Transition Framework” plan for Venezuela will be announced later today by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and represents an abrupt turnaround from more confrontational moves from the U.S., which last week accused Maduro of narco-terrorism. (Reuters)

Indeed, the contradiction makes for incoherence, argues U.S. Representative Eliot Engel on the House of Representative's Foreign Affairs Committee Twitter account. "Essentially, Maduro regime officials are being told on one hand that nothing they do will stop the US DOJ from pressing charges against them while on the other hand, they are being asked to agree to a transition government for unrelated sanctions relief."

And it is not clear whether the accusations are fully warranted, writes Jorge Castañeda in a New York Times op-ed. (See also Geoff Ramsey's take in yesterday's post.) Though the charges are likely substantiated, the U.S. move against Maduro "and his associates is essentially of a diplomatic and political nature." 

It's hard to overstate Venezuela's particular vulnerability -- and the path to help stave off a health disaster that would certainly affect the rest of the region is international humanitarian aid, not more sanctions against the Maduro government, argue Cynthia Arnson and Oriana Van Praag in Americas Quarterly.

News Briefs

Poverty and Pandemic
  • Most experts predict a coronavirus economic crisis in the region (world), and a new report by Eurodad looks at the likely negative impacts on the poor and most vulnerable, particularly women. For those in precarious job situations -- the informal economy -- workers have no labor rights or social security to fall back on as those activities are affected by quarantines.
  • Informal workers make up a vast portion of Latin America's economy -- and they face a unique set of coronavirus challenges. They cannot afford to stop working, many of the quarantine measures set up in the region are preventing them from earning income, and they are the least covered by social services and thus the most vulnerable to adverse health effects during the pandemic. The impact could be particularly brutal and far-reaching in Mexico, where informal workers generate nearly a quarter of the economic output, reports the New York Times.
  • The problem exists in the U.S. too, where undocumented migrants face the added problem of losing their jobs combined with illegal status -- which exacerbates vulnerabilities and fear off accessing health services, reports The Nation.
  • In El Salvador thousands of citizens gathered to sign up for a $300 government subsidy around the country, yesterday, breaking the government's own quarantine protocols, reports El Faro. The offices were closed, prompting anger. Nine days into the obligatory lockdown, the gathered people made the desperate point that if they don't make their daily sales, they cannot eat. The episode points to implementation problems in the Bukele administration's announced subsidy package. (See also El Diario de Hoy)
El Salvador
  • Salvadoran gangs are backing up the government's coronavirus quarantine, by enforcing their own, violence-backed lockdown in territories under their control, reports El Faro. Gang rules implemented yesterday, and coordinated among the leadership of the country's three main criminal organizations, dictate that only one member of each household can go food shopping, and only in specific time frames, under the threat of beatings. The logic behind the move includes fears that gang members would be denied medical attention if contagion is widespread, or an effort to avoid greater police presence in their neighborhoods. 
  • As Latin American countries struggle to respond to the devastating economic costs of quarantines and coronavirus, many economic ministries are headed by millennials, who are under intense pressure, reports Brendan O'Boyle at Americas Quarterly. The piece focuses particularly on the cases of Peru and Argentina, which have launched massive programs to offset the devastation wrought by restrictions.
Pandemic and Gender
  • "Women comprise 70% of the global healthcare workforce. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the most effective policy responses will be those that account for how the crisis is experienced by women and girls," write Susan Papp and Marcy Hersh of Women Deliver at Project Syndicate.
  • In Brazil the percentage of women carrying out care tasks is 85 percent, and they are overloaded and facing unique abuses in the times of coronavirus, reports Gênero e Número.
  • Another Eurodad report looks at the gendered dimension of health care challenges in Latin America.
  • A group of prominent leftist politicians called for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to resign, saying he has personally become a "public health problem" due to his ongoing resistance to quarantine measures fomented by his own health ministry. (Guardian
  • Nicaragua's Ortega government is so determined to feign normalcy in the midst of Covid-19, that Sandinista mayors have organized religious activities cancelled by the Catholic Church, which called off full-attendance masses, reports Confidencial.
  • If authorities don't move to limit coronavirus contagion, Nicaragua's hospitals will be totally collapsed within 28 days, reports Confidencial.
  • New York's federal prosecutor asked for former Honduran lawmaker, Antonio Hernández (brother of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández) to be sentenced in May to 40 years to life in jail for cocaine trafficking conspiracy. (ConfidencialHN)
Costa Rica
  • Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado has pledged to protect indigenous land rights, in the wake of a wave of violence against native communities, reports the Guardian.

Monday, March 30, 2020

U.S. complicates Venezuelan political negotiation (March 30, 2020)

The U.S. Trump administration is maintaining pressure aimed at ousting Venezuela's legitimacy-challenged President Nicolás Maduro. Last week the U.S. Justice Department unsealed indictments accusing Maduro and high-level officials of "narco-terrorism" and collaboration with a FARC dissident group. (Washington Post, see Friday's briefs and Thursday's.)

The strategy, however, runs directly counter to the negotiated transition many experts are advocating for Venezuela, which comes the Covid-19 pandemic with previous crippling weaknesses due to the country's long-running economic and political crisis. "In bowing to pressure from the hard-liners, this move hinders rather than helps efforts to raise internal pressure on Maduro to enter into credible negotiations," writes WOLA's Geoff Ramsey in a Washington Post op-ed. The indictments include powerful officials who have now lost the incentive to support a transition.

The U.S. move, which put a $15 million bounty on Maduro's head, also raises the stakes for potential retaliation against opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who the U.S. and fifty countries recognize at Venezuela's legitimate leader, notes the Washington Post, separately.

Ramsey also argues that while the allegations of drug trafficking are unsurprising and serious, "both in terms of recent trend lines and the overall scale of cocaine flow, the U.S. government’s own data show that Venezuela is a comparatively small player in the cocaine trade."

Russia said the charges against Maduro were absurd, adding that sanctions on Caracas could become “a tool of genocide” amid the coronavirus outbreak, reports Reuters.

More Venezuela
  • Russia's state-controlled oil giant Rosneft announced that it had stopped operations in Venezuela and sold its assets to a company wholly owned by the Russian government. The move potentially affects a key economic lifeline for embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás ­Maduro, reports the Washington Post, though it's not clear that the relationship between Venezuela and Russia will be affected or the shakeup is an attempt to doge U.S. sanctions. The United States imposed sanctions this year on two Rosneft oil trading subsidiaries for helping Maduro, and they were cited by a Rosneft spokesman Saturday in describing the sale, reports the New York Times.
  • Retired Venezuelan Gen. Cliver Alcalá turned himself in to the U.S. counternarcotics authorities Friday, a day after U.S. prosecutors indicted him and other Venezuelan officials, reports the Wall Street Journal.
News Briefs

  • Twitter removed two tweets in which Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro questioned Covid-19 quarantine measures. Twitter explained in a statement that it had recently expanded its global rules on managing content that contradicted public health information from official sources and could put people at greater risk of transmitting COVID-19. Bolsonaro had posted several videos this weekend showing him mixing with supporters in Brasilia's streets, and arguing that economic concerns should trump social distancing, a message that contradicts efforts by the national health ministry and state governors, reports AFP. (See also Globo.)
  • Brazilian health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, reportedly told Bolsonaro that he would have to publicly criticize the president if Bolsonaro continued to make public appearances. Bolsonaro reportedly responded that he would fire Mandetta if the health minister did so. (Guardian)
  • Brazil will reduce efforts to fight environmental crimes during the coronavirus outbreak, though experts are concerned that the reduction in enforcement personnel could push up deforestation rates. (Reuters)
  • The Bolsonaro administration thanked U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson for opposing European trade action in response to Amazon fires, last year, according to documents released to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism through a freedom of information request. (Guardian)
  • In addition to the challenges Covid-19 presents world-wide, in Latin America there is concern over how it will be accelerated by deep structural inequality, and how those same class divisions will play out in efforts to contain the virus. A Washington Post piece looks specifically at how "Latin America’s mutually dependent culture of domestic employment could become an impediment to stopping the spread of the virus. The poor rely on the wealthy for income. The wealthy depend on the poor for cleaning and cooking. In a region where 8 percent of women are domestic employees — the highest rate in the developing world — no one knows how long social distancing and isolation can last." (There is  a whole sub-genre of comedy focused on wealthy families discovering how to do their own cleaning.) Beyond the hilarity of the upper-middle class struggling with vacuuming, is a real economic conundrum for their employees: their job — or their health?
  • Regardless of whether it's paid or not, a lion's share of the housework falls on women, an aspect of coronavirus that Mexican feminists are urging the government to take into account, reports EFE.
  • While there is concern about how some governments use repressive measures to implement quarantines, the Latin America Risk Report looks at the opposite side of the coin: how citizen trust in national leadership is affecting their acceptance of strict coronavirus measures. "While large numbers of Latin American citizens support the quarantine measures, maintaining them in place for weeks requires political leadership and social capital. In countries where trust in the government is low, it is more likely that citizens and local leaders will attempt to set their own rules in the weeks ahead."
  • Prison populations in Latin America are particularly at risk from the pandemic, as overcrowding is a general rule in the region's penitentiaries, Human Rights Watch's Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco told EFE.
  • A new study documents how pretrial detentions are overcrowding Latin America’s prisons, leading to gang recruitment, violence and violations of prisoners’ human rights, reports InSight Crime.
El Salvador
  • While El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele has garnered praise for his swift and authoritative move to isolate the country from coronavirus, many experts are worried about the government's potential for authoritarian slide, reports the Christian Science Monitor.
  • Latin America also comes to the pandemic with weak democratic institutions, in many cases. The challenge to democracies -- health and economic -- could be overwhelming, writes Colombian columnist María Jimena Duzán in Semana. She is concerned that in Colombia the pandemic will erode constitutional guarantees and notes that there has already been an increase in violence against social leaders. (See last Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Colombia's ELN declared a unilateral humanitarian ceasefire in response to coronavirus, starting April 1. (BBC)
  • The sound of silence that accompanies Bogotá's quarantine (and resonates with many of us in other locked-down cities) is balm for some ears, but an eerie sign of negative things to come for others -- New York Times.
  • A 29-year-old man deported from the United States to Guatemala last week has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. It is the first known case of an individual deported by U.S. immigration authorities with the virus, reports the Washington Post. The man began showing symptoms of COVID-19 over the weekend while in quarantine in his family's home, reports Al Jazeera.
  • The director of one of Haiti’s top hospitals was kidnapped on Friday, prompting staff to refuse to take in new patients in protest, reports Reuters. He was later released, but the episode was the second time in days that a physician fell victim to the country’s problem with crime, notes the Miami Herald.
  • Bolsonaro isn't the only leader loathe to leave the public's (literal) embrace. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador visited the Sinaloa state hometown of cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, and even greeted the jailed kingpin's mother, in contradiction of health ministry guidelines begging Mexicans to stay home to avoid coronavirus contagion. (Guardian)
  • Mexico’s falling peso could act as a shock absorber to limit damage to the country's economy, reports Reuters.
  • Peru’s government is readying a massive economic stimulus package worth around 12 percent of the GDP to help mitigate the coronavirus' economic impact. (Reuters)
  • The man who challenged Guyana's Region 4 vote count for the March 2 election -- which remains undecided -- apparently committed suicide this weekend. (Kaieteur News)
  • Guyana authorities are implementing prevention measures to keep Covid-19 from the country's prison system. (Kaieteur News
  • A long history of state abandonment in Panama's semi-autonomous indigenous region explains how an extremist sect was able to massacre a woman and six children in a violent exorcism ritual, reports the Guardian.
  • Bolivia's electoral authority said the election redo originally scheduled for May 3 will likely be held between June and September, depending how the coronavirus and quarantine measures evolve, reports Telesur.
  • Last week, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) closed all access to the rainforest, in an attempt to preserve indigenous communities from the potentially lethal threat, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Quarantines complicate conservation efforts for Ecuadorean groups working with rescued Amazon animals. (Guardian)
Gender violence
  • Women's rights advocates around the world have voiced concern over how quarantines will affect domestic violence rates. In Argentina's Buenos Aires province, calls to a hotline have increased by 60 percent since the country went into lockdown 10 days ago. There have been six femicides since the quarantine began, and the assassination of a woman and her seven-year-old daughter by a boyfriend during lockdown has particularly drawn attention to the issue. (Infobae)
Stay away
  • Check out the public service announcements from around the world urging people to stay home and social distance. In Mexico authorities launched a superhero, Susana Distancia -- a pun on healthy distance. (Washington Post)

Friday, March 27, 2020

Pandemic hits Lat Am economies (March 27, 2020)

Latin American and Caribbean nations are unveiling financial aid packages to help stave off the economic crisis created by the coronavirus -- but it's hard to tell whether they will be sufficient, and they come at a steep price for countries ill-able to bear the cost, reports the Miami Herald

"The virus has struck a patient that in economic terms has a serious pre-existing condition. Since 2014 the region’s economy has grown at an annual average rate of less than 1% a year and income per person has dropped," explains the Economist. Some experts say the regional impact could be worst than that of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

Quarantines in the region are complicated by the high number of informal workers in Latin America and the Caribbean.

"Multilateral institutions have largely been absent in the response in Latin America. Yet their funding will be necessary for the region’s societies and economies to recover," argues Charles Call in a Brookings Institution post that warns of "grim" long-term implications of the coronavirus epidemic and that "the social, political, and economic consequences could be dramatic." The piece reviews some of the responses around the region, and economic measures. Corruption might not be the primary concern at the moment, but " both international and national actors should strengthen, rather than suspend, mechanisms for accountability and transparency as billions of dollars are mobilized outside of regular channels," writes Call.

Another issue, clearly, is class, as throughout the region the disease and disparate access to care threaten to deepen economic inequality. (BBC)

News Briefs

  • Exceptional times call for exceptional measures, and have the potential to fortify authoritarian tendencies. But they also offer the opportunity to push political boundaries in a positive sense: for example by expanding state regulation or making budgets more flexible, write Pauli Huotari and Teivo Teivainen in Nueva Sociedad.
  • The U.S. indicted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and 15 top current and former officials yesterday, who authorities accused of collaborating with a dissident faction of Colombia's FARC guerrillas and charged with "narco-terrorism." (See yesterday's briefs.) The move to indict a foreign head of state (though the U.S. and dozens of countries don't technically recognize Maduro as such) is highly unusual, and builds on the U.S. Trump administration's efforts to pressure Maduro out of office. The U.S. State Department also announced a $15 million reward for information leading to Maduro's arrest. (Guardian, New York Times)
  • The charges echo the U.S. indictment of Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega in 1990, reports the Miami Herald. Noriega, however, faced justice only after the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, in this case, it is less likely that Maduro will actually sit in a U.S. court.
  • In separate indictments, prosecutors in Miami charged the head of the Venezuelan supreme court, Maikel Moreno, with money laundering. And charges dating back to May 2019 were unsealed in Washington against the defense minister, Gen Vladimir Padrino, accused of permitting planes carrying drugs to transit Venezuelan airspace. (Guardian)
  • A group of U.S. Democratic lawmakers urged the Trump administration to temporarily suspend economic sanctions against Venezuela and Iran, and bolster humanitarian aid to both countries in order to help their coronavirus responses, reports the Huffington Post. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • China is leveraging medical aid -- equipment and expertise -- as a soft-power tool in Latin America, reports Reuters.
El Salvador
  • Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has combined economic incentives, military-enforced prohibitions and general panic mongering into a, so far, successful coronavirus response, writes Roberto Valencia in the Post Opinión.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro horrified the country's state governors -- including many former allies -- by dismissing his own health ministry recommendations to stay home. In an open letter to Bolsonaro published after a gubernatorial summit on Wednesday, a group of state leaders signaled they would ignore Bolsonaro's calls to scale back their lockdowns, reports the Guardian
  • In return, the national government launched a campaign against the coronavirus quarantines, entitled: "Brazil cannot stop." (O Globo)
  • The conflict has become heated: In a videoconference this week between Bolsonaro and governors from Brazil’s southeast region, São Paulo Gov. João Doria threatened to sue the federal government if it tried to interfere with his efforts to combat the virus, reports the Associated Press.
  • On the other hand, some drug gangs are taking the coronavirus threat very seriously. The Comando Vermelho, which controls the Rio de Janeiro Cidade de Deus favela, ordered residents to stay in their homes after a reported Covid-19 case. Gangs have reportedly declared curfews or limited movement in other favelas, including Rocinha and Morro dos Prazeres. (Guardian) “If the government isn’t capable of making it happen, organized crime will,” vows one gang on WhatsApp. (Economist)
  • In his latest scandalizing press interview, Bolsonaro argued that Brazilians are immune to disease in general, including Covid-19. He also theorized that many Brazilians have already been infected by Covid-19 and are now immune. (Guardian)
  • However, the reality on the ground is different: "If the virus in Italy jumps between generations living together, in Brazil it started by hopping between classes, which are socially distant but physically close," reports the Economist.
  • The theory that some people are immune to Covid-19 has no scientific backing, but Bolsonaro isn't the only believer. Mexico's Puebla state governor, Miguel Barbosa, claims poor people are immune to Covid-19. (Guardian)
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is putting the people of Mexico in grave danger with his reckless disregard for providing accurate information on the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch said in a report earlier this week.
  • What Mexico's coronavirus response does need is an awareness of the collateral effects of pandemic controls on the majority of the country's population which suffers discrimination and lives in inequality and poverty, argues Alexandra Haas of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in the Post Opinión.
  • Mexicans are incensed at ongoing transit across the country's border with the U.S., and have threatened to block traffic into Mexico, reports the BBC.
  • Inclusion in Mexico's national census for the first time has given the country's afro-descendent population visibility. (Post Opinión)
Exotic fauna
  • It is, apparently, difficult to overestimate the positive ramifications of Pablo Escobar's hippos -- or we really really really need non-coronavirus news. (New York Times)
I hope you're all staying safe and sane as possible, given the circumstances ... And in these times of coronavirus, when we're all feeling a little isolated, feel especially free to reach out and share.

Maduro extends olive branch, accused of "narco-terrorism" by U.S. (March 26, 2020)

News Briefs

  • Covid-19 will be a humanitarian disaster for Venezuela, but it might also be a breaking point for the country's long-running political stalemate. President Nicolás Maduro said yesterday he'd be open to talking to the opposition in order to reach agreements in the face of coronavirus. Strikingly, Maduro said he would meet even without the other side recognizing his presidential status, and called on opposition leaders by name to meet under the auspices of the Nunciature (the Vatican diplomatic representative). Maduro said he would seek to "implement agreements that favor and protect our people beyond sectarianism, politics and pride." (Efecto Cocuyo)
  • The international community must mobilize quickly to help Venezuela face the coronavirus epidemic, and a negotiated humanitarian agreement between Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó will be key in order for assistance to be possible, argues WOLA. The organization further calls on the U.S. to the broad economic sanctions against Venezuela so that more resources can be dedicated to treating the pandemic.
  • The U.S. essentially headed in the opposite direction today: top officials charged Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro with federal drug trafficking crimes. The U.S. accused Maduro and other top officials of collaborating with the Colombian FARC guerrilla group so that Venezuela could be used for narcotics shipments to finance a long-running civil war against the Colombian government. The charges included narco-terrorism conspiracy and conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States. Nearly a dozen others, including the Venezuelan government and intelligence officials and members of the FARC, were also charged. (Miami HeraldNew York Times)
  • Around the world countries are deploying their armed forces to enforce obligatory lockdowns. In Latin America the list includes El Salvador, Peru, Chile and Ecuador, reports the Washington Post. While it is natural, in some ways, to lean on the military for an emergency situation such as this, experts warn that putting the genie back in the bottle won't necessarily be easy. 
  • Argentina is refusing to follow that path, and is using the military for logistics and security support activities, but not actual internal security actions on streets, in keeping with its strict law limiting the armed forces from public safety roles. (La Nación) President Alberto Fernández has also refused to declare a state of emergency (which would suspend constitutional guarantees), last used in the 2001 crisis, saying the normal criminal code suffices to enforce the obligatory quarantine he declared last week. (Página 12)
  • Suriname shut down yesterday, in the midst of a tussle between the country's private sector that is protesting stringent currency controls imposed by the government, which is struggling to face commodity price slides. President Dési Bouterse, a former military dictator convicted of homicide and drug trafficking, is running for reelection in May. (New York Times)
  • Latin America presents unique coronavirus challenges, particularly for the vast portions of the region's population that live in informal housing, with overcrowding and without access to proper sanitation or health care. Most of the region's countries have reacted with stringent measures.
  • Every country in Central America except Nicaragua has implemented some form of serious travel ban, border shutdown and curfew/quarantine, according to the latest Latin America Risk Report, which looks at coronavirus in Central America. However, lack of testing is likely contributing to lower reported infection rates.
  • But Brazil and Mexico -- which together have half of Latin America's population -- remain dismissive outliers, with potentially catastrophic effects, reports the New York Times.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's coronavirus inaction is pushing discontent in the country. (See yesterday's post.) To the point where he runs the risk of impeachment, in the midst of a confrontation with the country's legislative, judicial and (in many cases) state leadership, writes Gaspard Estrada in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • Mexico has huge potential for severe coronavirus damage -- but also assets such as solidarity and strong family networks, writes Ioan Grillo in a New York Times op-ed.
  • Prisons around the world present a unique coronavirus challenge, particularly in the developing world where overcrowding and lack of supplies make quarantines and disinfection a risible proposition. There have been cases of outbreaks and mutinies in prisons around the world, reports the Washington Post. In Latin America there have been escapes and riots in Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru and Chile. The piece quotes Robert Muggah, research director at the Rio de Janeiro-based Igarapé Institute, who  said the coronavirus “is a ticking time bomb for Latin America’s prisons.” 
  • Argentina joined the list this week, with five deaths in protests in several penitentiaries. (Infobae)
I hope you're all staying safe and sane as possible, given the circumstances ... And in these times of coronavirus, when we're all feeling a little isolated, feel especially free to reach out and share.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Bolsonaro scoffs in the face of Covid-19 (March 25, 2020)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro scoffed at quarantine measures aimed at containing the spread of coronavirus, even as both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo were placed under partial lockdown by municipal and state authorities yesterday. In a speech last night, Bolsonaro maintained his dismissive stance towards the dangers of Covid-19, and accused Brazilian media of trying to stoke nationwide hysteria. He asked state and municipal governments to roll-back restrictions on movements, calling them "scorched earth policies." (Associated Press, AFP)

Bolsonaro also said he “wouldn’t feel anything” if infected. “In my particular case, with my history as an athlete, if I were infected by the virus, I wouldn’t need to worry,” he said in yesterday's speech. There was indeed, growing speculation yesterday that Bolsonaro was infected with coronavirus, reports the Guardian. A growing number of Brazil's political elite has been infected, particularly members of the delegation that travelled with Bolsonaro to Florida to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump, earlier this month, reports Reuters.

Many analysts believe Bolsonaro's bizarre coronavirus stance will take him out of the running in for reelection in 2022. Brazilians self-quarantined or in local lockdowns have been expressing anger against Bolsonaro by pot banging every evening for the past week. While the government's coronavirus response was the initial flashpoint, protesters are also expressing more widespread anger at the first year of the Bolsonaro administration, reports the Guardian.

Bolsonaro appears to be betting on a Covid-19 culture war, though it's not at all clear he will win, writes Vincent Bevins in the New York Review of Books. His frequent clashes with other branches of democratic governance seem part of a winner takes all strategy pushed by Bolsonaro himself, says analyst Oliver Stuenkel in the piece.

However, in an interesting Twitter thread focused on Covid-19 political fallout, Stuenkel argues that Bolsonaro (and Trump and AMLO) might well eventually recover from this episode.

The Washington Post likens Bolsonaro's stance to that of U.S. President Donald Trump, and notes how both leaders see the outbreak as "more of a political hassle than public health threat." Chief among their practical reasons for the stance are economic concerns, note analysts.

News Briefs

  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador insists on urging citizens not to let coronavirus contagion stop them from eating out at restaurants. He and supporters have said that fears over coronavirus are exaggerated, and have furthered conspiratorial theories about the illness. Mexicans have been critical of the stance, and many are taking precautions of their own, in the absence of official restrictions, reports the Guardian. (New York Times video)
  • But AMLO's stance is less crazy if you look at the poor Mexicans who form his key constituency: millions of people who live day-by-day, many in informal or precarious working conditions, and who are unable to simply stay at home for a week, writes Hernán Gómez Bruera in Americas Quarterly.
  • Mexicans who cross the U.S. border to donate blood are a critical part of the U.K. blood plasma supply -- the Guardian explores the health impact on frequent donors lured by cash, whose immune systems could be compromised, and coronavirus.
  • The new U.S. asylum infrastructure is dangerous -- and unevenly enforced -- for migrants with life threatening diseases, reports the Washington Post with particular emphasis on how asylum seekers with HIV/AIDS have been rebuffed by immigration agents.
  • Nearly a million children are living without their parents in Venezuela, after their mothers and fathers migrated in search of economic opportunities in the midst of a prolonged economic crisis. Many are with grandparents, friends, neighbors, or even just each other, and the coronavirus quarantine threatens to further isolate these children from the teachers and neighbors who support them, reports the New York Times.
Regional Relations
  • A growing chorus in the U.S. is calling on the Trump administration to ease up on economic sanctions against Venezuelan and Iran, which they say are contributing to the coronavirus pandemic death toll, reports the Associated Press.
  • Foreign Ministers of the European Union (EU) supported Iran and Venezuela’s requests for financial aid to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fight the coronavirus pandemic, reports Telesur.
  • China could play a key role in shoring up Latin American economies that will be hard hit by the impact of coronavirus for years to come, and is already harnessing its vast resources to assist LAC countries with their immediate responses to local outbreaks, reports Americas Quarterly.
  • Results from Guyana's March 2 remain in limbo. Members of the governing coalition have paralyzed a vote recount via litigation, and international observer missions, including Caricom's, have withdrawn as a result of ongoing irregularities. (Stabroek, Kaieteur News)
  • Is it the first sign of the resources curse, wonders Bloomberg, noting the potential impact of the legitimacy crisis on the country's nascent oil extraction sector."
  • The U.K. foreign secretary warned Guayana yesterday that "any government sworn in on the basis of non-credible results will face strong international condemnation."
  • The oil context raised many questions about whether oil companies would do business with a government that declares itself winner with no recount. Billions of oil dollars are at stake.
More Brazil
  • Evangelical Christians' missionary zeal, who are leveraging their influence with the Brazilian government, could put indigenous communities at risk for disease -- including, of course, Covid-19, reports the Guardian.
  • The city of Sobral in Brazil's north-east is poor, but it's the best place in the country to get a public education, reports the Guardian. The secret? Sustained educational improvement policies over the past 23 years.
I hope you're all staying safe and sane as possible, given the circumstances ... And in these times of coronavirus, when we're all feeling a little isolated, feel especially free to reach out and share.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Cuba's coronavirus battles (March 24, 2020)

Coronavirus cases are on the rise in Cuba -- 40 confirmed as of yesterday, and doctors were monitoring more than 37,000 people, reports the Miami Herald. Last night, Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero announced the closing of schools and universities. Starting today, Cubans living abroad and foreigners will not be able to travel to the island and and Cubans returning to the country will be isolated for 14 days. (Reuters as well)

These are all measure that have become somewhat standard procedure in the region. What is notable is Cuba's international assistance stance towards coronavirus, in keeping with the island's long tradition of medical cooperation. The island's government sent 53 doctors and nurses over the weekend to northern Italy, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in that country. Another 140 Cuban doctors, nurses, and therapists arrived in Jamaica on Saturday. And Cuba has also sent doctors to Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Suriname. (Al Jazeera)

Last week, Cuba allowed a British cruise ship, to dock on its shores despite having at least five confirmed coronavirus cases on board and another 52 passengers displaying symptoms -- what the Independent termed a "sign of global solidarity" after the U.S. refused to help.

News Briefs

  • Colombian death squads are taking advantage of coronavirus quarantines to assassinate social leaders, reports the Guardian. Three rural activists were killed last week, in the midst of local lockdowns, and organizations of civil society warn that a national quarantine that starts tomorrow could be deadly.

  • Venezuelan police detained journalist Darvinson Rojas this weekend, apparently in retaliation for his Covid-19 coverage. He was detained after reporting on social media about coronavirus patients unrecognized by the government, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International called for his immediate release.
  • "This emergency demands union." Political unity is the only hope for Venezuela, which is facing the coronavirus pandemic after a 10 year political crisis, in the midst of crushing food insecurity, and a derelict health system, argues Venezuelan doctor Franz de Armas in a New York Times Español op-ed. The stakes for political cooperation -- which, he admits, there is no sign of -- are regional as well as national, notes Armas.
  • Indeed, Venezuela's rejected emergency appeal to the IMF for funding to react to the coronavirus shows the pitfalls of the country's ongoing political crisis, in which there are two presidents who claim legitimacy, each on differently shaky ground, writes Luz Mely Reyes in a the Post Opinión. She too argues that political cooperation, a requirement for international financing, will be key in the country's ability to respond to the pandemic.
  • Coronavirus has pushed Spain's efficient health system to the brink of collapse, and tests the credibility of its democratic institutions. What hope, then, is there for Venezuela, writes a Astrid Cantor, a Venezuelan doctor working in Spain. "Already before the pandemic, it was fairly usual that we would have to attend patients in chairs or the floor." (New York Times Español)
  • As elsewhere in the region, women's rights activists are concerned about the impact of quarantines on gender violence. (Efecto Cocuyo)
Covid-19 fact-checking
  • El Espectador and Mutante are creating Covid-19 informative brigades to combat coronavirus misinformation in Colombia.
  • Wherever polling is available, Latin Americans support tough measures against coronavirus, despite the marked economic cost, according to the Latin America Risk Report, which looks at several different national cases.
  • Displaced people are, of course, particularly vulnerable to coronavirus around the world. (Washington Post)
Climate Change
  • Coronavirus lessons for climate change: Jonathan Watts argues that Covid-19 is like global warming "but in close-up and fast-forward." (Guardian)
  • Pablo Escobar's "cocaine hippos" show how introduced species can restore a lost world, reports the Guardian.
  • Newsday has a map of how coronavirus has spread in the Caribbean, so far.
  • Mexicali residents rejected a U.S.-owned brewery construction in a plebiscite this weekend: "an improbable victory for a collective of farmers and activists over a deep-pocketed company backed by state and local officials," reports the Guardian. Around 76 percent of those who voted rejected the project developed by Constellation, reports the Wall Street Journal. Turnout was less than 5 percent of eligible voters.
  • Lockdowns in the region -- many countries suspended international flights -- have tourists trapped. In Ecuador some Australians are asking their government for a repatriation flight. (Guardian)
  • Argentine adventurer Martín Echegaray Davies has been forced to stop his trek on foot from the southernmost tip of South America to Alaska, due to coronavirus. (Guardian)
  • The ECLAC estimates a coronavirus-spurred GDP contraction of -1.8 percent in Latin America, which could lead to an increase of up to 10 percent in unemployment. (Telesur)
  • The coronavirus cost to tourism-dependent countries in Central America and the Caribbean is likely to be severe, reports the Guardian.
  • Argentines commemorate the March 24 anniversary of the 1976 military coup with annual demonstrations in support of human rights, led by the Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. This year, the national coronavirus lockdown has forced people to stay home. Instead supporters have hung white triangles -- symbolizing the iconic handkerchiefs worn by the Madres -- on their balconies, and are sharing pictures online with #PanuelosConMemoria (Página 12)
Thank you all for your kind messages and updates yesterday -- much appreciated. Readers are still invited to send me brief (Twitter style) descriptions of how coronavirus is impacting life where they are (our focus is Latin America, but I won't be strict) -- issues to focus on could be: government measures, vulnerable populations, how populations are reacting to measures (or lack of measures in some countries). I'll send out a supplement with these perspectives every couple of days, or so.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Coronavirus stress test in Lat Am (March 23, 2020)

The response to coronavirus in Latin America – as in the rest of the world – has been varied, though, by now, most countries have shut down borders, to different extents, and urged citizens to stay at home. Several countries have declared states of emergency, or obligatory quarantines. 

There have been colorful highlights, of extremely dubious health impact, such as a march against the disease in Nicaragua, “Love in the Times of the Coronavirus;” populist glad-handing by Mexico and Brazil’s presidents; and cyber-patrols against misinformation by Bolivia’s democratically-challenged interim-government. Bolivia's interim-president Jeanine Añéz called for prayers and fasting, which she said was the "best weapon" to fight against coronavirus. Magical realism is not only current in the region, it’s also self-referential.

Coronavirus presents a stress test for the entire world, but in Latin America it presents a unique challenge for governments that must grapple with the combination of pre-existing democratic weaknesses, poverty, insufficient medical infrastructure, and already struggling economies. The pandemic will likely rewrite the regional political map, and could well exacerbate authoritarian trends in several countries. But it could also strengthen faltering faith in the state in others. As the crisis continues, and people realize that we are in for the long haul, Latin America’s democracies could be hit hard (or redeemed).

In this context, measures that seem reasonable to combat viral spread – like using the armed forces for logistics or policing -- require extra attention, as Human Rights Watch warned last week. (See last Thursday's post.)  Lockdowns, and how they will be enforced, will build on concerns over security force responses to protests throughout the region last year, and ongoing questions over the use of military in combating crime. Argentina's government, for example, seems to be trying to such concerns with the need to enforce an obligatory lockdown. This weekend President Alberto Fernández said he will seek to avoid declaring a state of emergency, and that the military will be deployed only for support (field hospitals, humanitarian aid), not internal security. (Página 12, Infobae)

Indeed, one of the main challenges for Latin America’s governments will be finding a balance between necessary concentration of power in order to marshal an institutional response to a health crisis, and the potential overreach of leaders with a documented tendency to do so. Critics of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s coronavirus response question conditions in forced quarantine sites for returning travellers and a 30-day wait period.

As the crisis continues non-essential government institutions will increasingly shut-down, and civil society’s challenge will be how to control that reasonable crisis responses don’t go to far – and how to define what too far is, under the new pandemic normal. And, in the measure that armed forces participate in successful interventions with regards to coronavirus, there is the future danger of normalizing military participation in public life.

As elsewhere in the world, it’s hard to predict what will happen in the pressure pot of social distancing and quarantines. But we are a region known for taking dissatisfaction to the streets. What will happen as initial goodwill gives way to exhaustion and economic stress? And how will democratic rights to protest work within reasonable health limitations?

Coronavirus presents a sort of wildcard in various political processes that were playing out in national contexts. "Disasters are always a challenge but frequently provide authoritarian governments with an opportunity as the de facto power they wield suddenly becomes much more important to the population and its neighbors," write David Smilde and Dimitris Pantoulas in the last Venezuela Weekly. Venezuela’s legitimacy-challenged Nicolás Maduro has taken strong measures to quarantine citizens, a move that shored up his low approval ratings, but his governance could be challenged by an expected Covid-19 health hecatomb. Bolivia’s interim government has postponed the May presidential election redo (see briefs below), which could dangerously prolong the country’s political legitimacy limbo. As the virus spreads in Brazil and Mexico, Presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, respectively, could face backlash for their dismissiveness regarding the threat. (See briefs below.) An ongoing evening balcony pot-banging protest against Bolsonaro entered its sixth night, yesterday. (Guardian)

A final warning from the Latin America Risk Report: "Those Latin American countries that are acting early should learn from the example of the US and not believe that the extra two weeks of suppression are enough to stop the virus. The countries that succeed in using the next two weeks wisely will be the ones who prevent the most deaths and get their economies back to growth the quickest."

News Briefs

  • At least 23 inmates died in prison riots in Colombia over the weekend, after protests erupted in 13 penitentiaries. Inmates said they were demonstrating against lack of coronavirus prevention policies, while officials described the episodes as escape attempts, reports the New York Times. (See Reuters and Wall Street Journal, too.)
  • Bolivia's interim-government instituted a coronavirus quarantine starting today. It said it will postpone the May 3 presidential election re-do, and did not set a new date for the vote. (Reuters)
  • Ecuador's health and labor ministers resigned on Saturday, after a drastic increase in coronavirus infections, reports Reuters.
  • The United States government shut off access for anyone trying to claim asylum from the Mexican border, Friday, in addition to closing the border to non-essential traffic, reports the New York Times. In practice, the United States will deport anyone caught crossing between official ports of entry.
  • There have been a number of pieces on how the coronavirus has caught Venezuela at the worst possible time in terms of economy and an already collapsed health system. An "emergency in an emergency," according to Alberto Barrera Tyzska. (New York Times Español)
  • Francisco Rodríguez explores potential financing tools and the likely need for a political agreement between the government and the opposition to implement any of them. "Faced with a direct threat to the lives of millions of Venezuelans, we have a responsibility to call for a truce to confront a real enemy," he writes. (Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights)
  • Rodríguez's piece has an interesting general takeaway: "The fundamental problem of applying social distancing measures in any economy relies on the capacity of the state and society to enforce them. Social pressure and the state’s ability to supervise its application and punish its non-compliance play a role in this. Either of these two factors can be overwhelmed by the substantial economic cost that obeying these restrictions imposes on citizens."
  • This weekend, Maduro announced a series of economic measures to address the financial fallout from the spread of the coronavirus in the country, including prohibiting layoffs while also suspending rent payments and credit payments, reports Reuters.
  • The U.S. is preparing to target the Maduro government with new charges and sanctions against officials, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The New York Times reports on the dramatic story of the programmer behind Venezuela's cryptocurrency, the Petro.
  • In Peru, strong quarantine measures have pushed President Martín Vizcarra's approval rating to 87 percent, according to the latest Ipsos poll. Yesterday people sang him happy birthday from their balconies, around the country. (La República, La República)
  • Peru shut down its borders a week ago with no forewarning, stranding a large number of foreign tourists. Vizcarra’s government later issued a waiver allowing chartered flights to fly home Peruvians stranded abroad, and to allow foreign governments to repatriate their citizens, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Haitian authorities are considering economic support for people affected by coronavirus restrictions that have shut down schools and factories, reports AFP.
Quarantines in poverty
  • Analysts believe some of the most important coronavirus battles will be fought in the poorest parts of the developing world, with far fewer tools and far less capacity for isolation than higher-income countries, reports the Washington Post
  • In Brazil there are an estimated 12 million people living in favelas, and an estimated 17 percent of the country lives in some form of precarious housing -- and there have been no announcements yet as to how these populations, many without running water, will be assisted to stave off contagion, reports Página 12. Public health professionals say it won’t be long before the disease reaches the favelas, if it hasn’t already, reports the Washington Post.
  • A number of articles in Argentina focus on the difficulties of quarantine and distancing measures for the 4 million people living in informal housing conditions. Página 12 notes that for these people home is overcrowded, work cannot be done electronically, and even frequent hand-washing is a ludicrous proposition. Key government measures will include food distribution, subsidies to informal workers, and local work programs aimed at discouraging people from moving around in search of jobs.
  • In Cohete a la Luna, Vanina Escales writes about how women will be affected by quarantine: those working informally in the paid care economy, and those forced into close quarters in situations of domestic violence.
  • The International Monetary Fund said on Friday that Argentina needs substantial debt relief from private creditors to restore debt sustainability with a high degree of probability, reports Reuters.
  • Mexico closed its schools starting today and recommended distancing measures. (NPR)
Leadership failures
  • In the meantime, Bolsonaro is not backing down from his dismissive stance towards coronavirus. In an interview yesterday he called the illness "a little flu" and dismissed media "hysteria," reports the Guardian. Indeed, he attacked the governors of key states including Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo who have ordered residents to stay at home and are imposing quarantines, and said they were "tricking" their constituencies.
  • AMLO competes with Bolsonaro for the region's worst leadership example, argues Diego Fonseca in New York Times Español.

I don't know about you, but in the midst of social distancing and lockdowns, I'm suffering the isolation. I'm tracking major news, but things are changing so fast and so broadly that it's hard to get local nuance. I wanted to invite readers to send me brief (Twitter style) descriptions of how coronavirus is impacting life where they are (our focus is Latin America, but I won't be strict) -- issues to focus on could be: government measures, vulnerable populations, how populations are reacting to measures (or lack of measures in some countries). 

Send them to ladailybriefing@gmail.com, and I'll try to figure out how to make a coronavirus supplement to the briefing. 

I hope you are all as well as possible under the circumstances, and staying safe.