Thursday, April 30, 2020

Coronavirus accentuates authoritarian tendencies in ES (April 30, 2020)

News Briefs

El Salvador
  • Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele's strong response to the coronavirus pandemic -- with military enforced lockdowns, detentions and now a crackdown on gangs in prisons -- exemplifies concerns that the virus will push authoritarian tendencies in some countries, reports the Washington Post. "My general concern is the fact that the coronavirus is used by leaders in this region and other regions of the world to concentrate power," Americas Director for Human Rights Watch José Miguel Vivanco said.
  • In fact, Bukele's new tough on crime measures contradict his public health concerns, notes Human Rights Watch. The organization also voiced concern over Bukele's blanket authorization of "lethal force" by security forces against alleged gang members. (See Monday's post.)
  • In addition to human rights issues regarding prisoner treatment, experts warn that the mano dura moves could backfire and unite the country's powerful gangs against the government, reports the Associated Press.
  • Bukele's strongman actions in recent months -- including flouting several Supreme Court orders to stop arresting people who violate quarantines and a brief military occupation of the National Assembly -- contrast "with the picture of the young, energizing change agent many in the international community saw" before he took office, writes Brendan O'Boyle in Americas Quarterly.
  • "Bukele and his supporters insist that harsh measures to combat Covid-19 will put his administration on the right side of history. We worry, however, that we are witnessing a testing ground for how far executive power can be stretched—now, and possibly in the near future," argues Leonor Arteaga, senior program officer at the Due Process of Law Foundation in today's Latin America Advisor. "Allowing the president’s ongoing extraordinary powers is more dangerous than it is potentially beneficial. It is also unnecessary: emergency public health legislation would be enough to address this crisis."
  • The U.S. deported 129 migrants to Haiti yesterday, the second such flight this month, despite growing concerns that deportations are fueling contagion in Central America and the Caribbean (see yesterday's briefs). Three of the migrants who arrived in early April have tested positive for COVID-19, though none of the new group have symptoms yet, reports the Associated Press.
  • One of the 46 people who arrived in Jamaica on a deportation flight from the United States a week ago has tested positive for the new coronavirus, reports Reuters.
  • About two dozen migrants deported from the United States on a flight to Colombia last month have since tested positive for the coronavirus, reports Reuters.
  • The pandemic has allowed the U.S. Trump administration to implement its ideal immigration policy: total border shutdown. Asylum seekers, who over the last year had already been forced to wait in Mexico, are now either deported by Mexico or abandoned without resources, writes Alberto Pradilla in the Post Opinión
  • A sudden stop in tourism caused by border closures and lockdowns aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic will cause a 6.2 percent contraction of the Caribbean economy in 2020, the deepest recession in over half a century, according to the IMF. (Reuters)
  • The differences between how countries in the region have responded to the pandemic go beyond the individual temperaments of their leaders, and also relate to each country's deeper institutional dynamics, argue Agustina Giraudy, Sara Niedzwiecki and Jennifer Pribble at Americas Quarterly. They argue that Argentina's strong federal response, compared to Mexico and Brazil, is related to the governing Peronist party's strong "rootedness," weaker gubernatorial fiscal power in Argentina, and a strong welfare state.
  • On a regional level the coronavirus conventional wisdom has been that politicians who responded to coronavirus responsibly reaped political gains -- but there is evidence that this is changing, warns the Latin America Risk Report. "Politically, the early winners in the coronavirus crisis are not guaranteed to end up winning the next election. The same public that rallied around quick action and quarantine may turn on leaders who fail to pivot and deliver economic gains in the coming months."
  • U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned of "excessive use of force" against people seeking access to basic human rights in some Latin American countries amid the coronavirus pandemic. (US News and World Report)
  • Silver lining: The pandemic is raising awareness of the catastrophic state of the region's public health systems and the need to boost investment in them, said the regional director of the UNDP for Latin America, Luis Felipe Lopez-Calva. (EFE)
  • Peruvian cities, particularly Lima, are undergoing an exodus as poor workers who have lost work due to the coronavirus attempt to return to rural areas where their families live. The trend is a reversal of decades in which rural families traveled from the countryside to Lima in search of work, reports the New York Times. Nearly a third of all Peruvians have lost their jobs in recent weeks, according to a poll. Peru has become one of the Latin American countries hardest hit by coronavirus, despite an early and strict lockdown.
  • Venezuela’s government is considering a massive energy industry overhaul that would downsize the state role in oil production and hand over greater control to private companies, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The health crisis is an opportunity to desegregate Colombia's access to health care, in which exclusion has closely followed racial lines, writes Juan Delgado in the New York Times Español.
  • Cuba's government is cracking down on people who share information about Covid-19 impact on the island on social media, writes Abraham Jiménez Enoa in the Post Opinión.
  • Officially Nicaragua has about a dozen Covid-19 cases, but unofficial statistics are more troubling: officials have spoken of an increase in "atypical pneumonias" in hospitals around the country, with symptoms similar to those of Covid-19, writes Dánae Vílchez in the Post Opinión.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro withdrew the name of a family friend he had picked to run the federal police. He did so only after a Supreme Court justice blocked Alexandre Ramagem's appointment because there were relevant signs that his work might be compromised by his close relationship with Bolsonaro’s family, report Reuters. (See Tuesday's post and yesterday's briefs)
  • The exit of Bolsonaro's popular justice minister Sergio Moro last week is a significant blow to the president's standing with moderate voters, writes the Economist.
  • Bolsonaro could fall victim to his lack of political savvy, write Francisco Toro and James Bosworth in the Washington Post. In the midst of growing scandals (see Tuesday's post and yesterday's briefs), Bolsonaro could feasibly be impeached they write. "To undermine a country’s institutions and take greater individual control, you need to chip away at democratic rules over time. It takes more than fire-breathing rhetoric to do that; it takes political skills, alliance-building chops and a bit of luck, too. To Brazil’s great fortune, Bolsonaro seems to have run out of all three."
  • Manaus, capital of Brazil's Amazonas state, is in a race against time to avoid becoming the next Guayaquil. Burial service capacity is already close to being overwhelmed, there have been mass graves and nigh-time burials, reports the Guardian. Social distancing rules are flouted, even as burials reach record numbers, but experts point to underlying difficulties, given that 43 percent of the population doesn't have access to water for hand washing.
  • The Brazilian Valley of the Dawn religion may seem like an esoteric cult, but an academic researcher argues "that some of the group’s rituals speak directly to the harsh realities of the modern world." (Conversation)
I hope you're all staying safe and as 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, April 29, 2020

Bolsonaro shrugs off 5,000 coronavirus deaths (April 29, 2020)

News Briefs

  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro refuses to take the coronavirus seriously, even as the country's Covid-19 death count has topped 5,000. “So what?” Bolsonaro told reporters when asked about the record 474 deaths that day. “I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?” (Guardian)
  • Bolsonaro's behavior created a political crisis on top of the Covid-19 related health and economic crises the country is facing, reports the Washington Post. This week the country's Supreme Court authorized a probe into whether Bolsonaro tried to manipulate the federal police for political gain -- building on a public accusation from his former justice minister Sérgio Moro. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Brazil's Federal Police force has again become a tool to persecute political adversaries under Bolsonaro, said Open Society Latin America Program director Pedro Abramovay in an interview with El País. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Public defenders in Brazil sued federal, São Paulo state and city authorities to release coronavirus data. Greater transparency is needed in order to plan and combat the novel virus, they said. (Open Knowledge Brasil, see also Folha de S. Paulo)
  • The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued to deport migrants, even as its detention centers have become Covid-19 hotspots, effectively exporting the virus to several countries in the region, according to a new CEPR study looking at deportation flights to Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Nicaragua’s government is actively promoting illegal land grabs and granting concessions to mining and timber companies in indigenous territories, according to a new Oakland Institute report. (Associated Press)
  • Colombian authorities said that they have opened an investigation into the possible involvement of government officials in contract irregularities linked to the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, reports the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
  • There are at least 14 coronavirus-related criminal probes in Colombia, reported the Washington Post earlier this week.
El Salvador
  • Photos of Salvadoran prison inmates stripped to their shorts and jammed together on prison floors while their cells were searched shocked observers in the midst of social distancing norms aimed at preventing coronavirus contagion. Particularly in El Salvador, where the government has been adamant that health concerns trump human rights, reports the Washington Post. (See Monday's post.)
  • Democracy is shaky in El Salvador right now, but it's important to note that President Nayib Bukele's electoral success was possible last year due to mainstream parties' increasing lack of legitimacy, reports Deutsche Welle. (See Monday's post.)
  • Venezuela is no stranger to isolation -- it has a long history imposed by dictatorship rather than virus, writes Carlos Vecchio in Foreign Policy.
  • A U.S. navy deployment of warships to the Caribbean -- ostensibly aimed at combatting drug traffickers -- expensive and ineffective for that particular task, reports InSight Crime. Of course, many analysts suspect that the mission, which includes destroyers, littoral combat ships, Coast Guard cutters, P-8 patrol aircraft, helicopters, and surveillance drones -- will be suspiciously close to Venezuela. (See April 2's post.)
  • As the coronavirus pandemic has pummeled commerce and economic activity, numerous countries are facing deep recessions. Today's Latin America Advisor asks, to what extent are banks in Latin America and the Caribbean at risk from potential corporate debt defaults?
  • U.S. President Donald Trump floated the possibility that airlines would have to test travelers coming from South America for coronavirus, reports the Hill.
  • Cuban design startup Clandestina was booted from an e-commerce site due to U.S. restrictions on trade with Cuba. The internationally recognized fashion company denounced that U.S. policies are strangling private businesses in Cuba, and specifically points fingers at U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. (Nuevo Heraldo) Fight for a country free of dictatorship, retorted Rubio. (Diario de Cuba)
  • Cuban authorities say more than 2,000 Cubans who were abroad have returned to the island since the coronavirus pandemic broke out. (On Cuba News)
  • Social distancing has its own specific challenges in Cuba, where most homes lack electronics to keep kids entertained inside, according to the Havana Times.
  • There are reports of aggression towards healthcare workers in several countries -- attacks because people are concerned they are vectors of contagion. The issue is particularly marked in Mexico, where about 500 health care professionals are among the confirmed Covid-19 cases, reports the New York Times.
  • Mexico's northern states -- Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas -- have organized a stricter regional response to coronavirus, triggering calls for #Nortexit. Javier Garza Ramos explores the regional divisions in Mexico in the Post Opinión.
  • Oil price crashes and the coronavirus could turn Pemex into a crushing financial burden for Mexico, rather than the economic savior President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was counting on, reports the Washington Post.
  • Guyana's political crisis threatens to derail the country's incipient oil boom, reports World Politics Review.
  • Argentina's controversial Vaca Muerta fracking project could become a coronavirus victim -- and a bellwether for the post-pandemic world's relationship with fossil fuels, reports the Guardian.
  • Renata Flores, a rap artist who performs in Quechua, is part of a new generation of artists "combining the bouncing beats of Latin trap, rap and reggaeton popularized by artists like Bad Bunny with the sounds of the Peruvian countryside," reports the New York Times.
  • Brazilian guitarist Cainã Cavalcante is broadcasting split-screen jams with other locked-down musicians -- "Quarentena Sessions" (Guardian)
Critter corner
  • Extreme weather events may bend the evolutionary course of hundreds of species -- according to a scientific study on how Caribbean lizards brave hurricanes. (New York Times)
I hope you're all staying safe and as 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, April 28, 2020

Supreme Court authorizes Bolsonaro probe (April 28, 2020)

Brazil's Supreme Court authorized an investigation of allegations that President Jair Bolsonaro tried to illegally interfere with the country’s federal police force for political motives. The possible crimes for which Bolsonaro will be investigated reportedly include fraudulent misrepresentation, obstruction of justice and passive corruption, reports the Guardian.

Yesterday's decision comes after justice minister Sergio Moro resigned last Friday and accused Bolsonaro of seeking to interfere in investigations that involved family members, to the point of requesting intelligence files, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's briefs and Friday's post.)

“The president emphasized to me, explicitly, more than once, that he wanted someone who was a personal contact, whom he could call, from whom he could get information, intelligence reports,” Moro said. (Washington Post)

Based on the results of the police investigation, which has a 60-day time frame, the public prosecutor will have to decide whether to press charges against the president or his former minister. However, lawmakers would have to approve an indictment of Bolsonaro before it could move to the Supreme Court, and his supporters in the lower chamber would likely block the move, according to Reuters.

Public support for Bolsonaro to resign is growing, but his base of support also remains strong, meaning impeachment is unlikely at the current moment. Datafolha poll conducted yesterday found that 48% oppose impeaching Bolsonaro while 45% of those surveyed want to see him impeached. However, for 52% of those polled, Moro was telling the truth and only 20% said they believed Bolsonaro’s account. (Reuters)

Bolsonaro has not been deterred by the Supreme Court investigation threat. Today he allies to fill the justice ministry and police chief vacancies, reports the Associated Press. Bolsonaro appointed André Mendonça, an evangelical pastor who has served as attorney general since 2019, to head the justice ministry, and Alexandre Ramagem to serve as director general of the Federal Police. Critics have noted close ties between Ramagem and Carlos Bolsonaro, one of the president's sons, who is reportedly under investigation by the federal police. (See yesterday's briefs.) Leftist lawmaker Marcelo Freixo said on Twitter he has filed suit to annul the nomination.

Separately, a judge yesterday gave the federal government 48 hours to hand over the results of two Covid-19 tests Bolsonaro took last month but has refused to publish.

More Brazil
  • Covid-19 has jumped from Rio de Janeiro's poshest neighborhoods to its favelas, at a deathly cost, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazil's economic authorities seek to gradually reopen economic activity -- and professional soccer matches could soon start behind closed doors, reports Reuters. Bars and restaurants might also reopen soon, according to the productivity and competition secretary Carlos da Costa.
News Briefs

  • The coronavirus epidemic has sparked concern about conditions in Latin America's overcrowded prisons. Concerns over contagion have prompted mass inmate releases in several countries -- including Peru, Colombia and Brazil. At the same time, fear of the virus has also pushed detainees to protest and riot, pointing to chronic issues that include lack of food, hygiene supplies and lack of access to health care, reports the New York Times. Advocates hope it is a moment of reckoning: "Vincent Ballon, the top expert on detention issues at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the coronavirus crisis should prompt governments across the world to reconsider the laws and policies that have led to overcrowded and poorly run prisons in the first place.
  • Inmate advocates in several countries have voiced concern that Covid-19 releases are occurring at a slow pace, however. (See Animal Político about Mexico.)
  • The pandemic's economic effects mean global remittances will drop 20 percent this year -- with significant impact on receiving countries' poverty rates, social and political stability, reports the New York Times. Mexico was the third-largest recipient of remittances among all countries in 2018, but the largest recipient of money sent from the United States.
  • Mexico has almost entirely cleared out its migration centers in response to the coronavirus, sending most inmates back to their home countries, reports Reuters. Since March 21, Mexico has returned 3,653 migrants to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador by road and air, with the result that only 106 people remain in the centers, according to authorities.
  • Deportations have, in turn, become a major source of contagion for some countries, particularly Guatemala, where 20 percent of cases are migrants deported from the U.S., reports CBS News.
  • And now many of those deported migrants are facing stigma and threat in their home communities, due to fear of coronavirus infection, reports Al Jazeera. Many have been physically threatened.
El Salvador 
  • Punitive government measures against gang members (see yesterday's post) include sealing off the doors and windows of prison cells in which gang members are held, aimed at preventing communication with the outside, reports the BBC.
  • Advocates, including Human Rights Watch, have voiced concern over the government's treatment of inmates, which includes grouping them closely together at a time when social distancing is key to maintain health. (El Faro)
  • Authorities are responding to a sudden rise in homicides that started last Friday and continued through yesterday evening, reports El Faro. The question of why gang violence increased so drastically in such a short time -- initially El Salvador's gangs were emphatic about accompanying quarantine measures -- has not been addressed by the government. El Faro reports that possible causes include economic necessity, lack of extortion income and family loss of income from markets, as well as increased police violence in gang neighborhoods, targeted at members. El Faro also notes that Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) appears to be responsible for the homicides, not the two factions of Barrio 18.
  • The homicides are also a sign of gang strength and territorial control -- even in the midst of the government's crackdown, said experts interviewed by Revista Factum.
  • Mexican workers in several maquiladoras near the U.S. border are on strike, after they say co-workers died of Covid-19. Social distancing has not been implemented on the production line, they told the BBC.
  • On the flip side, U.S. companies making goods like ventilators, face masks and military equipment are unable to get parts and materials they need because the Mexican government has shuttered hundreds of factories in the midst of the pandemic, reports Politico.
  • Mexico's government is trying to apease both sides, reports the Associated Press. Yesterday it promised to reopen factories needed by the U.S. economy, while simultaneously shaming others that don't follow lockdown measures.
  • Colombia's ELN guerrilla group said it will resume military operations as of May 1, after a one month unilateral cease-fire in response to the coronavirus pandemic, reports AFP. It noted the lack of government response to the cease-fire as one of the reasons.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro appointed his economy vice president, Tareck El Aissami, who has been indicted in the United States on drug trafficking charges, as oil minister, amid acute fuel shortages across the country, reports Reuters.
  • Anti-money laundering efforts in Latin America are far more capable than they were ten years ago, but now face the threat of political cooptation, write Roberto Simon and Emilie Sweigart in Americas Quarterly.
  • The Ortega administration's refusal to recognize Covid-19 as a real threat is related to economic concerns, Gioconda Belli told NPR.
  • Ousted Bolivian president Evo Morales criticized the interim government's coronavirus approach, saying lack of scientific rigor has pushed six medical societies to withdraw from the gubernamental advisory board. (Telesur)
  • Argentina extended it's national lockdown until May 11, at least, though measures have been relaxed in areas of the country without coronavirus cases. Yesterday, the government banned all commercial flight ticket sales until September, one of the toughest coronavirus travel bans in the world, reports Reuters.
Costa Rica
  • Coronavirus rates have dropped in Costa Rica for 11 straight days, prompting authorities to plan a slow reopening starting May 1, reports Reuters.
I hope you're all staying safe and as 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.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Bukele authorizes lethal force against gang members (April 27, 2020)

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele authorized security forces to use "lethal force" to combat street gangs, after an uptick in homicides this weekend. Via twitter, as usual, Bukele assured military and police troops that they were authorize to use lethal force to protect lives, and that the government would legally defend anybody "unjustly accused of defending the lives of honorable people." (El País

The  move came after an unusual increase in violence, which has fallen drastically since the middle of last year. There were at least 40 homicides in a 72 hour period -- 24 on Friday alone -- prompting Bukele to accuse the street gangs of taking advantage of the pandemic situation. He also ordered a state of maximum emergency in the country's penitentiaries, with inmates locked in their cells for 24 hours in an attempt to clamp down on communication with the outside. Authorities also placed rival gang members into shared cells, a moved also aimed to break up communication within gangs, reports Reuters.

A new report by El Salvador's human rights ombudsman's office found evidence that security forces carried out arbitrary detentions and human rights abuses while enforcing the country's coronavirus quarantine measures. There have been 778 reports of abuses by security forces. (El Faro

The government has not been deterred by repeated Supreme Court orders to stop detentions until they are regulated by lawmakers -- as of last week, there were 60 detentions carried out after the April 15 court order, reports la Prensa Gráfica.

All of this weekend's moves come after the National Assembly abruptly suspended a session on Thursday evening after Bukele tweeted that there was suspicion of contagion within the lawmakers' chamber. The tweet interrupted lawmakers who were on the brink of overriding a series of presidential vetos on social security measures. (El Faro, El Diario de Hoy, Revista Factum)

While everybody knows that the numbers don't necessarily mean much (or anything) it is probably worth noting that, as of today, El Salvador has 328 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 8 deaths -- roughly 0.125 per 100,000.

News Briefs

  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro faces increasing challenges to his political survival, after his justice minister Sergio Moro resigned on Friday. (See Friday's post.) Moro publicly accused the president of attempting to improperly meddle in the operations of the federal police by sacking the federal police director, Maurício Valeixo. The move came amid media reports that federal police investigators have identified one of Bolsonaro's sons -- Carlos -- as one of the alleged key members of a “criminal fake news racket” engaged in threatening and defaming Brazilian authorities. And now, Bolsonaro's reported pick  to head the national police is Alexandre Ramagem, the head of Brazil’s intelligence agency, who is allegedly a friend of Carlos Bolsonaro’s, reports the Guardian. (See also Folha de S. Paulo)
  • Moro’s accusation prompted Attorney General Augusto Aras to ask the Supreme Court to open a criminal investigation into the conduct Mr. Moro had described, saying that if confirmed, it amounted to obstruction of justice and other crimes, reports the New York Times.
  • But Bolsonaro may be far better poised to weather the Moro episode than analysts initially believed, reports Brian Winter in Americas Quarterly. Moro, a crusading anti-corruption judge was wildly popular among conservatives, in large part due to his (controversial) role in detaining former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. His resignation last Friday was seen as a significant blow to Bolsonaro's moderate base. (See Friday's post.) "But don’t underestimate the power of tribalism in the Age of Social Media - particularly a tribe that has much of the military, the police, truckers, and other formidable groups in its corner," warns Winter.
  • Another of Bolsonaro's sons, Flavio, financed and profited from the illegal construction of buildings by illegal militias using public money, reports The Intercept
  • Thousands of indigenous people postponed the annual "Terra Livre" protest that was supposed to start today in Brasilia, due to concerns of coronavirus contagion. Though Brazil's economy has been paralyzed by Covid-19, illegal activity in the Amazon is stronger than ever, reports El País.
  • Perhaps the fear of infection that everybody in the world now feels is similar to that the Amazonian Yanomami feel always -- a tribe that is no stranger to lethal epidemics, writes Bruce Albert in a New York Times Español op-ed. Indigenous Amazon tribes are doubtless among Brazil's most vulnerable populations. There has already been one coronavirus death among the Yanomami people, likely introduced by illegal miners who are devastating their territories.
  • Chile will push forward with "survival certificates," for patients who have recovered from Covid-19, despite a warning from the WHO that there is no evidence that recovery grants immunity from reinfection, reports Reuters. (See last Friday's post.) Chilean officials are emphasizing that the "Carné Covid" doesn't certify immunity, but it will, nonetheless, permit holders to move freely, without restrictions and quarantines affecting other portions of the population. (El Mostrador)
  • Though Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has steadfastly refused to implement social distancing measures, the country did shut down its borders to repatriation of citizens -- many economic migrants who have lost their jobs in neighboring countries due to the coronavirus pandemic, reports El País.
  • Haitians are going about their daily lives without social distancing, despite a government shut down five weeks ago of airports and borders. This is in part because Covid-19 contagion is still low, but experts predict a huge coronavirus impact in the country, warns EFE. (See last Thursday's post.)
  • Corruption allegations related to coronavirus aid -- everything from food to medical supplies -- are proliferating as governments step up their purchases drastically in an emergency time frame, reports the Washington Post.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean will be set back more than a decade, in terms of inequality, by the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, which will push nearly 29 million people from the region into poverty, said ECLAC head Alicia Bárcena. (Financial Times)
  • In one of the most recent "Postales" series in the New York Times Español, José Natanson writes a love letter to a local Buenos Aires café in the midst of the coronavirus shutdown. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Moro out in Brazil (April 24, 2020)

Brazilian justice minister Sergio Moro quit this morning -- a move of huge political significance as Brazil's government battles a massive coronavirus epidemic and internal divisions over President Jair Bolsonaro. Moro's exit is a significant blow to Bolsonaro's administration.

Moro, a former judge who presided over the landmark Lava Jato corruption investigation, said he was stepping down in response to Bolsonaro removing one of the minister’s closest associates, Maurício Valeixo, from his job as head of the federal police. “I have to protect my biography and above all the commitment I took on … that we would stand firm against corruption, organized crime and violent crime,” said Moro.

Speculation has been rife as to why Bolsonaro would move against Valeixo, and some press reports indicate it could be related to the police investigation into the dissemination of fake news and promotion of anti-democracy protests and the potential involvement of one of Bolsonaro's sons, Carlos Bolsonaro.

But other sources indicate that Moro has been increasingly uncomfortable with Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including the ongoing rejection of social distancing measures and the ousting last week of a health minister who contradicted the president's laissez-faire messaging. 

More Brazil
  • The New York Times made a coronavirus map of cases in Brazil, where, as of this morning, at least 3,313 people had died.
  • In Manaus, in Brazil's Amazonas state, the death rate has overwhelmed infrastructure and coffins are being buried in mass graves, reports EFE.
  • Positive pushes: NudgeRio, a department in Rio’s city hall that uses behavioral science to influence people’s decisions is deploying innovative strategies to urge people to stay home in the midst of the pandemic. The team is also involved in a project to combat growing domestic violence, a global problem exacerbated by lockdown situations, reports the Guardian.

"Immunity Passports" in Chile

Chile is experimenting with documents certifying people who have recovered from Covid-19, which would function as a sort of permit to resume normal life, on the assumption that holders have immunity from reinfection and contagion of others. The media has dubbed them "immunity passports," and there have been numerous references in the international press, though health officials prefer to refer to them as "Covid-19 Certificates" as the subject of immunity is still debated.

The Chilean government has technically referred to them as certificates of recovery, that would apparently be given to patients who have also completed a quarantine after the illness, and are presumed to have immunity from the novel coronavirus.  Reports differ on the details of who would receive them, but El País cites health ministry official Paula Daza who said the first phase will focus on people with a confirmed Covid-19 diagnosis and a subsequent 14 day quarantine. Health Minister Jaime Mañalich told the World Health Organization, yesterday, that the document is for people with confirmed PCR (serum) tests, who had an infection and complied with the 14 day quarantine. (La Tercera)

Chilean press indicates that the rollout was delayed from this Monday due to security measures, and is expected imminently. ( La Tercera and La Nación) Reports in the international press that 5,000 of these will be handed out could be extrapolating from the official "recovered" statistic, which was 4.676 earlier this week (44.5 percent of the confirmed positives, 10.507). 

Regardless, the plan is controversial among health experts, including the World Health Organization, which warns that there is no proof yet that people who have recovered from Covid-19 are actually immune, nor how long the immunity could be expected to last. Local scientists are concerned that economic concerns are trumping public health concerns, and question the assumption that the novel coronavirus acts like similar viruses, reports Publimetro. (This is obviously not an issue limited to Chile, check out this New York Times op-ed that does a deep-dive the issue and the partial acquisition of immunity in other coronaviruses.)

Another concern several experts have voiced is whether the freedom afforded by the pass, which aims at economic reactivation, would push people to purposely expose themselves to the novel coronavirus in order to be able to resume work. Experts also pointed to concerns over the accuracy of antibody tests, if those were to be used for the certificates. (BioBio)

The polemic is part of a broader debate over Chile's quarantine model, which is more flexible than the total lockdowns implemented in neighboring countries. Chile has instead targeted affected neighborhoods, and has progressively relaxed restrictions in areas where infection rates appear to be going down, reports Bloomberg.

Chile's government is anxious to restart the economy. President Sebastián Piñera said government officials will progressively return to their desks over the next couple of months, a decision that has some critics saying it's far too soon. Piñera said last weekend that while the epidemic is not over, the rate of people actively infected seems to have stabilized, with people recovering as new people fall ill. 

Nonetheless, Chilean health officials say some forms of restrictions are to be expected until the end of the Southern Hemisphere winter.

More Chile
  • Chileans were supposed to vote on whether to draft a new constitution this weekend. El Hilo podcast explores what is happening with the social demands that exploded on the scene last October and have been sidelined by Covid-19. (Also see yesterday's briefs.)
News Briefs

  • The death toll in Ecuador during the coronavirus outbreak was 15 times higher than the official number of Covid-19 deaths reported by the government, according to an analysis of mortality data by the New York Times. The numbers suggest that the South American country is suffering one of the worst outbreaks in the world.
  • The case seems relevant for other developing countries around the world. "Academic research on Ecuadorean politics and human security in past pandemics suggests that coronavirus may create greater political and economic turmoil in a country that already struggles with instability," warn Dennis Altman and Juan Carlos Valarezo in the Conversation.
  • Venezuelan opposition leaders agreed to pay themselves $5,000 a month, a move contained in legislation passed last week by the National Assembly to set up an $80 million “Liberation Fund” made up of Venezuelan assets seized by the U.S. reports the Associated Press. The legislation was supposed to be a major coup for opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has struggled to exert real power since declaring himself interim president over a year ago. But the backlash for the payout could be intense in a country where minimum wage is $2 a month.
  • The U.S. might start testing foreign nationals before deporting them, after several countries -- especially Guatemala -- complained about receiving Covid-19 infected deportees, reports the Miami Herald. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
  • A plane carrying 129 migrants who were deported from the U.S. landed yesterday in Haiti, despite growing concerns over Covid-19 impact in the country, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's post.)
Central America
  • Strict quarantine measures have bumped up against extreme poverty, stoking civil unrest in Central America. Governments have responded with social spending, tear gas and arbitrary detentions, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Central America's economies will be further battered by loss of money remittances from the U.S. -- an expected drop of 10 percent, reports Bloomberg
  • Leftist discourse aside, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's austerity cuts in the midst of pandemic put him more in line with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, according to critics. (Guardian)
  • Peru will release under amnesty about 3,000 prisoners including those who are particularly at risk from the coronavirus pandemic, reports AFP.
  • Argentina's quarantine will likely be prolonged into May -- President Alberto Fernández is expected to make an announcement tonight. Children are increasingly a topic of concern, after 36 days of lockdown (preceded by a school shutdown the week before). Experts are suggesting permitting outings within a limited radius of their homes. (Página 12)
  • Random quarantines: check out the festival goers who got trapped at a Panamanian beach. (Guardian)
  • Critters wandering in abandoned urban settings are definitely the coronavirus pandemic's silver-lining. The global climate impact is huge: experts are predicting the largest annual drop in carbon emissions in modern history, reports the Washington Post.
  • Not that it's all good: Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon is increasing more than ever this year, thanks to environmental enforcement agents sidelined by the pandemic, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A startup is working with Chilean fishermen to recycle their plastic nets and keep them from polluting the ocean. (Guardian)
I hope you're all staying safe and as 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.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Haiti bracing for Covid-19, reopening factories (April 23, 2020)

Haiti's brush with coronavirus has come slower than other countries in the region, in part hindered by protests that have shut down the country's tourism and interaction with foreigners. But laid-off workers returning from the Dominican Republic, which is far more affected by the novel coronavirus, mean it is only a matter of time before Haiti's crumbling health system faces off against Covid-19, warn experts. (New York Times)

Experts predict tens of thousands of patients in Haiti -- and an effective plan to contain and treat them would be prohibitively expensive, reports the New York Times.

The woefully underprepared nature of Haiti's healthcare system is exemplified by the extremely low number of working ventilators, reported the BBC earlier this week. According to one report there are no more than 60 ventilators for 11 million people, and not all of those are functioning. (See Monday's briefs.) Some say the number is closer to 20 ventilators. Haitians regularly die of easily treatable ailments like diarrhea, and public hospitals often have to charge patients for basics like syringes and gloves, reports the New York Times.

Already, cramped living conditions and poverty make Haitians more susceptible to health problems. Haiti has the highest incidence of tuberculosis in the Americas and high rates of other chronic health problems such as diabetes and hypertension, reports the New Humanitarian.

The government implemented shut-down measures a month ago, on March 19, but has had difficulty enforcing them, in the midst of an already fragile economy suffering from extremely high inflation. The economics are stark: more than 60 percent of the country's population lives beneath the poverty line, ill able to follow stay-at-home measures. This week factories reopened at partial capacity -- using about 30 percent of their staff reports the AFP

Deportees from the U.S. are another source of infection -- and earlier this week Haiti’s prime minister, Joseph Jouthe, said another flight carrying more than 100 Haitian deportees was expected. (Reuters)

Curiously, in the midst of all this, it's easier for Haitian nationals to get back to Haiti as deportees than as returning tourists, reports the Miami Herald. Non-deportees seeking to return must overcome expensive hurdles such as obtaining a coronavirus test in the U.S., testing negative, and then quarantining in one of two government approved Port-au-Prince hotels for two weeks.

More Haiti
  • Haitian authorities are conducting a criminal investigation into a February fire at an orphanage operated by a U.S.-based church near Port-au-Prince, where 13 children and two adults died, reports the Associated Press. (See Feb. 17's briefs.)
  • The two children's homes the U.S. based Church of Bible Understanding operates in Haiti have faced years of infractions and failed two state inspections, notes the Associated Press in a separate piece. Authorities believe the fire was caused by using candles for light in the evening rather than a functioning generator or battery.
News Briefs

  • A Reuters report about secret negotiations between Venezuela's government and opposition was swiftly denied by opposition leader Juan Guaidó yesterday. (See yesterday's briefs .) "However, insiders suggest that backchannel contact between the Guaidó and Maduro governments is frequent and that Norwegian diplomats have never stopped their contact with each side, despite formal talks being suspended in September," according to the Venezuela Weekly. "Given the way the COVID-19 pandemic is changing conditions, contacts solidifying into talks is always a possibility," write David Smilde and Dimitris Pantoulas.
  • The global oil price crash this week will be particularly catastrophic for Venezuela. (See yesterday's briefs) The loss in income could leave the government without enough cashflow to cover imports of food, gasoline and medicines, notes the Venezuela Weekly.
  • Covid-19 crises in South American countries have made life even more difficult for Venezuelan migrants, many of whom have lost precarious and work and housing options. It is not fully clear how many migrants have returned to Venezuela over the past month or so, but the United Nations estimates at least 97 quarantine centers with a capacity of 8,615 people. These lack basic hygiene and infrastructure, a situation ripe for cruel and degrading treatment of returnees, write Carolina Jiménez Sandoval and Rafael Uzcátegui in the Post Opinión.
  • Ventilator shortages are a world-wide issue now. Engineers in the region are racing to build the machines locally, often retooling automotive and appliance plants, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Thefts of tests, ventilators and personal protective equipment have shot up across Latin America, reports InSight Crime.
  • Mexico is bracing for a major surge in Covid-19 infections and deaths, reports the Los Angeles Times, and experts are concerned over how the national health care system will cope.
  • Nonetheless, the U.S. is pressuring Mexico to reopen border assembly plants that play a key role in the U.S. supply chain, reports the Associated Press. U.S. officials say the factories play a vital economic role, but workers are increasingly concerned that maquiladoras have become breeding grounds for coronavirus infection.
  • Coronavirus is affecting national economies around the world, but in Mexico "it’s taking specific aim at the pillars of the Mexican economy: trade, oil, remittances and tourism," reports the Washington Post.
  • Attacks against healthcare workers have grown in Mexico, where some people believe they are vectors of Covid-19 contagion. The violence is enough that many have started traveling to work out of uniform, reports the Guardian.
  • Mexican lawmakers approved an amnesty for non-violent inmates in the country's prison system, a move praised as "humanitarian" by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The measure will allow for the release of low-level offenders, including those convicted of robbery and small-scale drug possession, as well women jailed on abortion charges. It will also apply to indigenous convicts who did not receive an adequate defense due to language barriers and those who were coerced to work with criminal gangs. (Reuters)
  • Insufficient testing is an ongoing issue in the region, but is particularly marked in Brazil, where experts believe the scope of infection is vastly undercounted, reports the Washington Post. According to government statistics, nearly 37,300 people have been hospitalized this year with respiratory ailments — four times the number at this point last year — but only half have received test results. Death rates for pneumonia and respiratory failure -- far above the statistical norm in certain affected areas -- also point to the prevalence of Covid-19. 
  • There is a method to President Jair Bolsonaro's madness -- the stubborn denial of the coronavirus threat -- writes Andy Robinson in The Nation. His stance, contrary to that of many government officials, is aimed at avoiding blame for the economic crisis unfolding in the country.
  • Peru's hospitals are struggling with increased Covid-19 infections: confirmed figures this week doubled those of the previous week. The health ministry says it expects patient numbers to peak within days or in the following week. And medical workers are protesting lack of protective equipment. Storage for cadavers and crematorium capacity are already reaching their limits, reports Reuters.
  • Cuba's health system is better poised than most in the region to deal with coronavirus, but the pandemic's economic impact will be harder for the island's government, reports the Economist.
  • Hungry protesters are increasingly defying Colombia's lockdown, demanding assistance from the government. Red cloths hung on windows of houses where people have insufficient food are features in all the homes of certain neighborhoods, reports France 24.
  • Two deputy health ministers in Guatemala were fired this week amid revelations of an alleged corruption ring inside the ministry, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Twenty-nine Nobel laureates have condemned alleged “judicial harassment” by Chevron and urged the release of a US environmental lawyer who was put under house arrest for pursuing oil-spill compensation claims on behalf of indigenous tribes in the Amazon, reports the Guardian.
  • Bolivian social organizations accused the country's interim government of human rights violations in its management of the coronavirus outbreak, reports Telesur. (See last Thursday's briefs as well.)
  • Chile was supposed to hold a referendum this weekend -- polls predicted citizens would support drafting a new constitution, which has turned into a major protest demand since last October. The date has instead been moved to October, 2020, as a result of the coronavirus epidemic, which means campaigning will take place in a moment of economic weakness and reconstruction, writes Rocío Montes in the Post Opinión.
  • Argentina did not foreign debt payments due yesterday, starting a 30 day countdown to default (again), reports the Wall Street Journal. The move was expected, as the country offered creditors a restructuring proposal last week and aims to reach an agreement with bondholders, despite their initial rejection of the plan.
  • Fallout from a default would be "grisly" warns the Economist which says that the debt and the pandemic present the Fernández administration with a make-or-break moment.
  • Uruguay started reopening rural primary schools, though attendance will not be mandatory, reports the BBC.

I hope you're all staying safe and as 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.