Friday, May 29, 2020

Latin America 40 percent coronavirus deaths (May 29, 2020)

Latin America represents nearly 40 percent of daily coronavirus deaths globally now -- though it has just 8 percent of the world's population, reports Bloomberg. Latin American countries reported more than 1,900 deaths on yesterday, a record, accounting for 37 percent worldwide.

Earlier this week the Pan-American Health Organization said Latin America had become the world's coronavirus epicenter. 

Brazil currently has more cases than any country except the U.S. Mexico had its largest single increase in both cases and deaths this week. And Peru, Chile and Colombia have all set daily records in the past week. There is concern that Haiti could be headed for a Covid-19 humanitarian crisis.

Even as caseloads continue to explode, some normal activity is resuming across the region, warns Bloomberg. "Without more government aid and security forces, many countries may not be able to sustain quarantines until the worst of the storm has passed."

A study this week by the United Nations World Food Programme found the coronavirus pandemic has put nearly 14 million people in the Caribbean and Latin America at risk of missing meals. (NPR) The UN agency estimated that 10 million additional people could join the 3.4 million across the region who were already unable to meet their basic food needs. The WFP projections cover Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and small island developing states in the Caribbean.

News Briefs

  • Suriname's main opposition party seems poised to win last Monday's legislative elections, but the ruling National Democratic Party has already called for a recount. At stake is the continuity of President Desi Bouterse, who has governed the country through dictatorship and democracy and was recently convicted of murder by a military court. He called for a nationally televised recount after preliminary results gave victory to the opposition Progressive Reform Party. (Deutsche Welle)
  • Chilean doctors said they are being forced to make tough decisions as hospital beds in Santiago run short, reports Reuters. The count of new cases in Chile has quadrupled since early May to about 4,000 daily, with total cases topping 80,000 on Wednesday. Critical care wards in Santiago now report 97% occupancy levels, according to a Tuesday poll by Chile´s Society of Intensive Care Medicine.
  • Some 15 percent of Chileans who have tested positive for COVID-19 are still going to work, according to a new study that also found that people presenting “suspicious” symptoms who have not been tested, the proportion of those still on the job rose to 43.6 percent. (EFE)
  • Brazil entered the pandemic with strengths that include a federal system and a relatively strong public health system. But "Covid-19 exploits Brazil's weaknesses," reports the Economist. The virus has rooted into poor neighborhoods where density is high and most people have jobs without contracts or benefits -- making social distancing hard. Even more harmful is President Jair Bolsonaro's attitude. 
  • Sao Paulo, will begin reopening after two months of a loose quarantine, despite a record number of new coronavirus cases reported in Brazil. (Bloomberg)
  • Venezuela’s Crisis, Outside Powers, Politics, and the Search for a Solution -- David Smilde and Geoff Ramsey unpack what's going on in Venezuela with Covid-19, what it would take to reach a political solution, and the role of outside powers in the latest WOLA podcast.
  • The Venezuelan navy said it escorted a fourth fuel tanker from Iran through its waters, yesterday. The U.S. called the shipments to the gasoline-starved country a distraction from problems facing President Nicolas Maduro, reports Reuters.
  • A British court said it must decide which of Venezuela's political factions legitimately represent the country before ruling on president Nicolas Maduro’s request for the Bank of England to hand over gold the country has in its vaults. The gold would be used to fund Venezuela’s coronavirus response, and the Maduro administration said the money would be administered by the UN Development Program to administer the funds. But the Bank of England has refused to transfer the funds to Maduro’s government, which Britain does not recognize, since 2018. (Reuters)
  • Venezuela's National Assembly ratified opposition leader Juan Guaido as legislative speaker, yesterday, defying a Supreme Court ruling that recognized a Maduro-friendly lawmaker as the head of the assembly, reports AFP. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Coronavirus economic pain has been intense in Venezuela, which was already suffering from hyperinflation, high levels of unemployment and a seven-year recession. Re-opening certain sectors of the economy will be critical "to ensure that the quarantine doesn’t cost more lives than the coronavirus itself," but "will need to be carefully planned, and come alongside an agile public policy response," writes Asdrúbal Oliveros in Americas Quarterly.
  • "As governments consider how to respond to COVID-19, one potential solution has been flying under the radar: subnational development banks," argue Sergio Suchodolski and Adauto Modesto Junior in Americas Quarterly.
El Salvador
  • El Salvador has secured $250 million in emergency financing from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to fund Covid-19 efforts. (Latin Finance)
  • Cristosal notes a worrisome trend of Covid-19 cases among Salvadoran security forces, and reports that they are obliged to continue working, despite the diagnosis. The National Civil Police denied the allegation.
  • The group also denounced the collapse of health centers, lack of protective gear for health workers, and attempts to censor workers.
  • Coronavirus has deepened inequality in Ecuador's Guayaquil, reports Al Jazeera.
  • The Center for International Environmental Law denounced that ExxonMobil has flared gas offshore in Guyana, far exceeding permitted levels. "The magnitude and duration of the flaring suggests more than a one-time, technical glitch. According to Guyana’s environmental agency, Exxon has flared an estimated 9 billion cubic feet of gas—not the 2 billion the company first claimed. That puts Guyana among the top ten gas flaring countries in the world—even though the first oil was lifted from Guyana’s waters just six months ago."
  • Colombian Duque administration "achievements include absorbing 1.8m Venezuelan migrants, a law to get broadband to rural areas and, so far, coping with covid-19. But with more than half [of President Iván Duque's] four-year term still to go, they risk being wiped out by recession and, with it, a probable rebound in crime," warns the Economist.
  • Bolivia is a tough case to pigeonhole -- this post by Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky Former UN Independent Expert on debt and human rights analyzes some aspects of its heterodox development model under President Evo Morales.
  • Argentina published a new debt offer that shortens its payment moratorium to two years and delays principal payments for half a decade -- Bloomberg.
  • Art can make visible the forgotten political violence victims that Colombia has tried to erase, writes Doris Salcedo, part of a New York Times "Big Ideas" series.
  • Also in the series, which focuses on "Why Does Art Matter," Mexican actress Yalitza Aparicio writes about how representation of indigenous women in the film Roma helped create momentum for a groundbreaking new law that granted two million Mexican domestic workers basic rights.
Lockdown lifestyle
  • To meet rising demand for animal companions in lockdown, Public Animal Shelter in Rio de Janeiro lets people choose a pet online and delivers it to their homes. (Guardian)
  • Waste not want not: Montevideo's closed down international airport is doubling as a drive-in movie theater for Uruguayans who miss entertainment venues. (Guardian)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Mexico's health care system strained (May 28, 2020)

Mexico's broken health system is killing people, on top of the lives taken by coronavirus, reports the New York Times. Years of neglect had already hobbled the country's health care system, leaving it short of qualified workers and equipment. "Now, the pandemic is making matters much worse, sickening more than 11,000 Mexican health workers — one of the highest rates in the world — and depleting the already thin ranks in hospitals."

Casualty numbers among medical personnel — they account for more than 1 in 5 of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country — are at the core of a controversy about whether Mexico is doing enough to protect front-line caregivers facing great risks of exposure, reports the Los Angeles Times. In Mexico, there is a disconnect between healthcare workers’ persistent complaints about a lack of safety equipment and government assurances that all is well, notes the piece.

With Mexico's health-care system under intense strain, small community hospitals in Southern California have been flooded with Americans who have fallen ill and crossed the border, reports the Washington Post. They are retirees and dual citizens, Americans working in Mexico or visiting family there.

News Briefs

More Mexico
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is increasingly reliant on the country's military for everything from public works, fighting coronavirus and confronting drug cartels. Critics say the move is risky because it gives the armed forces too much power and money, while delaying deeper changes to strengthen Mexico’s civilian institutions, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The UN World Food Programme warned yesterday that 14 million people could go hungry in Latin America because of the pandemic as the crisis crippled economies. “We are entering a very complicated stage,” said Miguel Barreto, the WFP’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “It is what we are calling a hunger pandemic.” (Guardian)
  • Reports of pandemic related corruption are proliferating across the region, reports the Associated Press. This week Transparency International asked the OAS to step up anti-corruption actions in the pandemic context, noting the increase in opaque spending and direct contracts in the current health crisis. (See Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Brazilian police carried out dozens of raids yesterday as part of an investigation into a fake news network that might be be linked to the president’s son. The operation’s targets were an eclectic and influential cast of hardcore online supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro, reports the Guardian. One of Bolsonaro's sons, Carlos, has been allegedly linked to a “criminal fake news racket” engaged in threatening and defaming Brazilian authorities. Opposition politicians hailed the raids as a major blow to the alleged Bolsonarian fake news machine. (See also Bloomberg.)
  • Bolsonaro lashed out against the investigation -- authorized by Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes -- yesterday, calling it a grave strike against freedom of expression and democracy. (Globo)
  • The Brazilian edition of "Sleeping Giants" -- an internet watchdog movement that calls out big companies whose advertising appears on sites that publish fake news or contribute to misinformation campaigns -- has had rapid success. In about a week the Twitter account created by an anonymous student garnered 300,000 followers and pushed 40 companies, including multinationals like McDonald's and Philips to revise their Google ad policies. Bolsonaro supporters, including his sons, have expressed irritation with the campaign, reports El País.
  • Two new studies give troubling information about increased deforestation in Brazil. They add to concerns amid evidence that the government has sought to undermine environmental regulations at a time when public attention is consumed by coronavirus. (Guardian)
  • Venezuela's Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ) declared the legality of the National Assembly directorate led by Luis Párra and prohibited parallel meetings of the Guaidó-led National Assembly. The ruling further reduces the possibility of fair legislative elections this year, because it undermines an agreement from earlier this year that could have led to a consensus National Electoral Council (CNE) write David Smilde and Dimitris Pantoulas in the Venezuela Weekly
  • Regardless, the electoral year is shaping up with a now-classic dilemma for Venezuela's opposition politicians, over whether to participate or abstain from unfair elections. The Maduro administration has successfully divided the opposition since 2017 with this political strategy, reports the Venezuela Weekly. "It has done this by artfully constructing elections so that conditions are obnoxiously-biased enough to generate abstention, at the same time that they are attractive enough that some opposition candidates will participate and even win ... Dividing the opposition between abstainers and participators allows the Chavista coalition to win elections despite its unpopularity, and present itself as democratic." (See Tuesday's briefs.)
  • The International Donors Conference organized by the European Union together with the government of Spain, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) managed to raised $2.79 billion in direct donations, loans and governmental assistance. (Venezuela Weekly)
  • U.S. authorities have threatened tankers carrying Iranian fuel to Venezuela with sanctions, aiming to thwart the economic alliance between the two countries, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See Tuesday's briefs.)
  • The United States funded rock groups in Venezuela to record songs promoting democracy – and undermine the rule of Hugo Chávez – according to documents released after a Freedom of Information Act request by a U.S. sociologist. (Guardian)
El Salvador
  • Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele joined the ranks of leaders touting hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure against coronavirus, despite a lack of scientific consensus and concerns over serious side-effects. "I use it as a prophylaxis. President Trump uses it as a prophylaxis. Most of the world's leaders use it as a prophylaxis," said Bukele during a press conference. (CNN)
  • Suriname's main opposition party, the Progressive Reform Party (VHP), was set to win parliamentary elections, according to preliminary results presented yesterday. If confirmed, this would end the longtime rule of President Desi Bouterse, who was convicted of murder last year. The VHP was set to win 20 seats in the 51-member parliament which elects the president, reports Al Jazeera. Bouterse was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a military court for ordering executions of 15 political opponents during his first period in power, in 1982.
  • Coronavirus has already taken root in Haiti's densely overcrowded penitentiary system, and hundreds of inmates are at risk of dying, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Nicaragua reported a sharp increase in coronavirus cases, but observers say the government is still hiding the true extent of the virus's spread in the country. (AFP)
  • Families in Ecuador are still desperately searching for the bodies of loved ones who died of coronavirus in March, reports the New York Times.
  • Colombia will begin easing restrictions put in place to control the spread of the coronavirus starting from June, President Ivan Duque said yesterday, though he asked the public to continue isolating at home and keep using measures to contain the disease. (Reuters)
  • The FARC political party will ask the IACHR to take precautionary measures to stop " the systematic extermination" of those involved in the 2016 Colombian peace accords, reports Telesur.
  • Colombia’s top prosecutor says that Madrid-based businessman Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo is “Memo Fantasma," which confirms InSight Crime's investigation into the identity of the elusive drug lord and paramilitary commander published earlier this year.
  • The recount of votes from Guyana's March 2 general election is crawling forward at a snails pace, however it seems unlikely that authorities will meet their 25-day deadline (which ends in three days) at the current rate. (Stabroek News)
  • The Panama government said on Tuesday that in June it will start to relax some measures imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, permitting sectors such as construction, nonmetallic mining and pharmaceuticals to resume operations. (Reuters)
  • The complete lockdown of one of Argentina's poorest slums, in the Buenos Aires province, has prompted critical talk of ghettoization. Authorities have defended the move after testing indicated a surge of coronavirus positives in Villa Azul, and particularly seek to prevent contagion in an even larger neighboring shantytown. The enforced isolation has left Villa Azul's  population entirely dependent on deliveries of essential items by the army. (Guardian)
  • Argentina's abortion activists have taken their campaign online, given Covid-19 restrictions that prevent physical rallies. (Guardian)
  • Cocaine traffickers have adapted to coronavirus restrictions better than many legitimate businesses, reports the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (via InSight Crime). "What is clear is that cocaine continues to flow from South America to Europe and North America. Closed trafficking routes have been replaced with new ones, and street deals have been substituted with door-to-door deliveries."
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, May 27, 2020

Americas are the new global epicenter (May 27, 2020)

News Briefs

  • The Americas are the new global pandemic center, according to the World Health Organization -- and modeling predicts deaths surging in Brazil and Latin America through August. There have been more than 2.4 million cases and more than 143,000 deaths in all of the Americas, PAHO head Dr. Carissa Etienne told a press briefing. WHO and PAHO officials are particularly concerned about Brazil and accelerating outbreaks in Peru, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. (Guardian, CNN)
  • Brazil has reached a grim milestone, reporting more Covid-19 deaths in one day than the U.S., reports the Wall Street Journal. Brazil’s Health Ministry reported that 1,039 people had died from the disease caused by the new coronavirus in the 24 hours through yesterday evening.
  • Brazil's Federal Police raided the official residence of Rio de Janeiro Gov Wilson Witzel yesterday to carry out searches. The move is part of an investigation into the embezzlement of public resources in the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though police did not say whether Witzel, a former federal judge, was personally targeted by any of the 12 search and seizure warrants in Rio and Sao Paulo states, reports the Associated Press.
  • Brazil is proving particularly deadly for health workers in the coronavirus pandemic: at least 157 Brazilian nurses have died since the country’s first confirmed Covid-19 fatality in mid-March, more than anywhere else in the world, reports the Guardian.
  • The Amazon's dry season is on the horizon with added danger this year: "with all eyes on the pandemic crises, the Amazon and its Indigenous groups face existential threats, while criminals act as if they have permission to plunder," warns Bruno Carvalho in a New York Times op-ed. "Scientists agree that we are nearing a tipping point in deforestation that will lead to the Amazon’s “savannization.”"
  • Cuba's public health system is traditionally considered a powerhouse, and the country is known for its international medical missions that are both a diplomatic tool and source of hard cash for the island's government. But cuts over the last decade have affected quality and access to medical services in Cuba, and could hinder the country's coronavirus pandemic response at home, warns the Centro de Estudios Convivencia. (Miami Herald)
  • Venezuela seems to have avoided the brunt of coronavirus for now -- in part due to the country's isolation -- but the number of daily illnesses could soon climb high enough to severely test the country’s already dilapidated health system warn experts. (Associated Press)
  • Venezuela’s already collapsed health system was utterly unprepared for the coronavirus, Kathleen Page, a physician from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine told the Guardian. “This is truly a critical situation that has profound implications for Venezuelans, for Venezuelan healthcare workers and really for the community at large because as we know, migration to and from Venezuelan continues to occur.” The data is part of a new report released yesterday by Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The potential political implications are also frightening, notes Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Human Rights Watch’s deputy regional director also to the Guardian. She said the coronavirus was helping to accelerate Venezuela’s transformation into “something like a police state."
  • Trained medical professionals are in high demand across Latin America -- and members Venezuela's diaspora are stepping up to work in their adopted homes, helped by temporary lifting of difficult credential validation requirements. Americas Quarterly profiles a Venezuelan doctor working in Lima's frontlines.
  • Coronavirus has only added to the considerable misery of asylum seekers and migrants in a camp in Matamorros, Mexico -- El Faro.
  • Mexico’s health department reported 501 deaths from the coronavirus Tuesday, a new one-day high, reports the Associated Press.
  • Mexico City is preparing to reopen gradually, but without an adequate, transparent and federal epidemiological model and massive testing recommended by international experts, according to Lucina Melesio in the Post Opinión. (See yesterday's briefs on analyses that indicate thousands of unrecognized Covid-19 deaths in Mexico City, and last Thursday's briefs.)
  • Mexican workers living in the U.S. are sending home record remittances, despite economic shutdowns, reports the Conversation.
  • Mexico is an exception to coronavirus crime reduction trends in most places -- and data suggests that the increases in violent crimes are being driven by large criminal organizations including transnational groups such as the CJNG, large gangs such as Los Aztecas and La Union, and small but violent local street gangs that are competing for territory. (Latin America Risk Report)
  • Colombia’s government is using the coronavirus to weaken the historic peace agreement, argues Laura Gil in the Washington Post.
  • The Colombian government's decision to appoint the son of an infamous paramilitary leader to head an area that coordinates policies for victims of the country's long civil war unleashed controversy. Though Jorge Rodrigo Tovar Vélez is not himself accused of crimes, the decision has exposed deep fault lines in Colombia that make reconciliation chimeric, argues Felipe Restrepo Pombo in the Post Opinión. (See last Thursday's briefs.)
  • Medellín wants to use the pandemic to strengthen environmental policies in recovery, reports Reuters.
  • A scheduled deportation flight from the U.S. to Haiti was carried out yesterday, but a former paramilitary leader accused of murder and torture was not among the passengers, reports the Associated Press. Emmanuel Constant was excluded as a result of discussions between Haitian and U.S. officials, according to Haiti's government.
  • Haitian football hero Yves Jean-Bart is the focus of a sex abuse probe by FIFA. (Miami Herald)
  • The hospital bed that turns into a coffin is an innovation nobody wanted, but whose time may have come, reports the Guardian. With Covid-19 cases surging across the region, a team of Colombian designers came up with the idea as a pragmatic solution for anticipated shortages of hospital beds and funerary caskets.
  • Now is the time for a renewable energy boom in the region, argue Rodrigo García Palma, Ricardo Raineri and Anders Beal in Americas Quarterly.
  • Cold War lessons for the world today -- Washington Post talks with Vincent Bevins.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Costa Rica - Same-sex marriage (May 26, 2020)

Gay marriage is permitted in Costa Rica as of today -- the first Central American country to permit same-sex marriage. The country's highest court had given lawmakers 18 months to legislate, after ruling a ban unconstitutional. Since they did not do so, articles of the country’s family code that explicitly prevent same-sex marriage will be repealed.

Couples held ceremonies — mostly private due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but some that were broadcast — to celebrate their unions before judges and notaries after the ban was lifted at midnight, reports the Associated Press.

Earlier this month, more than 20 lawmakers tried to delay the marriage ruling by 18 months but the measure failed, reports Reuters.

President Carlos Alvarado also supports same-sex marriage, and that stance played a significant role in his election, notes the Tico Times.

News Briefs

  • Venezuelan attorney general Tarek William Saab asked the Maduro-loyal Supreme Court to declare opposition leader Juan Guaidó's party a "terrorist organization," blaming it for a failed sea invasion. (AFP)
  • Venezuela's opposition faces an electoral Catch-22 this year, ahead of constitutionally mandated parliamentary elections. The conditions are ridiculously inadequate for participating, but the opposition-led National Assembly -- led by Guaidó -- is considered legitimate only because it is democratically elected, and will lose this angle if it does not renew. Ibis León analyzes the situation at Efecto Cocuyo.
  • A new paper by David Smilde and Geoff Ramsey analyzes peace making efforts as "spaces of interaction in which a conflict can be reorganized and sent down a different path," but also notes that there is no guarantee the path will be positive (however you choose to define "positive). (Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights)
  • An Iranian oil tanker docked in Venezuela yesterday, the first of five ships that demonstrate the increasingly tight economic bond between the two pariah states, reports the New York Times. Experts say the episode also shows the U.S.'s limited options to deter the two countries. Nonetheless, the ships are a very limited solution for Venezuela, which is starved of gasoline despite being an oil producing country.
  • The European Union and Spain organized a donor conference about Venezuelan migrants today, with the participation of the IOM and the UNHCR. Ecuador plans to emphasize the need for global solutions to the issue, reports EFE.
  • Venezuelan migrants in Colombia find themselves in a situation of heightened vulnerability due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has "hardened barriers to social and economic integration," according to a new Refugees International report.
  • Brazilian prosecutors say there is evidence that President Jair Bolsonaro potentially committed crimes of malfeasance, administrative advocacy, or abuse of authority. The preliminary assessment of evidence, which includes a video of a foul-mouthed presidential tirade during an April cabinet meeting, could indicate that the president sought to secure an advantage for himself or others, said the attorney general's office. Bolsonaro has been accused of meddling with the federal police in order to thwart investigations against his sons. Bolsonaro has rejected the allegations. (Folha de S. Paulo, Deutsche Welle)
  • Some of Brazil’s top news organizations -- including Folha and Globo -- are to suspend reporting from outside the presidential residence. The decision follows months of verbal attacks on reporters outside the Palácio da Alvorada in Brasília by hardcore supporters of the far-right president, reports the Guardian.
  • In mid-March Brazil was poised to act forcefully against the then-incipient coronavirus pandemic, but authorities watered down measures after intervention from Bolsonaro's chief of staff’s office, reports Reuters. In fact, Brazil's Covid-19 missteps are all the more glaring given its excellent track record with past epidemics, note experts. Reuters delves into how efforts have been removed from the aegis of health experts and are effectively run by government officials hailing from the military.
  • Bolsonaro is furthermore, sticking to his claim that restrictions cause more harm than benefit, reports the Associated Press.
  • The U.S. moved up the timeline for its new travel ban for Brazil, reports Reuters.  Bolsonaro’s critics at home painted the new prohibition as a humiliating snub and proof that the president's subservience to Trump was misguided, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The situation is hurting his approval ratings, which have dropped according to recent polling.
  • Nonetheless, a united opposition front against Bolsonaro remains unlikely for now, argued Oliver Stuenkel last week in Americas Quarterly.
  • Transparency International asked the OAS to step up anti-corruption actions in the pandemic context, noting the increase in opaque spending and direct contracts in the current health crisis. (Diario El Mundo)
  • Early unofficial results in Suriname indicate that President Desi Bouterse, who was recently convicted of murder, could be ousted from office, reports AFP. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Death certificates in Mexico City indicate that the Covid-19 death toll could be significantly higher than official data indicates, with relevance for potential undercounting in the rest of the country, reports Nexos. Mexico City issued 8,072 more death certificates than usual between 1 January and 20 May according to the study. As of yesterday, Mexico City had officially recorded 1,963 Covid-19 deaths. Mexico has now officially recorded 7,394 deaths and 68,620 Covid-19 cases, but rates of testing are particularly low, reports the Guardian.
  • Nicaraguan officials are likely hiding infection data and ignoring the Covid-19 threat -- but watchdogs that include doctors are countering misinformation, reports the Wall Street Journal. Videos posted on social media, local news reports and accounts from relatives of victims suggest the country’s health system is overwhelmed, with hospitals crammed with victims.
  • Indeed, families report "atypical pneumonia" deaths, prohibitions on wakes and express funerals as indicators of the true scope of Covid-19, reports Confidencial.
  • More than 200 workers at an export-focused textile plant in Guatemala have tested positive for coronavirus, reports the Associated Press. Officials say it could be the country's largest outbreak.
  • "The emerging storyline this week is how Latin America is losing patience with lockdown measures, even as cases increase," notes James Bosworth in the Latin America Risk Report. That the "current scenario is far better than the worst case outcome is good news, but provides little relief to those who are watching cases still rise and economies crash."
  • Case in point: Thousands of people took to the streets of Quito and other cities in Ecuador, yesterday, to protest the government’s decision to endorse layoffs and pay cuts in response to the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, reports EFE.
  • Colombia's social leaders were already at significant risk before the pandemic, but they have been particularly vulnerable to assassination during the country's lockdown. Fundación Ideas para la Paz reports that killings of community activists increased 53 percent this year.
  • Social leader Manuel Guillermo Marriaga Martinez was killed last weekend, reports Telesur.
  • From Daniel Langmeier's Honduras briefing: On the occasion of Honduras' Journalist Day, Pasos de Animal Grande denounced frequent attacks against reporters -- 18 during the coronavirus lockdown alone -- and lack of mainstream media coverage. The same day, journalist Josué Quintana Gómez started a hunger strike. He was fired from La Tribuna because he refused to accept a 20% salary cut as an act of "solidarity" with the corporate media outlet. (Conexihon, Defensores en Línea, C-Libre Honduras)
  • Chile registered a new high for coronavirus cases yesterday, with nearly 5,000 infections in 24 hours, including two cabinet ministers. (AFP)
  • An informal neighborhood in Buenos Aires province is under total lockdown for two weeks after testing indicated a high rate of contagion within the villa. The measure affects approximately 5,000 people, who now cannot leave the neighborhood and have limited exits from their home. (Infobae)
  • Access to legal abortion in Peru was limited before the pandemic, now it's even worst, writes Gabriela Weiner in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • Non Covid (and yes, there are still a few pieces that aren't about the novel coronavirus): Thermal houses in the Andes are helping combat respiratory illnesses in villages that struggle with freezing temperatures, reports the Guardian.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Suriname votes -- Bouterse on the line (May 25, 2020)

Suriname votes today in a legislative election that is a major test for President Desi Bouterse who seeks reelection. Bouterse was convicted of murder in a military court earlier this year, and could face jail-time if he doesn't renew his immunity. Bouterse has been in power for the past forty years, either through military dictatorship or the country’s first multiethnic political coalition. Though a negative economic situation and corruption scandals play against his bid to remain in power, Bouterse is charismatic and retains high support, reports the New York Times. (See last Thursday's post.)

Suriname's 380,000 voters today choose the 51 members of the National Assembly, who then elect the country's president. If Bouterse's National Democratic Party (NDP) retains its narrow majority in the legislature, the 74-year-old former military dictator is likely to remain in power, reports AFP.

Measures are in places to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, but pandemic social distancing rules also played a role in the campaign, and the opposition said it limited their ability to reach voters and organize. (See last Thursday's post.)

The election will be observed by the Organization of American States and Caribbean Community. Initial results are expected tomorrow, but the official tally could take a month.

News Briefs

  • The U.S. banned flights from Brazil yesterday, a move aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The indefinite ban, which comes into force on Friday, will apply to all non-US citizens who have been in Brazil within the last 14 days. Brazil has the second-highest number of confirmed coronavirus infections in the world — trailing only the United States — with more than 350,000 cases and 22,700 deaths. The move is a blow to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has tried to parlay warm relations with U.S. President Donald Trump to bolster his political standing. (New York Times, Guardian)
  • No, nothing will stop Bolsonaro from flouting social distancing recommendations -- in case there was any room for doubt. On Saturday evening he popped out onto the streets of Brasilia for a can of coke and a hotdog, reports the Guardian. One of his sons, lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, followed suit -- he reportedly attended a party at a luxury beachfront property in São Paulo state on Friday.
  • Communities and civil society are filling government gaps in pandemic responses in many of Latin America's informal neighborhoods, reports Reuters. While the piece mentions cases in Argentina, Peru and Chile, the main focus is Brazilian favelas, and projects carried out Redes da Mare and Nossas.
  • "As help from the state failed to reach the most vulnerable segments of Brazil’s population, activists at the local level jumped into the breach, using social media to respond to pressing issues now facing their communities," reports NACLA, noting the difficulties imposed by Bolsonaro in terms of government response to Covid-19. 
  • Rio de Janeiro governor Wilson Witzel suspended police operations in the state's communities for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, amid mounting criticism of lethal victims that have occurred recently, reports Globo. (See last Friday's briefs, and last Monday's.)
Indigenous Peoples
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is cutting a swath through indigenous communities in Latin America, groups that are already vulnerable from poverty and official neglect, reports EFE. Amazon basin communities are particularly at risk, according to the Pan-American Health Organization.
El Salvador
  • Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele's approach to the pandemic has been uniquely punitive, Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco told El Diario de Hoy.
  • More than 1,300 indigenous people have abandoned their homes the Colombian indigenous reserve of  Catru due to clashes between armed groups, according to the Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Peace Process (MAPP OAS). (EFE)
Regional Relations
  • Growing U.S. hostility towards Cuba puts Caribbean countries in a tough spot diplomatically, writes Sir Ronald Sanders in the Jamaica Observer.
  • Emmanuel “Toto” Constant — a former strongman who once boasted that Vodou and the CIA protected him— is among 78 Haitian nationals scheduled to be removed from the United States, reports the Miami Herald. Rights activists have urged the U.S. State Department to backtrack the deportation flight due to his human rights record and the risk of spreading Covid-19 in Haiti.  Immigration advocates say at least nine other deportees who are scheduled to fly tomorrow have tested positive for the disease.
  • The coronavirus pandemic has pushed Chile's healthcare system "very close to the limit," according to President Sebastián Piñera. (BBC)
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said coronavirus could cost as many as a million jobs in the country. (Reuters)
  • It is hard governing in a pandemic, in part because there are no right answers -- people who make directly opposing arguments are both write, notes María Esperanza Casullo in her Cenital column. She notes the issue of "genderization" of pandemic policies: leaders who have opposed quarantines tend towards a macho discourse, rejecting a health perspective that, for being associated with care, could be considered more feminine. In this sense, the much vaunted success of female-led countries has less to do with the gender of their leadership than that they are societies that value care, solidarity and shared responsibility, she argues.
It's odd how holidays seem to take on a simultaneously heightened and lessened significance under lockdown. Nonetheless: ¡Happy Memorial Day in the U.S., Spring Bank Holiday in the U.K, and 25 de Mayo in Argentina and Bolivia!

Friday, May 22, 2020

Covid-19 in LatAm prisons (May 22, 2020)

News Briefs

  • "If one were intent on spreading coronavirus, one would pack many people into tightly crowded, unhygienic spaces with poor ventilation, irregular access to water, deficient medical care, and little testing to know who is infected with the virus. One would, in other words, open a Latin American or Caribbean prison," write José Miguel Vivanco y César Muñoz Acebes in a New York Times Español op-ed. They note issues of overcrowding and pre-trial detention. 
  • Nearly a dozen detainees in Haiti's largest prison have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and authorities are concerned it could spread rapidly in the country's overcrowded criminal system, reports AFP.
  • Guatemalan President Alejandro Giamattei said the U.S. is not acting like a true ally, in a sharp criticism of the U.S. immigration policy that has maintained deportations in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Guatemala has confirmed 119 deportees arrived with COVID-19 from the United States. The country has suspended the deportation flights on several occasions after infected passengers were detected, but resumed them after assurances from U.S. authorities, reports the Associated Press.
  • Latin America was quick to impose quarantines two months ago, but the pandemic is still raging and the economic pain in a region where half the workers are informal is unsustainable, reports the Economist.
  • Economic pain has suddenly pushed Universal Basic Income into mainstream conversations, reports Americas Quarterly. Last week ECLAC recommended immediate cash transfers for the region's most vulnerable populations, and that governments begin moving towards universal basic income policies in the long term. This may be time for a universal basic wage," Pope Francis said in his Easter message this year.  Is it worth the investment? Too soon to tell, according to economist Eduardo Levy Yeyati in a discussion hosted by Americas Society yesterday. (Video) Nonetheless, UBI might be more effective in the context of limited state capacity, said Marcela Eslava. She noted that progressive tax reform alongside UBI could help ease concerns about sending checks to the rich.
  • Last month Brazil began implementing basic income payments aimed at addressing the economic impact of COVID-19 that will benefit 59 million low-income Brazilians, writes Pedro Telles (In Depth News) The policy is the result of a new law Congress passed in response to a country-wide grassroots campaign launched in March. The basic income payments will continue for at least three months, with a potential extension already foreseen in the approved law.
  • Americas Quarterly reports on how one Brazilian town has implemented a basic income guarantee program that already reaches a quarter of the population -- "possibly the largest basic income guarantee project in the world."
  • The pandemic has challenged lawmakers across the region to maintain their work -- many have incorporated technology to ensure social distancing, and at a record pace, according to a new CIPPEC report in El País' Agenda Publica. Seven countries have implemented virtual commission meetings and plenary sessions.
  • Criminal organizations in Latin America are scrambling just like everybody else, but have shown greater adaptability than governments, writes Carolina Sampó at the AULA blog. "While organized crime is diversifying its portfolio of activities, reinforcing its territorial control, building its prison base, and recruiting new members – exploiting the economic and social situation – governments have little choice but to beef up efforts any way they can domestically while paying special attention to cooperation with neighboring countries facing similar challenges, in hopes of hemming in the criminal organizations."
  • Ethiopia has become a transit hub for Latin American countries competing for ventilator shipments from China, reports the Financial Times.
  • Families have started hanging white flags of distress outside their homes, or waving them in the streets, in El Salvador and Guatemala, where strict lockdowns have left families without food, reports Reuters. Flag colors denote different needs in Guatemala: white means hunger; red is for medicine; black, yellow, or blue means that a woman, child or elderly person is in danger of violence, reports the Guardian.
El Salvador
  • The U.S. State Department certified that El Salvador meets conditions to receive U.S. foreign aid, but notes in a report to Congress that President Nayib Bukele has defied El Salvador's highest court. The report, obtained by El Diario de Hoy, warns that Bukele's actions "weaken, rather than strengthen, public institutions." The strongly worded report also notes Bukele's hostility towards critics from civil society and the media. "Journalists critical of government policy face threats, many of which are fueled by Bukele’s treatment of them on social media."
  • Bukele defended his administration's refusal to handover detailed emergency fund spending reports to the National Assembly as required by a special emergency law. The task of auditing belongs to accounts court, he argued. (El Faro)
  • Rival gang members suddenly thrust into shared jail cells in El Salvador have implemented a working truce, the first time this has happened within the prison system. Roberto Valencia reports in Noticias Telemundo on organization that includes appointed managers for each gang sharing an over-crowded cell. (See April 27's post.)
  • More than 20,000 people have so far died from COVID-19 in Brazil so far, the health ministry announce 1,188 deaths over a 24 hour period yesterday. (Al Jazeera)
  • Brazil is facing a backlash from international businesses and activists over plans to pass a land reform that critics say could fuel a catastrophic increase in Amazon rainforest deforestation, reports the Financial Times. Provisional Measure 910, which has yet to be approved by Brazilian lawmakers, would legalize informal settlements on federal public lands and grants property titles to those occupying the land, reports AFP.
  • Brazil's official indigenous affairs agency has been slow to act on Covid-19, and hasn't carried out strong measure to prevent the spread of an epidemic that could wipe out ethnic groups, reports the Associated Press.
  • Efforts to isolate remote Amazon areas from the coronavirus failed, and now patients must be airlifted to receive medical attention, reports the Associated Press separately.
  • Nicaragua's government admitted to a rise in Covid-19 infections for the first time this week, though experts say the numbers still do not reflect the country's true coronavirus impact. (Deutsche Welle, Confidencial)
  • The Pan-American Health Organization said that Nicaragua’s government has denied its personnel access to the nation’s hospitals despite having offered access, a move adding to the widespread belief President Daniel Ortega is trying to underplay the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, reports the Associated Press.
  • Bolivian authorities arrested the country's health minister, and opened an investigation into claims the government paid grossly inflated prices for ventilators to treat coronavirus patients, reports the Financial Times. Press reports on the steep premium paid for the ventilators, bought at $27,683 each, sparked social media backlash against the Bolivian government, which received Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funds to buy the devices in May, reports Reuters.
  • Venezuela's Maduro government sent the U.S. Congress a letter outlining its its case against the US and Colombian governments regarding the failed "Operation Gideon" invasion attempt. (AFP)
  • Illegal surveillance of journalists and government critics is rampant in Colombia, and warrants a reform of the country's military intelligence, argues investigative journalist Daniel Coronell in a New York Times op-ed.
  • Colombia banned international passenger flights until Aug. 31, among the world's toughest restrictions. Argentina took a similar step this month, reports Reuters.
  • Argentina will enter what is being characterized as a soft-default today -- the country will not make interest payments due today, but has extended the deadline for negotiations with creditors and has expressed desire to reach an agreement by June 2. (La Nación, Reuters)
  • Cuba has asked the Paris Club of major creditors for a delay in repaying its debt until 2022, citing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its economy, reports AFP.
  • At least 500 Cuban health workers are helping tackle the new coronavirus in Mexico City, likely the largest contingent deployed by the island's government in response to the pandemic, reports Reuters.
  • In rural Ecuador, communities face the novel coronavirus without health workers, tests or medicine, 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.