Friday, December 17, 2021

Chile chooses president, national narrative (Dec. 17, 2021)

Fifteen million Chileans will head to the polls on Sunday for the second, decisive round of Chile’s presidential election to choose between far-right candidate José Antonio Kast and his leftist rival, Gabriel Boric. Boric has a marginal lead in opinion polls, but Kast obtained the most votes in November's first round.

The results of this weekend's vote in Chile will determine the country's direction in the next few years, as well as the political dynamics of the region, writes Evan Ellis in Global Americans. "It is a highly symbolic contest, posing a positive, if selective, narrative about Chile’s past and its remarkable transformation, against a new generation’s discontent with some parts of that transformation and the problems it has generated or failed to resolve."

Indeed, following trends in the rest of the region, including the U.S., "the struggle over national identity and what it means to be Chilean now overshadows traditional bread-and-butter issues," writes Michael Albertus in the Washington Post.

"At stake is not only the immediate future of Chile, the world’s largest copper producer, but also the verdict on four decades of free-market economic policies which were imitated around the world," according to the Financial Times.

Mainstream media has portrayed the race as one between two equal extremes on the right and left, but the characterization is inaccurate, argued Robert Funk in a recent Americas Quarterly piece. In fact, he says Boric represents a new kind of left in Chile: he is critical of the center-left Frente Amplio, but he has also "frequently opposed positions that the Communist Party supports (or vice versa) – from his opposition to the Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan regimes, to his support for the November 2019 cross-party agreement that set in motion Chile’s current constitutional process."

And the mainstream narrative also downplays the extent of Kast's extremism, reports the Guardian. "The prospect of a four-year Kast presidency has horrified many in Chile and across the region and fueled fears that one of South America’s most prosperous and stable democracies could be on the verge of being captured by Steve Bannon-style extremists." Funk told the Guardian that
insufficient attention was being paid to the links between Kast and the conspiracy-filled, anti-semitism-laced, anti-globalist hard-right “world of Steve Bannon”.

Chilean women, especially younger urban professionals, are shaping up to be a clincher in the race, reports the Associated Press. Several opinion polls indicate that women are flocking in droves to Boric — a millennial who uses non-binary pronouns -- out of concern that Kast will roll back womens rights.

Lucía Hiriart, the widow of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and a hugely divisive figure, died this week. Her death sharpens the focus on the choice facing voters on Sunday – and the deep and persistent divisions within Chilean society, reports the Guardian. Yesterday crowds gathered to celebrate in Santiago’s main plaza, but others view her as a philanthropist who dedicated her life to the service of the Chilean people.

Either winner will face legislative gridlock, and will need to negotiate support for his agenda with a minority of seats in Congress, notes Ellis in a separate Global Americans piece.

More Chile
  • A study by Fundación Ciudadanía Inteligente found that Kast has made dozens of statements indicating authoritarian leanings, compared to four by Boric, an analysis based on the methodology of "How Democracies Die," by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. (Ciper)

  • The two candidates have diametrically opposed stances on migration, and the election will have major implications for the tens of thousands of Haitians who now live in Chile after fleeing their country in recent years, reports the Wall Street Journal. It will also have implications for the U.S., where officials were overwhelmed in September with an influx of Haitians on the U.S. border who had abandoned Chile after facing hostile conditions.
  • Coercive adoptions were widespread in dictatorship Chile, where General Augusto Pinochet actively encouraged overseas adoptions to reduce poverty in the 1970s and 1980s, according to investigations in recent years that found the process was abetted by a vast network of officials — including judges, social workers, health professionals and adoption brokers, reports the New York Times. Judicial officials in Chile are investigating roughly 650 cases of irregular adoptions, and investigators are looking into the circumstances of about 8,000 overseas adoptions that took place from 1970 to 1999, a number that could increase to 20,000 cases.
News Briefs

  • It's unlikely that Facebook can, on its own, solve the use of the platform for sophisticated disinformation campaigns that have had significant political impact in Latin America, whistleblower Sophie Zhang told Rest of World: "Facebook is a company. Its goal is to make money. We don’t expect Philip Morris to solve tobacco addiction or Exxon Mobil to solve climate change."

  • Some analysts say Latin America's left is making a new resurgence, pointing to Xiomara Castro's recent win in Honduras as part of a "progressive tide." The "millenial left" is more focused on gender issues, feminism, and environmental concerns, rather than the socialist-inclined "pink tide" governments that characterized the 2000s in Latin America, according to Al Jazeera.

  • Extortion is the backbone of criminal activity in Latin America, according to a new research paper by Lucia Dammert. (Florida International University)
  • A crash that killed more than 50 migrants this week highlights the dangers that they face in Mexico, and how U.S policy to deter them isn't working, reports Vice. (See Monday's briefs.)

  • Migration from Central America to the U.S. is on the rise, including a record number of Guatemalan youths. Ahe recent surge is caused by a compounding political shift and crises WOLA's Adam Isacson described as "a perfect storm" of pandemic, violence, and economic turmoil, in an interview with the BBC.

  • Worldwide authoritarian governments are increasingly leveraging migrants to their advantage, an approach Central American governments could adopt in negotiations with the U.S., reports NPR.
Regional Relations
  • Mexico and the United States have begun work on the new framework that will govern their security relationship going forward and replaces the Merida Initiative, which had focused on building up Mexico’s capabilities to battle the drug cartels, reports the Associated Press.

  • More than half of the U.S. House Democrats urged President Joe Biden to implement promised changes in Cuba policy, reports the Washington Post.
  • A New York Times report this week (see Monday's post) adds one more theory to the possible motives for Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s July assassination -- that he was compiling a dossier of drug traffickers. "Yet his anti-drug crusade was never all that ambitious in a country that does not play a major role in the regional cocaine trade," according to InSight Crime.
  • Venezuela's reality is dystopian, a regression in three decades that proves "development gains aren’t permanent. Mismanage an economy badly enough, and the progress achieved in a generation evaporates dizzyingly fast," writes Moises Naím in the Wall Street Journal. "The scale of Venezuela’s implosion would suggest that the country had endured a war or a string of ghastly natural disasters. No such affliction came to Venezuela. Rather, it turns out that a country can endure wartime levels of destruction without a war—stemming from no force more destructive than the terrible policy decisions of its own government."

  • A Chatham House research paper by Christopher Sabatini and Walt Patterson examines the root causes of the power crisis in Venezuela in the context of the steady collapse of the state in the country, to provide a series of recommendations concerning rebuilding versus replacing existing infrastructure and priorities in Venezuela’s critical energy transition.

  • Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaidó, recognized as the country's legitimate leader by the U.S., deployed a digital payment scheme to pay bonuses to healthcare workers in the country last year. The scheme channeled $18 million to more than 60,000 doctors and nurses, using Venezuelan funds frozen in U.S. bank accounts and bypassing obstacles placed by Venezuela's Maduro government, reports the Financial Times.
  • The Bolsonaro administration terminated the IMF mission to Brazil, after a series of disagreements over the organization's economic estimates for the country, and negative remarks about Brazil’s economic outlook made by former central bank chief Ilan Goldfajn, who’s now taking over as the IMF’s director for the Western Hemisphere. While the move reflects long-brewing dissatisfaction with the IMF in the Bolsonaro administration, it is a political statement that is unlikely to affect their institutional relationship, according to Bloomberg. (See Reuters also.)

  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has asked for the names of health officials who approved Covid vaccines for children, saying he planned to make their identities public despite previous death threats, reports Reuters.

  • “The IMF was useful in the past, but Brazil has done an extraordinary job in the fiscal area,” Economic Minister Paulo Guedes told CNN Brasil in an interview, “We don’t need it stationed in the country.” (Bloomberg)

  • As many as 17 million vertebrates - including reptiles, birds and primates were killed in wildfires last year in Brazil in the Pantanal wetlands, reports the BBC.

  • Brazil's Ceará state offers a model for rebuilding schools after the pandemic, reports the Economist.
Dominican Republic
  • Activists in the Dominican Republic are fighting the country's abortion ban, reports Jacobin.
  • Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso announced an expert commission to investigate and help end prison violence that has killed more than 300 people incarcerated in the country this year, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's briefs.)

  • Foreign Policy's Latin America Brief features interviews with leaders at the forefront of Indigenous politics in Ecuador by Catherine Osborn.
  • Peru's prime minister Mirtha Vasquez said that declaring a state of emergency would be a "last resort" to defuse a road blockade that led miner MMG Ltd to suspend operations at its Las Bambas copper mine for the first time, reports Reuters.
  • Colombia’s Master Railway plan makes it clear that trains will be the primary mode of freight transit in the near future --  the next administration must decide whether to implement it or not, write Joseph Weiman and Sergio Guzmán in Global Americans.
  • Groundbreaking Caribbean historian Julius S. Scott died at 66. He was revered by scholars for his groundbreaking dissertation on the 18th-century Haitian slave revolt, which was rejected by mainstream publishers for three decades, reports the New York Times.
The Latin America Daily Briefing will take a break for the holidays, starting today. I'll be back on Jan. 3. I want to thank all the readers for their support and encouragement. Wishing everybody a very happy end to 2021.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Kidnapped missionaries released in Haiti (Dec. 16, 2021)

News Briefs

  • Members of Haiti's 400 Mawozo gang released the remaining 12 victims of a group of foreign missionaries kidnapped in October near Port-au-Prince, two months to the day after they were originally abducted, reports the Miami Herald. Authorities had said the gang had demanded $1m per person, but it was not immediately clear whether any ransom was paid, reports the Guardian.

  • The kidnapping of the missionaries focused international attention on a terrifying wave of mass abductions by the armed gangs that have tightened their grip on Haiti, reports the Washington Post. The gangs have targeted Haitians of all ages and all walks of life, including doctors, busloads of passengers, even police.

  • Haiti's beloved soup joumou, a pumpkin-heavy soup, widely regarded among Haitians as a symbol of freedom and dignity, became the latest tradition to be added by the United Nations to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. (Miami Herald)
El Salvador
  • The relationship between El Salvador and the U.S. worsened significantly this month, after the U.S. Treasury placed sanctions on high level Bukele administration officials accused of negotiating with street gang leaders and stealing from pandemic aid programs. (See last Thursday's post.) 

  • In the short-term, the antagonistic relationship between President Nayib Bukele and the Biden administration is likely to deepen, writes Stephen McFarland in Americas Quarterly. "It may not affect his popular support in the short term ... but El Salvador’s leader faces multiple dilemmas: how to keep his support high in 2022 even as the demand for government resources outstrips supply; how to ensure his operators’ loyalty; and how he’ll come to grips with U.S. sanctions, and whatever may be coming next from Washington."

  • If a report that the U.S. is preparing to indict the recently sanctioned officials is true, the move could test the loyalty of some of Bukele's circle, writes McFarland. "It’s unclear just how deep Bukele’s Salvadoran operators’ loyalty to him runs, since his inner circles comprise to a large extent his own family and Venezuelans who assisted his presidential run." (Americas Quarterly)
  • Six European supermarkets announced they will stop selling some or all beef products originating in Brazil because of concerns over links to deforestation. The move comes after research into “cattle laundering” involving the meat conglomerate JBS. According to the news organization Repórter Brasil, the company allegedly indirectly sourced cattle from illegally deforested areas, reports the Guardian.

  • Brazilian police investigation of alleged bribery of Petrobras employees to fix the price of fuel sold to JP Morgan Chase & Co by the country's state-run oil firm has expanded from one deal to at least four over the course of 2011, reports Reuters.
  • International companies are hoping for a shot at industrializing Bolivia's lithium production -- including some underdogs that are new to the industry. "Just as wildcatters have long sought riches prospecting for oil, the clean energy revolution is spawning a wave of gritty entrepreneurs who hope to ride a new boom, vaulting themselves into the intersection of geopolitics and climate change," reports the New York Times.
  • Apprehensions at the southwest U.S. border rose last month for the first time since July, with across-the-board increases in the detention of migrant families, single adults and minors traveling without their parents, according to preliminary U.S. Customs and Border Protection data obtained by the Washington Post.

  • Tens of thousands of youths have been granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status in the U.S., a pathway to legal residency for young undocumented people who have been abused or abandoned, but are being forced to wait up to five years before actually receiving their green cards—a period during which they are at extreme risk of homelessness, exploitation, and deportation, and often unable to access basic needs, like health care, reports TIME.
  • The nomadic Indigenous Amazon community was displaced from its territory by FARC fighters, and has been unable to return due to land mines that remain in the ground. Colombia's "only nomadic community" is at "risk of disappearing," according to a UN report. (AFP)
  • Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso's use of emergency powers to fight a wave of violence in the country has done little to improve the situation for citizens, and fail to engage the poverty and poor policing underlying the phenomenon, reports Reuters. Lasso blames soaring crime on drug mafias, but analysts say it is also related to economic hardship worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, including widespread use of informal labor, as well as institutional weaknesses.

  • Lasso's fortunes have declined in his second 100 days as president, according to the Latin America Risk Report.
  • Two separate cases of police killings in recent weeks in Argentina have revived concern about police violence, reports El País
Dominican Republic
  • Nine people died in a jet crash on Wednesday in the Dominican Republic, including acclaimed Puerto Rican music producer Flow La Movie, reports the Guardian.
  • A recent study of credit card cloning around the world revealed that Brazil, Mexico and Puerto Rico are the most at risk countries in Latin America, but also shows wide disparities in credit card usage in the region, reports InSight Crime.

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

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Gas tanker explodes in Haiti (Dec. 15, 2021)

A gasoline tanker overturned and exploded in Cap-Haitien in northern Haiti yesterday, killing at least 75 people, reports the Associated Press. Early reports indicate that the tanker was trying to avoid an oncoming motorcycle when it flipped. 

After the tanker flipped, people rushed to the scene with buckets to scoop up what they could of the tanker's valuable cargo -- 9,000 gallons of fuel in a country where an unreliable electricity grid forces most people to rely on generators. In recent months criminal gangs have blocked fuel deliveries, provoking severe shortages, reports the New York Times.

That desperation contributed to the accident's high death toll, adding to the number of people around the tanker when it exploded, scorching a 100-yard radius. At least 40 homes were burned. The injured also included those who were trampled as people fled the scene. “It’s a drama of misery,” Prime Minister Ariel Henry said at a news conference yesterday. “Some people died in their home without understanding what happened.”

Henry called the tragedy an example of misery and lack of education because “people do not pay attention to the danger that gasoline represents, and this is why we have the number of dead that we have.” Lack of medical supplies and infrastructure will likely contribute to the death toll, reports the Miami Herald.

The accident is "the latest in a series of human-made and natural calamities to rock the beleaguered Caribbean nation this year," compounding an increasingly acute humanitarian crisis, reports the Washington Post.

News Briefs

More Haiti
  • Haiti's former Foreign Minister Claude Joseph accused the country's government of “lacking the political will to arrest those responsible” for the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. (Voice of America)

  • According to a New York Times report this week, Moïse may have been killed because he had compiled a list of Haitian officials and businessmen who were involved in illegal drug trafficking as well as arms trafficking. Joseph said the judge investigating the killing should summon those named in the NYT piece. (See Monday's post.)

  • Haitian blogger Patricia Camilien called on the Moïse aides who were compiling the list to publicize the information, and places the NYT revelations within a broader, ongoing power struggle between Moïse supporters and those of former president Michel Martelly, originally Moïse's political mentor. (La Loi De Ma Bouche)
  • Several aid organizations in Haiti have temporarily cut back operations in response to a spike in violence that has hindered their work precisely as it is most needed, reports the Associated Press.
  • Colombian police were responsible for 28 deaths during months of nationwide protests this year, according to a new report by the United Nations human rights agency, which said Colombia’s riot police should undergo a “profound transformation” to prevent the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters. (Washington Post, see yesterday's post on a separate report on police repression of protesters in Bogotá in 2020.)

  • The International Criminal Court's decision to close down its preliminary examination in Colombia was cast as heralding a new chapter in the ICC’s support for national justice. But given the fragile transitional justice system in Colombia, the ICC’s decision to step back now raises concerns that it could undermine victims’ access to justice, write Juan Pappier and Liz Evenson in the Blog of the European Journal of International Law.
  • The International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body, met in Kingston, Jamaica, last week to agree a route for finalizing regulations by July 2023 that would allow the undersea mining of cobalt, nickel and other metals to go ahead, reports the Guardian.

  • In October, a group of 10 Latin American and Caribbean nations, including Costa Rica, Argentina and Chile, filed a submission to the Council expressing unease with the two-year deadline. It noted that, among other things, the ISA has yet to agree on the creation of an inspectorate to monitor mining and enforce regulations and has not adopted environmental management plans for areas of the deep sea targeted for mining. (See today's Just Caribbean Updates.)
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is seriously considering former rival Geraldo Alckmin as a centrist running mate next year, a potential "unity" ticket for a divided country, reports Reuters. The joint ticket would put aside two decades of fierce opposition between the two, but follows Lula's past choices of centrist veeps.

  • A Santa's grotto in Rio Branco has been painted blue, then white, then red, and then back to blue, in a kerfuffle that says more about politics than Christmas, reports the Guardian. (A color guide: blue is identified with President Jair Bolsonaro, red is Communism, Lula and Santa Claus.)

  • A Brazilian police investigation of alleged bribery of Petrobras employees to fix the price of fuel sold to JPMorgan Chase & Co by the state-run oil firm has expanded from one deal to at least four over the course of 2011, reports Reuters.
  • Poor rural Peruvians have poured out to protest the country's mining industry, which they say punishes their regions without leaving any wealth. Their main complaints are pollution affecting water sources, a lack of infrastructure or jobs, and dust from trucks locals blamed for killing crops and animals. Protests have increased under President Pedro Castillo, who has ordered local officials to go easy on protesters and has not imposed martial law to maintain order, a tool often used by presidents in the past, reports Reuters.
Regional Relations
  • Mexican Finance Minister Rogelio Ramirez de la O met with Peruvian President Pedro Castillo and his cabinet, part of a Mexican mission aimed at supporting the embattled Peruvian leader, reports Reuters. They discussed mutually beneficial economic proposals, including strengthening trade between the two countries and authorizing development bank lines of credit aimed at boosting exports.
  • Mexico City lawmakers are weighing a ban on bullfighting, an abolition that could be "the greatest blow the sport has suffered," according to the Washington Post.

  • Mexico's monarch butterfly winter population has halved over the past decade. While scientists originally believed the problem was illegal logging in local forests, they later discovered the decline's roots are in the U.S., where industrial farms have decimated caterpillar food sources, reports Vox.
  • The latest Venezuela Briefing features Adelys Ferro, director of the recently-launched Venezuelan American Caucus, a new initiative to mobilize and organize the Venezuelan diaspora in the United States to advocate for comprehensive policies centered around humanitarian needs and democratic efforts in Venezuela.
El Salvador
  • Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele initially appeared to be a champion of justice for the victims of the El Mozote massacre, which was carried out 40 years ago this week. But instead "Bukele's antagonism towards the actual court proceeding which could bring justice, belies his rhetoric," writes Tim Muth at El Salvador Perspectives.
  • Central America is in the midst of a democracy crisis, and backsliding in the region has made problems that have long plagued the region — poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and criminal violence — grow worse, writes Lucas Perelló in El Faro. While the U.S. Biden administration has sanctioned officials, its not clear the policy on its own can strengthen crumbling democracies. Instead, argues Perelló, the U.S. "should consider inviting rival parties—including incumbents, opposition blocs, civil society, and the private sector—to pursue a series of multilateral 'Democracy Accords.'"
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Colombian police killed 11 protesters, new report (Dec. 14, 2021)

Colombian police were responsible for the deaths of 11 protesters during anti-police protests in Bogotá in September of last year. “It was a police massacre,” wrote Carlos Negret, a former Colombian ombudsman who led an independent investigation backed by the mayor of Bogotá’s office and the United Nations. (See yesterday's briefs.)

Negret and a team of researchers blamed the deaths on an institutional failure to instruct officers not to use firearms against the crowds, and on a response that prioritized the protection of police stations over the lives of officers and protesters. They described the violence as “one of the most serious episodes of violations against human rights in the history of the city of Bogotá.”

According to the report’s authors, 75 people were injured by firearms during the three nights of protests. Police officers were also filmed destroying private property. Seventeen police stations in Colombia’s capital were set on fire and destroyed by protesters.

The protests started after Javier Ordóñez killed by police who detained him for breaking a Covid-19 lockdown. A video shared on social media that day showed him pinned to the ground, pleading for relief as two police officers shocked him repeatedly with a stun gun. “Please,” he begged. “No more.” He later died of a blow to the head suffered while in police custody. (See post for Sept. 10, 2020.)

Most of the deaths occurred in poorer neighborhoods of the city, leading investigators to conclude in the report that “there exists a criminalization of poverty by the state forces, which unleashed authoritarian and illegal actions against residents of certain social sectors.”

The investigation was carried out at the request of Bogotá’s mayor, Claudia López, and was supported by the UN development program. “Who should assume political responsibility?” asked López in a response included in the report. “Me, to begin with, but also the police and president [Iván Duque].”

Alejandro Lanz, co-director of Temblores, a local police violence watchdog, said the report showed systemic failures in the justice system which have allowed responsible police officers to escape prosecution and punishment.

Earlier this year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accused Colombian security forces of using "disproportionate and excessive force" on protesters demonstrating against a series of issues ranging from income inequality and allegations of police brutality. Starting in April, the protestors were met with violence that left at least 25 people dead. Eleven of those deaths involved police forces, according to the Colombian Interior Ministry.

News Briefs

  • Brazil's stubbornly high annual inflation rate of 10.7 percent is hitting the country's poorest particularly hard, and compounding pandemic economic woes, reports the Wall Street Journal

  • Unexpectedly, rising prices could also threaten President Jair Bolsonaro's hopes for reelection next year, reports the New York Times.
  • Chile’s election will define its national identity and political struggles all over Latin America, argues Michael Albertus in a Washington Post opinion that highlights three key factors driving Chile’s new identity politics: an influx of immigrants (mostly from Haiti and Venezuela), Mapuche Indigenous mobilization to reclaim land and resources, and rapidly shifting gender norms and women’s rights. "The political left has sought to extend social and economic support to immigrants. ... The political right has gained traction by demonizing these positions as a threat to Chilean identity and pins a rise in poverty, criminality and violence on immigrants and Indigenous activists."

  • Some migrants have rushed to enter Chile before Sunday's vote, frightened that a win by conservative José Antonio Kast will follow through on his promise to build "ditches" on the country's border to deter people from entering, reports the Associated Press.

  • Regardless of who wins, "Chile’s polarized contest will endanger the country’s role as a middle-of-the-road, pro-democracy broker in Latin America," according to Foreign Affairs
  • A new Wilson Center report analyzes how three U.S. anti-violence models -- cognitive behavioral therapy, the community approach,and the integrated approach -- have either worked or demonstrated potential to work in Mexico and the Northern Triangle. The results indicate that the models provide critical lessons for future implementation in other regional contexts, and further programming in other international settings.

  • An investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, using data collected in Colombia and Mexico, shows that extradition has become a game often stacked in favor of well-connected criminals. Meanwhile, the drug trade remains intact and thriving, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Religious groups are among the final institutions left in Haiti, delivering aid and support to an afflicted population -- but that has made priests, nuns and missionaries prime targets for kidnapping and extortion, explains InSight Crime.
  • Honduran president-elect Xiomara Castro received a potential boost last week when Yani Rosenthal, leader of the center-right Liberal Party, offered to support Castro's Libre party in presiding over the next Congress, where initial election results suggest she may lack control, reports Reuters.

  • The defeat of the ruling National Party in November's election set off a political earthquake — not only in the Presidential Palace in Tegucigalpa, but also in Hondura's far-flung provinces, where drug traffickers reign, reports El Faro English. A dispatch by Carlos Dada from the country's north is a story about "agreements made between politicians and drug traffickers and police and landowners and military officers, and about the lines that separate them, but which, in this part of Honduras, have long been erased. About how politics is done in a region where drug money controls everything."
  • Mexican police clashed with a large group of thousands of migrants headed to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic pilgrimage site in Mexico City, reports the BBC.
  • A Peruvian community blocking a transport road used to reach Las Bambas copper mine rejected a revised offer from MMG Ltd as "a joke", and threatened to boycott further talks, reports Reuters.
  • Mexicans have mourned the death of ranchera music icon Vicente Fernández en masse -- in cantinas, a national football final, and the singers Jalisco ranch. Such was Fernández’s stature that Andrés Manuel López Obrador ended his morning press conference yesterday by playing the hit "Volver, Volver," reports the Guardian.

  • Fernández "long represented the ideal of the Mexican man, proud of his roots and himself ... But his brand of machismo has frayed — at least for a younger generation less interested in a narrow view of what it means to be a man," according to the New York Times
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Moïse had drug-trafficker dossier -- NYT (Dec. 13, 2021)

 Before being assassinated in July, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse had been working on a list of powerful politicians and business people involved in Haiti’s drug trade, reports the New York Times. He planned to hand the dossier over to the U.S. government. The attackers who killed Moïse ransacked his bedroom, and in interrogations, some of the captured hit men confessed that retrieving the list was a top priority.

The investigation into Moïse’s killing has stalled, and many "fear it will add to the mountain of impunity in the country, further emboldening the criminal networks that have captured the state," reports NYT, which delves into Moïse's own political rise and history with the country's elites.

News Briefs

  • Outgoing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández's mandate ends next month, and he will immediately be vulnerable to indictment in the U.S., where federal prosecutors say he turned Honduras into a ‘narco-state,’ overseeing a system of "state-sponsored drug trafficking.” It's somewhat ironic that Hernández could face extradition to the U.S. under the terms of a treaty he himself negotiated in 2012, reports Univisión. But JOH will likely battle the charges from Honduras, and could move to a country with no extradition treaty with the U.S. -- Nicaragua and Taiwan are likely options, according to experts.

  • U.S. Under Secretary Uzra Zeya arrived in Honduras yesterday, and met with president-elect Xiomara Castro. (Proceso) "The U.S. will continue its partnership with Honduras under the new administration to fight corrupt, increase transparency, address migration, promote human rights & achieve economic growth for all," she tweeted

  • Castro previously spoke with U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris by phone. Castro tweeted: "Vice President Harris, thank you for your call and your words about the urgency to combat corruption in Honduras, and support for Democracy. I trust that our governments will work in defense of human rights and women's rights. A fraternal embrace."
  • U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris announced new investment commitments from an array of private companies to help address the root causes of migration from Central America, today. Companies including PepsiCo, Mastercard and Cargill, have now committed to invest $1.2 billion in the poverty-stricken and violent region since she issued a “call to action” for private-sector help in May, she said. (Washington Post)

  • At least  55 people were killed and 106 hospitalized in a vehicle crash last week in Mexico, involving a speeding tractor-trailer crammed with 150 migrants. The majority of the victims were from Guatemala. Some injured survivors fled the scene of the crash, scared of being detained by authorities. The accident, the deadliest single-day disaster in many years to befall Central American migrants, casts in stark relief the increasingly perilous journey people from Latin America undertake for a stab at reaching the U.S. border, reports the New York Times

  • The U.S. has increasingly pressured Mexican authorities to detain migrants before they reach the U.S. border, and in recent months, the number of migrant apprehensions in Mexico has risen to record levels. Thousands of migrants transit through Mexico hidden in tractor-trailers like the one that crashed to avoid checkpoints set up by Mexico’s national guard and immigration agency, reports the Washington Post
  • Americas Quarterly profiles Julia Tagüeña Parga, a septuagenarian physics eminence who Mexico's government hopes to put in jail, part of a protracted battle between the López Obrador administration and the country's science and technology council (CONACYT) -- and a broader debate over the purpose and limits of scientific inquiry in López Obrador’s Mexico, writes Brendan O'Boyle.
  • Colombia’s national police were responsible for the deaths of 11 people during two days of protests against police brutality last year, according to an independent investigation requested by the mayor of Bogotá and supported by the United Nations. The killings amounted to a “massacre,” former national ombudsman Carlos Negret wrote in a scathing 177-page report -- Washington Post.
  • São Paulo has dubbed itself the world's vaccine capital, after fully inoculating its entire adult population for Covid-19. The achievement is all the more notable given the city's support for President Jair Bolsonaro, a vehement vaccine skeptic, reports the Washington Post. São Paulo’s vaccination campaign success means the city will essentially be a large-scale experiment on how the omicron variante behaves in a massive urban environment where virtually everyone has been vaccinated.

  • A Brazilian Supreme Court judge ruled that foreign travelers must show proof of vaccination against the coronavirus to enter the country, a blow to Bolsonaro's refusal to impose a vaccination requirement for tourists, reports the Washington Post. (See last Thursday's briefs.)

  • Two Amazonian politicians duked out a disagreement over a water park in a boxing ring this weekend -- feeding concerns that Brazilian politics are increasingly antagonistic, reports the Guardian.
Regional Relations
  • A former special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison last week, after he pleaded guilty to taking part in a wide-ranging conspiracy that used cash seized in undercover drug operations to buy jewelry, cars and a house in Colombia, reports the New York Times.
  • Venezuela’s newest superhero, "Súper Bigote," is tall and muscular, flies over Caracas in red tights and a blue cape, and destroys enemies with an iron fist -- he also bears a stunning resemblance to President Nicolás Maduro, reports the Washington Post. The cartoon appears at a fraught moment for the government, which seeks to burnish a very tarnished image in the midst of a long humanitarian crisis.
  • Chile's presidential candidates are battling for moderate votes ahead of this weekend's runoff election -- both leftist Gabriel Boric and ultraconservative José Antonio Kast have also sought to physically court rural and marginalized areas they weren’t able to reach via social media, reports the Guardian.

  • The mainstream narrative of Chile's runoff is one of two extremes pitted against each other: left and right. But painting Boric as an extreme leftist is inaccurate, argues Robert Funk in Americas Quarterly. In fact, the former student leader is representative of a new kind of left in Chile: he is critical of the center-left Frente Amplio, but he has also "frequently opposed positions that the Communist Party supports (or vice versa) – from his opposition to the Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan regimes, to his support for the November 2019 cross-party agreement that set in motion Chile’s current constitutional process."
  • The power vacuum created in Colombia's Amazon after the FARC demobilized has had detrimental impact on the rainforest, reports Bloomberg.
  • Vaccinators in Peru's Amazon are challenged by religion, rivers and a special tea, reports NPR.
  • Colombian-born painter Oscar Murillof considers it an “infiltration” when his class-conscious canvases wind up on the walls of collectors, reports the New York Times.

  • Vicente Fernández, known as "El Rey," the king of Mexican ranchera music, died at age 81. He started out singing for tips on the streets of Guadalajara, a cradle of mariachi music, and rose to become one of Mexico’s most popular musicians, recording dozens of albums that sold an estimated 50 million copies. (Washington Post)
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... 

Friday, December 10, 2021

Nicaragua recognizes China (Dec. 10, 2021)

Nicaragua has switched diplomatic allegiance to China, and recognized Beijing's claim over Taiwan as a Chinese province. The move leaves Taiwan with just 14 governments around the world that formally recognise it as a country. Nicaragua’s foreign minister, Denis Moncada, did not explain the reasons behind the decision, but China has continually put pressure on Taiwan’s official allies to sever ties with the island. (GuardianNew York Times)

The announcement came after a meeting in Tianjin between China’s deputy foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu and a Nicaraguan delegation led by President Daniel Ortega’s son Laureano Ortega Murillo, who is the presidential adviser for investments, trade and international cooperation.

Nicaragua's Ortega administration is increasingly an international pariah, after a severe crackdown on opponents starting in 2018 and sham elections last month. That may have prompted President Daniel Ortega to take up an offer from China, which has been steadily luring away Taiwan’s remaining allies by promising trade and development assistance while ignoring political controversies, reports the Associated Press.

Nicaragua’s announcement comes as representatives from Taiwan participate in the inaugural Summit for Democracy, a two-day virtual gathering of democratic governments organized by U.S. President Joe Biden that kicked off yesterday. Biden’s invitation to Taiwan irked Beijing, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Other observers note that the announcement came on the same day as the U.S. State Department slapped sanctions on a national security adviser to Ortega. (South China Morning Post)

News Briefs

Regional Relations
  • The U.S. focus on global geopolitics as a battle between autocracies and democracies has some Latin American policymakers worried Washington will pressure them to choose sides in an effort to decouple U.S. economic ties from China, writes Catherine Osborn in the Latin America Brief. Instead some diplomats in the region favor "active nonalignment," and "urge Latin American nations to strengthen regional integration and work to benefit from ties to both China and the United States—while avoiding being controlled by either."

  • "U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy started yesterday without the presence of eight Latin American and Caribbean nations, an absence that highlights both the backsliding of democratic values in the region as well as his administration’s challenges in a crucial area where setbacks can have an immediate impact on U.S. national security and domestic politics," reports the Miami Herald. (See Tuesday's post.)

  • Central American countries were particularly, and pointedly absent, notes the Miami Herald. Many experts criticized the lack of engagement with a region so critical to U.S. goals, particularly in light of the Biden administration's relatively inclusive definition of democracy in the case of other invitees.
  • Latin American democracy is at its weakest point in 30 years, outgoing Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco told La Nación. Democracy's weakness has created fertile ground for populism, and puts human rights at risk, he warns, part of a growing chorus of analysts who signal a new Latin American democratic crisis.

  • "Democracy in Central America is experiencing its worst crisis since the militarized authoritarianism of the 1970s," writes Charles T Call for the Brookings Institution. "Presidents in these countries face fewer and fewer checks on their power. State oversight bodies like legislatures, criminal courts, financial audit courts, and attorneys general have increasingly fallen under the control of the executive."
  • At least 54 people were killed and more than 100 injured in a horrific accident involving a truck that was reportedly smuggling mostly Central American migrants towards the U.S. (New York Times, Guardian)

  • A surge in migration from Central America and Mexico to the U.S. over the past decade has brought increasing international attention to the criminal violence impacting these countries. While most analyses focus on criminal violence as "non-political," this characterization is misguided, argues Gema Santamaría in a Wilson Center analysis. 

  • A transnational labor trafficking network brought dozens of individuals from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to the United States under the guise of agricultural work only to exploit them using brutal conditions, a case that demonstrates how vulnerable temporary migrant workers are to human trafficking networks, reports InSight Crime.
  • Chile's upcoming runoff election is part of the country's long battle against dictatorship, writes Ariel Dorfman in the Guardian. On one side, Gabriel Boric "embodies the desire to finally overcome the toxic remnants of the dictatorship and adopt a new constitution that could lead to a radically different and inclusive society," while on the other José Antonio Kast embraces the Pinochet legacy.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Castillo avoided impeachment in Congress this week, when lawmakers who sought to oust him on grounds of moral incapacity fell six votes short for the motion to be debated. (El Comercio) But it's hardly likely to be the last attempt to impeach Castillo, writes Andrea Moncada in Americas Quarterly. "Scandals are overshadowing any policy advances that the government may be making. ... Castillo’s real problem seems to be that he seems uninterested in governing, and instead seems focused on using his position to favor his allies, and perhaps himself."
  • Colombia could buck the regional trend towards extremes and hew to the center in next year's presidential elections, according to the Economist, though many analysts believe leftist Gustavo Petro will win.

  • Pandemic school closures in Colombia created a recruitment opportunity for armed groups, and produced a new generation of child soldiers, Elizabeth Dickinson writes in Foreign Policy.
  • The Venezuelan government is battling to revert an electoral loss in Barinas state, a traditional Chavista stronghold, with irregular judicial decisions that "raised further doubts about the fairness of Venezuela’s electoral system following the first vote in years in which most major political movements took part," reports the Associated Press. (See Dec. 1's briefs.)

  • "The extreme actions done by Maduro and his supporters to steal the election in Barinas have proven his critics correct and given attention to the anti-democratic abuses of his regime," writes James Bosworth in the Latin America Risk Report.

  • Maduro plans to replace Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami - a key ruling party official - because of health issues, reports Reuters.
  • Brazilian investigators accused members of Rio de Janeiro's Red Command drug gang of killing three boys who disappeared a year ago. Investigators said the children, who lived in a city favela, had been tortured and subjected to a vicious punishment beating, in which one of them had died, for allegedly stealing a bird belonging to the uncle of a local gangster. (Guardian)
Critter Corner
  • The Andean cat is the most endangered feline in the Americas, but environmentalists discovered a population living on the outskirts of Santiago, raising hopes for their conservation, reports the Guardian.
Happy Human Rights Day!

Thursday, December 9, 2021

U.S. said Bukele gov't negotiated with gangs (Dec. 9, 2021)

The U.S. accused El Salvador's government of secretly negotiating a truce with the country's violent street gangs, reports the Associated Press. The U.S government alleges President Nayib Bukele's government bought the gangs' support with financial benefits and privileges for their imprisoned leaders including prostitutes and cellphones. Bukele called the accusations a lie on Twitter.

The U.S. Treasury made the accusations as it announced sanctions against two Bukele administration officials --  Osiris Luna Meza, chief of the Salvadoran Penal System and Vice Minister of Justice and Public Security, and Carlos Amilcar Marroquin Chica, chairman of the Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit. The U.S. said the officials negotiated with gang leaders to reduce homicides and obtain gang support for the governing Nuevas Ideas party in this year's legislative elections, reports El Faro.

This morning the U.S. also added Bukele's chief-of-staff, Carolina Recinos, to its sanctions list, accusing her of heading "a multiple-ministry, multi-million dollar corruption scheme involving suspicious procurements in the construction of a hospital, in addition to directing various government ministers to authorize several suspicious pandemic-related purchases." (U.S. Treasury)

El Faro reported the gang negotiation allegations in September of last year, and former Attorney General Raul Melara said he would investigate the report at the time. (See post for Sept. 4, 2020.) But Melara was ousted this year when Nuevas Ideas obtained a congressional majority. El Faro reports that the U.S. announcement yesterday confirms its investigation, and adds previously unknown details, including payments to gangs, the provision of cellphones to imprisoned gang members, and authorization for prostitutes to enter jails.

The U.S. also announced sanctions against Luna's mother, Alma Yanira Meza Olivares, who officials accused of collaborating with Luna in stealing pandemic relief supplies and then re-selling them to the government. Earlier this year, El Faro reported that Luna embezzled $1.6 million worth of food from a government program meant to feed Salvadorans during the pandemic, according to a criminal investigation led by ex-Attorney General Raúl Melara. (See Sept. 21's briefs.)

Melara's replacement in the attorney general's office, Rodolfo Delgado, rapidly dissolved the specialized teams of prosecutors investigating Luna's embezzlement scheme and the Bukele administration's negotiations with gang leaders, reports El Faro.

The U.S. accusations add to what was already a rapidly deteriorating relationship between Washington and San Salvador, reports the Washington Post.

In a series of Twitter messages, yesterday, Bukele said that in his last meeting with interim U.S. chargé d’affaires Jean Manes, she asked him for several things, including the release of a former San Salvador mayor, not to re-elect Delgado and to not pursue former President Alfredo Cristiani and former Attorney General Douglas Meléndez. He said he rejected the requests and said that after the meeting he cut off communication with Manes. (Associated Press)

Manes resigned last month, citing what she called the Bukele administration’s lack of interest in crossing “a bridge” of dialogue, as well as El Salvador’s refusal to extradite senior MS-13 leaders wanted on terrorism charges and concerns about a proposed foreign agents law. (See Nov. 23's briefs.)

News Briefs

More El Salvador
  • El Salvador purchased 150 bitcoins as the cryptocurrency's value dipped over the weekend. (See Monday's briefs.) Bukele's policy has won him accolades from crypto aficionados, as well as criticism from mainstream economists, reports Deutsche Welle.
  • The controversial U.S. migration policy, "Remain in Mexico" restarted this week. More than 30 migrants had their asylum cases processed in El Paso this week and are expected to be transported back to Mexico, reports the Washington Post. (See Dec. 3's post.) 
  • Honduran president-elect Xiomara Castro's early actions have centered on building an effective transition to what she calls un estado solidario – drawing positive feedback even from potential opponents so far, writes Fulton Armstrong at the Aula Blog. "The U.S. reaction to her government will be crucial. Xiomara’s agenda, with its focus on the “root causes” of the country’s multiple crises, could make her an ideal ally to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who’s worked hard to focus U.S. policy on those drivers."

  • He also argues that: "rhetoric that the 2009 coup reversed a flourishing democracy is exaggerated – it has always been a flawed democracy and ousted President Mel Zelaya, like his peers, was a flawed leader. But this vote and early reactions indicate broad agreement that the past 12 years have exhausted the country."

  • Castro campaigned promising to legalize abortion in Honduras, but she faced an uphill battle in the face of strong conservative opposition, reports Reuters.

  • Honduran electoral authorities began an unprecedented recount of some of the ballots from last month's congressional elections, this week, after allegations of fraud and inconsistencies at some of the ballot boxes. Congressional candidates from Castro's Liberty and Refoundation party and its ally, the Salvador Party of Honduras, have accused the ruling National Party of "inflating" the vote tally in their favor. Castro's ability to implement ambitious reforms depend on the balance of power in the unicameral congress, reports Reuters.
  • Chilean presidential candidate José Antonio Kast's father was a member of the Nazi party during WWII, reports the Associated Press based on a recently unearthed document. An ID card that appears to show Kast's German-born father joined the National Socialist German Workers’ party in 1942 adds a new twist to Chile's polarized presidential runoff later this month. In the past Kast has angrily rejected claims that his father was a supporter of the Nazi movement, describing him instead as a forced conscript in the German army.
  • Brazil's Chamber of Deputies rejected a bill that would have created a police force controlled by the executive, ostensibly aimed at combating terrorism. Critics said the parallel security force would have created a political police with the power to act secretly, and would criminalize social movements and political opposition. (Folha de S. Paulo, Forum)

  • The Brazilian government's refusal to demand proof of vaccination from travelers -- against the country's health regulator's recommendations -- has angered critics, who say the country will become a haven for unvaccinated tourists. (Guardian)
  • The world's largest area containing isolated and uncontacted tribes, the so-called Javari-Tapiche corridor in the Amazon, is under increasing threat from illegal logging and gold mining, advancing coca plantations and drug trafficking violence, a new report by organization of indigenous people of Peru's eastern Amazon, ORPIO. (Reuters)
  • "Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, democracy advocates were already sounding alarms about a global “democratic recession.” ... The pandemic brought a double blow to democracy, distracting attention from these troubling trends while further weakening democratic institutions," according to a new Wilson Center report. "Strongmen and elected leaders alike clothed antidemocratic actions as public health measures, curtailing protests supposedly to encourage social distancing, and limiting speech supposedly to control disinformation."

  • A comprehensive global report, released this week by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank, adds to a growing body of evidence that students suffered massive educational losses during the pandemic, reports the Washington Post. The exceptionally long closures in Latin America and South Asia, the study’s authors say, dealt students there an outsize hit.
  • Bolivia has the world's largest lithium reserves, but has long struggled to extract them, reports the Economist. The Arce administration is more open to working with foreign companies than previous governments, and is advancing towards implementing a new technology called “direct lithium extraction” (DLE), which could help the country turn a corner in its quest to industrialize lithium.
  • Mexico remained the deadliest country for reporters in the Western Hemisphere in 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Three people were killed in retribution for their reporting this year, and the group said it was investigating six other killings of reporters in Mexico to determine the motives of the killers. (New York Times)

  • Mexican manufacturing is booming, and the country's industry could benefit from increasing difficulties in sourcing from China and global efforts to shorten supply chains, reports the Economist.
  • Ecuador's mining industry is threatened by legal uncertainty, the sector's guild said, citing a decision by the country's top court to withdraw environmental permissions for a project in a protected forest. (Reuters)
  • Haitian film 'Freda' was selected for the Cannes Film Festival and has generated excitement at home and abroad -- Washington Post.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...