Friday, January 29, 2021

Covid-19 undermines transparency efforts (Jan. 29, 2021)

 Covid-19 has slammed Latin America and the Caribbean, and exacerbated trends of deep inequalities. "A major challenge facing the region is ensuring that funds and programmes for COVID-19 relief are not lost to corruption and reach the intended recipients. Failure to deliver this aid risks increased social discontent, stokes harmful populism, and creates still greater poverty and inequality," warns Transparency International in its presentation of the latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

"An alarming concentration of power in the executive branches in countries like Colombia (39) and El Salvador (36) has contributed to an explosion in irregularities and corruption cases associated with COVID-19 related procurement. Across the region, citizens struggle to access reliable and up-to-date information on health statistics and emergency procurement."

In some cases the Covid-19 emergency augmented previous trends of corruption. El Salvador's government suspended an important law to provide access to information due to the pandemic, limiting civil society group's ability to monitor government funds for COVID-19-related purchases

With a score of 25, Guatemala is a significant decliner on the CPI, dropping 8 points since 2012. Congress threatened the right to information with reforms that pose a serious setback to citizen oversight and create a risk of politicization. And Honduras declined by two points to reach a new low on the CPI, a score of 24. "Reports reveal an alarming lack of planning in the country’s COVID-19 related purchases, overpricing of medical equipment and opaque contractual arrangements in the procurement process for field hospitals."

News Briefs

  • Covid-19 hit Latin America's schools particularly hard. The region lost the most days of schooling, and the virus exacerbated pre-existing inequalities in access to education. Experts warn that the lopsided damage to learning will reverse decades of progress and leave lasting social scars, reports Bloomberg. Just 46% of Latin American secondary schoolers are likely to graduate, compared with 61% pre-pandemic. For students whose parents had less formal education, the outlook is dire; their probability of earning a high school diploma drops 20 points, from 52% to 32%, in the post-pandemic.
  • Colombia's Special Jurisdiction for Peace accused eight former rebel commanders of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the guerrillas’ practice of kidnapping people during the country’s decades long civil conflict. The decision by a special tribunal system set up in Colombia to process war atrocities is a signal to critics, who assert that rebels benefited from the peace process without fear of punishment, that the justice system set up by the accord is functioning, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Response will point to the future of the country's fragile peace, writes Catherine Osbourne in a new Foreign Policy newsletter looking at Latin America.
Regional Relations
  • When it comes to U.S. policy regarding organized crime and narcotics interdiction in the region, most experts predict U.S. President Joe Biden will largely continue with the status quo that has prevailed during most of his career — and failed to curb either U.S. drug consumption or violence in Latin America, writes Brendan O'Boyle in Americas Quarterly. The realities of a split U.S. Congress and a crowded domestic agenda will probably prevent the kind of bold experiments such as drug legalization that some progressives support, though some changes are possible.
  • Early hopes that the pandemic would weaken Latin America's criminal organizations proved wrong. "More than almost any other part of society or the economy, criminal activity picked up and continued as before," writes Falko Ernst in El Faro. "The name of the game is increasingly holding territory in order to secure multiple sources of illicit revenue, chiefly extracted through extortion. If one source runs dry, there will be others to turn to – at least as long as there is legal economic activity that lacks protection."
  • As the new administration works to reset U.S. regional policy in a more positive direction, it must also prepare for a worst-case scenario in which Latin America’s uneven economic recovery and slow vaccination efforts fuel a resumption of the large-scale political unrest that shook Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua prior to the pandemic, in 2019, writes Oliver Stuenkel in Foreign Affairs.
  • The Biden administration should work to identify areas of mutual interest with geopolitical adversaries such as Russia, China, and Cuba rather than letting Venezuela's crisis fall into a slow-burning proxy conflict, argue David Smilde and Geoff Ramsey in El País.
  • Latin Americans hoping to get into the U.S. had high hopes for the Biden administration, but just days into new term many of those same migrants have already grown impatient, their optimism souring to disappointment, reports the New York Times. The impatience is a reflection of the soaring demand for relief among migrants and an indication of the magnitude of the challenge facing the Biden administration.
  • Biden is expected to issue executive orders on asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, refugee resettlement and the reunification of migrant families, though the exact timeline is unclear, reports Reuters.
  • A Chilean police officer was sentenced to 11 years in jail over the 2018 killing of Camilo Catrillanca, a Mapuche farmer, during a vehicle chase. The case demonstrated the often harsh treatment by police of the country's largest indigenous group, and activists hailed the sentencing as a “historic day” for Mapuche rights, reports the Guardian.
  • A growing demand for wind power from the world’s largest economies has set off a socially and economically devastating scramble to harvest balsa wood in Ecuador, which provides more than 75% of the world’s balsa. The balsa boom, and the bust that has now followed, recall the rush to exploit rubber in the Amazon at the beginning of the 20th century, reports the Economist
  • Water shortages affect a significant chunk of Honduras' population, and the situation is getting worst, reports Criterio.
  • Brazil's federal police is combating organized crime by targeting their finances, specifically money laundering activities. The approach is infrequent in Latin America, and could become a case study, reports Americas Quarterly.
  • Wine consumption in Argentina was 7 percent higher in 2020 than in 2019, as homebound Argentines sought ways to fight the coronavirus gloom. But the industry faces significant challenges, from currency controls to pandemic tourism restrictions, reports the Wilson Center's Weekly Asado.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Essequibo dispute heats up (Jan. 28, 2021)

 The US and the OAS condemned Venezuela's detention of 12 Guyanese fishermen. Venezuela's Navy detained the fishermen last week in Guyanese waters claimed by Venezuela, in a rapidly heating border dispute, with geostrategic relevance. 

Venezuela has long claimed a significant chunk of Guyanese territory, but the controversy became more relevant in recent years with the discovery of off-shore oil deposits. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been sabre rattling on the issue of the disputed Essequibo region this month, likely as a nationalist rallying point for a country exhausted by a long-term humanitarian and political crisis. (See last week's Venezuela Weekly and last week's Caribbean News Updates for more on the territorial controversy.)

Caribbean observers also say Maduro's latest aggression is a demonstration of his unhappiness with the United States’ increasing presence in Guyana, reports the Miami Herald

News Briefs

  • Haitian President Jovenel Moïse called on citizens to help police respond to a surge in kidnappings for ransom. Moïse’s plea and rare acknowledgment of the kidnapping epidemic that’s gaining ground in the country came amid protests by schoolchildren and parents in response to the abduction of a 10-year-old boy in front of his school, reports the Miami Herald. Kidnappings for ransom have surged in Haiti, and many observers say that some are politically motivated. (See Jan. 18's briefs, and Jan. 20's)
  • The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) expects the deployment of COVID-19 vaccine made available for poorer countries through the U.N.-led COVAX facility to start in March, with some 164 million doses. (Reuters)
  • Vaccines, how to get them and which are a major theme right now in Lat Am -- it's hard to get a big picture of just the region. AS/COAS has a tracker that looks at deaths and Covid-19 measures taken in each country, as well as vaccine plans and economic impact.
  • The Russian Sputnik V is an option a lot of countries in the region -- including Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia -- are looking at but Russia has warned of supply delays for Latin America, reports Reuters.
  • Choking the developing world out of vaccine access will have negative economic repercussions for developed nations, warn experts. (New York Times)
  • More than 1.7 million coronavirus cases among indigenous people living in the Amazon basin have been registered, along with 42,000 deaths since the pandemic began, reports Reuters. Indigenous leaders in the Amazon rainforest urged governments to ensure vaccine rollouts reach all tribal communities. Brazil has included indigenous communities in its vaccine rollout, but leaders warn that other countries do not have immunization plans that specifically include and address the needs of tribal people.
  • The humanitarian disaster unfolding in Manaus, the Amazon’s largest city stems from a combination of government failures, scientific misfires and public indifference along with a mutating virus, reports the Washington Post. For scientists, it is a case study in what SARS-CoV-2 can do if allowed to spread unmitigated.
  • Brazilian social media exploded in anger over reports of extravagant presidential spending on condensed milk, $2.9 million last year. The number turned out to be inaccurate, it represents total government spending and includes defense ministry spending to feed the armed forces, reports the Guardian. Some enjoyed watching President Jair Bolsonaro, whose road to power has been paved with fake news, get a taste of his own medicine. He took it largely in stride: “Go and stick a can of condensed milk up your arses,” Bolsonaro told reporters.
  • Honduras' response to hurricane devastation and the coronavirus pandemic has been hindered by high-level corruption and poor governance, which have exacerbated the emergencies afflicting the country, writes Adriana Beltrán in World Politics Review. An audit by the watchdog NGO the Association for a More Just Society, for example, found that the Honduran agency charged with procuring emergency medical supplies had wasted tens of millions of dollars on subpar, overvalued medical equipment. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Cuba has detected the potentially more contagious "South Africa" Covid-19 variant, just as the island experiences its biggest uptick in new cases since the start of the pandemic, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Peruvian President Francisco Sagasti announced a total lockdown of Lima and nine other regions following a significant increase in Covid-19 cases, which he said had pushed hospitals close to collapse. (Reuters)
  • Ecuador heads to the polls on Feb. 7. The three main presidential candidates represent two known options -- former president Rafael Correa is second on one of the ballots, a neoliberal businessman heads another -- and a surprise third: an indigenous leader whose discourse focuses on environmental concerns and ancestral references. (Nueva Sociedad)
El Salvador
  • El Diario de El Salvador is publicly owned, and was presented by President Nayib Bukele as a self-sufficient project that would subsist on ad-revenue. But in the newspaper's first trimester in print its main advertiser, by far, has been the government itself, reports La Prensa Gráfica.
Puerto Rico
  • Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Pierluisi's plan to fund elections for a new group of shadow representatives in Washington requires the elected officials to support statehood — critics say the proposed election is an unconstitutional waste of money amid the coronavirus pandemic, reports the Miami Herald.

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Suspected migrant massacre in Mexico (Jan. 27, 2021)

The charred bodies of 19 murder victims found near Mexico's border with the U.S. are believed to belong to Guatemalan migrants. (Reuters) Authorities found the bodies late on Saturday in two burning vehicles which had been left beside a dirt road outside the town of Camargo. All the victims had been shot, but shells were not found at the site, leading investigators to believe they were killed somewhere else, reports the Associated Press

Witness accounts suggest that the Guatemalans were attacked by an organized criminal group. If so, they form part of a broader pattern of violence against migrants in Mexico, denounced WOLA in a call to Mexico and the United States to revise migration policies in order to defend human rights, particularly access to asylum.

The case revives memories of the 2010 massacre of 72 migrants in the same gang-ridden state of Tamaulipas, notes the Associated Press.

Several families in Guatemala’s northwestern San Marcos department, who believe their children to be among the victims, stated that a pandemic-related food shortage had forced their children to set out for the United States earlier in the month, notes WOLA.

News Briefs

More Migration
  • The United States, Mexico and Guatemala agreed to bar migrant caravans from passing through their territories due to the Covid pandemic, just days after thwarting the year's first migrant caravan that set out from Honduras. (AFP)
  • Thousands of Honduras in a U.S.-bound migrant caravan were forced to turn back earlier this month. But the country's long standing political volatility and endemic corruption have been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and devastation by successive hurricanes last year --  which means many people will keep trying to leave, reports Al Jazeera. Many are not necessarily headed towards the U.S. Mexico, which was once a transit country, has become a destination for many Central American migrants.
El Salvador
  • A social media hashtag defending the relevance of El Salvador's 1992 peace accords gained unexpected force after President Nayib Bukele trashed the agreements that ended the country's 12-year civil war. Users shared microhistories of the war and its impacts, #ProhibidoOlvidarSV, a valorization of the accords by a new generation, writes Oscar Martínez in a New York Times Español op-ed. The citizen reaction to Bukele's discrediting of the peace accords is promising. But Bukele's popularity -- he is set to gain significant power in next month's legislative and local elections -- is a sign of the enduring weakness of El Salvador's post-war peace, he writes.
  • Transnational crime has been the big pandemic winner of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the latest issue of Americas Quarterly, focused on organized crime groups in the region. "There are signs the pandemic really may be a game-changer, creating long-term headaches for governments everywhere."
  • The pandemic may be a turning point of acceleration of negative security trends from recent decades. "The operational capacity, adaptability, expansive networks, and deep pockets of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) have provided them with opportunities to exploit the voids left by overwhelmed institutions and stressed market chains across the region. Although it is still too early to assess any enduring changes, TCOs are showing signs of adapting and even growing stronger in numerous ways, some of them surprising," write José Miguel Cruz and Brian Fonseca in Americas Quarterly.
  • Covid-19 has been a disaster for Latin America's educational systems, but school closures have been a potential bonanza for criminal organizations, who suddenly have an even bigger pool of idle young people to recruit from. Criminal groups in Colombia have sharply increased forced recruitment since the pandemic began, and many other youths are lured by economic criminal opportunities, reports Americas Quarterly.
Regional Relations
  • The U.S. Trump administration's "maximal pressure" strategy against Venezuela's Maduro government failed spectacularly. Maduro is stronger than he’s ever been, and the democratic opposition movement is in pieces, wrote David Smilde in a recent Washington Post opinion piece. Moving forward, he recommends the Biden administration expand the range of democratic actors it engages in Venezuela, rather than unconditionally support one faction of the opposition. 
  • "The regime in place in Caracas will neither reform nor negotiate its own demise unless incentives for regime officials, including military and security leaders, shift dramatically," writes Eric Farnsworth in Americas Quarterly. He advocates reviewing existing sanctions and establishing a contact group of global democracies for the coordination of Venezuela policies, including, at a minimum, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the Secretary General of the OAS.
  • China is pivoting from a “no strings attached” myth regarding its trade deals and foreign assistance in Latin America to a more aggressive “wolf warrior diplomacy” posture in which it uses sticks, threats and information warfare as well as carrots to defend its positions, according to James Bosworth. China may gain allies from leaders in the region put off by the new U.S. administration's expected focus on anti-corruption and the environment, he predicts in the Latin America Risk Report.
  • Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Ricardo Lewandowski has opened an investigation into Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Manaus, reports Reuters. Health services in Brazil's northern Amazonas state have been pushed to breaking point by a wave of Covid-19 infections, oxygen supplies ran out earlier this month, causing at least 51 death by asphyxiation. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • Mynor Moto took oath as a Constitutional Court justice in Guatemala, despite a series of appeals questioning his suitability, reports El Periódico. The Public Ministry, social organizations and lawyers say Moto should not hold the office due investigations into allegedly corrupt judicial decisions, reports Soy 502. Prensa Libre reviews some of Moto's controversial rulings.
  • Colombian Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo died after contracting Covid-19. (BBC)
  • Chile’s appeals court overturned the convictions of six people for the murder of the former president, Eduardo Frei Montalva, in the 1980s. The ex-president’s doctors, his chauffeur, an army officer and a former intelligence agent were sentenced to between three and 10 years in jail in January 2019 for the poisoning of 71-year-old Frei in a Santiago clinic during the Pinochet dictatorship. (Reuters)

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

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Bolsonaro wants to reduce environmental protection budget (Jan. 26, 2021)

News Briefs

  • Brazil's government is proposing the smallest budget for environmental protection in at least 13 years -- despite record levels of Amazon deforestation last year. (Reuters)
  • Two top Brazilian indigenous leaders have asked the International Criminal Court to investigate President Jair Bolsonaro for "crimes against humanity." Chief Raoni Metuktire, the leader of the Kayapo people, and Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, leader of the Paiter Surui tribe accused Bolsonaro of  unprecedented environmental damage, killings and persecution. (AFP)
  • Several big European financial institutions — BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse and ING — have committed to halting the financing of the trade of oil from the Amazon region of Ecuador. The three banks are collectively responsible for $5.5 billion in Ecuadorian Amazon oil financing since 2009, reports Al Jazeera.
  • The Venezuelan government is cracking down with increasing force against organizations of civil society -- like the arrest earlier this month of five members of Azul Positivo, a humanitarian organization that works with vulnerable populations in Zulia state, including people who are HIV positive. But the international community has been timid in the face of Chavismo's criminalization of solidarity, writes Alberto Barrera Tyszka in a New York Times Español op-ed. (See yesterday's briefs.) Earlier this month A group of international rights organizations -- including WOLA, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International -- denounced "recent campaigns of stigmatization, harassment, and repression against the media in Venezuela. (See Jan. 15's briefs.)
  • Venezuelan political opposition leader Juan Guaidó is a “privileged interlocutor” but no longer considered interim president, European Union states said yesterday, sticking to their decision to downgrade his status after his term as lawmaker ended earlier this month. (Reuters)
  • The European Union called for broad political talks in Venezuela to set up new elections, and warned that it would sanction senior Venezuelan officials if they undermine democracy or take part in human rights violations. (Associated Press)
Regional Relations
  • Venezuela's Navy detained 12 Guyanese fishermen last week. The two boats were off Guyana's coast, a territory Venezuela has unilaterally claimed. (Stabroek News, see Venezuela Weekly and last week's Caribbean News Updates for more on the territorial controversy.)
  • The U.S. Biden administration will review existing economic sanctions for possible relief to help with the global response in combating the coronavirus pandemic. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Pandemic devastation in the region is increasing hostility towards the millions of Venezuelans who fled their country's humanitarian crisis in recent years. Peru, Ecuador and Colombia have seen the biggest deterioration in attitudes toward migrants, reports Bloomberg.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been criticized throughout the pandemic for his lackadaisical approach to Covid-19 -- even as the country is among the worst hit in the world, reports the Guardian.
  • For many, it was only a matter of time until AMLO caught coronavirus, as he has serially flouted basic safety precautions. But many Mexicans struggling with Covid-19 are concerned that AMLO -- who is receiving top-notch medical care -- will continue to downplay the pandemic's significance if he recovers, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's briefs.) 
  • Mexico's approach to coronavirus restrictions lacked clear messaging to convince people to obey restrictions, which were not enforced with coercive measures, reports the Washington Post.
  • There is abundant evidence that Emilio Lozoya benefited from significant corruption during his tenure as a close advisor to former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto. The former head of Pemex amassed $36 millones in a Swiss bank account in the two years after he joined Peña Nieto's presidential campaign in 2012. But Mexico's attorney general seems uninterested in pursuing the case against Lozoya, who was arrested in February 2020. Instead Mexican prosecutors are focused on obtaining information that will incriminate bigger fish, even if it means letting Lozoya off the hook, writes Raúl Olmos of Mexicanos contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad in the Post Opinión.
  • Mexican authorities are attempting to identify 19 charred corpses found in two burning vehicles in the town of Camargo, an area that has seen violent territorial disputes between organized crime groups in recent years. All the victims had been shot, but shells were not found at the site, leading investigators to believe they were killed somewhere else, reports the Associated Press.
  • Mexico's national homicide rate went down marginally last year, but the numbers for the past three years remain higher than in previous years. And at the state level, Zacatecas, Sonora and Guanajuato are among the most violent in the country and saw saw large increases in homicides last year, according to the Latin America Risk Report.
  • Colombia’s FARC political party has renamed itself the Common People’s Party (Comunes for short), a rebranding attempt aimed at distancing itself from the acronym associated with the now disbanded guerrilla force, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Makers of a traditional Colombian sweetener -- panela -- say a major sugar engineer is trying to patent the popular product. The New York Times covers that, and also an in-depth on the history of panela.
  • Argentina's new legal abortion law went into force on Sunday. National government officials and women's rights activists are watching closely to see that the groundbreaking legislation is effectively implemented on the ground, reports the Associated Press. The law’s supporters expect backlash in Argentina’s conservative provinces.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing

Monday, January 25, 2021

AMLO questions U.S. case against Cienfuegos (Jan. 25, 2021)

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador suggested the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) should carry out an internal investigation into the conduct of its case against former Mexican defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos. 

The case has strained relations between the U.S. and Mexico, and now the ongoing fall out threatens to cloud the relationship with new U.S. President Joe Biden. Tensions rose initially, in November, when U.S. authorities detained Cienfuegos in Los Angeles, and then this month when Mexico's attorney general dropped the charges against Cienfuegos and released a confidential dossier of evidence shared by the U.S. 

U.S. authorities returned Cienfuegos to Mexico after his arrest in response to significant diplomatic pressure, and Mexican authorities promised to pursue the case. But Attorney General Alejandro Gertz rapidly dismissed the case, saying the evidence was inconsistent and questionable.

Literal translations of intercepted messages that U.S. prosecutors used to charge Cienfuegos of collaborating with drug traffickers are being ridiculed in Mexico for being laughably off base. Other translations are nonsensical and miss key words in Spanish, reports Vice.

News Briefs

More Mexico
  • AMLO has coronavirus, and said via Twitter that he is experiencing mild symptoms. “As always, I am optimistic,” he said. AMLO has consistently played down the pandemic, and has refused to wear masks in many public appearances, reports the New York Times. At 67, and with hypertension, López Obrador could be at risk of developing complications from the virus, notes the Washington Post.
  • Warmer relations between AMLO and Beijing could create a security conundrum for the U.S., according to Roman Ortiz at Americas Quarterly.
Regional Relations
  • "A new era of United States-Latin America relations must make the protection of democracy in the hemisphere a top priority. And Latin Americans should welcome this. A weak democracy is a threat to all nations in our hemisphere," writes Boris Muñoz in a New York Times op-ed. The United States must actively engage with Latin American countries to protect human rights, help fight corruption and strengthen the rule of law in the region -- but to promote democracy south of the Rio Grande, President Joe Biden must first lead by example by re-establishing a functional democracy at home, he argues.
  • At least 51 coronavirus patients asphyxiated to death when Manaus hospitals ran out of oxygen earlier this month. Brazil's Amazonas state is in the midst of a deadly second wave that has overwhelmed hospitals, many of which are turning away patients, reports the Guardian. Distressing stories of suffocating patients and the evacuation of premature babies have generated a public revolt against Amazonas’s leaders who critics accuse of failing to plan for, let alone prevent its second cataclysm in a year.
  • The misery belies what some scientists heralded as the first city to reach herd immunity to Covid-19, last year, after a deadly wave of infections in April abated by June. The reasons for the spike in Manaus are unclear, reports the Economist. It could be related to a new coronavirus variant that is more contagious, or that antibodies offer less protections against this variant. Or that the study that proclaimed herd immunity was not robust. In anycase, "Manaus will get worse before it gets better."
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's support is slipping, voters from across the political spectrum increasingly reject his handling of the pandemic. This weekend, thousands of Brazilians participated motorcades demanding Bolsonaro's impeachment, organized by centrist and leftist political parties, reports the Guardian. Rightwing groups held their own pro-impeachment events, yesterday.
  • China's coronavirus vaccine effort was supposed to spearhead a diplomatic goodwill campaign, but has been marred by spotty disclosures, and slow shipments. Indications that the vaccine is less effective than Western-developed jabs is bad news for developing countries that have been largely locked out of the market by their wealthier counterparts, reports the New York Times.
  • Jamaica is seeking Covid-19 vaccines from Cuba, China and India, after accusing rich nations of “hoarding” medicine, reports Bloomberg. Authorities say Jamaica might not get its first batch of vaccines under the COVAX Facility until April, making it necessary to look beyond the program.

  • New U.S. coronavirus travel restrictions are likely to have an outsized impact on tourism to Mexico, reports the Washington Post. The move could help nudge the country's officials to implement more coronavirus containment measures, in the midst of soaring contagion, reports the Guardian
  • Colombian rights groups are concerned about women and girls as authorities renew coronavirus lockdowns in the country, reports the Guardian. There have been 18 documented femicides this year, and 13 more awaiting verification. Though confirmed cases did not increase last year, rights groups say the true level of gender violence is underreported. 
Puerto Rico
  • Puerto Rico governor Pedro Pierluisi declared a state of emergency over violence against women, and signed an executive order that allocates public resources to address the crisis of gender violence. Activists and groups on the island, which had 60 femicides last year according to a watchdog organization, have been demanding an emergency declaration from the government for years, reports the Miami Herald.
  • With Venezuela’s opposition political parties effectively marginalized, the Maduro government now appears to be setting its sights on repressing independent civil society, with a particular emphasis on NGOs, media outlets, and humanitarian organizations, write Dimitris Pantoulas and Geoff Ramsey in the Venezuela Weekly.
  • There are several proposals espoused by Venezuela's political opposition, reports the Venezuela Weekly. Henrique Capriles set three priorities for the opposition: address the humanitarian crisis/pandemic, press for a credible electoral timetable, and reconnect with the interior outside Caracas. Other voices ask for an oil-for-food exchange program that could help the country to mitigate its humanitarian crisis.
British Virgin Islands
  • The British Virgin Islands have been plunged into a constitutional crisis, after the outgoing British-appointed governor accused the country’s government of overseeing a “plague” of corruption, interfering in the criminal justice system and attempting to silence anyone who raised concerns about the misuse of funds, reports the Guardian. Gus Jaspert claimed that the BVI government had deliberately delayed legal reforms and hindered local inquiries into a string of corruption allegations. The allegations will now be examined in a commission of inquiry, a formal process overseen by a British high court judge.
  • The European parliament is pushing for UK overseas territories and crown dependencies, including the British Virgin Islands, Guernsey and Jersey, to be added to an EU tax havens blacklist after the conclusion of the Brexit deal, reports the Guardian.
  • The mostly Indigenous population of the impoverished northeast Caribbean coast of Nicaragua depends on fishing for economic livelihood -- but deep sea dives for spiny lobster, carried out with subpar gear, is a stunningly deadly pursuit, reports the New York Times.
  • Juan Guzmán Tapia, a Chilean judge who was the first person to prosecute the country’s onetime military ruler, Augusto Pinochet, using novel legal strategies to hold him and members of his regime accountable for killings and human rights offenses in the 1970s and 1980s, died Jan. 22 at age 81 -- Washington Post obit.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...  Latin America Daily Briefing

Friday, January 22, 2021

Honduras bans abortion, forever (Jan. 22, 2021)

News Briefs

  • Honduras' Congress passed a law prohibiting abortion under all circumstances. Human rights groups and international organizations voiced concern that the move restricts women's rights. About a quarter of Honduran girls have been pregnant before their nineteenth birthday, reports El País. The new law is a constitutional amendment, effectively blocking future legalization by requiring a two-thirds majority vote in Congress. The measure, called a “shield against abortion” by its proponents, comes in response to the feminist “green wave” movement sweeping across Latin America, reported the Guardian yesterday.
  • Guatemala's security forces thwarted this year's first migrant caravan, just days after thousands of Hondurans set out from San Pedro Sula. Now the frustrated would-be migrants are turning their anger against Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, adding to a pressure cooker dissatisfaction with the country's response to the pandemic and successive devastating hurricanes in November. (Reuters)
  • Literal translations of intercepted messages that U.S. prosecutors used to charge former Mexican defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos of collaborating with drug traffickers are being ridiculed in Mexico for being laughably off base. Other translations are nonsensical and miss key words in Spanish, reports Vice. The translations came to light last week after Mexico cleared Cienfuegos of the stunning allegations made by U.S. officials. Attorney General Alejandro Gertz defended the exoneration of Cienfuegos, saying the evidence was inconsistent and questionable. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • A witness implicated soldiers in the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Mexico's Guerrero state. The witness, known as “Juan,” said soldiers detained a group of the students, interrogated them at the army base in the town of Iguala and then handed them to a drug gang, reported Reforma based on the testimony. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed Reforma’s reporting reflected the testimony in the investigation. (Reuters)
  • U.S. President Joe Biden's foreign policy goals for Latin America cover familiar ground, including corruption and Venezuela. But the region contains a range of other security and criminal threats that are of direct concern to the United States, warns InSight Crime.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing education inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean, including unequal access to human and economic resources, infrastructure and educational equipment. A new report by the IDB and UNESCO finds that these structural conditions will affect the ability to reopen schools in the pandemic context, with impact upon the right to education of millions of students in the region. "The longer the return to in-person classes is delayed, exclusion will grow and inequalities will increase."
  • Earlier this month UNICEF's regional director recommended schools open at least partially, particularly in light of low connectivity in many areas that complicates virtual learning plans. (AFP)
  • UNICEF estimates school closures could cost the region as much as $1.2 trillion in terms of the lifetime earnings of a generation of children who are missing out on formal learning.
  • Impeachment is surprisingly common in many of Latin America’s young democracies and at times so dizzyingly fast it provokes complaints about "legislative coups," notes the Wilson Center's Weekly Asado. Latin American lawmakers impeached and removed nine presidents in the past 25 years.
  • A government stipend helped Brazil's poorest survive the initial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but the end of the program will force many to choose between starvation or Covid-19 exposure, reports Reuters.
  • Brazilian senators are willing to discuss a new round of financial assistance for poor Brazilians affected by coronavirus economic impact, reports Bloomberg.
  • Colombian businessman Alex Saab was carrying a letter from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accrediting him to Iran’s supreme leader when he was arrested on a U.S. warrant last year, reports the Associated Press. Saab is under house arrest in Cape Verde, fighting extradition to the U.S. to face money laundering charges. U.S. officials believe Saab holds numerous secrets about how Maduro, his family and top aides allegedly siphoned off millions of dollars in government contracts.
  • Venezuela's government has taken total control of thousands of antigen tests purchased through an agreement with the political opposition, a move that imperils Venezuela's access to much-needed coronavirus vaccines, reports Bloomberg.
  • The European Parliament called on EU governments to recognise Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, reports Reuters.
  • El Faro and El País won the journalist Premio Gabo 2020 in the Coverage category, for their work reporting on migrants at Mexico's southern border. The series "Frontera Sur: la frontera desconocida de América" involved 20 journalists who produced multimedia narratives over six months embedded in the border region.
  • Radar Aos Fatos, an intelligence platform that monitors pandemic misinformation in Brazil in real-time, won the innovation category.
  • And the multimedia project "Defensores de la Selva" by El País and Open Democracy won in the "Image" category.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Biden and Lat Am (Jan. 21, 2021)

 U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to take an energetic approach to foreign policy. Experts point particularly to his long history of international engagement as a U.S. senator and later vice-president, reports the New York Times. Hopes are particularly high in Latin America, where the Trump administration's approach was confrontational and transactional. Experts now expect a more cooperative approach, reports Deutsche Welle.

"The Biden administration will try to repair the damage in US-Latin American relations over the past four years. The frequent use of threats and punishments will give way to a renewed emphasis on cooperation, diplomacy, and multilateralism," writes Inter-American Dialogue president Michael Shifter.

Experts are also optimistic that Biden's promise to combat climate change could positively influence efforts in the region. "Biden’s commitment to return the US to the Paris Agreement and his Build Back Better plan, his centerpiece plan for a green economic recovery, will pave the way for more US investment in clean energy in Latin America and cooperation on issues from Amazon conservation to climate resilience," writes Lisa Viscidi, also of the Inter-American Dialogue.

While Biden's cooperative approach will be a breath of fresh air, his "emphasis on trade openness, hemispheric security and corruption as tropes of the relationship with the region" carries the weight of a long history of contradictions, writes Ernesto Semán in the Post Opinión. "Time and again, plans to "build security and prosperity in cooperation," as the Biden program for Central America says, fuel the conflicts they aspire to resolve."

The time has come for a change in perspective in relations between the U.S. and its backyard, and both sides must prioritize the defense of democracy from demagogues, writes Boris Muñoz in the New York Times Español. Biden must defend U.S. democracy, a task with great relevance for countries with weaker democratic institutions facing encroachment from populist leaders: Mexico, Brazil and El Salvador, argues Muñoz. 

A potential tripping point for the new administration "is the yawning deficit of regional leadership," argues Tom Long at the LSE blog. He points to Mexico and Brazil, both led by presidents who are "skeptical of multilateral commitments and prioritise traditional conceptualisations of sovereignty." Efforts to aid development in Central America will also face political challenges: Honduras' president has been accused by U.S. prosecutors of aiding drug traffickers, Guatemala shut down a well-regarded international anti-corruption commission, and El Salvador's president has pushed back against democratic checks. (Deutsche Welle)

North America
  • The Biden administration could usher in a comeback for the "North American" approach to regional cooperation, argue  Tom Long and Eric Hershberg at the AULA blog.
News Briefs

Regional Relations
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro issued a three-page letter congratulating the new U.S. president yesterday, striking a conciliatory tone after his initial refusal to congratulate Biden after his November electoral victory. Bolsonaro said he was hopeful the presidents could work together on “protecting the environment.” (Bloomberg)
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador hailed the immigration agenda set out by his new U.S. counterpart Joe Biden, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro says he hopes for better relations with Washington under Biden -- diplomatic ties between the two countries were severed nearly two years ago. (Al Jazeera)
  • The former U.S. Trump administration's stepped-up sanctions against Cuba cost the communist-run island some $20 billion, according to Cuban government officials. (AFP)
  • Latin American economies have grown especially dependent on the aviation industry -- not just for tourism, but also to transport higher-value exports. "Unfortunately, this trade is currently threatened by the COVID-19 crisis; without support from governments in the region, Latin America’s aviation industry is at severe risk," writes Kris Urs in Americas Quarterly.
  • Commodity prices will likely be higher in the current decade, given that they hit a multi-decade low. But the positive effects are likely to be much less intense than during the last "super cycle," argues Tony Volpon in Americas Quarterly.
  • Eleven-year-old Francisco Vera, a Colombian environmental activist, has received messages threatening to “skin him” and “to cut his fingers off” after posting a video on social media calling on the government to provide more access for children in Colombia to online schooling amid the pandemic. (Vice News)
  • Honduran lawmakers are pushing a constitutional reform that would make it virtually impossible to legalize abortion in the country – now or in the future. The measure, called a “shield against abortion” by its proponents, is a response to the so-called green wave of abortion activism in Latin America, reports the Guardian. The new measure, which is likely to pass within the next week, require the support of three-quarters of Congress for any modification to Honduras' draconian abortion law, which prohibits the procedure under any circumstances and also prohibits emergency contraceptives, even in the case of rape. Activists are worried the approach could be replicated in other countries.
  • Police clashed with anti-government protesters in Port-au-Prince yesterday -- one woman was shot in the arm and several people were wounded with rubber bullets, reports the Associated Press. Opposition leaders organizing the protests are pushing for President Jovenel Moïse to step down in early February, in the midst of disagreement over when his term actually ends.
  • The United Nations Office for Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs halted programs in Venezuela that provide cash transfers to the poor via local nonprofit organizations. OCHA is asking the government of President Nicolas Maduro to establish clear rules regarding cash transfers, reports Reuters.
  • Chilean state violence against indigenous Mapuche children is systemic, and includes physical, verbal and psychological violence, writes Yasna Mussa in the Post Opinión.
El Salvador 
  • The head of the Archdiocese of San Salvador refused to allow a judge access to church records on the 1981 El Mozote massacre, saying that he's simply protecting victims. David Morales, a lawyer with the human rights group Cristosal, who has prosecuted the El Mozote case, said the archbishop's statements were "lamentable" and based on "disinformation." El Salvador's army, too, has blocked the same judge from accessing its records on the case. (Catholic News Service)
  • "Living as a person of colour in a country struggling with racism, inequality and racialised police brutality is always a risky business. But stakes are even higher when that country is in the middle of a pandemic and is being led by a far-right authoritarian who dismisses the deadly virus as 'a little flu,'" writes Gabriel Leão in Al Jazeera.
  • The Global Legal Action Network has turned to the OECD in an effort to bring about the closure of a thermal coal mine in Colombia owned by three of the world’s biggest natural resource companies, which activists accuse of not meeting standards for multinational enterprises (MNE) developed by the Paris-based organization, reports the Financial Times.
  • Argentine President Alberto Fernández will give up eating meat on Mondays -- if Paul McCartney sings Blackbird in the Pink House. His promise to vegan activists may be a variation on "when pigs fly," but given Argentines' relationship to asados, it might count as open-minded. (Buenos Aires Times)

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Biden proposes sweeping immigration reform (Jan. 20, 2021)

Joe Biden will take steps to reverse his predecessor's controversial immigration policies today, his first day in office. He will propose a sweeping immigration reform bill that that would offer legal status and a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented people, fund border security measures other than a wall and provide money and assistance to countries with high numbers of immigrants to address the root cause of migration, incoming administration officials said. 

The backbone of the proposal is the eight-year pathway, which would put millions of qualifying immigrants in a temporary status for five years and then grant them a green card once they meet certain requirements such as a background check and payment of taxes. They would be able to apply for citizenship three years later. Dreamers, temporary protected status (TPS) holders and immigrant farmworkers who meet specific requirements would be eligible for green cards immediately under the legislation. (NBC, Guardian, Washington Post)

The legislation would also restore and expand programs for refugees and asylum seekers after efforts by the Trump administration to effectively prevent entry into the United States for those seeking shelter from poverty, violence and war, reports the New York Times.

The bill also calls for $4 billion to be spent over four years on aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to help the nations address problems spurring migration to the United States. The act would also change immigration laws to use the word “noncitizen” instead of “alien”, increase the number of diversity visas from 55,000 to 80,000 and eliminate the three- and 10-year bans that prevent people from re-entering the US if they have left the country after being there illegally, among other actions. 

"This legislation provides new pathways to citizenship, promotes smart border controls, and ... addresses the root causes of migration," Susan Rice, Biden's incoming domestic policy adviser told the press. To pass the legislation, Biden would probably have to persuade 60 senators, including at least 10 Republicans, to support the bill. Congress balked at similar reforms proposed by former President Barack Obama in 2013. Advocates for immigrants and anti-immigrant restrictionists alike are already bracing for the fight, according to NYT.

A package of more than a dozen executive actions slated for signature today include the repeal Trump's policy on deportation priorities, restrictions on travel from several Muslim-majority countries, stop construction of the Southern border wall. (Non-immigration related executive actions will measures to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change and mandate wearing masks on federal property.) Biden administration officials said future immigration executive actions would include plans to address the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as Remain in Mexico

Biden will also issue a presidential memo today to underline the administration’s support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) program, which allows people who were brought to the US as children without legal documents to temporarily get work visas and be protected from deportation.

Biden's stance marks a dramatic shift from President Trump's hardline policies that made life increasingly more difficult for people living in the country without legal status, notes NPR.  The Biden administration is under pressure from immigration activists to take broad steps to protect those in the United States illegally, concerned that Biden won't move fast enough on campaign pledges.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s incoming national security adviser, said: “The Biden administration is going to have a very different approach to regional migration than what we’ve seen over the last four years, with a special emphasis rooted in years of the president-elect’s commitment to addressing the root causes of migration in the region.”

Biden’s nominee for homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas said yesterday that the Biden administration has a "commitment to follow our asylum laws, to enforce our asylum laws, and that means to provide humanitarian relief to those individuals who qualify for it under the law," when asked about a migrant caravan that left Honduras last week. "That cannot be accomplished with just a flick of a switch and turned on day one, it will take time to build the infrastructure and capacity so we can enforce our laws as Congress intended," he said at his confirmation hearing. (Fox News)

In the meantime, CNN reports the Department of Homeland Security has been putting contingency plans in place, in anticipation of an increase in migrants at the southern border as a result of deteriorating conditions in Latin America and a perceived relaxation of enforcement, and relaying those plans to transition officials. 

News Briefs

  • Most of the migrant caravan that set out last week from Honduras was deflected by Guatemalan security forces, who used tear gas and truncheons against groups that attempted to push forward. By yesterday more than 3,000 had been detained or forcibly sent back by security forces, reports the Washington Post. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Small groups of Honduran migrants managed to slip past Guatemalan authorities and have arrived at the country's border with Mexico, reports Nodal.
  • For years, caravans have been an alternative for migrants seeking safety in numbers, permitting them to avoid hefty fees charged by human traffickers. But the method no longer appears viable, as caravans now run headlong into a militarized response by Central American and Mexican security forces, pushed by the U.S., reports the Washington Post.
  • US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) was set to carry out a final deportation flight of the Trump era on yesterday, with a plane bound for Haiti whose passengers include a man who is not a Haitian citizen, and who has never been there. Biden has promised a 100-day suspension of deportations on taking office, while immigration and Ice procedures are reviewed. (Guardian)
  • It is time to move beyond the false dichotomy that pits conservation against deforestation-based development, write Pedro Abramovay and Heloisa Griggs in Folha de S. Paulo. "Global conservation practices that view the rainforest as an untouched environment derive from the origins of racist and white-centered environmentalism, which ignore or erase Black and indigenous peoples." Instead they advocate a climate justice approach for the Amazon, "a standing and inclusive forest economy that takes advantage of enormous biodiversity to offer green jobs and sustainable growth to the 25 million people who live there." International pressure can play a role, but threatening sanctions only strengthens Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's anti-environmental resolve they warn. Instead, the Biden administration should partner with Amazon governors, mayors, the private sector, civil society and international stakeholders to develop a fair economy with a local focus.
  • Candidates backed by Bolsonaro are expected to win control of Congress next month, despite a deep recession and the world’s second-deadliest COVID-19 outbreak, reports Reuters.
  • The U.N. Human Rights Office referenced kidnappings and gang attacks in parallel to rising political tensions over when elections should be held, and voiced concern that "that persistent insecurity, poverty and structural inequalities in Haiti coupled with increasing political tensions may lead to a pattern of public discontent followed by violent police repression and other human rights violations." (See Monday's briefs on politically targeted kidnappings and Jan. 8's post on the electoral timeline in Haiti.) Calls for mass protests raise concern about policing, and human rights violations committed by gang members during months of social unrest in 2018 and 2019, said the UNHCHR.
  • International oil companies are hoping that Suriname will become the region's next big drilling zone. Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Apache and several other companies are gearing up operations off Suriname’s coast. Low production costs in Suriname would offset low global oil prices, reports the New York Times. Suriname demands a smaller cut from oil companies than several other Latin American countries.
  • Honduras' Garífuna community protested the ongoing disappearance of five community leaders who were detained by armed men in police uniforms last July. The Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (OFRANEH) denounced that Honduras' government has no interest in investigating the crime, which they say forms part of an extermination plan against a community that is defending its territory from land grabbers. (Pasos de Animal Grande)
Costa Rica
  • Costa Rica's government began talks with the IMF on Monday, an effort to address a nearly $40bn debt crisis that threatens to rekindle anti-austerity protests, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Peruvian politician Keiko Fujimori said that she would pardon her father, former president Alberto Fujimori, if she wins April's general election. The elder Fujimori is serving a 25-year sentence for crimes against humanity and corruption. (AFP)
  • Bolivia's Decolonization Deputy Minister Pelagio Condori filed a complaint against 26 police officers who incited a riot during the political turmoil experienced in the country in November 2019. (Telesur)
  • Mexican archeologists uncovered evidence of violent attacks by Aztec-allies and reprisals by Spanish conquistadores in 1520. Cruelty was on display on both sides in Tecoaque, the site of one of the worst defeats in the Spanish conquest of 1519-21, reports the Guardian.
Regional Relations
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called on the U.S. to make major reforms to its immigration policy and said he was hopeful that Biden would agree to work with Mexico and other countries on the issue. (BBC
  • Oil companies and aid groups plan to press the incoming administration to reverse a ban on crude-for-diesel swaps with Venezuela. (Reuters)
  • The new U.S. vice president's Jamaican heritage is exciting for many Caribbean countries who hope for an ally in the White House. “My father, like so many Jamaicans, has immense pride in our Jamaican heritage and instilled that same pride in my sister and me,” Kamala Harris wrote to the Washington Post. “We love Jamaica. He taught us the history of where we’re from, the struggles and beauty of the Jamaican people, and the richness of the culture.”

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