Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Cuba's clampdown against artists -- HRW (June 30, 2021)

News Briefs

  • The Cuban government is committing systematic human rights abuses against independent artists and journalists, said Human Rights Watch, with a new video detailing how, in recent months, Cuban authorities have jailed and prosecuted several artists and journalists who are critical of the government. "These abuses are not isolated incidents, but rather appear to be part of a plan to selectively silence critical voices," said José Miguel Vivanco, HRW's Americas director.
  • Journalist Mauricio Madrigal was interrogated for over an hour yesterday by Nicaraguan prosecutors regarding the workings of Canal 10, one of the country's few independent television channels, reports Confidencial. He was not cited as a witness or implicated in a case, but rather the attorney general's office said they were obtaining information about how the press operates.
  • Nicaraguan police have detained more than 20 political opponents and critical journalists over the past weeks, with heavy-handed raids against family members designed to sow fear, reports the Associated Press. Police often arrive at night, with overwhelming force, and  insult their targets and their families, break windows and doors. They confiscate electronics and detainees are not permitted access to lawyers, their families are often unaware of their location.
Regional Relations
  • A new book published by the Wilson Center's Latin American Program, Venezuela’s Authoritarian Allies: The Ties That Bind? explores the international dimensions of regime survival in Venezuela. Specifically, the book examines the ways that international allies of Nicolás Maduro’s government -- Russia, China, Cuba, India, Turkey, and Iran -- have assisted it in surviving a calamitous period of economic decline, punishing U.S. economic sanctions, and internal pressures for political change.
  • Tackling out Central American corruption requires that the U.S. "take on not just the symptoms but the political and economic systems that force hundreds of thousands to leave their homelands," argues Council on Foreign Relations' Shannon O'Neil in Bloomberg. "This thorny task means confronting the U.S.’s ostensible partners, the region’s governments, who are more of a problem than a solution."
  • Brazil will suspend a $324 million Indian Covid-19 vaccine contract that whistleblowers have signaled as irregular, accusations that implicate President Jair Bolsonaro, reports the Guardian. A former health ministry employee told prosecutors that he was pressured to sign a contract that would increase the average price of doses by 1,000 percent -- and that he had told the president. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • Brazil’s worst water crisis in nearly a century is fueling inflation, yet another economic challenge for the embattled Bolsonaro administration, reports Bloomberg.
  • Chileans elected an anti-elite and largely independent Constitutional Assembly, which means the country's new charter will follow a different path from that of other Latin American constitutional assemblies, in which populist — often authoritarian — rulers controlled most of the seats, according to the Washington Post's Monkey Cage.
  • Chilean Indigenous leader Alberto Curamil, a  Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, seriously injured by police, who chased his truck and opened fire after a protest against an arson attack on a Mapuche home on contested land in southern Chile. Other Goldman recipients, together with Amnesty International and Curamil's lawyer, launched an appeal for Curamil’s safety. Curamil’s shooting comes 18 months after Chilean authorities sought to jail him for 50 years for armed robbery in 2019, despite no physical evidence linking him to the crime, reports the Guardian.
  • Forest protection carbon offsets that may have no benefit to the climate have been used by polluters to avoid paying carbon taxes in Colombia, according to a report by Carbon Market Watch. Their analysis of large-scale forest protection schemes in the Colombian Amazon claims that they may be dramatically overstating their impact on preventing deforestation, reports the Guardian.
  • Guillermo León Acevedo Giraldo, alias “Memo Fantasma,” a former paramilitary leader and longtime drug trafficker who escaped prosecution for decades by living behind a façade of legitimate business dealings, was captured last week by Colombian authorities, reports InSight Crime.
  • The Colombian government's chief negotiator rebuffed accusations from protest leaders that President Ivan Duque's administration was not committed to talks with activists who have led two months of demonstrations in the country. Last week, a senior protest leader warned that demonstrations - which have been rumbling for two months - would step up a gear in the second half of the year if neither the government nor Congress meet protesters' demands, reports Reuters.
  • Prisoners in Haiti often spend years in inhumane conditions subjected to ill-treatment and torture and in many cases while still awaiting trial, according to a new UN report. More than 80 percent of inmates in Haiti are in pre-trial detention, notes the report, and most prisons suffer extreme overcrowding.
  • Mexico's Tamaulipas state governor is touting the timely arrests of those allegedly responsible for a grizzly massacre in Reynosa but doubts remain as to who may truly be behind the killings, reports InSight Crime.
  • The cost to the global economy of the tourism freeze caused by Covid-19 could reach $4 trillion by the end of this year, according to a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The varying pace of vaccine rollouts are expected to particularly affect developing nations and tourist centers. Ecuador’s GDP is projected to fall by 9% in the worst-case scenario and 7.5% at best. (Guardian)
  • Over the past decade, Latin America has stood out for its recognition of LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality. However LGBTQ+ activists face backlash from social and religious conservatives, and some leaders, including Presidents Nayib Bukele of El Salvador and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, are openly hostile to LGBTQ+ rights -- Wilson Center Weekly Asado
Los Topos
  • Mexico's volunteer rescuers -- Los Topos -- has been involved in virtually every major natural disaster in Mexico and many others around the world since starting in 1985. This week a group arrived in Miami to help local experts search for life in the rubble of a collapsed condominium building. (Washington Post)
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Mexican Supreme Court permits recreational marijuana (June 29, 2021)

Mexico’s supreme court struck down laws prohibiting the use of recreational marijuana in an 8-3 decision yesterday. The ruling found that sections of the country’s general health law prohibiting personal consumption and home cultivation of marijuana were unconstitutional. "Today is a historic day for liberties," court president Arturo Zaldivar said. (Aristegui Noticias, Animal Político)

The court ordered Mexico's congress to create a legal cannabis market in 2017, but lawmakers have dragged their feet and asked for extensions twice, reports the Guardian. The latest deadline had been set for April 30. Mexico's lower chamber of congress passed a landmark legalization bill in March, but the Senate hadn't voted yet, and said it was considering postponing until September.

The decision was welcomed cautiously by activists, who said cannabis users were in a legal vacuum while Congress stalled, reports AFP. Marijuana permits have been granted for Mexicans who file court injunctions since 2015, but now they will be available for the general public. Mexicans who want to smoke marijuana recreationally or grow a number of pot plants for private use will now be able to apply for a permit from the government. The sale of marijuana will continue to be illegal. (Deutsche Welle)

Nonetheless, the ruling left cannabis users facing many uncertainties. Mexico United Against Crime, a non-governmental organization, said the decision "does not decriminalize the activities necessary to carry out consumption" such as production, possession and transportation of marijuana.

A law would create a system of permits not only for buying and selling marijuana, but also for the cultivation, transportation and export of the drug. Supporters believe it would reduce drug-related violence.

News Briefs

  • The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled the Honduran government was responsible for the 2009 killing of Vicky Hernández, a transgender woman. Yesterday's landmark decision could have broad implications for trans rights in Latin America, one of the world’s deadliest regions for L.G.B.T.Q. people, reports the New York Times.
Regional Relations
  • Across Latin America, China and Russia have waged a successful vaccine diplomacy campaign this year. But after a slow start, the United States is beginning to push back, rolling out its own vaccine distribution effort, albeit in a less self-serving, global strategy, with a lot less flag waving, reports Univisión. Data also reveals that while China may have done a good job marketing its distribution strategy, sales at fairly high price points have far exceeded donations.
  • Brazil could have saved 400,000 lives if the country had implemented stricter social distancing measures and launched a vaccination program earlier, according to Pedro Hallal, a professor at the Federal University of Pelotas, who testified at a Senate inquiry into the Bolsonaro administration's handling of the pandemic. (Guardian)
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a decree to dispatch Brazilian soldiers to the Amazon in a bid to curb surging deforestation, reports the Associated Press. It will be the third time the Bolsonaro administration attempts to defend the rainforest with military might -- experts say the “Operation Green Brazil” deployments, the most recent of which ended in April, were ill-prepared and had limited efficacy.
  • Thousands of Haitians are illegally crossing into the Dominican Republic, stoking perennial xenophobia in DR. Smugglers say Haiti's exacerbated political crisis has changed migration demographics: more children are fleeing Haiti, reports Vice News.
  • The French medical charity Médecins Sans Frontière is temporarily closing one of its health facilities in Haiti after doctors and patients were the target of an armed gang attack over the weekend. (Miami Herald)
  • Haitian authorities announced that a postponed (and controversial) constitutional referendum will be held on Sept. 26, the same date as presidential and legislative elections. (Reuters)
  • Remember Vladimir Montesinos? The "Peruvian Rasputin," Alberto Fujimori's former spymaster, has re-emerged after nearly two decades in relative obscurity in an attempt to aid the former dictator's daughter. Keiko Fujimori has challenged the results of June 6's presidential runoff, which she lost by a razor thin margin, with allegations of irregularities. Montesinos, serving multiple sentences for human rights crimes, corruption and arms and drugs trafficking in a maximum security naval base prison, was somehow able to make 17 phone calls to a retired military officer to suggest bribes be paid to members of the electoral tribunal to favour Fujimori in a recount, reports the Guardian.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has been wooing investors with promises of a land of opportunity -- what might make this time different is political and economic necessity, argues Luz Mely Reyes in the Post Opinión.
  • El Toque has a multimedia deep-dive into Cuba's food crisis -- and looks at how archaic production, lack of supplies and climate change, among others, have contributed to an island with three problems: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Cuba imports more than 70 percent of its food, an increasing challenge given the country's current economic crisis, compounded by the pandemic. Cubans trying to navigate the labyrinth of actually obtaining food are stymied by cost and availability.
  • There are about 80 medical schools in the Caribbean -- most are for-profit and tend to have more lax admissions standards than their U.S. counterparts, reports the New York Times. Though some charge tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and fees and they often fail to position their students for career success internationally: graduates from Caribbean medical schools have been frustrated by difficulties in accessing U.S. residencies. 
  • The movie White on White is a sombre study of the corrupted values and decayed morals that enabled a 19th century genocide in southern Argentina, reports the Guardian.
  • A UN report that analyzed racial justice in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd has called on member states to end the “impunity” enjoyed by police officers who violate the human rights of black people. The report includes cases of deaths in the U.K., France, Brazil and Colombia, as well as the U.S. In examining deaths in police custody in different countries, the report notes the patchwork of available data paints “an alarming picture of system-wide, disproportionate and discriminatory impacts on people of African descent in their encounters with law enforcement and the criminal justice system in some states”. (Guardian)
  • Latin America's electoral processes increasingly have less legitimacy. Whatever you call it -- "polarization, populism, crisis of political representation, neototalitarianism of the right or left" -- it's a problem in a region with a long authoritarian tradition, writes Alberto Barrera Tyszka in New York Times Español.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing

Monday, June 28, 2021

Covid-19's long shadow in LatAm (June 28, 2021)

News Briefs

  • "While many students in wealthy countries have returned to the classroom, 100 million children in Latin America are still in full or partial distance learning — or ... some distant approximation of it," reports the New York Times. Pummeled economies and frayed classroom connections have pushed children in primary and secondary schools to drop out in large numbers. "Some analysts fear the region could be facing a generation of lost children, not unlike places that suffer years of war."
  • Venezuelans are crossing the Mexico-U.S. border in droves: nearly 17,306 Venezuelans have crossed the southern border illegally since January. The surprise increase has drawn comparisons to the midcentury influx of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s communist rule, reports the Associated Press. "It’s also a harbinger of a new type of migration that has caught the Biden administration off guard: pandemic refugees." Many of the Venezuelans had been living in other countries in the region, and are being joined at the U.S. border by people from the countries they initially fled to — even larger numbers of Ecuadorians and Brazilians have arrived this year — as well as far-flung nations hit hard by the virus, like India and Uzbekistan.
  • The trip from Central America for many immigrants is long and potentially lethal, especially for children, reports the Guardian.
  • Staying home is not an option for many of the Central American migrants who are attempting to reach the U.S., despite the dangers of the trip and the long odds of making it across the border. The New York Times worked with migrants in Mexico to create a series of self-portraits. 
  • Testimony in Brazil's parliamentary inquiry into the Bolsonaro administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic further complicated President Jair Bolsonaro's political panorama heading into an electoral year. Lower house representative Luis Miranda, speaking Friday before the congressional committee, said he held a meeting with Bolsonaro in March where he described a series of irregularities in the purchase of the Covaxin vaccine, produced by India’s Bharat Biotech International Ltd. According to Miranda, Bolsonaro blamed his leader in the lower house, Ricardo Barros, for meddling in the health ministry, but didn’t stop the purchase. (Bloomberg, Globo, see Friday's briefs.)
  • The Senate is investigating accusations of negligence and mismanagement in the government's handling of the pandemic and securing vaccines -- a pressing issue as cities across the country have been forced to halt inoculations because of a lack of doses as delays plague shipments of active ingredients from China, reports Reuters.
  • Millions of people in Brazil are not getting their second doses of Covid-19 vaccine, yet another complication in the country's troubled inoculation effort, reports the New York Times. Part of the reason people aren't getting their second shots is the chaotic vaccine rollout, according to some experts.
  • Nicaraguan police detained Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Barrios on Friday, under the country’s sovereignty law. He is the brother of detained opposition leader Cristiana Chamorro and prominent journalist Carlos Chamorro. He is among at least 20 prominent Nicaraguans – including five presidential hopefuls – who have been arrested since the beginning of June. (Al Jazeera)
  • Just before his detention, Pedro Chamorro had told media he would consider a presidential run for Ciudanos por la Libertad, reports El Confidencial.
  • The Ortega's opposition crackdown has turned Nicaragua into a Central American gulag, according to El País. Nicaragua's government rejected mediation attempts by Mexico and Argentina -- who did not join an OAS vote condeming the detentions -- and instead angled to discuss directly with the U.S. Biden administration, reports El País.
  • Nicaragua's government launched a blistering attack on Spain and its Foreign Minister on Saturday, alleging interference by Madrid in its affairs and imperialist attitudes towards the Central American country, reports Reuters.
  • "Ortega's Orwellian state has been in construction for years, persecuting, detaining and shooting in daylight, which makes the international community's anomie more tormenting," writes Diego Fonseca in a New York Times Español guest essay.
Regional Relations
  • U.S. President Joe Biden is not following up on his campaign promise to reestablish the Obama administration's engagement policy with Cuba -- it's "lodged in a low-priority file somewhere between “too hard” and “not worth it,'" reports the Washington Post. (See last Thursday's post.) Geopolitics plays a role, but so do purely domestic politics.
  • Thousands of Peruvians marched in Lima on Saturday in support of rival presidential candidates, Pedro Castillo and Keiko Fujimori -- weeks after the June 6 presidential runoff that still hasn't been officially called. (Reuters)
  • On Saturday, the judicial panel overseeing electoral disputes swore in a replacement, after one of the four judges quit last week. (Al Jazeera, see last Thursday's briefs.)
  • Dozens of citizen poll authorities ratified their tallies in sworn declarations, countering Fujimori's claim of irregularities in rural areas that overwhelmingly supported Castillo, reports La República.
  • Looting at food depots last week in Port-au-Prince only deepened Haiti's food crisis, reports the Miami Herald. The United Nations estimates that more than 40 percent of Haitians, about 4.4 million people out of 11.5 million, are facing food shortages this year, including 1.2 million people considered to be at an emergency level.
  • Colombian President Iván Duque and several top ministers were in a helicopter that was shot at late Friday afternoon near the Venezuelan border. Everybody survived the attack that left bullet holes in the aircraft. (New York Times, Associated Press)
  • At least nine people, including four police officers, died in three separate attacks this weekend across Colombia, which has seen a recent surge in violence and instability in several parts of the country, reports Al Jazeera.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...Latin America Daily Briefing

Friday, June 25, 2021

Brazil's pandemic impacts politics (June 25, 2021)

News Briefs

  • Brazil’s federal prosecutor’s office is investigating possible irregularities in a Health Ministry contract to purchase 20 million doses of the Covaxin vaccine manufactured by Indian laboratory Bharat Biotech, at a price 1,000% higher than market rate and from a representative with a dubious record. (Associated Press, Guardian)
  • Testimony this week at Brazil's Congressional inquiry commission into the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic alleges Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was aware of the irregularities. While he is still most likely to avoid impeachment due to political maneuvering in the Congress, public opinion has turned on the president and a majority or near majority favor impeachment in most recent polls, according to the Latin America Risk Report.
  • The inquiry has found mounting evidence that Bolsonaro’s administration committed “crimes against life”, the senior politician leading the investigation told the Guardian. The panel is expected to release its conclusions by August. It does not have the power to bring criminal charges, but the evidence it gathers could be used in future criminal investigations – and could also prompt congress to launch impeachment proceedings against Bolsonaro.
  • The world's second-deadliest coronavirus outbreak has aggravated deep political polarization ahead of next year's presidential election in Brazil, reports Reuters. Disagreements over restrictions recommended by scientific experts has led to threats and violence against those who support or enact containment measures.
  • Bolsonaro couched his refusal to implement restrictions on concern for the country's poorest, who he said could not afford to stay home. But critics say his approach has only prolonged the crisis — and driven more people into poverty, reports the Washington Post. Brazil has now been left with the worst of both worlds: A half-million dead — more than anywhere outside the United States — and millions more without work.
  • A Brazilian Supreme Court magistrate annulled two more cases against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva that had been brought by former judge Sergio Moro. The latest ruling invalidates all the evidence collected by Moro, meaning the trial process will have to start again from scratch, reports AFP.
  • Argentine senators approved a law reserving 1 percent of Argentina's public sector jobs for transgender people. The measure also offers tax incentives and soft loans for private businesses that hire trans people. Argentina is already in the vanguard of progressive trans rights legislation in the world, reports Reuters. (See also Página 12.)
  • A controversial constitutional referendum pushed by Haitian President Jovenel Moïse scheduled for this weekend was postponed due to Covid-19. But the delay only adds to the building political chaos in Haiti stemming from Moïse’s efforts to expand his power in the country, reports AS/COA in an explainer on the country's prolonged political crisis.
  • An estimated 95 armed gangs control about a third of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. These gangs are increasingly engaged in armed battles for territory control, affecting the lives of around 1.5 million people, warns UNICEF. The current situation of gangs’ violence and IDPs in the capital city’s metropolitan area is feared to go towards a further deterioration with elections later this year.
  • A combination of empty rhetoric, short attention spans, and expedient silence on the part of the international community allowed Nicaragua’s political degradation to fester and get here. And the here is worse than anybody imagined, writes Kevin Casas-Zamora in Americas Quarterly. Lessons to be gleaned from the case include that impunity has a signalling effect on autocrats and that we must adjust our mental maps when it comes to threats to democracy, he argues.
Regional Relations
  • Nicaragua's worsening human rights situation prompted a shift in several Caribbean countries' diplomatic stance -- 12 Caribbean Community countries voted in favor of last week's OAS resolution condemning President Daniel Ortega's government. (See June 16's post.) Five Caribbean nations —Barbados, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago— had never voted in favor of a resolution against Ortega's government, their position had been to abstain or be absent.
  • Caribbean countries have previously favored sovereignty concerns, but in an opinion article, Ronald Sanders, president of the Permanent Council of the OAS, pointed out that the Caricom countries “chose to send a clear signal to President Ortega that they want him to act democratically, to release the people who have been arbitrarily detained and to cease the aggressions against the media.” (Confidencial)
  • Argentina and Mexico abstained from the OAS vote -- though they later recalled their ambassadors from Managua in protest over Ortega's crackdown against opponents and critics. Of the two, Argentina's government faced a wave of criticism, both locally and internationally, for its stance, reports Confidencial.
  • An emerging crop of leftist politicians in Latin America is embracing regressive social values. "The left’s conservative turn leaves marginalized communities bereft of their traditional political allies and jeopardizes freedom and safety," warn Paul Angelo and Will Freeman in Americas Quarterly. If trends like Castillo in Peru hold, "regionwide poverty relief may ultimately come at the cost of individual rights."
  • The finance sector has reaped an unexpected pandemic windfall in the region: More than 100 million people (in a region of 650 million) have shifted from a dependence on cash to new or dormant bank accounts during the pandemic to store the emergency cash that governments handed out, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • For now, Latin America remains the most vivid example of a global failure at ramping up Covid-19 vaccine production, with all its social and economic consequences, writes Catherine Osborn in Foreign Policy's Latin America Brief.
El Salvador
  • El Salvador's Bitcoin rollout is framed as a way of helping the country's poorest -- but critics fear the project is ultimately designed to help the rich get richer while average Salvadorans remain mired in poverty, reports Vice News.
The Bahamas
  • The Bahamas' Court of Appeal this week upheld a historic Supreme Court ruling that children born out of wedlock to foreign women and Bahamian men are entitled to citizenship at birth (EyeWitness NewsCaribbean Media Corporation)
  • Climate change is making Atlantic hurricanes far more intense -- the causes are far beyond the control of people on the islands, who suffer the worst consequences, writes Bahamian Bernard Ferguson in the New York Times Magazine that looks at the horrific damage wrought by Hurricane Dorian in 2019. "My Bahamas are facing effects of climate change that we could never have caused ourselves, and crises larger than we can survive alone."
Costa Rica
  • Costa Rica prosecutors launched a far-reaching investigation into a bribery scheme between government officials and construction executives – an opportunity for the country's justice system to demonstrate it's capable of making high-level graft cases without outside help, reports InSight Crime.
  • Google automatically installed a Covid-19 tracker on phones in Costa Rica -- the move sparked fears and fueled conspiracy theories, reports Rest of World.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Thursday, June 24, 2021

UN votes against Cuba embargo (June 24, 2021)

The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of a resolution that calls for the U.S. to lift its embargo against Cuba, as it has since 1992. As is customary, the U.S. and Israel voted against the motion, which was supported by 184 countries. Colombia and Brazil abstained in yesterday's vote -- Brazil had accompanied the Trump administration in voting against the  2019. (United Nations)

The only time the U.S. didn’t cast a no vote was in 2016 during the Obama administration’s opening toward Cuba, when both the U.S. and Israel abstained. (Miami Herald)

The yearly vote is symbolic, and has no practical effect. But it is an indicator of international alliances. This year's vote was seen as a litmus test of U.S. President Joe Biden’s willingness to quickly reverse his predecessor’s tough stance toward Cuba, reports the New York Times. The choice to vote against the resolution appeared to signal that Biden will continue to move cautiously on Cuba. The U.S. ratified the use of sanctions, which it believes are key to advancing democracy and human rights which "remain at the core of our policy efforts toward Cuba," the U.S. Mission's political coordinator, Rodney Hunter, told the assembly. (Associated Press)

But Cuba, and the vast majority of countries in the U.N. focused on the enormous costs the sanctions have levied on Cubans: some speakers yesterday indicated they have cost the Cuban economy around $147.8 billion in losses over nearly six decades, and about $9 billion calculated from April 2019. Many countries flagged the embargo as a Cold War holdover that has been a financial and humanitarian disaster. (Miami Herald)

The resolution has particular relevance in the pandemic context: The embargo is hurting Cuba’s ability to access medical supplies and imposing significant difficulty in obtaining equipment to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, said the country's foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez, citing hurdles the island faced when trying to buy respirators last year. Recent reports indicate that lack of syringes for vaccines is a major challenge. (See Monday's briefs.)

News Briefs

Regional Relations
  • Russian defense minister Sergey Shoygu said his country's allies in Latin America --  Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela -- need Moscow's support now "more than ever" in the face of "threats" that could include "military force" against those countries, reports El País. Speaking in Moscow at an international conference, Shoygu did not clarify whether those countries had asked for assistance, but referenced previous military support that Russia has given in the region.
  • U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to the U.S.-Mexico border tomorrow. She will travel to El Paso, Texas, with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The move comes amid rising criticism from Republicans and Democrats that neither she nor President Joe Biden has traveled to the place where the country’s immigration problems are unfolding most acutely, reports the Washington Post.
  • Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles resigned yesterday, weeks after he was targeted in a federal investigation into illegal logging in the Amazon. Salles has also come under increasing criticism for his stance on development in the Amazon, which critics say has encouraged land grabbing and illegal mining in protected areas. The move comes as talks with the U.S. government aimed at curbing Amazon deforestation have hit obstacles, reports the Associated Press.
  • Salles will be replaced by Joaquim Alvaro Pereira Leite, an Environment Ministry official previously in charge of monitoring the Amazon, who has past ties with Brazil’s powerful farming lobby, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazilian police deployed teargas and rubber bullets against indigenous activists -- including children and elderly people -- protesting outside Brazil's congress. Demonstrators have camped out for two weeks in opposition to a bill that would undermine legal protections for indigenous territories, and open them up to commercial agriculture and mining. Footage of the episode showed protesters running and shouting amid the clouds of gas. Some protesters fought back with bows and arrows. Hundreds of protesters returned to the streets after the altercations, and indigenous women handed flowers to police officers, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazil recently surpassed 500,000 coronavirus deaths, and experts believe the true toll may be even higher. With 2.7 percent of the world’s population, Brazil has suffered 13 percent of the Covid-19 fatalities, and the pandemic there is not abating, reports the New York Times. The Amazon region's isolated villages, deep in the rainforest and often accessible only by river, present a unique challenge in providing coronavirus care and vaccination.
  • Uruguay was hailed for its model response to the pandemic last year, but the government's focus on vaccinations without social restrictions this year has delivered one of the world’s worst infection rates, reports the Guardian. But experts also point to the country’s proximity to Brazil, with high rates of infection and a potentially more infectious variant.
  • A member of Peru's electoral court presented his resignation -- a move apparently aimed at complicating the close of a drawn out presidential vote. It is not clear that Luis Arce can legally resign, however, and Jurado Nacional de Elecciones (JNE) has indicated that it will seek to avoid affecting the electoral calendar, reports La República. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Franco-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt was able to confront her captors the first time since being rescued 13 years ago from the hands of FARC guerillas who had held her hostage for more than six years in the Colombian jungle. She and other victims participated in a meeting with ex-combatants organized under the umbrella of Colombia's Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). Former fighters expressed contrition for their crimes, but Betancourt accused them of lack of emotion. "I am surprised that we on this side of the stage are all crying and on the other side there has not been a single tear," she said. (AFP)
  • Business tycoon Carlos Slim is willing to repair part of Mexico City’s subway system, after investigations found that shoddy work by Slim’s engineering firm had caused part of a metro line to collapse last month, killing 26 people, according to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. But it's not clear whether Slim would absorb any of the cost of fixing the line, which failed less than nine years after it opened, reports the New York Times

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Peruvians disapprove of Fujimori's electoral challenges (June 23, 2021)

Peru's electoral tribunal will start hearings on contested presidential votes today. (La República) But the consensus is that Pedro Castillo won June 6's presidential runoff, with a razor-thin -- but fair -- margin of about 44,000 votes out of nearly 19 million. A majority of Peruvians disapprove of candidate Keiko Fujimori's post electoral moves, including her attempts to disqualify 200,000 votes from poor, rural areas that overwhelmingly supported Castillo, according to a poll carried out by Instituto de Estudios Peruanos for La República. Rejection of the second-place candidate is even higher -- 76 percent -- in rural Peru, but is significant in urban areas, and -- 61 percent -- even in her stronghold, metropolitan Lima.

Most Peruvians believe Fujimori's allegations of irregularities are baseless, aimed solely at reverting the electoral results. The view is shared by authorities who found no evidence of fraud, and international observers who lauded the electoral procress. Yesterday the U.S. State Department said that Peru's recent presidential election was "a model of democracy." (Reuters)

Fujimori's efforts imitate former U.S. president Donald Trump's playbook, and her attempt at an "electoral coup" is "pushing Peru’s democracy to the brink of collapse," write Steven Levitsky and Alberto Vergara in a New York Times guest essay. "In an increasingly polarized climate, these tactics could lead to violence and even military intervention."

La República notes in an editorial that "Castillo's vote is built from hope in change" while "Fujimori's vote is fed by fear of communism or any of the threats that were built from the stores of Fuerza Popular."

Fujimori has capitalized on fear of Castillo that "exceeds the bounds of reason. It has transformed legitimate opponents of Mr. Castillo into dangerous opponents of democracy," warn Levitsky and Vergara. "Rather than sacrifice democracy on the altar of anti-leftism, Peru’s elites should use democratic politics to moderate or block Mr. Castillo’s more extreme proposals."

Some of the fears about Castillo's governance plan are founded on the shadowy figure credited with his sudden political rise: Vladimir Cerrón. "For many critics, Castillo, a teacher and union leader with no experience in elected office, is just a Trojan horse for Cerrón, a Marxist former governor whose conviction on corruption charges kept him from running for president himself," writes Brendan O'Boyle in Americas Quarterly. But it is far from clear that Cerrón would control a Castillo government, according to experts. Castillo's platform became notably more moderate in the latter half of the presidential campaign, and he forged an alliance with progressive Verónika Mendoza, whose advisors bolstered Castillo's more improvised team.

More Peru
  • Fujimori isn't just fighting for the presidency, she's fighting to stay out of jail. A Peruvian judge declined a prosecutor’s request to return Fujimori to remand prison for allegedly failing to comply with her bail conditions for the charges of money laundering and corruption that she faces. (Al Jazeera)

Cuba's homegrown vaccines

Cuba announced yesterday that two of its nationally developed coronavirus vaccine candidates showed high efficacy rates in late-stage trials. BioCubaFarma, the government-owned pharmaceutical company, that its three-dose Abdala vaccine candidate had an efficacy rate of 92.28% in phase III of clinical trials, while the state-run Finlay Institute of Vaccines said its Soberana 02 had completed phase III trials with an efficacy rate of 62% after two out of three recommended shots. Both vaccines are expected to be granted emergency authority by local regulators shortly. (Miami Herald, Reuters)

Cuba's authorities have already started administering the experimental vaccines en masse as part of "intervention studies" they hope will slow the spread of the virus. About a million of the country's 11.2 million residents have been fully vaccinated to date.

However, some are concerned about a lack of transparency and data about the trials. Cuba hasn’t provided any information about its vaccines to the World Health Organization. Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia and Vietnam, among other countries, have expressed interest in buying Cuban vaccines.

The vaccine news was seen as a rare cause for celebration on an island hammered economically by the pandemic's impact on tourism and U.S. economic sanctions, reports the New York Times. Cuba is currently experiencing its worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic. It reported 1,561 new cases on Monday, a record.

News Briefs

  • Journalist Carlos Chamorro left Nicaragua after police raided his home on Monday, part of a broadening crackdown on government opponents and critics. Chamorro, the country's most prominent journalist and editor of El Confidencial, said the raid unleashed harassment by security forces against the homes of family and fellow journalists, including police presence outside the home of his mother, former Nicaraguan president Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. (Guardian, Confidencial100% Noticias, see yesterday's post.)
  • Nineteen people, including Chamorro’s sister and four other potential candidates in November’s presidential elections, have been arrested this month. Most have been held under sweeping legislation granting the government the power to classify citizens as “traitors to the homeland.” Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, described the arrests as “arbitrary” and said Nicaragua's rapidly deteriorating human rights situation "makes it unlikely that Nicaraguans will be able to fully exercise their political rights in the elections." (Guardian, Reuters)
  • In a joint statement yesterday, 59 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council, urged the Ortega's government to roll back the crackdown that has targeted opposition leaders, journalists, human rights activists and prominent business executives for harassment and arrest, reports the Washington Post.
  • The U.S. State Department condemned President Daniel Oretega's "ongoing campaign of terror in the most unequivocal terms," yesterday. Spokesman Ned Prices said the United States would "use all diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal" to promote fair elections. (Reuters)
Regional Relations
  • The Biden administration's efforts to implement development policies in Central America remain too limited -- focused on the Northern Triangle and on migration -- which will offer incomplete solutions for the region's deep-seated problems, argues Laura Chinchilla in a New York Times Español guest essay. Repeating past mistakes will only worsen the region's social and migration crisis. Instead U.S. assistance in the Northern Triangle must be articulated, and form part of regional cooperation platforms, with impact on economic and commercial issues, organized crime and climate change.
  • The Berta Cáceres trial in Tegucigalpa will be an important test of the U.S. Biden administration's commitment to rule of law in Honduras and the region, argues Laura Carlsen in Foreign Policy In Focus
  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it would start considering migrants whose cases were terminated under the Migrant Protection Protocols, a Trump-era program that gave border officials the authority to send asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for their cases to be assessed. The change could affect tens of thousands of people, reports the New York Times.
  • Nearly 3,300 migrants stranded in Mexico since January due to a US border policy have been kidnapped, raped, trafficked or assaulted, according to a new report by Human Rights First. The number of cases has jumped in recent weeks from roughly 500 such incidents logged in April to 3,300 by mid-June. (Reuters)
  • Brazilian federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into a contract worth $320 million for 20 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine made by India's Bharat Biotech, reports Reuters.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's conspiracy theories about international challenges to Amazon sovereignty has tapped into a deep seated fear of foreign meddling in the rainforest, reports CNN.
  • Brazilian pop star Anitta joined the board of Latin American financial start-up Nubank to help market its credit cards, loans and checking accounts, reports Reuters. But the choice of a Bolsonaro critic angered his supporters. 
  • U.S. actor Michael B. Jordan backtracked on plans to name his rum brand "J'Ouvert," after backlash over what many considered cultural appropriation of a term that signals the start of carnival in the Caribbean and is a cornerstone of tradition in Trinidad and Tobago. (Guardian)
  • The lost cities of the ancient tropics still have a lot to teach us about how to live alongside nature. "Extensive, interspersed with nature and combining food production with social and political function, these ancient cities are now catching the eyes of 21st-century urban planners trying to come to grips with tropical forests as sites of some of the fastest-growing human populations around the world today."  -- Guardian Long Read
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Nicaragua's crackdown continues (June 22, 2021)

Nicaraguan police raided the home of independent journalist Carlos Chamorro last night, part of a broadening crackdown against government opponents and critics. Yesterday police announced they had placed former First Lady María Fernanda Flores Lanzas, the wife of former President Arnoldo Aleman, under house arrest for alleged crimes against the state. And last night police detained Manuel Mendoza Urbina, a sports journalist, under the same "defense of sovereignty" law that has been used to detain over a dozen leaders and civil society leaders in recent weeks. Most of the recent arrests have been related to allegations that opposition figures accepted foreign financing for activities against the government. (Confidencial, Associated Press. See yesterday's briefs, and last Friday's, among others.)

"The Ortega government’s intensifying campaign of violence and repression against the opposition and civil society in Nicaragua requires escalating involvement by the United Nations to address the situation," Human Rights Watch said in a new report. The recent spate of high-profile arrests and other serious human rights violations against critics appear to be part of a broader strategy to eliminate political competition, stifle dissent, and pave the way for President Daniel Ortega’s re-election to a fourth consecutive term in November, according to HRW.

Mexico and Argentina are recalling their ambassadors to Nicaragua after the government broadened its crackdown against opposition figures, according to a joint statement yesterday. Nicaragua had carried out "concerning" actions "that have put the wellbeing and freedom of various opposition figures (including presidential pre-candidates), activists and Nicaraguan businessmen at risk," the statement said. Both countries had abstained from last week's OAS vote to condemn restrictions and arrests in Nicaragua and called for the release of all political prisoners. (Reuters, Confidencial, see last Wednesday's post.)

Costa Rica's government announced it has paused the appointment of an ambassador to Nicaragua due to “the current political conditions in the neighboring country.” (Tico Times)

The current crackdown is the intensification of a three year process of deteriorating press freedom in Nicaragua, details Oswaldo Rivas in Columbia Journalism Review.

News Briefs

El Salvador
  • El Salvador's homicide rate has dropped dramatically in recent years, 2021 is on track to be the least deadly on record. But there is no social consensus on the importance of the historic moment for the country, much less regarding the causes behind the drop and how to advance in order to consolidate the gains, writes Roberto Valencia in the Post Opinión
  • El Salvador's Supreme Court ordered the attorney general's office to investigate the forced disappearance of three people during the country's civil war and to punish those responsible, reports AFP.
  • The U.S. and Mexico agreed to cooperate on tackling Mexico's disappearances, a little noted announcement following U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit this month. The scale of Mexico’s disappearance crisis is immense, reports The Intercept. Nearly 90,000 Mexicans have disappeared in 15 years, at minimum. Thousands more migrants from Central America have vanished in those years, cases that go largely unaccounted for.
  • DNA tests confirmed that a badly decayed corpse found last week in Mexico's Sonora state belonged to Indigenous rights leader Tomás Rojo Valencia, who disappeared nearly four weeks ago, reports the Associated Press.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised to investigate the border shootings that left 19 people dead over the weekend, reports the Associated Press. He said evidence indicated that 15 of the victims were innocent bystanders. The other four dead were suspected gunmen from a criminal group. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The continuing exodus of millions of Venezuelans is reaching “a tipping point” as the response to the crisis remains critically underfunded, reports the Guardian. More than 5.6 million have left the country since 2015, when it had a population of 30 million, it has become the largest external displacement crisis in the region’s history.
  • With its access to the global financial system restricted by U.S. sanctions, Venezuela managed to make some payments for the country's coronavirus vaccines by asking a handful of private local banks to pay on the government's behalf, reports Reuters
  • Venezuela's economy is set to expand slightly this year -- a turnaround that is mostly due to a combination of reforms straight out of economic orthodoxy, according to Bloomberg: eliminating price controls, reducing subsidies on essentials such gasoline and removing many restrictions on foreign exchange. 
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro told a journalist who questioned his frequent refusal to wear a mask to "shut up" and called Globo Group, the country's largest media conglomerate, "shitty," reports AFP.
  • A top Rio de Janeiro militia leader was gunned down by police -- but the attack doesn't signal an end to militia protection through connections with security forces, reports InSight Crime.
  • The Federal Court in Brasilia has acquitted former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his former chief of staff Gilberto Carvalho, and five other people accused by federal prosecutors of favoring automakers through the issuance of Provisional Measure 471 of 2009. It is one of several corruption cases faced by the former president. (Rio Times)
  • Ecuador said it had signed an agreement to rejoin the World Bank's arbitration tribunal more than a decade after it left, reports Reuters.
  • Covid-19 is receding in much of the world, but the pandemic is raging in South America, which has just 5% of the world’s population but now accounts for a quarter of the global death toll, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Colombian protest leaders have agreed to pause mass marches as hospital ICUs struggle to cope with surging coronavirus cases. Colombia is being battered by a surging third wave of Covid-19. About 40,000 lives have been lost to the disease since mid-March – about 40% of the total death toll, reports the Guardian.
  • After 50 days of social protests against Colombia's government, Cali's class divide seems to be getting wider, reports AFP.
Comparative politics
  • U.S. actor and activist Kendrick Sampson draws a parallel between the #BlackLivesMatter struggle for justice in the U.S. and how Afro-Colombians are fighting for justice as well. In the context of the widespread police brutality that Colombians are experiencing during the ongoing protests, it is important to understand the danger of being an activist for Black lives in one of the world’s deadliest countries for human rights defenders, he argues. (El Espectador)
  • Tom Perriello, the U.S. executive director of Open Society Foundations, contrasts the courageous struggle for human rights carried out by some Catholic leaders around the world, and contrasts their approach with that of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in a New York Times guest essay. "Catholic bishops in El Salvador, the country where Saint Óscar Romero was assassinated for standing with the poor and vulnerable ... chose to take a courageous position against President Nayib Bukele’s move to consolidate power and create impunity for corruption. They also sent the Biden administration a clear message that “tough talk” on the border only helps the coyotes and gangs extort a higher price from those most at risk."
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Monday, June 21, 2021

Nicaragua detains fifth presidential precandidate (June 21, 2021)

News Briefs

  • Nicaraguan authorities detained journalist Miguel Mora Barberena, the fifth presidential hopeful arrested in a crackdown this month. Like most of the other 18 government opponents detained in June, Mora was detained under the country's so-called "Guillotine Law," which has been used to silence critics in the name of defending Nicaragua's sovereignty. Mora had been previously detained in 2018, and accused of inciting hatred in relation to his denunciations of government repression. The offices of 100% Noticias, which he owns, were confiscated at the time. (Confidencial)
  • Hundreds of people have disappeared since massive anti government protests broke out in Colombia in April. According to the attorney general’s office, 84 remain unaccounted for, human rights groups say they’ve recorded up to 700 cases. Advocates say this is the first time they’ve seen so many disappearances associated with demonstrations, reports the Washington Post.
  • Weeks of unrest in Colombia reflect a frustration with the system and with economic and political elites is becoming more prevalent in Colombia, part of a trend across Latin America, writes Sergio Guzmán in Foreign Policy. Presidential candidates next year "will face a polarized electorate, a dismal fiscal situation, weak and politicized institutions, and an obstructionist Congress. This will increase chances that the next government will be weak and ineffective at addressing growing social demands."
  • Colombia’s economic growth has left millions behind, particularly Black and Indigenous citizens, writes Arturo Chang in Foreign Policy.
  • Two weeks after Peru's presidential runoff election, all the votes have been tallied: Pedro Castillo received 50.125 percent of the vote with a difference of 44,058 ballots, and has declared himself the winner. But his opponent Keiko Fujimori refuses to concede, and has made unsubstantiated claims of large-scale election fraud. Supporters held rival demonstrations in Lima on Saturday. (Al Jazeera, Reuters)
  • Fujimori has legally challenged 200,000 votes, almost all from poor Andean regions which voted overwhelmingly for Castillo, and has hired some of Lima's most expensive law firms to do so. For the Guardian, the move "illustrates the skewed playing field," in an election that has unleashed troubling expressions of racism. Social media and partisan news broadcasters have helped spread fake news stirring up the spectre of totalitarian rule, violence and even mass expropriations if Castillo wins.
  • A group of retired officers has suggested Peru's military should refuse to recognize Castillo if he is declared the winner, reports Reuters.
  • Underlying Fujimori's accusations of irregularities is the fact that Peru's urban elite doesn't recognize Castillo's rural voters as equal citizens, Alberto Vergara told El País. If successful, Fujimori's challenge would put her at the head of a government with extremely limited legitimacy, he also notes.
  • Thousands of Brazilians demonstrated across the country on Saturday against the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic. The protests promoted by social movements and left-wing opposition parties occurred same day the country's Covid-19 death toll reached 500,000, a tragedy many blame on President Jair Bolsonaro's unscientific health approach. It is the second massive protest against Bolsonaro in less than a month, amid a Congressional inquiry into the administration's Covid-19 policies. (Guardian, El País, Associated Press
  • worsening drought is imperiling Brazil's attempts at economic recovery, and may set the stage for another intensely destructive fire season in the Amazon rainforest, reports the New York Times. The crisis has led to higher electricity prices, the threat of water rationing and a disruption of crop growing cycles.
  • Haiti's government sought to assure the United Nations Security council that the country's "electoral process is following its normal course.” Acting Haiti Prime Minister Claude Joseph asked skeptical members of the international community to ante up $17 million for an elections fund, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Amid worsening socioeconomic conditions, rising criminal gang violence and a resurgence of COVID-19, Haiti’s leaders must commit to good-faith dialogue aimed at ending a longstanding and damaging political impasse, the UN’s senior official in the country told the UN Security Council last week.
  • U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration rejected Nicolas Maduro’s call for relief from U.S. sanctions, saying the Venezuelan leader needs to do more toward restoring democracy before penalties would be lifted, reports Bloomberg.
  • "Human rights policies don’t happen in a vacuum; they are one component of a broader bilateral relationship and their effectiveness depends upon that context," writes William LeoGrande, who calls for the U.S. to engage with Cuba in order to further human rights progress on the island. (Responsible Statecraft)
  • Lack of syringes looms as a major challenge for Cuba, which has developed its own coronavirus vaccine candidates and immunized 2 million people on the island. The local vaccines require three doses, making the shortage even more acute, reports the Miami Herald.
  • At least 14 people died in the Mexican border city of Reynosa on Saturday after a convoy of shooters went on a rampage. Authorities said the attackers may be members of a splinter faction of the Gulf Cartel, and that the attacks may have derived from a dispute between rival groups over territorial control of the area, reports the Washington Post.
  • Mexico City schools that had just gone back to in-person classes will be closed again starting today as the capital climbs into a higher tier of coronavirus risk, reports Reuters.
El Salvador
  • El Salvador's move to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender is unlikely to serve as a path for financial inclusion for Salvadorans who are currently excluded from banking systems, and is vulnerable to money laundering and "investment" from criminal groups, warn experts in a Latin America Advisor from last week. 
  • Far from charting a radical path in nationalizing Juneteenth, the United States is late to the party, reports the Washington Post. Many countries in the region, particularly in the Caribbean, already place the memory of slave resistance and emancipation at the heart of their national stories.
  • Heterodox science fiction has become central to Latin America's literature -- "the stories and novels of Latin American authors who fable alternative or future realities have proliferated, almost always with an ironic, political and queer intention," writes Jorge Carrión in New York Times Español.
Latin America Daily Briefing