Monday, June 7, 2021

Peru results on a knife-edge (June 7, 2021)

Peru's presidential election remains on a knife-edge: conservative candidate Keiko Fujimori had an initial slight lead over union-leader rival Pedro Castillo, but the remaining votes are expected to come from rural areas, favoring the leftist candidate. (Official ONPE results.) 

The vote has underscored the country's urban-rural divide, and promises days of tension and uncertainty, reports Reuters. Both candidates have called for calm as the final votes are counted. President Francisco Sagasti after voting said the candidates should respect the results and ask their followers to refrain from staging protests over the outcome. Fujimori asked her followers to be prudent because “the margin is so small,” while Castillo demanded a review of all ballots to “guarantee the true popular will of the Peruvian people.”

Peruvians faced a hyper-polarized choice between two deeply unpopular candidates: the unapologetic daughter of former authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimori, and a left-wing teachers union leader. Critics warned that no matter the outcome, the country’s fragile democracy is under threat, reports the Washington Post.

Beyond the candidates, Peru's neoliberal economic model is on trial, reports the New York Times. After three decades, the system delivered some earlier successes but ultimately failed, critics say, to provide meaningful support to millions of Peruvians during the pandemic.

The pandemic not only has strained Peru’s medical and cemetery infrastructure, left millions unemployed and highlighted longstanding inequalities in the country, reports the Associated Press. It has also deepened people’s mistrust of the government.

Whoever is sworn in as president on July 28 will struggle to establish legitimacy. And large-scale protests are likely, particularly if Fujimori wins.


AMLO punished, slightly, in Sunday's vote

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's ruling coalition was on track to lose its absolute majority in congress, according to a rapid count of yesterday's midterm election ballots. (El País) With over 500 seats in the lower chamber up for grabs, as well as half the country's governorships and thousands of local government positions, it was Mexico’s largest election ever, thanks to an overhaul that moved balloting for many posts to the same year. More than half of eligible voters cast ballots, an unusually high number for a midterm election, reports the Washington Post.

The results are a setback for AMLO's reform agenda. The mid-term election was seen as a referendum on the president's policies and his shake-up of Mexico's institutions, and the results suggest voters would prefer AMLO tone down his approach, reports Reuters.

But it is important to note that the Morena party and allies were still set to be the dominant force in the country's Congress. His Morena party could pick up more seats as parties engage in horse-trading to strengthen their voting blocs. The results also show regional disparities. Morena lost support in Mexico City, which had been a key electoral base for the president, but was winning in 11 out of 15 gubernatorial races around the country. López Obrador’s coalition was also expected to make major gains in the hundreds of state and local electoral offices also contested at the polls, deepening Morena’s national reach. (New York Times, Washington Post)

"There is a risk that AMLO’s opponents read too much positive news in these results. ... While AMLO’s opponents can block constitutional changes the president attempts to push through Congress, there isn’t much else that these electoral gains have won them," writes James Bosworth at the Latin America Risk Report

"With respect to Congress, MORENA is pretty much right where it was. The party and its allies were not able to secure the two-thirds “supermajority” needed for constitutional reforms. But MORENA’s coalition will continue to have an absolute majority, thanks to its alliances with smaller parties, including the Green Party, which increased its number of deputies and was the big winner among smaller parties," notes Genaro Lozano in Americas Quarterly.


Nicaragua's opposition crackdown

Any lingering hopes for a reasonably fair electoral process in Nicaragua later this year evaporated after police detained a second presidential hopeful on Saturday, cited a third to the attorney general's office today. Three other potential candidates are likely to be disqualified under a controversial law passed in December that gives Ortega's government the power to unilaterally declare citizens “terrorists” or coup-mongers, classify them as “traitors to the homeland” and ban them from running for election. Unofficially dubbed the "Guillotine Law," the measure applies to leaders of the brutally repressed anti-government protests of 2018. (Confidencial, Associated Press)

On Saturday Nicaraguan authorities detained Arturo Cruz Sequeira, a former ambassador to the United States and potential presidential candidate, upon arrival at the Managua airport, and charged him with “conspiring against Nicaraguan society.” He is the first person to be arrested under the provisions of the Guillotine Law, reports the Wall Street Journal. Another presidential hopeful, Cristiana Chamorro, was placed under house arrest last week and remains incommunicado. (Confidencial, see Thursday's post.)

Opposition leaders under the umbrella Alianza Ciudadana por la Libertad (ACxL) -- the last eligible called for civic resistance and unity among opposition groups in light of the Ortega government's onslaught against political competitors ahead of November's presidential election. (Confidencial) The crackdown could backfire against the Ortegas if a unity candidate mobilized the bulk of Nicaraguan voters who don’t support the government, and could present a major electoral threat to the ruling party.

President Daniel Ortega's aggressive crackdown on political opponents over the past month presents yet another challenge for the U.S. Biden administration's efforts to reduce migration by strengthening democracy in the region, notes the New York Times.

The U.S., which had already condemned Chamorro's arrest, called for Cruz's release this weekend. “The international community has spoken: under Ortega, Nicaragua is becoming an international pariah and moving farther away from democracy,” wrote Julie Chung, of the U.S. State Department, in a tweet. (Wall Street Journal) U.S. officials and lawmakers responded to Chamorro’s detention by threatening new sanctions against Ortega. But major sanctions could cause an economic crisis, and impact migration to the U.S., a key concern for Biden administration officials.


Harris's delicate balance in Guatemala

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Guatemala last night, the first stop on her first official international trip. She brings gifts -- pledges for hundreds of thousands of coronavirus vaccine doses, $310 million in regional humanitarian aid, and a $4 billion long-term plan to boost development and security across Central America -- as well as tough messages about corruption and democratic norms, reports the Washington Post. The U.S. Biden administration is expected to announce new anti-trafficking and smuggling measures, and hopes to deliver new anti-corruption measures today, reports the Associated Press. (See Friday's Briefs)

Harris's challenge in stemming migration from Central America is significant. Though Guatemala has received more than $1.6 billion in aid from the U.S. over the past decade, poverty rates have risen, malnutrition has become a national crisis, corruption is unbridled and the country is sending more unaccompanied children to the United States than anywhere else in the world, reports the New York Times.

Guatemala's widespread corruption is a key concern for civil society, and particular challenge for Harris' talks with President Alejandro Giammattei, notes the Associated Press. Last month, two lawyers who are outspoken critics of Giammattei’s administration were arrested on what they say were trumped-up charges aimed at silencing them.

The Biden administration has sought to manage expectations about Harris' trip to Guatemala and Mexico, reports Politico: The goal isn’t to roll out a massive plan to solve the problems driving thousands to flee the region, but simply to show that the U.S. cares and isn’t just looking for quick fixes.

News Briefs

  • The U.S. Biden administration has quietly tasked six humanitarian groups with recommending which migrants should be allowed to stay in the country, instead of being rapidly expelled under federal pandemic-related powers that block people from seeking asylum, reports the Associated Press. The groups will determine who is most vulnerable, on the Mexican side of the border, and their criteria has not been made public.
  • U.S. President Joe Biden must immediately eliminate Title 42, which allows the U.S. to immediately deport migrants without permitting them to apply for asylum, argues Jorge Ramos in a New York Times Español guest essay. 
  • The International Criminal Court (ICC) is expected to make an announcement regarding the preliminary examination into reported crimes against humanity committed by the Venezuelan government, reports the Venezuela Weekly. The announcement comes over two years after the preliminary examination was launched, and will determine whether the ICC's prosecutor will open a formal investigation into the Maduro government. 
  • The Caracas Campus of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) is literally falling apart -- the agony is not casual, but rather a response to the university's steadfast opposition to authoritarianism, writes Federico Vegas in a New York Times Español guest essay.
El Salvador
  • Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele announced he is trying to make bitcoin legal tender in his country. El Salvador would be the first country in the world to take such a step, reports the Washington Post. Bukele spoke in a prerecorded address to Bitcoin 2021, a convention in Miami, where he elicited a raucous standing ovation that nearly drowned out the rest of his remarks. Critics have said his embrace of bitcoin is a political stunt meant to burnish his reputation, increasingly tarnished by his government's authoritarian slide.
  • The disruption of women’s health services due to the COVID-19 pandemic could “obliterate” more than 20 years of progress in reducing maternal mortality and increasing access to family planning in the region, according to PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne. (Aviso LatAm)
  • Respect for the United Nations in Haiti was “forever destroyed” by the cholera epidemic that ravaged the impoverished country after the 2010 earthquake, former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a new memoir. He said that the U.N. should have done far more to arrest the cholera scourge, but also expressed disdain for Haiti’s leaders and criticized aggrieved cholera victims and their lawyers who unsuccessfully sued the United Nations for compensation in the American court system. (New York Times)
Loucos do Surf
  • In the Brazilian city of Olinda, a group of thrill seekers has taken up an illegal and death-defying hobby: "surfing" on the outside of public buses -- New York Times.
Critter Corner
  • An island near Rio de Janeiro where people abandon unwanted cats is almost the stuff of urban legend, but far from paradise, it's a Cat Alcatraz, reports the Washington Post. And with the pandemic it has gotten worst: reports of cat cannibalism started to circulate.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing

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