Monday, February 28, 2022

Bolsonaro contradicts Brazil's diplomats on Ukraine (Feb. 28, 2022)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro declined to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, yesterday. He also departed from his government's official stance at the United Nations to say Brazil would remain neutral, reports Reuters

"We will not take sides, we will continue being neutral, and help with whatever is possible," Bolsonaro said. In reference to Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Bolsonaro said Ukrainians have "placed the hope of their nation in the hands of a comedian."

On Friday, Brazil voted for a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would have denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The council "must react swiftly on the use of force against the territorial integrity of a Member State," said Brazil's U.N. ambassador. Mexico, also supported the draft resolution, citing the invasions of the country by the United States and France, and rejecting the use of force. (United Nations)

Russian allies in the region, Cuba and Venezuela have claimed the U.S. and NATO are responsible for the current crisis. (Axios)

The United Nations Security Council voted yesterday to convene a special session of the UN General Assembly today to debate Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

News Briefs

More Regional Relations
  • There are a number of possible (and non-mutually exclusive) explanations for Bolsonaro's contortions on Russia, ranging from Brazil's long-standing efforts to maintain multipolar relations to an effort to enlist the support of Russia’s influential fake news purveyors and cyber warriors for a seemingly long-shot candidacy, reports the Brazil Research Initiative.

  • As the Russian invasion of Ukraine puts the world back into Cold War mentality, Brian Winter analyzes how Latin American governments on both the left and the right have sought to adopt “non-aligned” posture on the conflict between the U.S. and China, seeking middle ground between Washington and Beijing. "This posture ... is arguably the region’s most important foreign policy development since the end of the Cold War," he writes in a Foreign Affairs essay. The modern-day "non-alignment" concept currently gaining traction in Latin America "involves a foreign policy that is “equidistant” between Washington and Beijing, neither subservient to nor hostile toward either."
El Salvador
  • Salvadoran prosecutors have charged the former president Alfredo Cristiani over the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests. Prosecutors also announced charges against a dozen other people, including former military officers, over the massacre. The list of charges will apparently include murder, terrorism and conspiracy, reports the Associated Press.

  • Tourism to El Salvador, particularly from the U.S., has surged since the country's adoption of bitcoin as legal tourism, according to the country's tourism minister. (Market Insider)
  • A bombardment carried out by Colombia's armed forces killed 23 FARC dissidents last Thursday as part of a military offensive to seize control of an area in the northeast of the country which sits on the border with Venezuela, reports Reuters.
  • Mexico's efforts to investigate the country's nearly 100,000 disappearances are painfully insufficient. There are 52,000 unidentified people in morgues and cemeteries, where the charred remains are measured only by weight, reports the Associated Press. "Disappearances are considered the perfect crime because without a body, there’s no crime. And the cartels are expert at ensuring that there is no body."

  • Mexican criminal organizations are increasingly sourcing their weapons from Central America, a shift that is picking up as the Mexican government makes one of the strongest attempts yet to stop arms trafficking from the U.S. into Mexico, reports Business Insider.
  • Paraguay is making a name for itself as a destination on the organized crime map, including serving as a home base for traffickers and gangs from neighboring Brazil, reports InSight Crime.
  • Covid-19 disrupted Brazil's Carnival celebrations for a second year, but thousands defied an official ban on street parties by dancing, singing and mingling to the rhythm of Samba this weekend, reports the Associated Press.

  • Critics say the decision to cancel the city's street parties -- blocos -- is hypocritical, given that Rio is largely back to normal life. And others questioned that indoor parties, for a fee, were allowed. (Reuters, Associated Press)

  • The Covid-19 pandemic has hit domestic workers in Brazil particularly hard, reports IPS.

  • Recife is one of the fattest cities in Brazil. It is also quickly becoming one of the world’s most accommodating places for people with obesity, reports the New York Times.
  • Members of Mexico's Nuestra Pesca project, an artisanal fishing collective started by chef Erik Guerrero, are using the Japanese ike jime method, which aims to reduce fish trauma, to improve the quality of catches and help sustainability, reports the Guardian.
  • It's time to revive “spouge”: "a joyfully relentless, funky, syncopated beat that sits in a zone somewhere between vintage soca, inside-out ska and classic blue-collar soul," created by singer Jackie Opel in the 1960s -- Guardian.
More Carnival
  • Jacmel's Kanaval's celebrations are a showcase for Haiti’s artists and a trip through the looking glass for animal lovers. The town’s festivities are renowned for the papier-maché masks that don’t so much depict animals as conjure visions of them, reports Atlas Obscura.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Friday, February 25, 2022

LatAm reacts to Ukraine attacks (Feb. 25, 2022)

 Latin American countries reacted variously to Russia's attacks in Ukraine yesterday -- displaying disparate loyalties and priorities that indicate not only ideological differences, but also distinct national geopolitical strategies. The United States called on the region to condemn the Russian offensive. "We urge all countries in the hemisphere to condemn Russia's premeditated, unprovoked and unjustified attack and its immediate withdrawal from the conflict zone."

Colombia, Argentina and Chile called for swift withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. Ecuador condemned Russia, saying it had violated international law, and called for an end to fighting. Mexico, which currently holds the chair of the UN Security Council supported the call for diplomacy and respect of Ukraine's territorial integrity. “That is our position, no intervention and self determination of the peoples”, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said yesterday. “We don't want invasions, we don't accept that a country invades another, is contrary to international law...”

Brazil called for a peaceful solution that "takes into account the legitimate security interests of all parties involved." The stance builds on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, a marked divergence from his previously U.S.-oriented foreign policy stance, and a reflection of cooled relations with the U.S. Biden administration.

In a message on social media yesterday, Bolsonaro said his government "is interested in deepening its friendly and commercial ties with other countries," citing Russia, Ukraine and Hungary. Bolsonaro later scolded Vice-President Hamilton Mourão, who contradicted the president when he told reporters that "Brazil is not positioning itself as neutral. Brazil made it very clear that it respects Ukraine's sovereignty. So Brazil does not agree with an invasion of Ukrainian territory."

Argentine President Alberto Fernández also travelled to Moscow in recent weeks, but yesterday the country called on the Russian Federation to "cease military actions in Ukraine."

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) said it “strongly condemns the military attacks and invasion of Ukraine by The Russian Federation and calls for the immediate and complete withdrawal of the military presence and cessation of any further actions that may intensify the current perilous situation in that country."

Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba  defended Moscow's position in recent days, all alleged that U.S. aggression and involvement in Ukraine justify Russia's stance. On Wednesday, Cuba's President Miguel Díaz-Canel, while meeting a Russian official in Havana, invoked Russia's "right to defend itself" and expressed solidarity with Moscow in the face of "sanctions and the expansion of NATO towards its borders."

Following the invasion, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said that Venezuela “rejects the worsening of the crisis in Ukraine as a result of NATO’s breach of the Minsk agreements.” 

His "stance may sink the possibility of progress in internationally backed negotiations that began last year between his government and Venezuela’s political opposition in Mexico City," writes Catherine Osborn in Foreign Policy's Latin America Brief.

The volatile geopolitical situation is fueling a shift among U.S. policy makers who slowly focusing more on Latin America and the Caribbean, writes Scott McDonald in Global Americans.

But the U.S. should avoid slipping back into Cold War style diplomacy in Latin America. "It would be unfortunate for U.S. diplomats and defense planners to slip into a familiar rut of backing friendly dictators and militaries in a misguided effort to preserve access and influence in this hemisphere," writes Adam Isacson at War on the Rocks. "That Cold War rut may offer comfort as authoritarianism, social unrest, and mass migration rise in Latin America, but it should be resisted. This time, the United States ought to contend with China, Russia, and other extra-regional dictatorships in a way that upholds Latin America’s brave reformers and insists on democratic norms."

Chilean president-elect Gabriel Boric rejected the violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and the illegitimate use of force. 

News Briefs

More Regional Relations
  • "While Russia seeks to take on the role of disrupter, China is attempting to be a good partner with which regional governments can maintain a long-term relationship," , writes Scott McDonald in Global Americans. "As U.S. policymakers look to breathe life back into a renewed approach toward Latin America and the Caribbean, they should be aware that China has gained supporters in the region, many of whom regard the Asian country as the global hegemon-in-the-making."

  • The U.S. Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative aims to compete with China's Belt and Road Initiative. But with few concrete details, it is as yet difficult to see how B3W can provide its desired "strategic competition with China," writes Mat Youkee in Dialogo Chino.
  • The Haiti National Police force has begun an internal investigation into allegations that officers shot and killed a local photojournalist and seriously injured two others who were covering a garment workers protest in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's post.) In recent years Haiti has seen an increase in the slaying of journalists, none of which have been solved.
  • A report by the European Union mission that monitored Venezuela’s November 2021 elections underscores that Venezuelans faced serious obstacles in voting and running for office. The report provides a roadmap for the substantial reforms needed for free and fair elections, explains Human Rights Watch.
  • There are concerns that a wall the Dominican Republic is constructing along its border with Haiti will bring opportunities for bribery, reports the Guardian. (See Monday's briefs and yesterday's.)
  • A spate of violent incidents along Mexico's Riviera Maya demonstrate the growing brazenness of criminal organizations striving for territorial control, but doesn't seem to have scared off vacationers, reports the New York Times.
  • Youth in Colombia continue to be trapped by a range of armed groups, which use everything from bribery to death threats to get them into their ranks, according to a new report by the Colombian Organized Crime Observatory. (InSight Crime)
  • Peruvian President Pedro Castillo's administration "becomes less chaotic when viewed in the context of Peru’s geopolitical needs and constraints," argues Allison Fedirka in Global Americans.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Haitian police kill journalist at protest (Feb. 24, 2022)

Haitian police fired into a group of protesters in Port-au-Prince yesterday, killing a journalist and wounding two others. The move came after thousands of Haitian factory workers launched a new strike to demand higher wages than those the prime minister announced earlier this week. Earlier, police had fired tear gas as protesters threw rocks at them and used trucks to block a main road near the international airport in Port-au-Prince, reports the Associated Press.

It was not immediately evident why police fired. Interim-Prime Minister Ariel Henry later condemned the “brutal acts” and pledged to protect peaceful demonstrations, reports Reuters.

News Briefs

  • Colombia's abortion victory this week builds on decades of activism, and defied the country's Catholic mores and failed efforts to pass legalization through Congress, reports the New York Times. (See Tuesday's post
  • As the United States faces growing restrictions on abortion, feminist activists in Latin America are increasingly relying on one another for legal strategy, organizing tactics and inspiration, reports the New York Times. Colombian activist drew on tactics deployed by fellows in Mexico, Argentina and Chile in their campaign that led to the decriminalization of abortion this week. (See Tuesday's post

  • Uncontrollable wildfires are intensifying with the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Program. (Washington Post)

  • A Latin American energy revolution will take commitment on behalf of the private sector and partnership with the public sector in pursuing bold policy strategies and revising institutional frameworks, argue Luisa Palacios and Mauricio Cárdenas in Americas Quarterly.
  • Climate change is largely responsible for the deadly extreme weather events that have struck Brazil recently — first intense droughts, then punishing rains, and now flooding from north to south that has left hundreds dead. Mudslides that killed over 180 people in Petróplis last week also show how defenseless the country's favelas will be in a new era of destabilizing climate change, reports the Washington Post.
  • Venezuela's oil industry is mounting an unlikely comeback based on a new formula: importing light-oil from Iran to help it thin out its thick crude, working with local contractors to keep the oil flowing and selling it to China through middlemen -- with crude prices spiking, the recovery comes at an opportune time, reports Bloomberg.
  • Gas flaring has dramatically increased in Mexico under the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, according to NASA satellite images of flare sites across the country, reports Reuters. The new data suggests that in spite of signing an international pledge to reduce methane emissions, Mexico is moving in the opposite direction from a global push to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas production.

  • López Obrador said yesterday that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken must be misinformed about threats facing journalists in Mexico, reacting to a message from the U.S. official calling for accountability for assassinated reporters. He suggested that perhaps Blinken received bad information from other U.S. agencies, mentioning the CIA, FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's post.)
  • The Cuban sugar industry is heading towards its worst season ever, reports Reuters.
Dominican Republic
  • Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader's popularity remains high. In a new poll 70 percent of respondents said they approve of Abinader, while only 24 percent disapprove. Abinader’s perceived strong stance on security and migration are likely giving him a boost, in addition to the country's strong economic recovery from the pandemic, according to the Latin America Risk Report.
  • The Caribbean remains vulnerable to Covid-19, even as deaths have dropped in the Americas for the first time since the omicron variant took hold, according to the World Health Organization. Vaccination rates are continuing to lag in many countries and territories, and a surge in new cases is leading to increases in hospital admissions and deaths, said Dr. Carissa Etienne, the director of the WHO’s Pan American Health Organization. (Miami Herald)

  • The warning comes as several governments consider relaxing COVID-19 measures after placing limits on funeral attendance and large indoor gatherings like concerts, and as others consider resuming Carnival festivals this year. (Miami Herald)
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

AMLO lashes out at journalists (Feb. 23, 2022)

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador faces one of the greatest political crises of his mandate: a scandal involving his son's use of a luxury house owned by an oil executive contractor for Mexico's state oil firm. AMLO has increasingly lashed out at prominent investigative journalists -- including Carmen Aristegui and Jorge Ramos -- in response to questions over potential corruption within his family, questioning their earnings. (Wall Street Journal)

AMLO's attacks on the press have been particularly jarring in the midst of ongoing deadly violence against reporters in Mexico, where six journalists have been murdered so far this year already.  (Aristegui Noticias) Aristegui strenuously objected to AMLO's suggestion that critical journalists are financed by enemies. (Aristegui Noticias)

News Briefs

  • Latin American polarization has been the norm for decades -- ideological divisions are not currently deeper than they have been historically, argues María Victoria Murillo in Americas Quarterly. If anything "the big fights today may be more concentrated among elites than voters, whose views generally do not reflect the stark contrasts depicted by the media."
  • About one hundred migrants from Haiti, Cuba and African nations threw stones and sticks at Mexican National Guard troops and immigration agents clashed in the Mexican city of Tapachula yesterday. Frustration has been rising due to complaints by migrants that Mexican processing claims for refuge, asylum or humanitarian visas is too slow. (ReutersAssociated Press)
More Mexico
  • The Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación is increasingly using the resort town of Puerto Vallarta to process drug cash through nightclubs, bars and restaurants, reports InSight Crime.
  • Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez Enoa writes in the Washington Post about his new exile: "I left Cuba mainly to escape the regime’s repression toward me for being an independent journalist who documents the country’s reality. However, I also wanted, for a while, to stop living the unacceptable life that Cubans experience today. Life can be really difficult when repression and scarcity are part of the daily struggle."
  • As accusations of corruption mount against Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, Attorney General Consuelo Porras has taken minimal action and instead ramped up her crackdown on prosecutors investigating high-level graft, reports InSight Crime. In recent weeks her office has mounted more aggressive legal attacks, landing some former prosecutors in jail and driving others into exile. (See last Thursday's post.)

  • "There are few signs that the anti-corruption environment in Guatemala will improve in the near term," writes James Bosworth in the Latin America Risk Report. "Guatemalan politicians have repeatedly successfully ousted anti-corruption officials with few consequences, and there has been no fundamental change for the better in the government culture between the Morales and Giammattei governments."
  • A corruption trial against former Peruvian president Ollanta Humala and his wife started yesterday. They are both accused of money laundering in a scandal involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, reports the Associated Press. He is the first former Peruvian president standing trial in an Odebrecht trial, although three other ex-presidents have been involved in the case.
  • Brazilian farmers are allowed to use almost double the number of hazardous pesticides as their U.K. counterparts, and the Bolsonaro administration is currently pushing through a bill that would slash pesticide regulations even further, reports the Guardian.

  • The death toll from flash floods and landslides in Brazil's Petrópolis rose to 186. (Al Jazeera)
  • Paul Farmer, a physician who devoted his professional life to improving health care in the most destitute corners of the world, died at age 62 in Rwanda. (Washington Post)
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Colombia decriminalizes abortion (Feb. 22, 2022)

Colombia's Constitutional Court decriminalized abortion up to 24 weeks yesterday. The historic ruling that bolsters Latin America's "green wave" of support for reproductive rights, following legalization in Argentina and decriminalization in Mexico, and is a sign of feminist activists' increasing muscle in the region.

The ruling means that any woman should be able to seek the procedure from a health professional without fear of criminal prosecution, reports the New York Times. It also means Colombian lawmakers and the executive branch must create a public policy to regulate access to elective abortion and avoid barriers in the health-care system, reports La Silla Vacía. The ruling puts Colombia among the countries in the world with the widest window for legal abortion, alongside the U.S. and the Netherlands.

A coalition of over 100 Colombian abortion rights groups, collectively known as Causa Justa, sued to have abortion removed from the penal code. The coalition's lawyers argued that criminalization had cast abortion in such a negative light that it prevented even women with a legal right to an abortion from getting one, reports the New York Times. The movement had previously seen the constitutional court decide not to rule on the matter several times in the past two years, reports the Guardian.

The decision has immediate impact for more than 5,000 women who face legal proceedings for abortion -- those that took place in the 24-week window will now be dropped, reports La Silla Vacía. Nonetheless, Colombia's court and independent studies have found significant barriers to accessing abortions even in cases where it was legal until now -- rape, nonviable pregnancy and danger to life or health of mother -- which puts the onus on policy makers to effectively guarantee access to reproductive rights. Between 2006 and 2020, the court heard, nearly 3,000 people were prosecuted for having an abortion and at least 346 people have been convicted in such cases since 2006.

More than 90 groups filed a lawsuit in September 2020, arguing that the criminalization of abortion exacerbates the stigma around the procedure and creates barriers to access, even for patients who qualify under the exemptions.The constitutional court was legally obligated to issue a ruling on abortion by mid-November 2021. But the decision was delayed because the court was evenly split. The judge assigned to break the tie voted in favor of decriminalization, yesterday, reports the Washington Post.

News Briefs

  • At least 650 migrants died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency that monitors migration. The figure marks an all-time annual high since the U.S. government began reporting U.S.-Mexico border deaths in 1998, reports the Conversation. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is maintaining his lead in polls ahead of October's presidential elections. A new poll this week gives him 42 percent support, compared to 28 percent for incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro. The polls leave little room for a possible third-way challenger, reports Reuters.

  • Major mining companies are seeking to expand to currently protected indigenous lands in Brazil's Amazon rainforest, bolstered by billions of dollars in financing from international banks and investment firms, according to a new report by Amazon Watch and the Association of Brazil's Indigenous Peoples (APIB). The firms appear to be betting that Bolsonaro, who has pushed to open protected lands to mining and agribusiness, will succeed in passing legislation that would allow them to operate on indigenous territories, reports AFP.

  • A trans teenager was shot and killed point-blank in Sergipe, Brazil, one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be trans, reports Pink News.

  • The Inhotim Institute, a contemporary art museum in Brumadinho, Brazil, has provided a home for the "Black Art Museum," the realization of a dream held for decades by the Afro-Brazilian artist and civil rights activist Abdias do Nascimento. (New York Times)
  • Haiti's government hiked the minimum wage yesterday by as much as 54 percent, following weeks of demonstrations by garment workers who say their wages are not enough to keep up with the rising cost of living. (Reuters)
  • Mexico's Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación is making inroads in Guatemala, reports El Faro
  • Three retired Colombian army commanders have been accused of belonging to a criminal network that served the Urabeños drug clan, in a case illustrating how the highest ranks of Colombia's armed forces continue to be accused of colluding in trafficking activities, reports InSight Crime.
  • A colossal seizure of more than 10,000 cannabis plants in the western provinces of Salta and Jujuy in Argentina provides evidence that marijuana growers are trying to spread the illicit crop to new parts of the country, reports InSight Crime.
  • An iconic Moai statue from Easter Island began its journey back home yesterday, 152 years after being removed and taken to Santiago, Chile. The return of the statue comes after a years-long campaign to have it returned to Rapa Nui, as Easter Island is known locally, reports Reuters.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...

Monday, February 21, 2022

Remain in Mexico before U.S. Supreme Court (Feb. 21, 2022)

News Briefs

  • The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the Biden administration can whether the Biden administration can end the controversial "Migrant Protection Protocols," a program that forces asylum seekers arriving at the southwestern border to await approval in Mexico. Known as "Remain in Mexico," the Trump era policy has forced tens of thousands of people to wait in dangerous and unsanitary conditions for their asylum hearings. There have been widespread reports of sexual assault, kidnapping and torture, reports the New York Times.

  • Amid ongoing ambiguity over the U.S.'s immigration policies, an encampment of migrants near a crossing between Reynosa in Mexico and Texas in the U.S. has swelled to about 2,200 over the past year, according to estimates from nonprofits working in the area. (ABC)

  • A group of migrants at Mexico’s southern border sewed their mouths shut last week to demand that immigration authorities grant them passage toward the U.S. border., reports the Washington Post. The number of people applying for refugee or asylum status in Mexico has nearly doubled since 2019, reaching an all-time high of 131,448 claims in 2021.

  • The number of encounters between U.S. border officials and migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border fell last month to the lowest levels since last February when a surge in flows began, reports Axios. Nonetheless, the 154,000 migrant encounters last month was still abnormally high for the time of year.

  • The U.S. obsession with migrants is distorting the country's policy towards Mexico, particularly with regards to the country's "democratic decay", argues Arturo Sarukhan in Foreign Affairs.

  • The Trump administration's construction of the border wall has left dangerous environmental impact in many areas that the current U.S. government says it aims to remediate. (Washington Post)

  •  The Dominican Republic's government began building a wall that will cover more than half of the 392-kilometer border with Haiti, its only land neighbor. The DR government's goal is to stop irregular migration and smuggling, reports Reuters.
  • The United Nations Security Council made it clear Friday that it wants elections in Haiti before the end of the year and called on the country’s political and civic leaders to collaborate on resolving political gridlock, reports the Miami Herald. The government and its main opposition, known as the Montana group, have different visions for the country: Prime Minister Ariel Henry is angling for a new constitution and elections by the end of the year, while the Montana group is seeking a two-year transition process to guarantee free and fair elections.
  • Guatemalan Judge Erika Aifán is among the ever-shrinking group of Guatemalan judges and prosecutors handling high-profile corruption cases who have not been fired, arrested or forced to flee the country, reports the Washington Post. (See last Thursday's post.)
  • The U.S. is considering trying to expel Nicaragua from the Central America Free Trade Agreement — or allocate its valuable sugar quota to another country in Central America — to retaliate against President Daniel Ortega’s political crackdown against opponents, reports the Associated Press. The move would be a major economic blow for Nicaragua, depriving Ortega’s government of important export earnings and foreign investment.

  • The Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (Cenidh) warned of the grave deterioration in political prisoners' health. Seven who were on trial in El Chipote jail last week evince an abrupt weight loss, weakness to walk, insecurity and fear when they speak, reports Confidencial. (See Friday's briefs.)
  • The discovery this week of two bodies hanging from a bridge in Ecuador marks an escalation in the country's increasing cartel violence, and mimics tactics employed by Mexican crime organizations, reports Vice News.
El Salvador
  • El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele said he will propose a law that would grant Salvadoran citizenship to foreigners who invest in the country as well as other initiatives to reduce government hurdles in order to attract investment projects, reports Reuters.
  • Wildfires that have been ravaging northern Argentina for several weeks advanced relentlessly this weekend. They have particularly affected the Corrientes province and important wetlands areas, including Iberá National Park. Dryness from drought has contributed to the flames that are consuming about 30,000 hectares a day in Corrientes, destroying almost 800,000 hectares so far, reports the Associated Press.
  • The January oil spill off of Peru's shore has spread to more than 20 beaches, washing over 41 kilometres of coastline -- the unprecedented spill has caught officials and researchers off-guard, reports Nature.
  • The death toll from last week's mudslides and floods in the Brazilian city of Petropolis reached 176 as of today, and more than 110 people are still missing. (Reuters)

  • The landslides were "largely predictable -- and to some degree, preventable," reports the Associated Press, which links the tragedy to government neglect and climate change.
Climate Justice
  • Artificial Intelligence is increasingly contributing to conservation efforts around the world. Brazil's water crisis -- the country lost more than 15% of its surface water in the past 30 years -- has only come to light with the help of AI, reports the Guardian.

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

Friday, February 18, 2022

Latin America and the new Cold War (Feb. 18, 2022)

News Briefs

Regional Relations
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin's meeting this week with his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro, is the latest example of how Russia's leader is angling to forge stronger relationships in Latin America, far from Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, reports the Washington Post.

  • Bolsonaro, in turn, has sought to portray himself as a relevant geopolitical player, and ascribed Russia's alleged troop withdrawal from the Ukrainian border to his influence. (Folha de S. Paulo)

  • Bolsonaro met with Hungarian President Viktor Orbán yesterday. They emphasized their agreement on conservative approaches to issues like migration, Christianity and family values. Bolsonaro called Orbán his “brother,” and said their shared values are encompassed by “God, Fatherland, Family and Liberty.” (Folha de S. PauloAssociated Press)

  • China has increasingly trained its sights on Central America, a traditional Washington stronghold, as a strategic counterbalance to U.S. encroachments in Asia, writes Kate Linthicum in the Los Angeles Times. And "unlike the United States, which often conditions its development aid based on a country’s adherence to Western-style democracy, China has a policy of what it calls 'non-interference.'"

  • It is worth noting that Latin American leaders have national agendas they are pursuing within the new geopolitical power struggles. "U.S. pressure on Brazil to cancel the trip was seen in Brasília as an undue interference in Brazil’s affairs, and may have had the inadvertent effect of encouraging Latin American countries to preserve their ties to other major global powers," writes Oliver Stuenkel in an Americas Quarterly piece that urges the U.S. Biden administration to move debates on China and Russia to closed-door meetings in the upcoming Summit of the Americas, rather than pushing for public declarations. 

  • While Bolsonaro's timing was particularly fraught geopolitically, the visit "also demonstrates continuity in Brazil-Russia relations ... In fact, one of the most vocal defenders of Bolsonaro’s decision to take the trip was Lula’s former foreign minister and current foreign-policy advisor, Celso Amorim. Amorim defended the trip as a method of avoiding “submitting to an agenda of Washington,” a motto that sums up Brazil-Russia ties more broadly," writes Catherine Osborn in the Latin America Brief.

  • Nor should the U.S. assume that leftist governments in the region are necessarily more pro-China than U.S., he argues. "On several fronts – such as the fight against climate change – leaders like Chile’s Gabriel Boric or Brazil’s Lula da Silva are likely to be much more constructive partners than Jair Bolsonaro or Chilean right-wing presidential runner-up José Antonio Kast." (Americas Quarterly)

  • Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega appeared in public after a 36-day absence to close a visit with Russian dignitaries, in which he expressed Nicaragua's complete support for Russia in light of U.S. and European "imperialist aggressions." (Confidencial)
  • Nicaragua's government continued its onslaught against organizations of civil society, cancelling seven NGOs. The move pushes the total groups shut-down under a controversial law limiting foreign financing up to 90. (Confidencial)

  • The OAS will meet today to resume discussions on Nicaragua's political illegitimacy, after fraudulent elections in November. (Confidencial)

  • Trials against seven of Nicaragua's political detainees are scheduled to continue today for a fourth consecutive day, a prolongation that relatives say is tantamount to another method of torture. (Confidencial)

  • Twenty-one of Nicaragua's political prisoners are over the age of 60, an issue of increasing concern as their health deteriorates under deplorable detention conditions, say relatives. Last week former General Hugo Torres, aged 73, died in detention. (Confidencial, see Monday's briefs.)

  • Nicaragua's ruling Sandinista Party has turned electoral fraud into a lucrative political business, reports El Confidencial. The FSLN has taken in a little over US $60 million dollars through Nicaragua’s laws for public campaign financing, a murky system characterized by its lack of transparency.
  • Ecuadorean lawmakers approved regulations to allow women and girls access to abortions in cases of rape, following a constitutional court ruling that decriminalized such abortions. The new measure allows abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy for adult women in urban areas and up to 16 weeks for minors and adults in rural areas, reports the Guardian.
  • The death toll from floods and landslides in Rio de Janeiro state's mountain city of Petropolis rose to at least 117 yesterday and local officials said it could still rise sharply, with 116 more still unaccounted for. (Associated Press)

  • Bolsonaro is defunding the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) landmark Cerrado savannah deforestation monitoring program. "What escapes no one is that the defunding of INPE comes amid international outcry over spiking deforestation, which the government has proved helpless to contain, when it hasn’t actively encouraged it," writes Mac Margolis in the Washington Post.

  • Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is a frontrunner in this year's presidential election. He has sought to broaden his appeal beyond his traditional left-wing base, and will likely choose a center-right running mate. "Lula’s outreach and emphasis on building a moderate unity government seem intended both to win the election and set a new tone in Brazilian politics – leaving speechless those who accused him of being radical," writes Fábio Kerche at the Aula Blog.
  • Thousands of Haitian garment workers protested in Port-au-Prince yesterday to demand higher wages following weeks of similar demonstrations over pay and working conditions at firms that export to U.S. clothing retailers, reports Reuters.
Costa Rica
  • Both of the finalists in Costa Rica's presidential runoff are largely aligned economically and ideologically. The main difference between José María Figueres and Rodrigo Chaves are personalistic, and mark a growing disenchantment in Costa Rica with establishment parties, according to Nueva Sociedad.
  • Chances for a viable centrist unity candidate in Colombia's presidential elections this year seem increasingly distant, and a run-off between populist candidates on the left and right– in the vein of similarly divisive elections in 2018 -- seems the most likely outcome of May's vote, write Theodore Kahn and Silvana Amaya in Americas Quarterly.

  • An "invisible" Colombian drug lord whose criminal history dates to the country's former paramilitary army has been revealed to have set up drug routes with dissident guerrilla fighters, an example of how the erstwhile enemies are finding new opportunities to advance mutual trafficking interests, reports InSight Crime.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Castillo's approval rating is at its lowest point since he took office last July, according to a new Ipsos poll. Only 25 percent of respondents in the February poll approve of Castillo, while 69 percent disapprove. (Latin America Risk Report)
  • For a year, Latin America has been on the receiving end of COVID-19 “vaccine diplomacy,” but in recent months, several Latin American countries have swapped roles, and are now donating vaccines abroad. In all, 11 Latin American countries have cumulatively donated at least 7.7 million vaccine doses, according to calculations by the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program. (Wilson Center Weekly Asado)

  • Latin American countries scored poorly on Transparency International’s latest corruption index: of the 19 Latin American countries ranked, three-quarters scored below 50 in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) for 2021. The worst was Venezuela, which scored below North Korea and Afghanistan, reports InSight Crime.

  • For those concerned about leftist economic plans in the region, it's worth noting that Latin America's centrist and right-wing governments in recent years were neither good for economies nor capable of reining in deficit spending, writes James Bosworth in the Latin America Risk Report this week.
  • The last living speaker of Yamana, the language of the Indigenous Yagan community in Chile, died at age 93. (Reuters)
  • Mexican marathon champion Germán Silva's is running across the length of his country, a journey that shows a relatively unknown Mexico, writes Kevin Sieff in the Washington Post.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...Latin America Daily Briefing

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Guatemala detains more anti-corruption prosecutors (Feb. 17, 2022)

Guatemalan authorities arrested two assistant prosecutors from the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), yesterday, the latest in a string of detentions of anti-corruption officials. Both assistant prosecutors were involved in uncovering a corruption plot between lawyers, politicians and businessmen to elect judges, reports Reuters. Guatemalan authorities say arrest warrants are pending against two other assistant prosecutors involved in that case.

The case against yesterday's detainees will be presided over by Judge Geisler Smaille Pérez Domínguez, who has been implicated in the "Parallel Commissions 2020" case that the assistant prosecutors were investigating, reports the Associated Press.

The crackdown follows an explosive report this week by investigative media outlet El Faro: A former confidant of President Alejandro Giammattei accused him in sworn testimony of negotiating the delivery of $2.6 million in bribes from construction companies to finance his campaign in 2019. In exchange, according to the witness, Giammattei promised to keep then-Minister of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing José Luis Benito in his post for a year in order to allow him to continue operating a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme of infrastructure projects.

The testimony is part of a case presided over by Judge Erika Aifán, one of the most widely-recognized anti-corruption and anti-drug trafficking judges in Guatemala. Last month Attorney General Consuelo Porras asked the Supreme Court of Justice to remove the immunity from prosecution of Aifán. 

Yesterday's arrests mark the second time in a week that people working on high-level anti-corruption cases have been arrested in Guatemala. The U.S. State Department voiced concern over the "Guatemalan Public Ministry’s unacceptable mistreatment and persistent abuse of current and former independent prosecutors.  Under the leadership of Attorney General Consuelo Porras, the Public Ministry used searches and arrests based on sealed indictments and selectively leaked case information with the apparent intent to single out and punish Guatemalans who are combating impunity and promoting transparency and accountability."

U.S. State Department previously included Porras on the Engel List for “a pattern of obstruction of investigations into corruption,” reports El Faro.


Saab cooperated with DEA

Alex Saab, a businessman linked to high-level corruption in Venezuela's government, was secretly signed up by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as a source in 2018. As part of his multi-year cooperation with U.S. authorities, he shared information about bribes he paid to top officials in President Nicolás Maduro’s government. Saab also forfeited millions of dollars in illegal proceeds he admitted to earning from corrupt state contracts, according to revelations made public yesterday, following a heated closed door hearing in a U.S. federal court, reports the Associated Press.

Saab started communicating with DEA and FBI agents in Colombia about his planned cooperation in 2016. With his lawyers he continued those discussions with federal agents and prosecutors through June 2018, when he signed a “cooperating source agreement” with the DEA, the court document filed by prosecutors says. (Miami Herald)

For nearly a year, Saab reported paying bribes to Venezuelan officials to secure illicit food, housing and other contracts totaling hundreds of millions of dollars with the government. Saab communicated with DEA special agents “via telephone, text and voice messaging,” the document says, and he “engaged in proactive cooperation,” meaning he recorded conversations with co-conspirators targeted in the U.S. investigation.

Saab also made four wire transfers totaling more than $12 million of his Venezuelan contract profits to a U.S. bank account controlled by the DEA as part of his cooperation with the agency, the document says.

Saab was deactivated as a source after he missed a May 2019 deadline to surrender to or face criminal charges, as had been previously agreed during meetings in which he was represented by U.S. and Colombian attorneys. Two months later, he was sanctioned by the Trump administration and indicted in Miami federal court on charges of siphoning millions from Venezuelan state contracts.

U.S. prosecutors accuse Saab, a Colombia-born businessman and dealmaker for Maduro’s government, of siphoning around $350 million out of Venezuela via the United States as part of a bribery scheme linked to the state-controlled exchange rate, reports Reuters.

Saab's lawyer in the Miami court argued the businessman's family in Venezuela could be jailed or physically harmed by Maduro’s government if his interactions with U.S. law enforcement became known. U.S. prosecutors had sought to keep meetings with U.S. law enforcement a secret, out of concern for Saab’s safety and that of his family, some of whom are still in Venezuela. But they downplayed such dangers yesterday, saying Saab’s legal team hadn’t taken them up on an offer to assist his family in leaving Venezuela.

A New York based lawyer for Saab said the businessman only met with U.S. law enforcement officials to explain that his companies had done nothing wrong, and that Venezuela was fully aware of his engagement with those officials. But the news could be an embarrassment to Maduro’s government, which has championed Saab as a special envoy who helped Venezuela’s government conduct business deals under the radar of U.S. sanctions, reports the Guardian. Maduro’s allies have characterized Washington’s pursuit of Saab as part of an “economic war” on Venezuela being waged by the U.S. government.

News Briefs

Regional Relations
  • Venezuela's political crisis has become a source of geopolitical discord. "The Venezuelan parties’ recent readiness to negotiate could allow for a more constructive role from foreign powers, according to a new Crisis Group report. "The Venezuelan parties’ recent readiness to negotiate could allow for a more constructive role from foreign powers," but "bringing the various foreign powers on board with compromise will require adapting to their key interests and red lines."

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday hosted his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro for talks in Moscow and hailed ties between the two countries, which he described as consisting of "friendship and mutual understanding." Photos of their meeting in the Kremlin showed the presidents sitting close to each other, with a small end table between them, in contrast to recent meetings with European leaders that featured a table several meters long, reports the Associated Press.

  • Bolsonaro said during the visit that his country is interested in small nuclear reactors that are made by Russia's state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom, reports Reuters.

  • Bolsonaro’s trip to Moscow had been on the books since December, well before the Ukraine crisis unfolded, but in recent days U.S. and Brazilian officials sought to dissuade Brazil's president from carrying out the visit. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • At least 104 people have died after heavy rains sent devastating mudslides and floods through Petrópolis, in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro state. The downpours, which on Tuesday alone exceeded the average for the entire month of February, caused mudslides that buried homes, flooded streets, washed away cars and buses and left gashes hundreds of yards wide on the region’s mountainsides.The number of dead will likely rise as rescue efforts continue. (ReutersAssociated Press)
  • The United States, the European Union and others pledged $600 million in additional funds to help Haiti reconstruct its southern peninsula following a devastating earthquake six months ago. The pledges made during a conference held by the United Nations and Haiti's government fell short of an international push to raise $2 billion, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Jamaica's Supreme Court is trying 33 alleged gang members on charges including arson, murder and being part of a criminal organization. The case is testing recent judicial reforms designed to fight the island's powerful criminal groups, reports Reuters. Prime Minister Andrew Holness' government is hoping for convictions that could help slow gang violence in Jamaica, which authorities say is responsible for 70 percent of the country's homicides. (See last week's Just Caribbean Updates.)
  • Tentative signs of progress are emerging in talks between the private sector and Mexico's government towards forging a compromise on President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's controversial energy reform plans. Mexico's desire to avoid conflict with the United States over a regional trade pact has increased pressure for an accord, reports Reuters.
  • A month after a massive oil spill off Peru's shore, dozens of beaches near Lima remain deserted and thousands of fishermen remain without work as clean up proceeds slowly. Less than a quarter of the 11,900 barrels spilled in January have been recovered, reports the Associated Press.
  • Chile's Constituent Convention started formally debating motions for a new magna carta this week. The issues are varied and foundational, including: debates over plans to nationalise mining, the creation of a one-chamber Congress, water rights, and protections for Indigenous territories, among others. (Al Jazeera)
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take? Let me know ...