Friday, October 20, 2017

Venezuela's opposition governors blocked from assuming office (Oct. 20, 2017)

Venezuela's government blocked five newly elected opposition governors from assuming office yesterday, replacing them with ruling party substitutes. The opposition refused to swear in the governors before the polemic National Constituent Assembly (ANC) and released evidence it said proves electoral fraud in Bolivar state, reports the Wall Street Journal

Discrepancies in 11 voting machines' results in that state give the ruling-party candidate a slim margin of victory over the opposition candidate. Though opposition claims of fraud might not have much government impact, they could serve to raise international pressure on the government. And there are some signs that it could prove a rallying point for a newly divided opposition.

(See yesterday's briefs on the divisions within the Venezuelan opposition after Sunday's surprising electoral loss.)

But apart from the case in this state, "it seems clear now that the government victory in Sunday’s gubernatorial elections was not the result of vote counting fraud, but the cumulative impact of government dirty tricks, and opposition abstention," wrote David Smilde yesterday at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. His post includes testimony from an opposition activist who helped witness last Sunday's election, shedding some light on how the voting table changes could have impacted the final voting results. 

Washington Post op-ed by opposition commentator Francisco Toro helps explain the apparent paradox to outsiders: an improbable win by a wildly unpopular government. "Venezuela’s opposition has won elections in the past even when the playing field was obviously tilted in the government’s favor. The irregularities we saw on Sunday were blatant, widespread and serious, but they certainly didn’t come as a surprise. ... The grim reality is that the opposition’s morale is at rock bottom. Over the past few months Venezuela has been rocked by a protest movement that resulted in more than a hundred people dead, hundreds of others imprisoned, and the government’s hold on power undiminished. Exhaustion has set in. Millions of people who had turned out to vote for the opposition in the past just didn’t turn out. The government cheated, but it also won. Both things are true." 

Predictions for how elections will turn out are often wrong, and a surprising result doesn't necessarily mean malfeasance. But in this case consistent survey data showed most Venezuelans were inclined to vote against the government. "A sweeping government victory in the midst of profound economic and social unrest, after months of widespread protests against the Maduro government, beggars credulity," write Noam Lupu and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister of the Latin American Public Opinion Project in the Washington Post. "Our analyses suggest that Sunday’s elections were less than free and fair."

News Briefs
  • As conditions on the ground in Venezuela continue to worsen, a wave of immigrants is spreading around the region, reports the Los Angeles Times. Arrivals in Peru have roughly doubled since last year, and similar increases have been reported in Ecuador, Panama and Chile. Argentina’s migration officials say applications for temporary and permanent residence permits are on track to more than triple. An estimated 500,000 Venezuelans have left their country in the last two years.
  • The New York Times has a video series on food inequality in Venezuela -- ranging from dining out in Caracas to feeding a family of eight on scraps.
  • Armed actors are vying for control in former FARC territories in Colombia, fighting for territory and valuable illegal markets. "Grassroots security is crucial to assure the success of the peace process with the FARC as it shifts from a UN-monitored weapons handover to deeper structural reforms of politics and society. Efforts to combat remaining armed outfits are essential, but in so doing the government must not alienate the population and exacerbate poverty in ways that would aggravate the conditions that propel these groups’ growth," according to a new International Crisis Group report. (See yesterday's post on violence in Tumaco.)
  • The U.N.'s 13-year stabilization mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, ended on Monday, with a legacy of civilian repression, cholera, and sexual abuse, writes Edwidge Danticat in the New Yorker. The mission is being replaced with the smaller United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti, aimed at strengthening rule-of-law institutions,policing and human rights monitoring, reporting and analysis. MINUJUSTH "seems like a rebranding effort, an attempt by the U.N. to give itself a clean slate and erase MINUSTAH’s past. But if the U.N. were serious about justice and human rights in Haiti, it would wind down its presence in the country by having minujusth also investigate the damage done to both individuals and entire communities by minustah. Or, better yet, assign an independent body to do so, then offer the warranted compensation for the extrajudicial and civilian killings, the sexual assaults, and the introduction of cholera," he argues.
  • Argentines head to the polls on Sunday for closely watched mid-term elections. President Mauricio Macri's Cambiemos alliance is expected to obtain a few more seats in Congress, but the main headliner is the Buenos Aires province election in which former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is running for Senate. The race is seen as a bellwether for her potential in the next presidential elections. The week has been one of political tensions, with a judicial onslaught against former Kirchner officials accused of corruption. Yesterday a former high-level official of Kirchner's Ministry of Planning was arrested outside his Buenos Aires apartment. On Tuesday, a corpse was found in a Patagonian river, just 300 meters from where an activist missing for over two months was last seen, in the midst of an indigenous protest repressed by security forces. The body is believed to belong to Santiago Maldonado, who has become a flashpoint in the polarized election, reports the New York Times. Critics say the government was too quick to defend security forces and failed to seriously investigate. Government supporters say the opposition has made political use of a minor case. Now both sides wonder why the body appeared this week, upriver from the repressed protest.
  • Sao Paulo prosecutors have opened an inquiry into a municipal plan to supplement poorer citizens' diets with products made from nearly expired food. Prosecutors have demanded more information about the proposed products' nutritional content -- if any. Critics have compared the resulting pellets to "pet food," reports the Guardian. Mayor Joao Doria announced this week that the "farinata" products would be distributed in schools, surprising the Ministry of Education which had not been informed, reports Folha de S. Paulo.
  • An New York Times Español op-ed by Enrique Krauze reviews the century long relationship between Mexico's revolution and the Bolshevik revolution. "The Mexican Revolution, with its eclectic nationalism, absorbed and domesticated the Russian Revolution, making Mexico in the mid 1980s one of the few countries in the world where Trotskyists had an official presence in Congress.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Community leader killed in Tumaco - WOLA denounces threats to human rights activists (Oct. 19, 2017)

On Tuesday a prominent Afro-Colombian community group leader was killed by unidentified perpetrators. José Jairo Cortés was one of the leaders of the Afro-Colombian Community Council of Alto Mira and Frontera, and also helped support work that the Colombian Catholic Church’s social welfare program conducted in Tumaco, Nariño department, one of Colombia’s most conflict-ridden areas. 

WOLA denounces that "reports from the ground indicate that the leadership of this community council has come under threat after they denounced multiple human rights abuses taking place in Tumaco, including the October 5 massacre of civilian protesters.

In addition to the six protesters killed by security forces, and Cortés, two members of the awá indigenous group were assassinated this week, notes Semana.

La Silla Vacía says it was "literally a death foretold" and says the area has become an epicenter of violence in the wake of the FARC demobilization. At the heart of the conflict are issues of land, coca and territorial control, reports El Espectador. Armed groups in the area include a dissident FARC command, a Gulf Clan structure, and a Sinaloa Cartel associate. The government is unable to control the former FARC territories, which are disputed by the various illegal groups, according to Semana.

Semana says the government is advancing with a strategy of forced coca eradication, with less emphasis on the crop-substitution demanded by local producers.

The challenge is trying to reconcile two key points of the FARC peace deal "comprehensive land reform and rural development on the one hand, and crop eradication and substitution on the other — in a way that is economically and socially sustainable and will not be too disruptive for the vast majority of the poor peasant farmers in just about every region of Colombia," according to NACLA.

WOLA calls on Colombian authorities to "guarantee the security of the remaining 14 members of the Community Council board and their families. This means strengthening security measures for those who are already receiving some form of protection and immediately grant measures for those who are not. The killing of Cortes increases the risk that the entire community of Alto Mira and Frontera will flee the area due to safety concerns, and thus become internally displaced."

News Briefs
  • Six former FARC fighters who were reintegrating into civilian life as part of the group's peace deal with the government, have been killed in an ambush in Isupi, in the southwestern department of Nariño, reports TeleSUR.
  • The five newly elected opposition governors in Venezuela boycotted a swearing in ceremony before the pro-government supra-parliamentary Constituent Assembly. They refused to "submit" to the ANC, considered illegitimate by many in the international community, reports the Associated Press. President Nicolás Maduro said failure to attend the ceremony would preclude them from office. Nonetheless the real showdown appears to be within the potentially unravelling opposition coalition, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some members of the MUD alliance have denounced electoral fraud to explain the opposition rout, while others argued that the fault lies in opposition calls for abstention, or that the opposition shouldn't have participated at all. Leading opposition figures have recognized that actual manipulation of the vote is unlikely, and are instead pointing to electoral council maneuvers to suppress the opposition vote, reports the Associated Press. And observation group pointed to irregularities that include vote buying, violent threats against voters, and early start to voting in half the voting tables, reports Efecto Cocuyo. "... The opposition won neither a real victory nor a clear-cut moral one. It had a hard time rallying its supporters," according to the Economist, also noting the growing schism in the opposition. The results of this week's election could encourage Maduro to move forward with next year's presidential elections, but could also mean he will run unopposed: the MUD has said it will not participate in another election unless the electoral commission is made independent.
  • The Justice Commission of the Brazilian House of Deputies voted against making President Michel Temer stand trial on corruption charges. Though the vote isn't binding, it gives Temer political momentum ahead of the full chamber's vote, reports AFP. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia died in a car bomb explosion. She participated in the Panama Papers investigation linking Maltese government officials to offshore accounts. Her son accused Maltese authorities of complicity in her death, reports El Faro.
  • Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno is breaking with his predecessor Rafael Correa. While many have lauded his more conciliatory approach in a polarized political scene, the "political turnaround is complicating Ecuador’s democratic transition and unraveling his party," argues Soledad Stoessel in the Conversation. She notes that Moreno has engaged with every political and social group considered the opposition by Correa, including media conglomerates, the financial sector and indigenous groups. But she criticizes policy moves such as permitting private banks to work with digital cash, and reforms to the polemic Communications Act, in keeping with anti-Correa media company demands. (See yesterday's briefing an opposing vision of Moreno's political break.)
  • Moreno's political stance has made him wildly popular, says an approving Economist piece. "Ecuador shows that transitions from populist rule can potentially be constructive and consensual. In that, it is a counterpoint to Venezuela, where Nicolás Maduro took Hugo Chávez’s populist caudillo socialism and turned it into dictatorship."
  • Members of an Ecuadorean indigenous community evicted in order to make room for a mine are suffering from psychological damage, reports the Guardian. Children of the indigenous Shuar people of Tsuntsuim village  were particularly traumatized by the noise of the helicopters and drones that had circled overhead during the eviction, according to medical researchers.
  • Mexico’s independent National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) said police used excessive force in confrontations with protesters in Oaxaca last year that left seven dead. Both federal and state officers committed "grave violations" of human rights, said CNDH chairman Luis Raul Gonzalez in a press conference, according to EFE. Four of the deaths were caused by bullets used by security forces, according to the report. The commission found discrepancies in initial official reports that police deployed in the protests had not carried weapons and weapons registries, reports Animal Político. (See post for June 20, 2016.)
  • Guatemala's Constitutional Court ordered the Foreign Ministry to withdraw an admonition warning CICIG head Iván Velásquez against interfering in the country's internal affairs. The ministry made the warning against the U.N. anti-corruption commission head in a visa renewal letter this week. (See yesterday's briefs.) But the court said a diplomatic note could not restrict the commission’s work, reports the Associated Press.
  • Clarification: U.S. Congressmen Edward Royce and Eliot Engel, the top-ranking officials of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are seeking to block the entry of Guatemalan officials aiding corruption using the "Global Magnitsky Act." Yesterday's briefing referred to the Magnitsky Act, which only deals with to Russia. InSight Crime says it's unclear what effect the sanctions will have in creating pressure against anti-CICIG elements in the Guatemalan government, "given the widely-reported disarray in the State Department."
  • A "mind-boggling" 85 independent candidates are running for presidency in Mexico. Many, however, are not expected to meet the requirement to gather signatures from 1 percent of the electorate in order to get on the ballot. Next year's election will be the first time independent candidates are allowed to run. The political splintering could affect the next president's political legitimacy, however, reports the Washington Post.
  • A journalist investigation found that Salvadoran businessman Enrique Rais, a fugitive from corruption charges at home and potentially the subject of a U.S. investigation as well, has been living in a luxurious hideout in Switzerland. The case "how Salvadoran elites are able to use their influence to evade justice," reports InSight Crime.
  • U.S. debate on Latin American migrants is mostly centered on domestic impact -- electoral and economic. "Lost in these US-centric arguments is the role of our foreign policy in creating the conditions that push people in Central America and Mexico to make the long, arduous, and frequently fatal trek north," argues Jeff Faux in The Nation. Relevant policies include neoliberal economic measures imposed by Washington and the War on Drugs, he writes.
  • The U.S. government is preparing to announce aggressive anti-dumping duties on biodiesel imports, a measure that will disproportionately affect Argentina, reports McClatchy DC. The trade penalties could be announced tomorrow, a tough move two days ahead of a critical midterm election seen as a referendum on President Mauricio Macri's government. Experts are surprised at the timing considering Macri is seen as a U.S. ally in the region. Trump called Macri this week and the two had a cordial conversation about trade and shared concerns over Venezuela, reports La Nación.
  • Brazilian federal prosecutors the former head of the country’s Olympic committee, Carlos Nuzman, with involvement in a vote-buying ring meant to secure Rio de Janeiro’s bid to host the 2016 Games, reports the Wall Street Journal. Sérgio Cabral, the former governor of Rio de Janeiro, was also charged with  corruption, conspiracy, money laundering and capital evasion. In the same case, businessman Arthur César de Menezes Soares Filho, a Brazilian partner in the former Trump Hotel Rio de Janeiro , was charged with paying bribes to help secure Rio's bid, reports the New York Times.
  • The Brazilian government claims Amazon deforestation is down by 16% in the year to July 2017 compared to the previous 12 months, reports the BBC.
  • A judge in Chile has sentenced 35 former secret police agents of for the kidnapping, detention and forced disappearance of a pregnant woman in 1976, during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, reports the Associated Press.
  • New York Times photoessay features the work of Max Cabello Orcasitas, a Peruvian photojournalist, looking at the exhumations of the massacres carried out by both the Shining Path guerrillas and the military and police forces that hunted them.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Brazilian lawmakers expected to shield Temer from corruption charges (Oct. 18, 2017)

The Constitution and Justice Committee of Brazil's Chamber of Deputies is debating charges against President Michel Temer. El País has live coverage of the debate. He was accused by the outgoing attorney general of heading a criminal organization and obstructing justice. (See Sept. 15's post.) Though lawmakers are expected to reject the charges, speeches yesterday were predominantly negative, reports Folha de S. Paulo

Temer will likely be protected from facing the charges by the deputies, "but trust in Brazil’s political leaders has been drastically undermined.That lack of trust is feeding support for an authoritarian solution to the crisis – which could have serious consequences in next year’s presidential elections," according to the Guardian.

Temer won the last Congressional vote over whether he should face charges of corruption with an open handed distribution of funds for local projects. This time critics are pointing to other maneuvering.

A change in how Brazil's government defines modern-day slavery could affect its ability to protect workers, reports the Guardian. Advocates said the move was a "social regression" aimed at currying support with the agri-business lobby ahead of this week's Congressional vote on whether Temer should face corruption charges.

Temer is also considering appointing a new chief for BNDES, one that would satisfy Congressional Speaker Rodrigo Maia's desire for more influence in the state development bank, reports Reuters.

News Briefs
  • Honduran politicians are increasingly concerned regarding the testimony of self-confessed drug trafficker Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga in a New York courtroom. The former leader of the Cachiros drug trafficking group who confessed to being responsible for nearly 80 murders struck a deal with US authorities to obtain judicial leniency in exchange for providing information on corrupt officials. But lest the accusations be used against a the ruling party, a current Honduran presidential advisor has argued that organized crime has "permeated society in general and funneled money, placed deputies, placed judges, various offices, within the attorney general's office and everywhere," affecting politicians across the spectrum, reports InSight Crime.
  • Guatemala's foreign ministry announced it was granting U.N. corruption commission head Iván Velásquez a visa. This is a reversal after authorities announced they were denying the CICIG chief a visa due to irregularities in his application, reports EFE. The determinations come in the midst of a political tug-of-war between the CICIG and President Jimmy Morales, who has attempted to oust the corruption commission that has accused him of accepting illicit campaign financing.
  • U.S. lawmakers seek to revoke visas for Guatemalan politicians accused of corruption, reports El PeriódicoThe Magnitsky Act, used to impose sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin's allies, could also enable sanctions against anti-CICIG politicians reports Nómada.
  • Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno has chosen to ask citizens to ratify or reject a Constitutional amendment permitting indefinite presidential reelection, introduced by his predecessor. The referendum amounts to a political parricide of the current president against his former mentor, argues Felipe Burbano in a New York Times Español op-ed. The schism between the two lies in vastly different styles of governance. Moreno has been critical of his predecessor's messianic attitudes, lack of transparency, inefficient implementation of public policy and handling of the economy. Correa loyalists say it is a rupture with the widely recognized social and economic advances of the past decade. Moreno's open and alliance oriented governance style is also viewed as a betrayal, he writes.
  • Haitian police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters marching on the capital Port-au-Prince. The demonstrations are part of a growing anger at the 2017-2018 budget seen as unfairly taxing the country's poorest, reports AFP.
  • The U.N.'s MINUSTAH mission in Haiti officially ended this week. Igarapé Institute published a special report with perspectives from the Brazilian participation in the stabilization mission and insights for future missions.
  • InSight Crime field research points to a higher number of FARC guerrilla dissidents than those officially recognized by the Colombian government -- possibly double. Issues related to the implementation of last year's peace deal could be pushing those numbers up. 
  • Nearly three months after the young Argentine activist Santiago Maldonado disappeared in a violently repressed protest, a cadaver appeared in a nearby river in southern Argentina. The case has been a rallying cry for human rights organizations who accuse the government of protecting security forces in the case. The Mapuche indigenous tribe involved in the land protests say the body was planted there and that it hadn't turned up in recent searches of the area, reports La Nación. The Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (EAAF) was called in to help identify the body, and Página 12 has a profile of the group that applied forensic anthropology to identify the remains of the disappeared in Argentina's last dictatorship. 
  • Five days ahead of much contested midterm elections, Argentine judges are seeking the detention of a key ally of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Judges said Julio De Vido, former planning minister for Kirchner and current lawmaker, should be jailed because of the risk of him fleeing or interfering with a case of alleged fraud, reports Reuters.
  • Jailed Argentine social activist Milagro Sala was transferred suddenly from house arrest back to jail this weekend, contradicting an order from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, reports Página 12.
  • "Gender ideology," a phrase used by LGBTQ rights opponents around the region, has now been banned in Paraguayan schools. Education Minister Enrique Riera said the government recognizes "traditional values" and the "traditional family," consisting of "father, mother and children." Advocates say the move will lead to discrimination against women and LGBTQ people, reports NBC News.
  • The United States, Canada and Mexico said they will extend NAFTA renegotiation talks into next year, citing "significant conceptual gaps" in reaching a revised agreement. The talks had been slated to end this year, ahead of key elections in the three countries, and could spell out a slow demise for the 1994 free trade agreement, according to the New York Times.
  • Prototypes of Trump's proposed border wall are going up in San Diego this month. So far half a dozen would be migrants have managed to pass the existing fence and found themselves in the middle of the project that aims to be "impenetrable." The site chosen is somewhat ironic, notes the Washington Post, as "San Diego has long demonstrated the weakness of walls. Nowhere is more famous for its sophisticated border tunnels than this industrial sprawl."
  • Trump's hostility towards the country's closest neighbors in the region counter the U.S.'s best interests, argues Richard Feinberg in Americas Quarterly. "Rather than making America great again, Trump’s postures against our near abroad threaten to damage our national interests. ... Our geopolitical competitors must be confounded – and intrigued – by Washington’s own dismemberment of a strategic asset.  We shall see how nations such as China, Russia and Venezuela, and the unseen forces of global chaos, take advantage of the U.S.’s unforced errors in its hemisphere."
  • However, though Trump's LatAm policies are infuriating, they will not provoke a unified regional response, giving the impression of acquiescence, argues Nicolás Comini at Aula Blog."Internally, the left and right may agree that Trump is harming their interests, but their reasons are different and prescriptions for dealing with it are far apart.  On a regional basis as well, the current context accelerates the atomization of the region – and threatens to expand the bargaining power of the great powers of the United States, China, Germany, or Israel.  Although China is making inroads, in the end the United States has, and will retain, the greatest influence in Latin America – and the lack of efficient regional decision-making will prolong that situation.  Latin American fragmentation will create an image of acquiescence – and President Trump will think he is not doing so badly in the region."
  • An oil spill off of Trinidad and Tobago's coast this weekend is an important warning that Guyana must create better oil spill response legislation, according to Kaieteur News.
  • The legacy of Che Guevara and his anti-imperialist struggle has been of massive impact in Latin America, and has pushed the left away from democratic solutions, an archaism that should be corrected, argues the Economist.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Trump blamed Cuba for alleged sonic attacks (Oct. 17, 2017)

News Briefs
  • U.S. President Donald Trump blamed Cuba for the mysterious sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats posted to the island, reports Politico. In a Rose Garden press conference, he said at the very least the government could have prevented them. "I do. I think Cuba knew about it, sure," Trump said. "I do believe Cuba’s responsible. I do believe that, and it’s a very unusual attack, as you know, but I do believe Cuba’s responsible, yes." The Cuban government has repeatedly denied involvement in the attacks or knowledge about them, notes the GuardianThe alleged attacks have been used "opportunistically" as an excuse to overturn the Obama administration's rapprochement policy, criticized the Brookings Institution last week. (See Oct. 12's briefs.)
  • Mexico's attorney general, a close ally of President Enrique Peña Nieto, resigned yesterday. A broad coalition of social organizations have demanded an autonomous prosecutor. Attorney General Raúl Cervantes, a former PRI senator, was viewed by anti-corruption activists as a shield for corruption investigations into the ruling party, reports the New York Times. His leaving could remove "a key obstacle to the overhaul of a dysfunctional judicial system," reports Wall Street Journal. He announced the surprise move in the Senate yesterday. It's a victory for the approximately 300 organizations—from government-accountability nonprofits to universities and business groups— that had campaigned against Cervantes in recent months. Civil society organizations were particularly concerned that Cervantes' term would extend for nine years, potentially protecting the PRI even under another presidency. Peña Nieto said he will not name a new attorney general until after next year's elections, in a bid to depoliticize the appointment, reports Animal Político.
  • Venezuela's opposition is alleging fraud in the regional elections this weekend, but without hard evidence will have a difficult time making their case, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's post.) Opposition leaders rejected the results of gubernatorial elections in which they lost, counter to all predictions, but offered no concrete evidence of fraud. They pointed to irregularities, such as delayed voting, non-functional voting machines, or moved polling stations, causing difficulties for opposition voters, reports the Associated PressEfecto Cocuyo reviews what the opposition must do to legallly verify fraud. Experts say the results bode ill for the opposition MUD coalition. "This is a catastrophe for the opposition," WOLA's David Smilde told the NYT. "I think they’re going to pay a real price with Venezuelans." The CNE has released the official numbers of votes, down the electoral table. The MUD must now quantify the votes it will challenge, explains Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. "If it turns out that the election was actually decided by the opposition’s failure to convince its base to turn out, or their lack of message and concrete proposals, that should lead to a round of reflection and reformulation. Stringing-along with ambiguous, unconvincing claims of fraud will generate disillusionment among average citizens and ambivalence within the international community," he writes.  The results make negotiations between the opposition and the government increasingly unlikely, reports the Wall Street Journal. The calculated risk the opposition took in participating in the election at all seems to have backfired for them, and has left them in "a deeper rut," according to the Washington Post
  • The real winner of Venezuela's contested elections is organized crime, according to InSight Crime. As long as the Maduro government maintains power, so will the criminal elements with ties to high level officials. Additionally, the economic and social crisis pushing many Venezuelans to flee is fueling contraband and human smuggling, as well as providing criminal organizations with cheap labor.
  • Mexico is increasingly preparing for the possibility that NAFTA will fall apart, reports the New York Times. Chile, Argentina and China could potentially replace some of the trade with the United States. But the collapse of the free trade deal could also impact national politics ahead of the presidential election next year.
  • Most gang members in El Salvador contemplate leaving at some point, but actually doing that is a hard process. The most effective method is by becoming an evangelical Christian said José Miguel Cruz, the lead investigator of a recent Florida International University report on the subject. However the government is doing almost nothing to support rehabilitation for former gang members, he said in an interview with InSight Crime. "The prevailing sense among law enforcement -- which at the moment is most in charge of gang policies -- is that gang members cannot be rehabilitated, so why waste resources in trying if these guys have no redemption?"
  • Brazil's landmark Operation Car Wash investigation -- which has led to over 160 convictions in the past three years -- is drawing to a close. But, crusading Judge Sergio Moro told the Wall Street Journal that ending corruption will ultimately depend on politicians.
  • The number of dead in Colombian security forces' repression of demonstrating coca farmers in Nariño last week remains in dispute -- the Prosecutor’s Office puts the number at seven dead and 30 wounded. Rights groups representing the farmers put the tally at 16 dead and more than 50 wounded. At heart, the bloodshed responds to pressure from Washington to cut cocaine production levels, according to the Daily Beast.
  • Puerto Ricans who still lack access to water are turning to environmentally hazardous sources, reports the Washington Post.
  • WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange -- who has been sheltered in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012 -- is fighting with Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno, reports the Washington Post. Moreno has asked Assange, who is wanted in Sweden for alleged sex offenses and potentially in the United States for publishing state secrets, to keep quiet on the Spanish-Catalan constitutional crisis. The piece quotes César Ricaurte, head of Fundamedios, who said the government may be seeking a way out of the Assange impasse, part of Moreno's distancing from his predecessor's policies.
  • Ecuador’s jailed vice-president, Jorge Glas, said he is a victim of revenge by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. Glas is a suspected recipient of illegal kickbacks, but denies the charges and said Odebrecht is getting even for getting thrown out of Ecuador in 2008, reports AFP.
  • A regional leftist leader in Mexico's Guerrero state was killed over the weekend, along with his mother and driver, reports the Associated Press. Ranferi Hernandez Acevedo was a founding member of Mexico’s main leftist party, Democratic Revolution, but broke away in 2015 and has been a key supporter of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
  • Though Brazil has a gay-friendly reputation, "researchers say the growing power of evangelical Christian groups is fueling prejudice and intolerance in the country’s political, professional and cultural circles. Increasingly, those outside of the heteronormative or religious mainstream are becoming targets for intolerance," reports PRI.
  • Uruguay’s first batch of medical cannabis oil for export will be ready in December, reports Reuters.
  • The Chilean government began a process of consultation with nine indigenous groups in relation to the country's new constitution, reports EFE.
  • A South Korean energy project in Chile will combine conventional solar panels and thermal technology that will generate electricity at night, reports Bloomberg.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's approval rating bumped up eight points to 30, helped by a reduction in tensions in the opposition dominated Congress and hopes that the national team will qualify for the World Cup, reports Reuters.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Venezuela's opposition loses in gubernatorial elections, claims fraud (Oct. 16, 2017)

Venezuela's ruling party claims to have won a majority of governorships in yesterday's elections. The surprising results -- 17 governorships for the Socialist party and just five for the opposition MUD coalition, one race too close to call -- has the country's opposition politicians calling for street protests and audits of the 23 gubernatorial elections, reports Reuters.

President Nicolás Maduro said more than 61 percent of voters turned out to back a peaceful resolution to the country's political crisis, reports EFE. The national electoral council (CNE) said the ruling party obtained 54 percent of the vote around the country, reports Efecto Cocuyo

The PSUV held governorships in 20 of the 23 contested states, but opinion polls leading up to the vote had shown the opposition poised to take advantage of widespread anger at the government. Polls in fact predicted the opposite result -- up to 18 governorships for the opposition, reports EFE. Pollsters had noted a high level of turnout would be required to ensure such a result for the opposition, according to the Wall Street Journal. But that threshold was met. El País notes the losses in opposition strongholds, including Miranda state, currently governed by opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

The MUD denounced an unequal and tricky system and said it will not recognize the results until they can be audited, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Voting took place peacefully yesterday, but voters were stymied by changes in where they could vote -- forcing many to take travel to other areas, dominated by government supporters -- and alleged delaying tactics in opposition strongholds, reports the New York Times. The CNE moved over 200 polling stations from neighborhoods supporting the opposition to poorer, more violent Maduro strongholds, reported the Guardian yesterday. Opposition politicians who lost in primary elections were included on the ballots, but a vote for them is considered invalid.

Analysts quoted by the Financial Times said the results aren't credible, noting it would mean the ruling Socialist party has maintained its share of the vote since 2013, despite the massive economic crisis and widespread protests this year. Experts quoted by the Wall Street Journal said the results "verged on the statistically impossible."

The official result is not credible, according to David Smilde, who notes that the high turnout belies a result that does not reflect the government's vast unpopularity. Venezuela's electoral system has a "solid system of audits and checks," he writes, though it requires the CNE to release results from individual voting tables, which it hadn't done as of last night. And the MUD must substantiate its claims of tampering, including presenting evidence of voter suppression, assisted voting or duplicate voting, rather than vague calls for audits, he writes at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.

Indeed, the fraud could be more related to broader issues of an unequal playing field, rather than outright manipulation of results -- making the allegations far harder to prove, argues Raul Stolk at Caracas Chronicles.

Distrust of the system among Venezuelans has grown in recent years. A Venebarometro poll ahead of the vote found that 70 percent of respondents expected yesterday's election to be fraudulent, according to the WSJ.

Part of the reason for the government to push forward with this postponed elections is to recover a level of international credibility after the very questioned Constituent Assembly (ANC) elections earlier this year, noted Smilde last week. "... the Venezuelan government has been doing its best to showcase the regional elections as proof of its commitment to electoral democracy, and trying to use the vote to legitimize the ANC," wrote Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights ahead of the vote. However, countries in the region have stated they would not recognize the ANC, regardless of the results of yesterday's election.

The results could push sanctions from more members of the international community, including the European Union.

The results will likely heighten the potential for conflict and uncertainty, reports the BBC. The outcome will strengthen the opposition sectors that argued against participating in the elections, saying the CNE is an invalid arbiter, according to El País.

Ahead of the vote, Smilde was quoted by the New York Times, saying that "there is a big gray zone between dictatorship and democracy that Venezuela is in right now.”

A video released Saturday by ousted attorney general Luisa Ortega released a video with testimony alleging that Odebrecht made illicit campaign donations to key government politicians, including Diosdado Cabello. Ortega's material showed an excerpt from a deposition by the former head of Odebrecht’s Venezuelan operations in which he discusses how the Brazilian construction giant attempted to influence state and municipal elections in exchange for easing of red tape. The evidence seemed timed to impact on yesterday's elections, notes the New York Times

Last week Ortega posted a video in which the same Odebrecht executive testified that the company had paid President Nicolás Maduro at least $35 million in bribes in 2013 linked to campaign promises. Ortega said she shared information about high level corruption in the Maduro administration with U.S. officials, reports Reuters.

Venezuela briefs
  • Recent shootouts between prison inmates at Tocorón, in the state of Aragua, and police officers demonstrate the power of criminal groups in Venezuela and "the government's lack of ability, or will, to take control," reports InSight Crime.
  • The IMF is quietly analyzing a potential bailout for Venezuela, that would involve $30 billion in annual international help, and include one of the world’s most complex bond restructurings, reports the Financial Times. A recent IMF report said the country "remains in a full-blown economic, humanitarian, and political crisis with no end in sight," notes the Wall Street Journal. By 2018, the IMF said, the country’s economy will have contracted by 35% from 2014.
News Briefs
  • The U.N. ended its 13.5 year peacekeeping operation in Haiti yesterday. MINUSTAH is slated to be replaced by a smaller mission focused on justice, human rights and police development —  MINUJUSTH. Though the country must overcome complicated hurdles, the operation should be considered a success, according to its head, Sandra Honoré. (Link to full report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti from earlier this month.)
  • The Miami Herald explores whether the country is ready function without a large multinational military presence. MINUSTAH leaves behind a mixed legacy, marred in particular by the introduction of a cholera outbreak and sexual abuse allegations. Public opinion is in favor of the peacekeepers' departure, argue Siobhán Wills, Cahal McLaughlin, and Ilionor Louis in the Conversation. They say that early efforts to eradicate gangs in violent neighborhoods led U.N. troops to unintentionally kill at least 25 people.
  • Guatemalan police captured the leader of the MS-13 street gang Ángel Gabriel Reyes Marroquín, known as Blanco. Authorities believe he is behind the hospital attack that left seven dead in August, reports the BBC. (At the time authorities said the attack was orchestrated to free a jailed gang leader, see Aug. 17's briefs.)
  • Guatemalan human rights groups and other civil society organizations created a national front against corruption and impunity this weekend. They aim to implement reforms promoting profound political change, reports El Periódico. Among other things, they demand the resignation of the legislators who voted in favor of maintaining President Jimmy Morales' immunity from prosecution despite allegations of illicit campaign financing.
  • Cuban President Raul Castro's economic reforms represent the country's "most urgent need and, at the same time, an increasingly controversial one," writes William Leogrande in Americas Quarterly. Castro, slated to step down next year, will leave his successor with a complicated economic panorama. "... Recent signals indicate the reforms may be stalled and that some of Cuba’s leaders are having doubts." Key issues include a delayed promise to unify a dual currency and exchange rate. He also notes that "while the reform process has had limited success stimulating growth, it has produced a noticeable rise in inequality, price increases that outpace wage growth, and rumblings of political discontent."
  • A a new UNICEF report shows a worsening rate of adolescent homicides in Brazil, "one of the more extreme examples of a trend seen across the region: violence by and against young people, especially young males," according to InSight Crime. If the trend continues, then 43,000 more adolescents will be murdered in the country's 300 most populous municipalities between 2015 and 2021.
  • Campaign financing reform passed earlier this month in Brazil aims to replace corporate donations, declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 2015. Congress created a "special campaign-finance fund," in addition to an existing fund aimed at covering parties' administrative costs. Individuals can donate up to 10 percent of their income to candidates, who can also spend millions of reais of their own money. Though the initial impact will be greater for major parties, in the long run, the changes could hurt smaller parties and favor already famous candidates, reports the Economist
  • Argentine lawyer, Delia Ferreira Rubio, has been chosen to head Transparency International, reports Infobae. The former head of the Argentine chapter of the organization is a stalwart opponent of Argentine efforts to implement electronic voting.
  • As the U.S. distances itself increasingly from Cuba, the island is becoming diplomatically cozier with Russia, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Ongoing and widespread power outages have forced Puerto Rico residents to go "old school" with washboards, candles and cash, reports the Miami Herald. And public health experts are concerned that rotting mounds of trash could set the stage for epidemics. Four deaths could already be ascribed to leptospirosis — a bacterial infection caused by rodent urine tainting the water from springs, reports the Miami Herald separately.
  • A new exhibition at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Chile focuses on Washington’s intervention in Chile and its 17-year relationship with the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, reports the New York Times.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Rios Montt Trial Resumes in Guatemala (Oct 13, 2017)

The retrial against former Guatemalan military dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt and his military intelligence chief restarts today, writes Jo-Marie Burt for the International Justice Monitor. It will be a closed door trial (due to the 91-year-old Rios Montt's diagnosis of dementia), and for now proceedings will only take place one day a week. 

In a landmark 2013 case, a judge found Rios Montt guilty of genocide and sentenced him to 80 years in prison, only for the Constitutional Court to overturn the ruling 10 days later. The Rios Montt case was extremely politically and historically significant for Guatemala, with many viewing his trial as emblematic of the country's struggles to seek justice for military abuses committed during Guatemala's civil war. However, the case would have also set a precedent for the prosecution of other elites who perpetrated crimes against humanity, a reality which likely influenced the Constitutional Court's ruling. The Rios Montt case was also particularly notable as it was the first time a former president was prosecuted for genocide in a national, rather than international, court.

The retrial may primarily serve a symbolic purpose -- Rios Montt's dementia prevents him from serving time in prisonEFE reported that at least four elderly witnesses who testified during the 2013 trial against Rios Montt have since passed away, arguably adding to a sense of urgency for the retrial. 

Notably, Rios Montt's defense lawyer was among those arrested last week by the Attorney General's Office and anti-impunity commission the CICIG, accused of mishandling public money in connection to a prison corruption ring (see the Oct. 6 brief). 

News Briefs

  • The AP got a hold of a recording of the "sonic attack" which reportedly injured at least 21 U.S. diplomats in Cuba, causing a major setback in relations between the two countries. In another twist to the story, neurologists told The Guardian that the symptoms experienced by U.S. personnel in Havana possibly were caused by "mass hysteria." Amid the ongoing mystery about what possibly could have caused the reported injuries, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that the White House believes "the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats." A State Department spokeswoman echoed his words during a press conference, asserting that the Cuban government "may have more information than we are aware of right now." 
  • Venezuela's former Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz published a video on her website, which reportedly shows the head of the Venezuelan division of giant construction conglomerate Odebrecht saying he will pay President Nicolas Maduro $35 million in bribes. Before leaving Venezuela in August, Ortega said she was under pressure to flee the country due to an ongoing investigation into bribes that Odebrecht paid out to Maduro and other government officials. 
  • Reuters profiles Venezuela migrants forced to return home after failing to start a new life elsewhere. While no official data exists on the number of Venezuelans who've returned home after migrating, Reuters reports that an estimated 2 million Venezuelans have left the country under the Maduro government. Countries receiving an influx of Venezuelan migrants include Colombia (where a reported 36,000 Venezuelans enter daily), Panama (where a reported 2,000 Venezuelans arrive weekly), and Peru (40,000 Venezuelans have arrived during the first half of 2017). 
  • An investigation by The Guardian found that many of the buildings that collapsed in Mexico City during the Sept. 19 earthquake had received citizen complaints about safety. The city's building boom was accompanied by a similar spike in complaints by residents about construction violations. "Mexico City is prone to earthquakes, but the way it has developed since 1985 has made it even more so," the article states. 
  • Mexico passed a law which aims to strengthen the government’s ability to track and investigate disappearances. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) calls this an important step forward for human rights in Mexico, although fully implementing the law will be the real challenge. Additionally, the law "does little to facilitate the investigation of high-ranking security officers accused of forced disappearances," and "establishes harmful distinctions between 'disappeared' and 'missing' persons, which could possibly cause many cases to be classified as voluntary absences rather than forced disappearances."
  • The New Yorker examines whether Brazil's economic and political turmoil is fostering the myth that a military coup could help the country "clean up" its corruption problem. The article notes that a recent poll showed 43 percent of respondents as supporting "temporary military intervention." Homicide and crime rates could also be feeding Brazilians' nostalgia "for those days of law and apparent order," the article states. 
  • InSight Crime reviews three books about the history of the Zetas, the violent crime group whose modus operandi (and subsequent fracturing) had huge repercussions for Mexico's underworld. The Zetas' most enduring legacy may be their successful efforts to exploit and extort Mexico's energy sector, setting a model which other criminal groups in the country are likely to follow. InSight Crime is also running a three-part series looking at mayors and organized crime in the Northern Triangle -- the first installment focuses on Guatemala. 
  • John Otis reports for NPR on Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno, noting that while Moreno was a protege of his predecessor, Rafael Correa, Moreno has openly criticized corruption reported under the Correa administration.
  • Radio Ambulante reports on a 1974 World Cup qualifier between Chile and the Soviet Union, which the Soviet Union initially refused to play because, at the time, the Pinochet government had used Chile's largest stadium as a concentration camp to house prisoners of the regime. 
-- Elyssa Pachico