Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Brazilian appeals court to determine Lula's political future (Jan. 23, 2018)

A Brazilian appeals court is set to decide tomorrow on whether to uphold the conviction of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on corruption and money laundering charges. Lula was sentenced to a nine-and-a-half year sentence last July, part of the sprawling Operation Car Wash investigation into graft at state-owned oil company Petrobras. 

If the conviction is upheld he will be in-eligible to run for president in October's election, reports Reuters. The historic decision could remove voters' favorite from the running and highlights the country's political fragility, according to the BBC. Early polling shows that 36 percent of voters favor Lula. Nonetheless, the legal battle could well continue until September, notes the Washington Post

In fact, if the conviction is upheld, Lula can take the case to the Supreme Court, and the battle could feasibly extend beyond the election itself, potentially rendering him ineligible after a win, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Authorities in Puerto Alegre are bracing for upheaval tomorrow: they have have closed airspace over the court, sealed off the surrounding streets, and plan to deploy helicopters, elevated observation platforms and even rooftop sharpshooters, reports the Guardian. The appeals court has confirmed 95 percent of the convictions and sentences handed down by crusading anti-corruption judge Sergio Moro, who sentenced Lula.

A decision that prevents Lula from running, while permitting other candidates who are also suspected of wrongdoing, would be detrimental and could provoke backlash, Peter Hakim, the president-emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue told Bloomberg. Former President Dilma Rousseff, ousted in 2016, went further, saying a decision against Lula would make Brazil ungovernable. "Any government that assumes power by winning the 2018 elections, without a transparent and correct electoral process, without maneuvers to invalidate candidates -- as in Lula's case -- will not be able to govern this country," Rousseff told AFP.

"If Mr. da Silva is barred from the presidential election, the result could have very little legitimacy, as in the Honduran election in November that was widely seen as stolen," writes Mark Weisbrot in a New York Times op-ed. "A poll last year found that 42.7 percent of Brazilians believed that Mr. da Silva was being persecuted by the news media and the judiciary. A noncredible election could be politically destabilizing."

Weisbrot reviews what he calls "scanty" evidence against Lula. The charismatic former leader says the charges against him are politically motivated, a trial against his government and the socially favorable policies he championed. The case itself demonstrates the polarization of Brazilian society, according to Reuters: Lula supporters say the charges are trumped up, while opponents demand for him to be put in jail.

Though the decision to uphold the sentence could mean jail-time for the former president, analysts say its likely the 72-year-old will be permitted to continue the appeals process in freedom, reports the Washington Post.

Markets have been rallying as investors hope that Lula will be taken out of the running, clearing the way for a more moderate candidate, reports Reuters.

The case will be the biggest test yet for the watershed Clean Record law, passed under Lula's administration in 2010, which blocks convicted criminals from running for office, reports the WSJ.

Americas Quarterly's latest edition has a timely piece by former prosecutor Rodrigo Janot focusing on the lessons of Operation Car Wash.

News Briefs
  • The Human Rights Watch 2018 report released earlier this week highlights "repeated, serious human rights violations during efforts to combat organized crime—including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture," during the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The report denounces that "the government has made little progress in prosecuting those responsible for recent abuses, let alone the large number of abuses committed by soldiers and police since former President Felipe Calderón initiated Mexico’s “war on drugs” in 2006."
  • LAWG warns against the risks for migrants turned back at the U.S.-Mexico border in a new report, noting they face "Mexico’s highest rates of violence in the last two decades." (See yesterday's post.) "Moving ahead with expanded efforts to restrict access to asylum at the border, tightened credible fear standards, and separation of families at the border could mean that more migrants will be increasingly turned back to or stuck in Mexico’s northern border region. And with that, face increased violence and human rights violations, such as homicides, disappearances, kidnapping, and extortion in Mexico’s northern border states of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas."
  • Peru passed a new law that will permit the construction of roads through Amazon rainforest, just days after Pope Francis warned of existential environmental threats in his visit to the country. The law promotes the construction of roads in Purus, an Amazon region near the border with Brazil, reports the Guardian.
  • About two thousand people took to the streets of Port-au-Prince yesterday to protest comments attributed to U.S. President Donald Trump about Haiti being a “shithole” country, reports the Reuters. The protests temporarily shut-down the U.S. Embassy there, and police clashed with protesters, reports the Associated Press.
  • Tensions in Honduras promise to increase in the lead up to President Juan Orlando Hernández's swearing in on Jan. 27, reports the Financial Times. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales is facing a backlash over $40,000 in expenses claimed last year, including payment for $3,000 designer sunglasses. At $20,000 per month, Morales receives one of the highest salaries of any president in the region, reports the BBC.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales said that the country's economic progress in his 12 years in power has made it Latin America’s fastest-growing nation, with estimated 4.2 percent growth last year, reports EFE.
  • The shutting down of a giant landfill near Brasilia will leave thousands of people without livelihoods, reports the Wall Street Journal. "The World Bank estimates that as many as 15 million people are employed in “informal recovery of materials from waste”—scavenging—in developing countries where garbage disposal systems are rudimentary. It generates billions of dollars in income for those willing to perform the dirty work, and in Brazil contributes an estimated 90% of the materials used by the recycling industry."
  • Former Mexican national soccer team star Cuauhtemoc Blanco appears to have joined the ranks of presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s leftist Morena party, reports the Associated Press.
  • On the flight back to Rome from Peru, Pope Francis apologized for saying victims of sexual abuse should show "proof." The Associated Press reports that he said he realized it was a “slap in the face” to victims. A critical New York Times Español op-ed by Rafael Gumucio says the Pope's Chile visit and the sexual abuse scandal show the pontiff's failure to hold a middle ground between progressives and conservatives within the Church. "The tragedy that has marked Francis' papacy -- his incapacity to reconcile what is left of the Church of John XXIII with the still almighty Church of John Paul II -- was displayed with particular rawness in Chile. In the seventies and eighties liberation theology sowed and harvested bishops, priests, thinkers and martyrs for all Chile. John Paul II punished this Church of the poor organized with very active grassroots communities with special zeal. Since then, the Chilean Church has spent all of the prestige won during the dictatorships trying to impede the law of divorce, marriage equality, or any kind of abortion. During his visit, Francis passed over any of these topics. The conservative hierarchy that the Polish pope left installed did not fail to note that signal."

Monday, January 22, 2018

Human Rights Watch points to lack of democracy in Venezuela (Jan. 22, 2018)

Human Rights Watch released its 2018 World Report, celebrating pushback against populist authoritarians around the world, but warning of a retreat in international defense of human rights.

Executive Director Kenneth Roth points to Venezuela as an example of resistance to autocratic popular leaders. 

"President Nicolás Maduro continued to eviscerate Venezuela’s democracy and economy under the guise of standing up for the little people and against those whom he calls the imperialists. But as his rule became more brutal and autocratic, his corrupt and incompetent management of the economy became painfully apparent. This potentially wealthy nation was left destitute despite its vast oil reserves, with many people desperately searching for food and medicine amid raging hyperinflation ...  But as the Venezuelan people continue their descent into poverty and misery, it is unclear how long they will let Maduro cling to power."

The report's country chapter on Venezuela emphasizes that no independent government institutions remain as a check on executive power in the country. "The government has been repressing dissent through often-violent crackdowns on street protests, jailing opponents, and prosecuting civilians in military courts. It has also stripped power from the opposition-led legislature. ... Due to severe shortages of medicines, medical supplies, and food, many Venezuelans cannot adequately feed their families or access the most basic healthcare. In response to the human rights and humanitarian crisis, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing the country."

The country chapter on Colombia emphasizes that though the FARC guerrilla group disarmed last year, "civilians continue to suffer serious abuses by the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and paramilitary successor groups that emerged after a demobilization process a decade ago. Violence associated with the conflict has forcibly displaced more than 7.7 million Colombians since 1985, generating the world’s largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, and other community activists face death threats and violence, mostly from guerrillas and successor groups. Perpetrators of these abuses are rarely held accountable."

(More from the country specific chapters tomorrow.)

Mexico's 2017 murder rate reached record high

Mexico's homicide rate soared in 2017 -- there were 25,339 intentional homicides last year, a 24 percent increase over the previous and the bloodiest year on record, reports Animal Político. Murders were up 63 percent from 2014, when the number had fallen to a six-year low. Until now, 2011 had been the year with highest murder rate, with 19.37 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. But last year increased to 20.51. 

But Mexico security analyst Alejandro Hope told the Associated Press that the real homicide rate is likely higher, as the Interior Department tallies the statistics based on the number of murder investigations, not the number of victims, and a killing may result in more than one victim. Hope says the real homicide rate is probably around 24 per 100,000.

A relative recent arrival on Mexico's organized crime scene -- Jalisco New Generation Cartel -- is responsible for a surge in violence, reports the Wall Street Journal. Known by its Spanish initials CJNG, the group is becoming the country's most powerful cartel, and increasing violence in its quest for power. (See this 2016 Animal Político piece on the gangs origins and rise.)

Violence will be a central issue July's presidential election, notes Reuters, with the ruling PRI party struggling in the polls. There were 40 percent more murder investigations opened last year compared with 2013, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s first full year in office. (See today's briefs for more on election.)

News Briefs
  • InSight Crime released its annual homicide roundup for 2017 -- Venezuela topped the regional ranking, with 89 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, based on Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia statistics, as the government does not release official numbers. Though El Salvador came in second, at 60 murders per 100,000, InSight notes its significant improvement over the previous year. 
  • One protester was killed in clashes with police in Honduras on Saturday. Demonstrators blocked roads in protest of a contested election result that granted President Juan Orlando Hernández a second term in office, reports AFP. Military police opened fire on protesters in Saba, killing a 60-year-old man and wounding another person, reports Reuters
  • El Salvador's Legislative Assembly will investigate the work of the national intelligence agency, in response to reports that journalists, politicians and government officials considered opponents of the ruling FLMN government were followed. Several opposition Arena lawmakers seek answers from intelligence officials in response to a report from El Faro on how the agency watched politicians in order to obtain blackmail fodder and followed journalists in order to reach their sources.
  • Brazil's LGBT population is undergoing a surge of violent deaths, reports the Guardian. At least 445 LGBT Brazilians died as victims of homophobia in 2017 – a 30% increase from 2016, according to LGBT watchdog group Grupo Gay de Bahia. The deaths were directly related to homophobia and are linked to the rise of ultra-conservative politicians in the country, according to the group.
  • The Guardian profiles the Ka’apor tribe's battle against deforestation in northern Brazil, where loggers and indigenous communities struggle over Amazon land. "Last year 6,624 sq km – more than four times the area of London – was deforested in Brazil. This was the first time in three years that the rate did not rise, and the country remains off track to reach its Paris climate targets. Numerous studies have shown that protection of indigenous land is the most effective way to cut deforestation, but the Ka’apor – like many other tribes – feel the police often work against them. Battling to save the forest is a risky business. According to Global Witness, Brazil is the deadliest country in the world for environmental and land defenders with 44 killings recorded in 2017. Maranhão – the nation’s poorest state – is among the worst affected. There were more death threats and attacks on indigenous groups here than anywhere else in 2016, according to the Pastoral Land Commission."
  • The Amazon's indigenous tribes have never been so threatened as they are now, warned Pope Francis in Peru last week. He spoke of environmental threats and told the rainforest's indigenous inhabitants that they were a "call to conscience for a way of life which could not measure its own costs," reports the Guardian. He also sought to comfort victims of natural disasters, a year after intense flooding killed 160 people and left hundreds of thousands of others unable to return to their homes, reports the New York Times.
  • Pope Francis ended his latest Latin America visit in Peru, where he warned about corruption tainting the region's politics. He referenced the nearly $800 million paid in bribes by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht in a televised meeting with bishops in Lima, reports the Wall Street Journal. "Today, a large part of Latin America suffers a large decay in its politics," he said.
  • Pope Francis remained mute on the subject of sexual abuse during his visit to Peru, though he had issued an apology to victims in Chile, reports the New York Times. In particular, the pontiff did not distance himself from a national Catholic group Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, accused by dozens of former members of systemic sexual abuse by group leaders.
  • Brazil's presidential election this year "is shaping up to be a turbulent, bitter affair, with Brazilian voters confronting starkly different choices," according to the New York Times. On the one hand, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is the front-runner for a third term, though a criminal conviction could render him ineligible. On the other, is a far-right provocateur, Jair Bolsonaro, who has "a long history of incendiary, crude remarks belittling women, blacks and gays." Moderates seem to have little choice so far, according to the piece.
  • U.S. authorities have accused an Honduran congressman of drug trafficking and gun crimes. Fredy Renan Najera Montoya is the highest-ranking Honduran politician targeted by the U.S. in recent years, according to InSight Crime. But he joins a "growing list of Honduran political elites with suspected links to organized crime, suggesting US efforts to prosecute corrupt elites in the Central American country are starting to bear fruit." According to an indictment unveiled last week, he "participated in and supported" the drug trafficking activities of "large-scale" Honduran drug traffickers and "high-ranking" members of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
  • Former Guatemalan presidential candidate, Manuel Baldizón, is seeking asylum in the U.S. The businessman is wanted on graft charges, and was arrested trying to enter the U.S. in Miami, reports Reuters. Guatemala's charges against Baldizón stem from Odebrecht revelations.
  • The British government warned tourists in Jamaica's Montego Bay to stay in their resorts in the midst of a military crack-down on violent crime, reports the Guardian. The Jamaican military has reported that the state of emergency imposed in the parish last week is achieving results, reports the Jamaica Observer. The state of public emergency, which will be in force until February 15, allows temporarily grants security forces additional powers of search and detention.
  • Even as the U.S. is slamming its doors to Haitian migrants, Chile is opening up its arms, reports the Wall Street Journal. Last year, almost 105,000 Haitians entered Chile, part of a trend of migration between developing countries, according to experts.
  • La Silla Vacía reports on the plight of Venezuelan refugees in Colombia, where an estimated 552,000 Venezuelans now live, over half without legal permission.
  • Looting is on the rise in Venezuela, as people are increasingly desperate for food, reports the Guardian. During the first 11 days of January the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, a Caracas rights group, recorded 107 episodes of looting and several deaths in 19 of Venezuela’s 23 states.
  • Oscar Pérez, Venezuela's mysterious anti-government cop turned rebel, spoke to the New York Times in the days and hours before he was killed in a confrontation with security forces. Though his cinematographic call to rebellion last year did not generate an uprising, social media videos uploaded during the gunfight that took his life have caught the attention of Venezuela's public. "Mr. Pérez was an actor, a detective and an insurgent. To the government he was a terrorist. To his followers he was a freedom fighter, a modern folk hero in the ilk of Robin Hood or Che Guevara. Some skeptics said his story was too improbable to be true — they mused that he must have been a double agent of some sort, meant to cast the opposition in a bad light. However people viewed him, his actions resonated across the whole country."
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales said he will cancel a new penal code that has sparked widespread protests around the country, including a 47-day doctors' strike, reports EFE.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said this weekend that he will seek to salvage peace talks with the ELN guerrillas with a new truce, reports AFP.
  • Two independent candidates in Mexico have successfully gathered the requisite signatures to run in this year's elections, reports Segundo Enfoque. Former first lady Margarita Zavala will be competing for president, pending the ratification of the nearly 1 million signatures she gathered. And Jalisco lawmaker Pablo Kumamoto obtained the signatures to enable him to run for Senate. Three other independent Jalisco candidates, backed by civil society group ¡Vamos a reemplazarles!, have also obtained the necessary signatures to run for congress, reports Milenio, which focuses on their campaign tactics. Citizen network Wikipolítica is backing 14 other young candidates seeking to run in four different states, reports Arena Pública.
  • On the issue of Mexico's elections, front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador has humorously dismissed U.S. allegations of Russian interference in the country's elections. (See Jan. 8's post and Jan. 9's briefs.) He is considered to be the likely beneficiary of interference, though critics note there has been no evidence to substantiate the accusations. Mexican journalist León Krauze warns against dismissing the allegations in a Washington Post piece, in which he argues that a potential AMLO cabinet member is suspect because her husband is a contributor to Russia Today. These accusations have been latched on by the increasingly desperate ruling PRI party. But the Guardian notes that comparisons to the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez cratered AMLO's support int he 2006 presidential election, which he lost narrowly. And many Mexicans are themselves skeptical of Russian interference, according to the piece. Online, many Mexicans made fun of the allegations against AMLO, changing Twitter handles to cyrillic script and sharing gifs from Rocky IV.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Venezuelan talks postponed (Jan. 19, 2017)

Venezuela's opposition refused to sit down yesterday for the latest round of peace negotiations. In part this was in response to a government official's allegations that opposition leaders helped track down Oscar Pérez, an isolated rebel opponent who was killed by security forces this week, reports the Washington Post.  (See Wednesday's briefs.)

Nonetheless, the talks being held in the Dominican Republic will likely continue, according to Efecto Cocuyo, which says Mexican and Chilean foreign ministers' not being able to attend was a more likely reason for the opposition's absence. It's not clear when the ongoing talks might resume. Earlier this week, Geoff Ramsey reviewed the ongoing negotiations between the opposition and the government at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The talks are accompanied by Dominican Republic president Daniel Medino and the foreign ministers of Chile, Mexico, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The opposition is angling to ensure free and fair presidential elections this year, as well as permit humanitarian aid for Venezuelans and free political prisoners, while the government seeks to ease international sanctions.

The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference (CEV) said the police operation that killed Pérez earlier this week as a massacre, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Some rights groups and members of the opposition have characterized the encounter as a summary execution, in response to social media videos uploaded by Pérez saying he wished to surrender. The bodies of Pérez and the six people killed along with him on Monday have not been released to their families, and will be cremated, against regulations, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

And the Minister of Communications said Pérez was planning to assassinate President Nicolás Maduro as well as several other government leaders, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

News Briefs
  • Venezuela's drop in oil production over the past year is massive -- but there's some debate over just how bad it is, reports Bloomberg. While secondary sources estimate a 14 percent drop over the past year, Venezuela says the reduction was of 29 percent. Official estimates for production decreased particularly dramatically in December, which could be strategic, explains Liam Denning. In November the government named Major General Manuel Quevedo to head state-oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA. The drop could soon revert and be chalked up to his success, according to analysts. A sad corollary? The increase in world oil prices is in part due to Venezuela's troubles. (See yesterday's briefs for the WSJ's take on the situation.)
  • The EU agreed to add Venezuela's interior minister and six other senior officials to its sanctions blacklist yesterday, reports the AFP.
  • Two former FARC fighters were killed in Colombia while campaigning for a congressional candidate for former guerrillas' political party, reports the Associated Press. The FARC said the men are just two of 30 ex-fighters who have been killed by people hoping to destabilize the peace process, according to Reuters.
  • Colombia's FARC guerrillas have indeed disbanded, but the FARC Mafia days are just beginning, writes Jeremy McDermott at InSight Crime. He is discussing dissidents, groups within the FARC that have chosen not to disarm and are focused on more economic than political goals. Specifically they are involved in illicit economies, largely drugs. He delves into the issue of the FARC's hidden "militiamen," believed to outnumber the guerrilla fighters themselves by about three to one. Most of these former fighters remain firmly entrenched in the illicit economy, he argues. "We believe that well within 20 years from today the drug trade will be dominated by a mafia run by former members of the FARC."
  • Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández invited defeated opponent Salvador Nasralla to dialogue, after a much questioned electoral process observers say was tainted by irregularities. Nasralla however said he would only participate if electoral fraud is included in the points of discussion, reports La Prensa.
  • OAS member states will wait until after Hernández is sworn in for his second term to ratify an Observer Mission report pointing to "grave irregularities" in the election, reports TeleSUR. Secretary General Luis Almagro has sought to have member states approve the report, putting foreign ministries in the region that have already recognized Hernández in a tough position, reports EFE. These include Mexico, the U.S. and Colombia.
  • The Mexican town of Tancítaro appears to be an island of peace in the violence torn Michoacán state. Militias paid for by avocado growers keep cartel violence out of the town, but essentially form a sort of warlord state, write Amanda Taub and Max Fisher in the New York Time's Interpreter column. "Mexico is neither a failed state nor close to becoming one. But in some pockets of the country its institutions have broken down enough to reproduce conditions that partly resemble state failure. That includes the area around Tancítaro, which is rich is natural resources. The people who have access to those resources used them to achieve a monopoly on violence, creating enough stability to sustain their access to those resources. They became warlords."
  • The PRI outsider candidate for this year's presidential elections, José Antonio Meade, was supposed to help Mexico's ruling party shed the taint of corruption. But instead Meade finds himself struggling to avoid accusations of misuse of government funds at ministries he headed, reports Bloomberg. Meade is polling third, behind leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador and left-right coalition candidate Ricardo Anaya.
  • The wall just never seems to go away: U.S. president Donald Trump insists his views on a proposed (and largely rejected) border wall between the U.S. and Mexico have never changed. This directly contradicts his own chief of staff, who earlier this week said the president's perspective had changed, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazil's House Speaker, Rodrigo Maia, said the popular Bolsa Familia social program "enslaves" families who receive financial aid in exchange for ensuring their children attend school and are vaccinated, reports Folha de S. Paulo. (The program has been credited with halving Brazil's extreme poverty.)
  • Pope Francis accused sex abuse victims of slandering a bishop they accuse of shielding a pedophile priest. The slander accusation threw off his efforts to repair damage from the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked Chile and marred his visit there this week, reports the New York Times.
  • Pope Francis married two members of a cabin crew in a flight between Chile and Peru this week. The two had been married in a civil service but had to cancel their religious ceremony in the wake of a 2010 earthquake, reports the Guardian.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

U.S. makes Haitians ineligible for temporary seasonal work visas (Jan. 18, 2018)

  • The Trump administration has slammed Haitian immigrants again -- as of today Haitians will not be eligible for temporary seasonal visas, reports the Miami Herald. The decision follows an internationally condemned episode in which U.S. President Donald Trump allegedly characterized Haiti as a "shithole" country in the context of a debate about migrants. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • Venezuela's oil output is collapsing, a situation likely to push the country's ongoing crisis into a full blown humanitarian disaster, according to the Wall Street Journal. Oil prices are rising, but a production decline over the past year of 29 percent means the country won't be able to take advantage of them. Venezuela relies heavily on oil exports, which means the decline in production will further press the government.
  • The killing of Venezuelan rebel Oscar Pérez this week by security forces could help lead to an International Criminal Court investigation of the Maduro administration, writes Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. He says the OAS could present a formal case in the ICC within the next three weeks, and dramatic footage of Pérez accusing security forces of not letting him surrender, could contribute to the argument of human rights violations.
  • Pieces on Russian and Chinese influence in Venezuela have been cropping up recently. Benjamin Gedan and Michael McCarthy warn against "hysteria" about Chinese and Russian "meddling" in Real Clear World. "Caracas’ relationships with Moscow and Beijing are often exaggerated, including by the governments themselves. ... In truth, Maduro is increasingly isolated and as his country’s economic problems metastasize, his support from Beijing and Moscow falls." Russian and Chinese support for Venezuela is based on self-interest, not ideology, they argue. And thus their support is likely to falter as the crisis worsens. "Overstating the likelihood of a bailout has serious implications. That common misunderstanding leads to foreign policy positions that assume Maduro’s regime will survive, deflating international efforts to compel a democratic transition and discouraging the domestic opposition from unifying and mobilizing."
  • In the Conversation, Miguel Angel Latouche argues that Venezuela is no longer a democracy.
  • Pope Francis warned Chile's indigenous Mapuche tribe against violent protest, in a mass celebrated at a former military base that not only lies on contested Mapuche land but was also a former detention center used during Chile’s military dictatorship, reports the Guardian. His warning against violence came in a region where protesters have been burning and bombing targets in defense of their ancestral land. Indigenous groups in the area accuse the state and private companies of encroaching on their territory and using strong-armed enforcement against their communities. The region has experienced conflict for centuries. Issues include ancestral land ownership and legal recognition for the Mapuche language and culture, reports the BBC. The mass included many indigenous themes, including one speaker who spoke Mapuche and participants dressed in traditional garb, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • In Peru indigenous groups hope the papal visit draws attention to illegal mining environmental impacts, reports the Miami Herald. A Miami Herald investigation into illicit gold found that much of Peru's illegally mined gold winds up in the U.S. where it is used for money laundering. 
  • U.S. border patrol agents routinely vandalize water supplies left in the dessert to aid migrants trying to cross the border, as well as destroying other supplies and harassing volunteers who work with migrants, reports the Guardian. The accusations stem from a report published by two U.S. based humanitarian groups, who say "the practice of destruction of and interference with aid is not the deviant behavior of a few rogue border patrol agents, it is a systemic feature of enforcement practices in the borderlands."
  • Mexican views of the U.S. have dropped dramatically since 2015, reports the Washington Post. Over the past two years, Mexicans have gone from mostly holding favorable views of their northern neighbor to mostly negative, according to polling data collected by the Mexico-based firm Buendia & Laredo in collaboration with the Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
  • Carlos Domínguz, the latest journalist to be killed in Mexico, was stabbed 21 times in front of his family over the weekend, underscoring the profession's risks in the country, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • A poll by El Economista in Mexico found that leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador maintains the lead for this year's presidential elections, reports Reuters.
  • Over the past few years, more firearms have been seized in Guatemala than homicides committed with guns. But, though Guatemalan police seized 47,340 firearms between 2007 and 2017 -- an average of 12 every day, one every two hours -- guns remain widely available, reports Plaza Pública. (InSight Crime has the piece in English.) Police authorities say guns are used in about 80 percent of the country's murders, but have less information on how arms are entering the country and where they are coming from. Reports indicate that Guatemala is a transit country for arms, being transferred between Mexico and Central America. And authorities believe many of the country's illegal firearms belong to gang members.
  • The head of Brazil's army is concerned that deployment in anti-crime efforts could lead to corruption and politicization of troops, reports InSight Crime. "The high-level warning over the increasing use of the military in public security roles, including the rising potential for the forces’ corruption and politicization, should be considered a wake up call for a shift in the country’s approach to rising insecurity."
  • Will Brazilian TV celebrity Luciano Huck be a potential centrist presidential candidate this year? Bloomberg is touting him as a potential investor dream option.
  • The World Bank said it had not politically targeted Chile in a now questioned annual economic report, rather officials say the country's fluctuating ranking had to do with a changed methodology, reports Reuters. (See Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Women will be key in adapting agriculture to climate change in Latin America, said the head of FAO. He decried that women are too often left out of development schemes, reports Reuters. "They have fundamental roles in the spiritual, social and family arenas and are seed guardians - critical carriers of specialized knowledge," saidJose Graziano da Silva, head of the U.N.'s food organization.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Pope criticized for sex abuse scandals in Chile (Jan. 17, 2018)

Pope Francis apologized to Chileans for priest abuses of minors. "Here I feel bound to express my pain and shame at the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the church," he said.

Activists say the pontiff's greatest failure is not taking enough action protect children from clerical sex abuse and punish priests for perpetrating it, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The pope aims to contain fallout from a series of sexual abuse scandals that have contributed to the decline of Catholicism in several regions. But immediately after his speech with President Michelle Bachelet at the presidential palace, Francis celebrated Mass in Santiago alongside Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, a city in southern Chile. Barros has been accused of covering up for priest who abused teenagers, reports the New York Times.

The scandal centers around Father Fernando Karadima, a Santiago priest found guilty by a 2011 Vatican inquiry of sexual and psychological abuse in 2011, 27 years after the first complaints about him were made. He was forced to retire, and sentenced to a lifetime of "penance and prayer." Critics were angered when the the Pope appointed Barros bishop of Osorno, though Barros denies accusation that he knew of Karadima's abuses.

Three churches were firebombed on yesterday, the first full day of the pope’s visit to Chile, bringing the total of churches attacked since Friday to nine. Nobody has been injured in the attacks. The pontiff had hoped to make environmental concerns the centerpiece of this Latin America tour, which will also take him to Peru. But has instead encountered anger about sexual abuse scandals and accusations of clerical elitism, reports the Guardian. A poll carried out by a Santiago radio station before the pope’s visit found that 90 percent of Chileans wanted Francis to meet survivors and condemn Karadima.

"Chileans of all kinds see the way the pope addresses the Karadima case as a litmus test," wrote Ariel Dorfman in a New York Times op-ed last week. "Pope Francis will be welcomed in Chile as a reformer, as an important voice for the vulnerable and the neglected. The faithful and the nonbelievers alike respect the Catholic Church because some of its most prominent leaders championed human rights during Pinochet’s dictatorship, defying threats, death squads and persecution."

"And yet the daring Chilean church is now scarred and discredited by Father Karadima’s depredations, by the fact that he was sheltered by those who should have judged and punished him. A criminal case was opened, as in almost 75 other cases of priestly abuse, but the judges indicated that the statute of limitations barred them from indicting Father Karadima."

"Pope Francis needs to deal with this lack of accountability and justice in the next few days."

Yesterday Francis met privately with a group of victims of sexual abuse by priests in the Vatican's Santiago mission, reports the BBC. No further details were provided.

Other critics focused on the cost of the papal visit, estimated at $17 million.
News Briefs
  • Later this week, Pope Francis will visit Peru’s epicenter of illegal gold mining, Madre de Dios. His visit will help draw attention to an increasingly acute problem in the region -- pushing deforestation, environmental devastation, and exploiting workers in the region, according to the Miami Herald. "To stop the unrelenting environmental and human devastation, an array of competing interests will have to collaborate to extract gold in a more humane way, according to workers’ rights advocates, environmentalists and industry experts." Its the kind of sweeping change that pushed to clean up the diamond industry.
  • As Catholicism falls in Latin America, Evangelicals are on the rise, and now account for 20 percent of the population, writes Javier Corrales in a New York Times op-ed. "Evangelical pastors embrace varied ideologies, but when it comes to gender and sexuality, their values are typically conservative, patriarchal and homophobic. ... The rise of evangelicalism is politically worrisome. Evangelicals are fueling a new form of populism. They are supplying conservative parties with nonelite voters, which is good for democracy, but these voters tend to be intransigent on issues of sexuality, which feeds cultural polarization. Intolerant inclusion, which is the classic Latin American populist formula, is being reinvented by evangelical pastors." Evangelicals are helping Latin American conservatives overcome their most significant handicap, he writes, their lack of non-elite voters.
  • B-movie actor and Venezuelan rebel Oscar Pérez was killed in a shootout with government forces yesterday, along with seven other members of what the government has characterized as a "terrorist cell." Rights groups are questioning the use of force, after Pérez said in a series of videos on social media that he was seeking to surrender, the New York Times has a compilation. Pérez reportedly told an ally that special forces had orders not to take anybody alive, reports the Miami Herald, which says the deaths may have been extrajudicial executions. Rights advocates say special forces used excessive force and didn't permit the dissident group to surrender, reports the Wall Street Journal. Opposition lawmakers are calling for a transparent inquiry into the deaths, reports the Associated Press. Ousted attorney general Luisa Ortega, who seeks to have Maduro administration officials tried in the International Criminal Court, seized on the episode as an example of rights violations. "The world could see in real time how this guy wanted to surrender and manifested his will to turn himself in," she said. Pérez had been on the run since last year, when he stole a helicopter and launched grenades at a government building. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Some Venezuelan officials say tourism could help rescue the country from a deep economic crisis. But realists point to scarcities that have led some hotels to ration toilet paper, alongside high crime rates and hyperinflation, and are more skeptical, reports the Washington Post.
  • The U.S. Treasury Department warned that Venezuela's planned cryptocurrency could violate sanctions against the government, reports Reuters.
  • Separately, the E.U. will likely hit seven senior Venezuelan officials with sanctions next week, in a bid to push the government to resolve an ongoing political crisis, reports Reuters.
  • Homicides in El Salvador have dropped, along with rates in the rest of Central America's "Northern Triangle." Violence continues to be sky-high, but nonetheless, preventive programs implemented in these countries offer lessons to policy makers, argue Robert Muggah and Katherine Aguirre in Americas Quarterly. Though El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras all run the risk of deepening "mano dura" policies, and have entrenched corruption, "there are signs of a gradual turn to softer approaches to security, partly as a result of outside pressure from international and bilateral partners. After years of quiet investment, some of the benefits of this approach are becoming more apparent." The article was written ahead of the Urban Security Exchange (USX), to be hosted by the Igarapé Institute, USAID and Foropaz next week in San Salvador.
  • Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales shuffled his cabinet yesterday, changing his ministers for the environment, the economy and social development, reports Reuters.
  • There are indications that the Colombian government could aim to use military pressure against the rebel group ELN in order to gain the upper hand peace negotiations, reports InSight Crime. The strong military response to attacks in the wake of an expired cease-fire last week could also be related to elections in Colombia later this year, notes the piece. On the side of the guerrillas, it's not clear whether they indicate divisions within the group or whether its a strategy to gain the upper hand in the negotiations.
  • The WHO said yesterday that Sao Paulo state, is at risk for yellow fever and recommended foreign travelers get vaccinated before visiting, reports the BBC.
  • Market jitters at former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's popularity are unwarranted, Workers Party leader Gleisi Hoffmann told Bloomberg. Lula leads polls for October's presidential election, though its not clear whether a criminal conviction will prevent him from running. Nonetheless, Lula's history is not radical and he is committed to fiscal responsibility, said Hoffmann. The former leader is working on a letter to the public regarding his economic program.
  • Argentina's inflation drastically overshot targets last year, closing at about 25 percent. The results raise questions about the pro-business administration's ability to tame the country's perennial scourge, reports the Wall Street Journal. And the government announced yesterday it will delay a planned labor reform bill until March, reports Reuters. The government had planned to call extraordinary sessions of Congress to approve the plan, which aims to lower costs for employers and formalize the situation of unregistered workers. A pension reform passed in December triggered violent protests.
  • A bridge under construction in Colombia collapsed, killing 10 workers, reports the New York Times.
  • Across the region this year, political corruption and uncertainty will fuel organized crime, writes Jeremy McDermott in InSight Crime. "Tackling organized crime requires stable governments with purpose, strategy, strong security forces, healthy democracy and transparency, along with international cooperation. These currently seem in short supply around the region."

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

World Bank assessments of Chile were politically biased (Jan. 16, 2018)

News Briefs
  • An influential World Bank economic report may have been biased politically, particularly in the case of Chile. World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, told the Wall Street Journal he would correct and recalculate national rankings of business competitiveness in the report called “Doing Business” going back at least four years. Repeated changes in methodology allowed World Bank staff to influence the results of the report, which ranks countries by the competitiveness of their business environment. Some of these changes had the effect of sharply penalizing Chile’s ranking under the recent term of Chile’s outgoing president, Michelle Bachelet. Methodological changes that precipitated large swings in Chile's ranking appear to have been politically motivated according to Romer.
  • Bachelet criticized the World Bank over the weekend, and demanded a complete investigation, reports the New York Times. The governing leftist coalition was defeated in elections last year, a race in which economic policy played a key role.
  • The OAS denounced irregularities in Honduras' recent presidential election, in which incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the official winner, despite significant questions regarding the vote count. OAS member states' failure to embrace the OAS call for new elections, however, could undermine "the credibility of OAS democracy protection instruments," writes Stefano Palestini Céspedes at the AULA blog.
  • A Guatemalan congressman of the ruling FCN party was arrested this weekend, on charges of masterminding the killings of two journalists in 2015. Prosecutors and investigators with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala accuse Julio Juarez Ramirez of involvement in the murders, though he says he is innocent, reports Reuters.
  • Guatemalan chief prosecutor Thelma Aldana told reporters that President Jimmy Morales "is not an ally" in combating corruption, reports AFP. Her comment was in response to a presidential address stressing transparency as a top government priority.
  • Venezuelan security forces took down a rebel group, officially characterized as a dangerous terrorist group, in a Caracas firefight yesterday. The band was led by Oscar Pérez, the mysterious former action film hero and helicopter pilot that starred in an alleged coup attempt last year. (See post for June 29, 2017) Special forces apparently captured five members of the rebel group, reports the Associated Press. Venezuelan officials report seven dead members of the group, including Pérez himself, according to Efecto Cocuyo.  Officials say two officers were killed and five wounded in the shootout. Diosdado Cabello tweeted that Pérez had opened fire on police, reports the BBC. Pérez himself made the assault public with a a series of videos on Twitter in which he is bloodied and under siege, reports the Miami Herald. In one video he said there are civilians with him and they wanted to turn themselves in, but that authorities sought his death. The episode had Venezuelans glued to social media as events unfolded yesterday, reports the New York Times. Though Pérez's calls for an uprising against the government have not been heeded in practice, he has tens of thousands of followers online, notes the AP. Members of the government posted negatively about Pérez yesterday, reports Reuters. "What a coward now that he’s caught like a rat!" tweeted Prisons Minister Iris Varela. The National Assembly might create a commission to investigate the episode, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • Talks between the Venezuelan government and the opposition advanced well, but did not reach a final deal by Saturday. Talks will resume once more on January 18, reports Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Nevertheless, Dominican President Danilo Medina, who led the negotiations, expressed optimism about the progress made during the round, reports Reuters. The MUD opposition coalition is angling for improved electoral conditions in a presidential election year. They are also seeking to push the government to permit humanitarian aid to enter the country, release of political prisoners, and recognition of the opposition-led National Assembly as a legitimate constitutional authority. The government, in turn, is seeking to ease international sanctions, and recognition of a supra-congressional National Constituent Assembly, which was chosen in questioned elections last year but has no international recognition.
  • Talk of military intervention in Venezuela keeps coming up, but "a military strike against Venezuela would be folly," warns David Smilde in a New York Times op-ed. "Venezuela in 2018 is not 1989 Panama, and an invasion would not be a surgical strike. ... Venezuela has 115,000 troops, in addition to tanks and fighter jets. It is a country of 30 million people, about 20 percent of whom still support the Maduro government. These supporters have an ideology — anti-imperialist socialism — which serves to coordinate their efforts and helps to explain Mr. Maduro’s resilience."
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced a new subsidy to pregnant women -- amounting to a total of $3.83 per month, reports CNN.
  • As the U.S. becomes increasingly hostile to Latin American migrants, Canada is working to disuade them from heading north in hopes of refuge, reports the New York Times.
  • Salvadoran deportees face dangers in their home countries. Women in particular are in danger, reports the Guardian. "As with most hostilities, women are routinely caught in the crossfire. Around 10 a day are subjected to violence and sexual assault, with many afraid to speak out. Others are silenced forever. El Salvador ranks among the world’s deadliest countries for women. During 2016, 524 were killed, one in every 5,000, although such figures document only bodies taken to morgues and not those discovered in hidden dumping grounds."
  • Clandestine transfers of capital -- "illicit financial flows," like those exposed in the Panama Papers investigation last year -- have an outsized impact on women and girls that often goes unnoticed, write Virginia Rodríguez and Corina Rodríguez Enríquez of  Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) in Open Society Foundation's Voices. A recent report from DAWN "shows how illicit financial flows from Latin America and the Caribbean undermine gender justice in a region that already suffers some of the world’s worst levels of economic inequality. The amount of capital that illicitly flows out of this part of the world is huge: at least $150 billion per year, or 14 times more than the official development aid that comes in to the region."
  • Pope Francis opened a three-day Chile trip by asking forgiveness for a local priest abuse scandal that has aroused tensions in his host country, reports NPR.  The pontiff is the target of anger for appointing a bishop accused of covering up sexual abuse by a priest. On Friday, ahead of the trip, several churches were targeted by firebombs, reports the New York Times. No organization immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks. Other hot-button issues during the Pope's visit include the Mapuche indigenous group which has been struggling to reclaim ancestral land.
  • Catholics in the Pope's native Argentina feel snubbed, as he once again sidesteps country in a visit to the region, reports the New York Times. Analysts believe he has avoided Argentina since being named pontiff in an effort to stay out of the country's polarized politics.
  • Former Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou was freed from pre-trial detention on Friday, after an appeals court ruled that he was unlikely to interfere in a corruption case against him. Boudou, who was arrested in November, was one of several former cabinet members detained in recent months, reports Reuters. Critics have said there is a judicial vendetta against the political opposition to the current government. Former Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman was also released from pre-trial detention last week -- in a case regarding an alleged coverup for a 1994 terrorist bombing -- for humanitarian causes.
  • Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, a Mexico City suburb, has had remarkable latitude to experiment with security reform because of its relative freedom from Mexico's most established (and corrupt) political parties, argues a New York Times Explainer column. "Neza, as it is known, is gritty and working class, a sprawl of short concrete buildings. But it is a quiet success story. As crime and corruption skyrocket nationally, especially in surrounding areas, they’ve remained stable or even declined here." The secret lies not in the reforms themselves, which aim at increasing ties between police officer and the community, and rewarding good performance, but rather in freedom from corrupt party structures, argues the piece. But the lack of an institutional framework also makes the gains fragile, according to authors Max Fisher and Amanda Taub.
  • The UK’s judicial committee of the privy council (JCPC) has far-reaching jurisdiction in more than 30 overseas territories, dependencies and Commonwealth states, for which it serves as the ultimate court of appeal. The five British judges of the council will evaluate whether a prisoner who may be mentally ill should remain on death row, in response to a case in Trinidad and Tobago. Their decision comes as a spiraling homicide rate on there has reinvigorated calls for the death penalty, reports the Guardian.
  • A Mexican journalist was killed in Nuevo Laredo over the weekend, the latest victim of attacks on the press, though authorities are trying to determine whether the attack was related to his work, reports the Guardian.
  • A magnitude-7.1 earthquake of Peru's southern coast on Sunday killed one person and injured a dozen, reports Reuters.
  • In light of Trump's disparaging remarks about Haiti, the New York Times recommends several books that give insight into the country’s history of struggle and resistance. (See last Friday's briefs.)
  • In the Conversation, Chantalle F. Verna discusses how "Trump’s statements and policies reflect not just disrespect for Haiti but also a profound ignorance about how migration occurs." ... "Outsiders head to the United States in times of crisis not at random but because historic ties point them in this direction. When nativists like President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions refer to immigrants as “criminal aliens” – perpetuating the idea that foreigners are “invading” the country – they ignore this key fact."
  • "Without Haiti, the United States Would, in Fact, Be a Shithole," writes Amy Wilentz in The Nation.
  • In a statement, WOLA profoundly rejected the remarks about Haitian, Salvadoran, and African immigrants. "They represent a profound affront to human dignity and human rights. It is this type of rhetoric and derogatory categorization of groups and countries that fuels societal divisions, pits people against each other, and leads to violence and conflict. Such sentiments coming from the highest level political official in the United States are extremely dangerous. They undermine the credibility and moral authority of the United States throughout the world."
  • A form of salmonella was likely responsible for wiping out 80 percent of the Aztec population in the 16th century, according to new research, reported by AFP.