Monday, December 11, 2017

Venezuela's government sweeps municipal elections, largely unopposed (Dec. 11, 2017)

Venezuela's ruling party won municipal elections around the country yesterday -- a bit of a foregone conclusion as leading opposition parties boycotted the vote. Nonetheless, President Nicolás Maduro celebrated victory in more than 300 of Venezuela's 335 counties, reports the Wall Street Journal. Ruling PSUV party candidates won in 39 of the 40 of the country's major localities, reports the New York Times

Though expected, the results leave the PSUV in power in nearly all instances of government in the country: from municipalities, to governorships up through the supra-legislative National Constituent Assembly (ANC) polemically created this year to sidestep the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

The 47 percent turnout was lower than any other election in the past six years, but still higher than expected. However, in opposition bastions many demoralized voters chose to stay away, participation in some was as low as 10 percent. A selection of opposition candidates ran as independents across the country, but failed to attract much support without the backing of their party infrastructure.

Leading opposition parties called for a boycott, saying participation would only serve to legitimize Maduro's government. They made the move in the wake of October's gubernatorial elections, which they say the ruling PSUV party won through illicit maneuvering and alleged fraud in some cases. Indeed, yesterday's election was predicted to suffer many of those same irregularities, wrote Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights on Saturday. "These include the fact that the vote was called by the Constituent Assembly, the use of state resources to support pro-government candidates, and concerns over transparency in the voting process—though the most important audits appear to be in place."

The turnout was helped however by the government's promise of social benefits for participants, reports the WSJ. Shortly before the election Maduro promised "presents" for voters in a nationally televised address, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

The Observatorio Electoral Venezolano (OEV) denounced at least 77 irregularities yesterday, including electoral violence and procedural issues. But the most frequent cases were of electoral propaganda in the form of registering participants in order to give them social benefits, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
 
The loss of key municipal seats was to be expected in a scenario in which major opposition parties boycotted the election, emphasized Luis Vicente León to Efecto Cocuyo, which compares yesterday's results to those of 2013's local elections. "It’s absurd to think that an abstaining political force can win the majority of mayorships," said León on Twitter. And opposition candidate and former political detainee Yon Goicoechea said the boycott and opposition disarray would allow the government to win without need to resort to fraud.

In a further blow to the weakened opposition coalition, Maduro has threatened to ban parties that did not participate on Sunday. "They will disappear from the political map," he said. Yesterday PSUV vice president Diosdado Cabello said the decision regarding party participation in next year's presidential elections will lie with the very pro-government ANC, reports Efecto Cocuyo

And the results are likely to push the government to move forward with next year's presidential election. Angling to take advantage of opposition disorganization, elections could be held as early as March. The move raises questions about voter choice in the elections, in which Maduro is expected to run for reelection, reports the Guardian.

Venezuela aside: the migration option that has tempted thousands of residents to leave the country includes unique challenges for senior-citizens, who must face setting up from scratch in their retirement years, reports the New York Times.

News Briefs
  • Two weeks after Honduras' questioned presidential election, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced that a partial hand recount of votes ratified the initial results -- a slim win for incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández, reports Deutsche Welle. An official winner must be declared by Dec. 26. The recount of  4,753 ballot boxes gave Hernández 50 percent of the vote, compared to 31.5 percent for opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla, reports Reuters. The new results leave Hernández 1.6 percent ahead of Nasralla, reports La Prensa Gráfica. Nonetheless, opposition leaders said the TSE results are still untrustworthy, reports El País. The TSE is now considering the approximate 150 electoral challenges it has received, reports the Associated Press. On Friday opposition parties presented a formal request to annul the much questioned election.
  • Honduran Culture and Politics reports on the technical details of an alleged system malfunction that led TSE servers to go down in the midst of a protracted vote count.
  • Thousands of Honduran protesters demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa over the weekend, calling for U.S. support in the political crisis, reports the Miami Herald. They also linked increased migration north to violence perpetrated by the Hernández administration. Many called for U.S. support against a second term for incumbent Hernández, saying their desire to stay in Honduras is countered by the government's human rights abuses and corruption. 
  • "The Honduran government is deploying dangerous and illegal tactics to silence any dissenting voices in the aftermath of one of the country’s worst political crisis in a decade, including preventing lawyers and human rights activists from visiting detained demonstrators," Amnesty International said last week. The organization called on the government to halt "use of illegitimate or excessive force against protesters by security forces, ending arbitrary detentions, and investigating all instances of human rights violations"
  • Two of Mexico's main opposition parties -- the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) -- announced an alliance ahead of next year's presidential elections, reports the Wall Street Journal. The new coalition, Por México, Al Frente, which also includes the smaller Citizen Movement party, could shakeup the elections: together they had 32 percent of voters in a recent election, tying with front-runner, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). The Frente could provide an option for voters disgusted by the ruling PRI party's extensive corruption scandals, but who don't lean towards AMLO. Some 75 percent of Mexicans want a change in government, according to a recent Reforma poll. Initial campaign promises include ending corruption, impunity, recovering peace and making the economy grow for everybody, reports Animal Político.
  • The Washington Post reports on a bill in Mexico's Senate that would enshrine the role of the military in internal law enforcement. Proponents of the Internal Security Law say the law could resolve legal problems involving the deployment of troops domestically, necessary due to ill-prepared police forces. But critics say the bill will risk militarization of the country, weaken civilian oversight and offer fewer incentives for local politicians to fix their police forces
  • Elea Valle, a resident of a remote Nicaraguan rural town, has become the symbol of the struggle against impunity in the country after two of her children were killed in an army massacre three weeks ago, reports El País. While the military said it was cracking down on criminal groups, analysts say armed groups operating in the area are politically motivated.
  • The high-profile arrest of a Rio de Janeiro drug-lord left residents of the Rocinha favela he dominated concerned about an increase in violence, reports the Guardian.
  • Latin America remains one of the most unequal regions in the world, according to new World Bank data on income inequality. The good news is that the region has made the most progress in evening out the odds since the turn of the century, lowering its Gini index for wage inequality by 6 points from 2002 to 2013, reports Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Honduran electoral commission conducting partial recount (Dec. 8, 2017)

News Briefs
  • The way of of Honduras' political crisis will be through the negotiating table, and there is speculation the two candidates disputing the election are cooking up a private deal, reports the Economist. "Mr Hernández would remain president; the Alliance would refuse to recognise his government but would not call its supporters onto the streets. In exchange, Mr Hernández would offer concessions including, perhaps, fresh elections next year or a promise to leave office after his second term."
  • The roots of the current political crisis lie in the 2009 coup against then president Manuel Zelaya, a situation the U.S. is partially responsible for fomenting, according to the Guardian. "As one of the US’s closest allies in Central America, Honduras will probably serve as a litmus test for how the US will treat other allies with similar stained reputations." The piece cites Woodrow Wilson Center's Eric Olsen who calls the country an example of "the kinds of crisis and violence that can emerge when transparency is undermined to guarantee political favour." In the same piece, WOLA's Adam Isacson points out that an unstable Honduras will foment gangs and drug trafficking, pushing more migrants towards the U.S.
  • Yesterday Honduras' Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) initiated the recount of a portion of the votes in the disputed presidential election, but not the totality requested by the opposition, reports La Prensa. The TSE will focus on the 4,753 ballot boxes whose returns came in after election night, a demand of the OAS electoral mission, reports Reuters.
  • The global homicide rate rose last year for the first time in more than a decade, with marked increases in Venezuela and Jamaica, according to the annual Small Arms Survey published yesterday. The report estimated that 385,000 people were killed in homicides across the world in 2016, an increase of 8,000 on the previous year. Of the five countries with the highest violent death rates in 2016 – Syria, El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, and Afghanistan – only two had armed conflicts last year, reports the Guardian.
  • The Venezuelan government's sketchy plan to launch a cryptocurrency is seen by Washington as a sign of increasing desperation reports the Miami Herald. The country's  inflation rate could surpass 2,000 percent by year’s end — worse than war-ravaged economies like South Sudan and Libya, notes the Miami Herald in a separate piece. Figures released by the opposition-led Congress, show consumer prices rising by 1,369 percent between January and November, reports Reuters. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
  • Venezuela's opposition can't seem to decide whether to participate in elections, reports the Guardian. Currently many have called for a boycott of Sunday's mayoral elections, citing unfair conditions. Several leaders said the elections are rigged and the government has unfairly limited candidate eligibility. But sitting out elections can backfire according to many analysts. 
  • A Brazilian clown turned politicians said he will not run for reelection because he is ashamed of fellow lawmakers, reports the Associated Press.
  • An Argentine federal judge asked the Senate to strip former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of parliamentary immunity, in order to permit her arrest in a treason criminal case. Fernández is currently a Senator, and has parliamentary immunity from detention, though not prosecution. Judge Claudio Bonadio detained several of her former government officials, including chief-of-staff Carlos Zannini and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, in a case accusing them of colluding with the Iranian government to cover up a 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center, reports the New York Times. El Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) criticized a new trend in pre-trial detention for former government functionaries. Judges have argued that the former members of government could hinder investigations because of their connections. But this kind of argument, deployed generically as it has been, violates due process, according to CELS. "If the objective parameters of procedural risk are not met, preventive prison is a disproportionate and illegal measure that violates the principals of due process and implies a violation of constitutional guarantees. If there is no due process, it is an instrumentalization of the penal process to persecute political opponents." Critics suggest that Bonadio's accusations may serve as an insurance policy for the magistrate who is under investigation over allegations of money laundering and illicit enrichment, notes the Washington Post.
  • The loss of an Argentine submarine with a 44-person crew last month highlights the sorry state of the country's armed forces, which suffered an irremediable loss of prestige after widespread human rights violations during the last dictatorship in 1976-1983. Yet, the Economist argues that Argentina cannot afford to jettison its armed forces. "Most defence experts agree that Argentina, the world’s eighth-largest country by area, needs fighter jets, ships and submarines to deter potential enemies." Rather the magazine argues for an integral reform, though it admits the costs might be more than the government can afford.
  • A far lovelier -- Costa Rica-style -- suggestion from a New York Times Español op-ed by Martín Caparrós, in which he argues that there is little reason for the military to continue existing at all -- given its lack of funding and armament, it would hardly be up to facing credible threats anyway. Rather than to join a very expensive arms race, he argues Argentines should "make virtue of necessity and declare that we don't want or need an army, transform Argentina into an unarmed -- or relatively unarmed -- country and say we are more good and reasonable and wonderful. And, perhaps, somebody may believe us. Ourselves, for example." He warns of continuing repression of indigenous protesters in Argentina's south, leading to the death of a 22-year old Mapuche two weeks ago. And links the government's blind support of security forces to old thinking that permitted the disappearance of tens of thousands of opponents of the last dictatorship. "Two tragedies cross each other: the death of a young Argentine, the death of 44 argentine sailors. There are those who want to use them to recover the place and prestige of armed forces that don't seem useful. Hopefully some will see it as an opportunity to discuss the contrary option: leaving behind armed forces without visible function, that bungle the little the do because they don't have the means nor the ends to do it. It would be -- at last -- an authentic change, a new road: an example."

Thursday, December 7, 2017

OAS says it could call for new Honduran elections (Dec. 7, 2017)

The head of Honduras' Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), David Matamorros, indicated the commission will review votes disputed by the opposition in the still unresolved presidential election from 11 days ago. Specifically the TSE agreed to review the 5,176 tally sheets that were not transmitted to the voting center on the election night -- a key demand of the opposition and the OAS -- as well as three rural departments with unusually high turnout, reports La Prensa.

On Tuesday, President Juan Orlando Hernández expressed willingness to recount all the votes, a statement applauded by regional governments, reports the Associated Press. Opponent Salvador Nasralla called for an international arbiter to oversee a total recount, saying the TSE is tainted because of its role in the process so far, reports La Prensa. Nonetheless, the two parties are not reaching an agreement on how to resolve the political crisis, reports La Prensa separately.

Yesterday the OAS, which released a critical preliminary report of the elections, said it could call for new Honduran elections if any “irregularities” undermine the credibility of results, reports Reuters. The OAS also called for an immediate return of constitutional rights, including freedom of movement. There has been a curfew in place since last week, though the government lifted it in certain departments yesterday, reports La Prensa.

The official count gives Hernández a slim majority over opponent Salvador Nasralla, but the results have been questioned by political parties and international observers. Initial results pointed to a lead for Nasralla, but the trend was reversed in the midst of a slow count and interruptions in the vote counting system. Massive protests were countered with a curfew and police repression, which has led to as many as 11 deaths. The Chamber of Commerce has estimated that $65 million in damage has been done to businesses during the unrest.

Third-place finisher Luis Zelaya of the Liberal party said tally sheets held by his party prove Nasralla's win, reports the AP.

But electoral fraud is hardly the extent of the government's wrongdoing, reports Miguel Salazar in The Nation, which recounts allegations of corruption and association with criminal organizations. Yet, though the anti-corruption wave is ushering political neophytes, he notes that their later impact -- as with Jimmy Morales in Guatemala -- is difficult to predict.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Venezuela's economic chaos deepens, no sign of exit from the crisis (Dec. 6, 2017)

News Briefs
  • An in-depth report on Venezuelan politics by Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker paints a grim picture of a country in economic, social and political chaos, and likely to stay that way. After a year in which the opposition tried to capitalize on elections last year that gave it a legislative majority, President Nicolás Maduro remains firmly entrenched in power. Despite international condemnation and sanctions, the situation seems to be in a stalemate for now. 
  • In fact, if snap elections were held right now, Maduro would easily beat leading opposition figures, according to a new Venebarometro poll released yesterday. The survey found that Maduro would win 28.6 percent of the vote, followed by Leopoldo López with 18 percent and former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles with 15.4 percent, reports the Miami Herald. López is under house arrest, however, and Capriles has been barred from political office -- so neither is a viable option. Former National Assembly President Henry Ramos Allup and Former Lara Gov. Henri Falcón -- both of whom are eligible --would win 6.6 percent and 6.3 percent of the vote, respectively. Maduro's standing was helped by the October regional election win, according to analysts, and would be able to capitalize on opposition divisions.
  • Venezuela's U.N. ambassador, Rafael Ramírez, announced his resignation on Tuesday, saying he was ousted for his opinions but remains loyal to Chávez, reports the BBC. (See Anderson's article, above, for some of the history between Ramírez and Maduro.) Ramírez has been critical of the Maduro government in recent months, but has also been implicated in oil sector corruption. Several allies, including a cousin, have been arrested in recent weeks as part of a crackdown on graft, notes Reuters. The resignation is a sign of growing rifts within Chavismo, and Ramírez's ouster could also be a response to his perceived presidential ambitions. In a public letter Ramírez said he was ousted because of constructive criticisms regarding the government's economic policies, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • Venezuelan officials are threatening to suspend next year’s presidential elections unless the United States drops financial sanctions, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The New Yorker piece includes several amazing quotes. Former Uruguayan President José Mujica, who told Anderson that Venezuela must solve its food production problems. "There’s a fundamental problem there—you can’t make socialism by decree. We on the left have the tendency of falling in love with whatever it is we dream about, and then we confuse it with reality. It seems to me that Bukharin’s words apply: ‘It’s not about retreating from the revolution. It’s about respecting reality.’ You have to resolve the issue of how people are going to eat, and insure that the economy functions, or else it’s all going to go to shit on you." Also, an anecdote about how Melania Trump reportedly commiserated with the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, telling her that the White House can also feel confining.
  • Earlier this week Maduro announced the launch of a new cryptocurrency, to be called the petro, and backed by the country's oil reserves. Though details were scarce, it is aimed at sidestepping the devaluing bolivar, reports the Associated Press. And that bolivar is depreciating at a rate "hard to fathom," according to Bloomberg. Opposition leaders questioned the move, saying the digital currency would require Congressional approval, reports Reuters. And experts say the new currency would suffer the same credibility problems as the bolivar in international markets, reports Reuters separately. A Washington Post piece explores some of the unknowns of a state-backed cryptocurrency, noting that there's "no conclusive research on the impact of such a system on a country’s financial stability or the methodology needed to link a central bank with an autonomously operating currency."
  • Venezuela is going through a period of hyperinflation, with a rate of over 800 percent as of October. The IMF predicts that consumer prices will rise by 2,300 percent next year, reports the New York Times. In addition, physical cash itself is in short supply, making daily transactions difficult. "The economic turmoil has put families — poor and affluent alike — at the intersection of some very tough choices, bred a stressful uncertainty about the course of any given day and turned the most basic tasks into feats of endurance."
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales is pushing legal boundaries to seek a fourth presidency -- as he did previously in seeking a first and second reelection, each requiring reform or court rulings. In doing so, he is slipping towards a disruption of the constitutional order, argues Héctor Schamis in El País. He questions the Bolivian government's appeal to international conventions guaranteeing political participation, and comparisons to Europe's parliamentary governments. "Those who pursue perpetuation have thought of the best of institutional alibis: indefinite reelection, an attribute of a parliamentary system, but in a hyper-presidential system. In plain terms, that formula consecrates an authoritarian regime."
  • The ruling makes Bolivia the only presidential democracy in the Americas, along with Nicaragua, to place no-limits on reelection, reports the Guardian. Yet though the move has been criticized internationally, it isn't clear that voters would reject Morales, given the choice.
  • An anti-corruption system passed last year in Mexico was supposed to be a watershed moment in the citizen fight against government corruption. Instead, citizens who form part of the new National Anti-Corruption System say they have been faced with obstacles that prevent them from carrying out their work, reports the New York Times in an in-depth piece. Specifically, commission members have been repeatedly denied briefings on issues such as spyware deployed against activists, or reports of Odebrecht bribes to a close ally of the president. "... Many civil society leaders, including some who helped engineer the creation of the anti-corruption system, say they have fallen prey to a familiar trick: The government creates a panel to address a major issue, only to starve it of resources, inhibit its progress or ignore it."
  • Opponents of leftist Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador try to link him to Hugo Chávez. But the comparison doesn't square with his history, argues Hernán Gómez Bruera in a New York Times Español op-ed. His stint governing Mexico City was modern and economically liberal. He promoted national and international investment, and is well remembered by business sectors. His presidential platform over several campaigns has promised fiscal responsibility and he shies away from polarizing terms such as "neoliberalism" in his critiques of the current government. A far better comparison would be to former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, writes Gómez Bruera.
  • Colombia's Congress has faced significant opposition in passing legislation needed to implement the peace accord with the FARC. Notably, lawmakers have employed filibustering tactics to stall and modify bills, a dangerous tactic that could derail the peace process, warns Fabio Andres Diaz in the Conversation. And presidential elections next year also pose a danger, as politicians seek to avoid backing unpopular measures.
  • Cuban President Raúl Castro will end his tenure in February leaving a changed nation, writes Richard Feinberg in the Brookings Institution's Order from Chaos blog. Notably, the younger Castro brother, diversified economic trade, opened doors to foreign investment, and created more travel opportunities for Cubans. Socially the country is much changed as well, notes Feinberg. "Another major shift that accelerated during the last decade: the evolution of Cuban society from socialist uniformity toward a more heterogeneous mix of property relations, income levels, and social styles."
  • The former Cuban Minister of Culture, Armando Hart, died on Sunday. He was a confidante of Fidel Castro, and is credited with a successful campaign that slashed the island's illiteracy rate from 25 percent to five, according to the New York Times' obituary.
  • Opinion guru Robert Worcester -- founder of Mori -- was hired by Trinidad and Tobago to provide $10 million in consultancy services between 2013 and 2015, reports the Observer.
  • The U.S. government announced it would be pulling out of talks for a U.N. agreement on handling international migrant flows, reports the New York Times. The Trump administration said the move was in defense of the country's sovereignty, but critics say it will contribute to a trend of American isolationism. 
  • U.S. statistics show that detentions of migrants at the country's border fell in the first eight months of Trump's presidency, while arrests of undocumented migrants within the country has soared, reports the Guardian. The trend is troubling, according to advocates who say it indicates a focus on people with deep ties to the U.S.  A new Human Rights Watch report details the impact of deportation on people forced to leave their homes and families, many after decades of working and paying taxes in the U.S.
  • Slave labor is "endemic" to Brazil's meat and poultry industries, according to a report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Workers labor for up to 20 hours a day, in "egregious" conditions, reports Reuters.
  • A Brazilian magazine cover featuring an all-white group of "Brazilians of the year" has come under fire in a country where most people describe themselves as black or mixed race. The polemic cover also made reference to "angry racism," reports the Guardian.
  • A project in Rio de Janeiro's Alemão favela, Embracing Champions, teaches youth to box, is the subject of a 16-minute documentary entitled The Good Fight winning awards in film festivals around the world, reports the Guardian.
  • The fate of the missing Argentine submarine that disappeared with 44 crew members last month remains a mystery, but experts believe that water short-circuited the battery and later caused an explosion that instantly killed the crew and sunk the vessel, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Take a look at Cali, Colombia's salsa capital, in a charming essay and photography in the New York Times.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Honduran police refuse to enforce curfew (Dec. 5, 2017)

The final count in Honduras' disputed election gives incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández a slim lead over his challenger, Salvador Nasralla: 42.98 percent to 41.39. But the opposition is challenging those numbers, and demands a broader recount, reports La Prensa Gráfica. Nonetheless, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is waiting to declare a winner, as parties can still file legal challenges, reports the Los Angeles Times. Hernández called for calm and to respect the period allotted for challenges, reports El Heraldo.

Violent protests have so far claimed the lives of 11 people, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as of yesterday. The government extended a curfew aimed at curbing violent protests, but reduced the hours residents are not permitted to be on the streets to 8 pm through 5 am, reports La Prensa Gráfica.

But, in a dramatic twist, Honduran police yesterday said they would not enforce a curfew imposed by the government and would remain in their barracks until the political crisis is resolved, reports the Guardian. The announcement includes the elite, U.S.-trained Cobras unit. "We want peace, and we will not follow government orders – we’re tired of this," said a police spokesman yesterday. "We aren’t with a political ideology. We can’t keep confronting people, and we don’t want to repress and violate the rights of the Honduran people."

A member of the Cobras emphasized yesterday that the standing down is not a strike, though some units are demanding a pay raise. "This not about salaries or money. It’s that we have family. We are tired. And our job is to give peace and security to the Honduran people, not repress them. We want all Hondurans to be safe." (See this piece in the Intercept for more on U.S. training for elite Honduran police forces and their role in repressing protests until yesterday.)

The OAS urged both candidates to reach an agreement on how to review ballots and irregularities in order to overcome the political crisis gripping the country, reports El País. "The tight margin of the results, and the irregularities, errors and systemic problems that have surrounded this election do not allow the Mission to hold certainty about the results," said the OAS in a preliminary report.

The OAS report noted irregularities -- such as ballot boxes arriving without security -- as well as unexplained changes in criteria used to count votes midway through the process. Honduran Culture and Politics analyzes the report and notes that it backs Alianza demands to recount about 5000 poll tallies counted after the initial phase of vote counting, when the trend changed, as well as do a complete recount of three rural departments with unusually high turnout.

A member of the European Union observe mission yesterday urged the TSE to wait for parties to present reasonable challenges, and said the process was "far from over."

An analysis by the Economist found the shift from Nasralla's early lead to Hernández's improbable, though "proving fraud through such analysis is fiendishly difficult."

And electoral law might also require a recount of some votes, as the margin between candidates is less than the number of null votes, according to Honduran Culture and Politics.

A magistrate of the TSE has been questioning the results as well, pointing to suspicious failures in the TSE system, after which Nasralla's winning tendency was reverted. In an interview with Carlos Dada in El Faro, magistrate Marco Ramiro Lobo outlines the insider disagreements and how OAS pressure led to the initial electoral night announcement that Nasralla had a 5 point lead.

Nasralla said yesterday he will try to take his case for a wide recount to the OAS, reports the Washington Post.

Several international reporters have been deported, according to the Guardian.

The U.S. Embassy said in a statement that it was "pleased Honduran election authorities completed the special scrutiny process in a way that maximizes citizen participation and transparency."

And Reuters reported that the U.S. State Department has certified that the Honduran government has been fighting corruption and supporting human rights, clearing the way for Honduras to receive millions of dollars in U.S. aid. The certification, signed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was dated Nov. 28, two days after the disputed election. Some U.S. Democrat lawmakers voiced concern that the certification could appear to be taking sides in Honduras.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy denounced the drawn out electoral process that has fomented distrust and suspicion of fraud. He said the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa has not been responding to his inquiries regarding the election. "This lack of responsiveness by our government in such a time of crisis is troubling, and I hope it is not a new standard."

On a broader level, the electoral crisis points to positive trends in the region, notably increased intolerance for corruption, argues Charles Call at the Brookings Institution blog Order from Chaos. "After the “Central America Spring” of 2015, when tens of thousands of outraged anti-corruption protesters forced out Guatemala’s president and threatened Hernandez’s rule in Honduras, many wondered whether its impact was ephemeral. On Monday it was apparent that the effect of that outrage persists, and was not captured in the pre-election polls."

But the election also demonstrates worrying trends, such as Hernández's growing control over diverse government institutions, and could contribute to lack of faith in elections, he writes.

"In the medium term, further reform of the campaign finance system and tighter implementation of a 2016 “Clean Politics” law may institutionalize fairer and more transparent campaign practices. An independent TSE, citizen polling observers alongside party representatives, and a second round of voting could enhance the process. And as long as the attorney general continues to push investigations of high-level corruption, continued external support for the OAS MACCIH mission can enhance the capacity and political space to eventually purge corruption from social expectations and political practices. External support will be necessary for internal reformers and pressures to attain political systems that enjoy the confidence of their populations."

Monday, December 4, 2017

Hondurans protest under curfew (Dec. 4, 2017)

A week after Honduras' presidential election, the country still doesn't have a winner. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets yesterday demanding a transparent vote count. On Friday clashes between security forces and demonstrators left at least one person dead -- media reports point to potentially eight victims, reports the Guardian. The government responded by declaring a curfew limiting movement between 6 pm and 6 am. Civil liberty groups are preparing the challenge the measure, which was signed by the vice president, and suspends civil liberties for 10 days.

Citizens have resorted to banging pots from balconies, given the limitations on street protests imposed by the curfew. In some areas where residents ventured to their doors to protest, soldiers patrolling responded with tear gas, reports the New York Times. #CacerolazoHonduras was a trending topic yesterday, reports La Prensa. The measure was aimed at reducing violent protests and citizen barricades, but it has also resulted in hundreds and thousands of detentions, according to El País. Businesses, forced to adjust working hours to comply with the 12 hour curfew urged officials to quickly resolve the electoral impasse, reports La Prensa.

Opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla condemned the curfew and said declaring the "curfew 12 hours a day while processing electoral ballots is the equivalent of a coup d'état in Honduras," reports CNN. The Economist compares the political crisis to the 2009 coup that ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya, who now backs the opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla.

"For human rights observers, the curfew and delay of an official recount are steps to produce an inevitable Hernández victory, regardless of the vote tally," reports the Intercept.

The curfew includes the press, and directs the military to take whatever measures it needs to maintain order, notes Honduran Culture and Politics. The Intercept reports on allegations that security forces are cracking down on peaceful demonstrators and the involvement of U.S. trained troops in repression.

Negotiations between the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla broke down yesterday. The opposition is questioning nearly 30 percent of the ballots, and is demanding a recount from three rural departments where turnout was about 20 percent higher than the average in the rest of the country, explains the NYT. The opposition is demanding a closer examination of all ballots that entered after the TSE system was suspended due to a "technical glitch" last week, reports La Prensa. When the system went back online Hernández's lead steadily increased.

As of early this Monday morning, incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) maintained a slim 1.6 percent lead over Nasralla, with a difference of 53,142 votes, reports La Prensa.

Last week, bowing to international pressure, the TSE agreed to not call a winner until questioned ballots were examined by electoral officials before representatives from both parties and international observers.

Before the election, the Economist reported on recordings of training sessions for National Party members, aimed at distorting election results in favor of JOH using fraudulent strategies. The magazine now published excerpts of the tapes. (See last Monday's post.)

Friday, December 1, 2017

Honduras on brink of political crisis (Dec. 1, 2017)

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has a slight lead in the ongoing vote count for last Sunday's election. As of yesterday evening, Hernández was up by 46,586 votes over challenger Salvador Nasralla. Hernández had 42.9 percent of the vote to Nasralla's 41.4 percent. 

Last night the electoral commission (TSE) said it would be hand counting the remaining votes -- irregular ballots -- before party representatives, reports El Heraldo. The manual process is expected to extend throughout today. International observers are also invited to attend, reports La Prensa.

The questioned votes number about 300,000, enough to turn the election results, according to Honduras Culture and Politics. Calls from the OAS and the European Union to finish counting all the votes before declaring an official winner were surprisingly supported by the COHEP, the Honduran council of private enterprise, notes the blog.

The delayed results have led to increasing political tensions and allegations of fraud, notes Reuters. The country is "teetering on the brink of its worst political crisis since the 2009 military coup," according to the Guardian.

While the TSE blamed technical glitches for the long counting process, critics say they are fraudulently countering an early trend in favor of Nasralla. TSE officials also said protests outside their Tegucigalpa offices forced them to evacuate when tear gas entered the building, reports the Associated Press.

Riot police clashed with Nasralla supporters yesterday, reports the BBC. There are reports of one death and several injuries after protesters burned tires and threw rocks at security forces who threw tear gas, reports the Guardian.

One of the four magistrates on the electoral tribunal said yesterday that the TSE system had been hacked, after the system fell down early Thursday morning. He called for an independent audit of the  Other officials said it was a technical glitch.

Regardless of who actually wins Honduras' contested election, the real winner will likely be iron fist security policies, argues InSight Crime, pointing to a regional trend of weak presidents turning towards the popular (though ultimately ineffective) approach. "The unsteady footing with which either presidential hopeful will enter office makes it likely that hard-line security strategies, which produce short term results and build political cache, will continue."
News Briefs
  • Representatives of the Venezuelan government and the opposition are meeting in the Dominican Republic today for negotiations aimed at resolving the country's ever more entrenched political crisis. Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights reviews what is known about the talks that will take place over the next few days. Each side has chosen three countries to accompany: Bolivia, Nicaragua and St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the case of the government, while the opposition has asked Chile, Mexico, and Paraguay to join. Despite schisms within the opposition MUD alliance, most of the opposition-controlled National Assembly voted in support of the negotiations this week. And seven opposition parties, including the four most important, back the talks, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Optimism, however, is in short supply, and few believe the negotiations will lead to a breakthrough, according to Reuters. If history is a guide, the opposition is at a disadvantage, writes Miguel Ángel Santos, in a New York Times Español op-ed. The opposition leadership is under real threat in Venezuela, and many who would have participated are in detention or exile.  “The meeting in the Dominican Republic coincides with one of the darkest hours of the opposition,” he argues. “On the one hand, they come from losing the elections for governors, an overwhelming and disconcerting defeat whose causes still have not been processed or clearly communicated. This failure has split it in three pieces: those who are willing to live with the regime in exchange for certain parcels of regional power, those who still believe in a negotiated electoral exit, and those who do not believe in negotiations or elections in the current conditions.” Nonetheless, the opposition has laid out clear objectives for the talks, explains Ramsey, including establishing conditions for free and fair presidential elections next year. They are also aiming for the government to accept offers of international aid, release political prisoners, and recognize the legitimate constitutional authority of the National Assembly.
  • This was a pretty bad year for Venezuela overall, reports Reuters, in a review of 2017. “Going into a fourth year of crippling recession, Venezuela’s 30 million people found themselves skipping meals, suffering shortages of basic foods and medicines, jostling in lines for ever-scarcer subsidized goods, unable to keep up with dizzying inflation rates, and emigrating in ever larger numbers.
  • Two former top Venezuelan oil officials were arrested in relation to corruption allegations, just days after they were replaced by military appointments, reports the BBC. Critics say the corruption probe is an attempt by the government to consolidate power ahead of next year’s elections, reports the Associated Press. (See Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Of the 755 people who died violently in Caracas between May and September of this year, 280 parents left behind children under 18 years of age. The cases of murdered parents correspond to the most violent municipalities in Caracas, according to a Victims Monitor project carried out by Runrun.es and Caracas Mi Convive. "With precise data and names, the Victim’s Monitor registry tries to visualize those invisible victims of the homicides that take place in Caracas. Most of these victims are children and adolescents who do not receive any assistance from the government, and aren’t the focus of protective public policies," reports RunRun.es. (English translation at InSight Crime.)
  • A Venezuelan creditors meeting in London this week was attended by sovereign debt advisors, a concrete sign that bond holders are strategizing together, reports Reuters.
  • A coalition of Chilean leftist parties refrained from outright endorsing Alejandro Guillier for next month’s run-off election, though they called on him to clarify his social and economic policies, reports Reuters.
  • A German court decided to take the case of a Peruvian farmer against an energy giant in relation to climate change in the Andes. The court said the case was well founded, reports AFP. The prosecution argues that RWE, one of the world’s top emitters of climate-altering carbon dioxide, must share in the cost of protecting farmer Saul Luciano Lliuya's hometown from a glacial lake that threatens to overflow as a result of global warming.
  • Washington opposition has only strengthened Bolivia's president's resolve to run for office again. President Evo Morales said U.S. concern over a Constitutional Court decision permitting eliminating term limits actually convinced him to run, reports Reuters. "I was not so determined; now I am determined," he said at a Cochabamba event. Protesters opposed to the ruling, which cannot be appealed, clashed with security forces yesterday. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
  • An in-depth New York Times Magazine piece this week profiles a member of El Salvador's street gangs. (See yesterday's briefs.) His "comments showcase the cycle of violence that still persists in El Salvador and how the country’s gangs use it to their advantage," according to InSight Crime's analysis. "The gangs not only use violence as a bargaining chip, but also to wield political power."
  • Mexico's newly launched PRI presidential candidate José Antonio Meade lags behind front-runner, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) by about 14 percentage points, reports Reuters. Meade, who has a technocratic profile and a politically independent history is polling at 17 percent intent to vote, while AMLO has 31 percent. (See Tuesday's briefs.)
  • A new report from the University of Texas found that human smuggling routes through Mexico have shifted, and are increasingly relying on cargo trucks along less travelled routes. The switch, aimed at eluding increased crackdowns on migrants transiting through Mexico, has led to an increase in migrant deaths, reports InSight Crime.
  • Argentina's navy officially abandoned rescue attempts for the 44-person crew of a submarine that went missing two weeks ago. The efforts are now focused on recovering the presumed wreck, reports the BBC. Relatives of the crew are angry at what they call misleading information aimed at keeping hopes alive in the initial days after the submarine disappeared, reports the Guardian.
  • A beautiful op-ed by Malvinas War veteran Roberto Herrscher in the New York Times Español recounts the long path of the hundreds of unidentified Argentine soldiers buried in the Falklands, who are now being identified. "From Antigone's stubborn quest to give a proper burial to her brother Polyneices who died fighting against the dictator in ancient Greece, putting names on the tombs of the dead is a sign of humanity and civilization. In Puerto Berrío in Colombia, in Iguala in Mexico, in Rabinal in the mountains of Guatemala, and in Franquismo's common graves in Spain, the families of the disappeared continue seeking to identify their own." (My translation does not do it justice.)