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.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Intercept: Haitian police working with U.N. mission massacred 9 civilians (Jan. 12, 2018)

A Haitian police raid in Port-au-Prince last November led to at least nine suspected summary executions of civilians, reports The Intercept. The police officers were working with the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti, which in October replaced the long-running U.N. peacekeeping mission. 

In late December, a U.N. spokesperson confirmed to The Intercept for the first time that the mission had helped plan the raid on a school campus in the Grand Ravine area, though it distanced itself from the civilian deaths. 

"Nearly two months after the massacre, no one has been publicly held responsible. The police inspector general has completed an investigation and passed it on to a judge, who could order the arrest or dismissal of officers involved. One police officer accused of involvement is already missing, according to the inspector general. Families of nine victims, including those of the two police officers, received a one-time payment of about $1,500 for funeral expenses. But none of the intellectual authors of the botched raid appear to have been identified or questioned."

News Briefs
  • U.S President Donald Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as "shithole countries" in a meeting with U.S. lawmakers, reports the Washington Post. The president singled out Haiti, telling lawmakers that immigrants from that country must be left out of any deal, according to the Post. Reactions on social media were swift, with many users posting pictures of beautiful scenery in their countries. Haiti's ambassador to the United States condemned the statements and said that the country had asked for an official explanation of Trump’s comments from American officials, reports the Washington Post separately. 
  • U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is heading to Colombia this weekend to support peace efforts, reports the Associated Press. His visit comes amid concerns about the implementation of the peace pact with the FARC and stalled negotiations with the ELN guerrillas. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Colombia's forests are under double assault: the demobilization of the FARC has lifted protections they imposed on jungle they used for cover, while killings of social activists are leaving environmental movements without leadership, reports la Silla Vacía, focusing on San Vicente del Caguán in Caquetá.
  • Ecuador’s state oil company has begun drilling the first of 97 planned wells inside a new field of the Yasuní national park. The reserve is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Conservationists accuse president Lenín Moreno of backtracking on promises to protect the environment, reports the Guardian.
  • Ecuador granted Julian Assange citizenship last month, reports the BBC. The news transcended after the U.K. refused to grant the WikiLeaks founder diplomatic status as an Ecuadorean agent. Ecuador is seeking a way out of the legal impasse that has stranded Assange in its embassy for over five years, reports the New York Times. Ecuador's foreign minister said that Assange would not leave the embassy without security guarantees that he won't be deported to the U.S., has also indicated that the current situation is untenable, reports the Washington Post.
  • The United States is the largest source of guns entering Brazil that end up in the hands of armed bandits and drug traffickers, according to Reuters, based on a Brazilian Federal Police report. Roughly 1,500 guns originated in the United States out of a study of more than 10,000 arms seized by police since 2014, mostly in Rio de Janeiro. 
  • Venezuela's opposition is angling for a presidential election to be held in the first half of this year, reports Bloomberg.
  • Venezuelan Constituent Assembly member Tomas Lucena was murdered this week, reports EFE.
  • A teen was killed in Venezuela's Guarane city, in the midst of a mass looting of food trucks, reports AFP.
  • A boat with 30 Venezuelan migrants sank en route to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, reports the BBC.
  • Thousands of Peruvians against rallied against a pardon for former President Alberto Fujimori, convicted of human rights violations, reports the BBC.
  • Amid increasing rumors that U.S. President Donald Trump will trigger a six month withdrawal process from NAFTA, Mexican negotiators say they will leave the table if the U.S. pulls out, reports Reuters.
  • Building on a report earlier this week on Mexican cities that have effectively taken security into their own hands, the New York Times report on how Monterrey's business elite took over the city's policing. "Monterrey’s business leaders had tried to install their corporations as replacement institutions. But they fell victim to the same institutional weaknesses they’d tried to fix. With little in the way of a civil service, a simple change in governor destabilized everything," write Max Fisher and Amanda Taub. "That might seem like a technical or abstract lesson, but it’s one that should concern everybody, and not just in Mexico. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the health of our institutions; they’re boring, opaque and largely unseen. But maybe we should think about them."
  • "If all the Salvadoreans in the TPS programme were to come back, which is highly unlikely, the country’s population would swell by 3 percent," reports the Economist on the end of the U.S. provisional residency program for nearly 200,000 Salvadoran migrants.
  • Pope Francis will be in Chile next week, and will meet with victim's of the Pinochet dictatorship, reports Reuters. But preparations for the pontifical visit only show the increasing irrelevance of the Catholic church in Chile, according to the Economist.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri announced a series of measures to eliminate outdated regulations in a bid to attract reticent foreign investment, reports Reuters.
  • The Peruvian government is evaluating a $2.4 billion railway project to transport mineral concentrates from the country's Andean region to the Pacific, reports Reuters.
  • A smartphone game seeks to educate Colombian children about their country’s endangered indigenous cultures, reports the Guardian.
  • The U.S. State Department implemented a new numbered classification system in order to warn travelers of dangers. Level 4, which advises travelers not to go to the place in question, largely reserved for war zones, and Mexican states where drug cartels have a very active presence, reports the Washington Post. Flaws in U.S. policies aimed at buttressing security in the region can be spotted in U.S. State Department travel warnings against certain destinations in Latin America, according to InSight Crime. "The United States has long worked with many of the countries for which advisories were issued in attempts to bring down their persistently high levels of crime and violence. But the new warnings against traveling to these nations serve as a type of admission that US-backed security policies have often fallen short of their goals."

Thursday, January 11, 2018

"Fake news" or censorship -- is that the question? (Jan. 11, 2018)

Alleged Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election has led to a spate of accusations in other countries. But the Russian excuse is also used as justification for a disturbing trend of government efforts to censor so-called "fake news," reports The Intercept

The Brazilian Federal Police announced this week that a specially formed working group, together with representatives from the judiciary, will combat "fake news" during this year's electoral process. Conservative Supreme Court justice Gilmar Mendes will be participating.

There is no current legislation permitting such extreme censorship, notes the Observer. Proponents of the new internet censorship program said they will seek a new law in order to define their functions, but without it, they plan on using a dictatorship-era law penalizing people who "spread rumors that caused panic." 

"That 1983 legal framework was used by Brazil’s military dictatorship to arrest dissidents, critics, and democracy activists. That they are now eyeing a resurrection of this dictatorship-era censorship law to regulate and censor contemporary political expression on the internet — all in the name of stopping “fake news” — powerfully symbolizes how inherently tyrannical and dangerous are all government attempts to control political expression," notes The Intercept. The piece delves into the extremely vague nature of "fake news" and the difficulties inherent in trying to control it within a framework of freedom of expression.

A law Congress approved last year also aims to fine internet users who publish content aimed at influencing the election under a false identity.

Hypothetical Russian intervention and questionable censorship efforts aside, Brazil's voters -- passionate users of social media and in the midst of intense political polarization -- are at unique risk for misinformation, according to Bloomberg. Brazilian fact-checkers have been worried about fake news since it plagued the controversial impeachment of former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, notes Poynter.

With that in mind, Facebook announced last week that it will partner with Aos Fatos, part of the International Fact-Checking Network, to create a chatbot for the company’s messenger service.  Aos Fatos director Tai Nalon told Poynter that the short-term goal of the bot — tentatively named “Fátima,” shorthand for “fact machine” — is to enable Facebook users to be their own fact-checkers.

However, such a mechanism cannot be applied to WhatsApp. Brazil is WhatsApp’s second-largest market, with 120 million users -- more than half the nation’s population.

Facebook will also be supporting an online course developed by Brazilian researchers to help young people and educators avoid falling for hoaxes.

Several dozen Brazilian organizations of civil society, including Instituto Update and App Civico, have launched #NãoValeTudo, an initiative aimed at responsible use of technology in elections. They recognize the "hyper-connected" nature of the world today, and how reality is increasingly mediated by new platforms. Technologies "are tools that can be used in different ways," they warn. "There are unethical and dishonest uses that can manipulate the debate in order to disinform public opinion and make noise in the democratic political arena." These techniques, which are negative for democracy, are multiplying, and have been present recently in important political proceses, like the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, the referendum regarding the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, or in the debates about the peace accords in Colombia. ... We, the signatories of this letter, believe that technology can improve democracy. Because of that, we commit ourselves to make ethical use of them, according to the principles in this letter, during the 2018 elections."

News Briefs
  • Colombia's ELN guerrillas carried out three bomb attacks yesterday, immediately after a temporary cease-fire expired, reports Reuters. Bombing against the country's second most important pipeline forced the suspension of pumping operations. The ELN also staged a grenade attack on a naval base in Arauca province, injuring two soldiers.  In response, the Colombian government recalled negotiators from a peace round due to start yesterday in Quito, reports the BBC. "The government was always willing to extend the ceasefire. Inexplicably, the ELN refused," said President Juan Manuel Santos. Later in the day ELN representatives urged the government to reopen negotiations. Talks, which started in February of last year, have suffered numerous setbacks. The group's negotiator in Quito said said the attacks occurred in "complex situations" of war and that the group maintained its intention to negotiate a new ceasefire. "The attacks underscored the steep challenges Colombia faces as it tries to negotiate a peace deal with the ELN similar to the one that it signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 2016," according to the New York Times.
  • The ceasefire itself had disparate impact in different regions under ELN control, reports Silla Vacía. While Arauca residents had a peaceful holiday season for the first time in 50 years, in Pacífico numerous violations occurred -- at least two in relation to skirmishes over former FARC territories and drug trafficking routes.
  • Political maneuvering could impact the selection of Guatemala's new attorney general, reports InSight Crime. In fact, machinations to impact a commission that would select the next head prosecutor have already begun on the part of powerful elites seeking to thwart anti-corruption efforts. Nómada details how fifteen lawyers will select six candidates that President Jimmy Morales will choose between.
  • Mexico may be on the verge of a perfect storm, argues Jorge Castañeda in a New York Times op-ed. "Three dark clouds threaten Mexico’s future in 2018: Donald Trump’s tax overhaul, the possible end of Nafta and a presidential election that may introduce an era of turmoil and uncertainty for the economy and Mexican society at large." He makes the interesting point with regard to the presidential election, that it's not so much whether front-runner leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador will actually win, but whether investors believe he will. They do, and they are either delaying projects in the pipeline or postponing new ones until after the election, writes Castañeda. "What these three clouds imply for Mexico is a protracted period of insignificant growth after a long period of mediocre growth. They probably entail more drug production, migration and violence. Poverty and inequality, which have both shrunk slightly over the past 15 years, will rise again."
  • The U.S. state department has warned Americans to completely avoid five Mexican states plagued by crime and drug cartel violence, putting the regions on the same level as war-zones such as Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, reports the Guardian.
  • The Washington Post has a briefing on what TPS, after the Trump administration canceled the provisional residency program for about 200,000 Salvadorans this week. (See Tuesday's post.)
  • And Canada is apparently fearing a huge influx of Salvadoran migrants crossing the border in search of asylum, as occurred last year when Haiti's TPS was cancelled, reports the Washington Post.
  • The Vatican has taken over a Peru-based Catholic movement whose founder was accused of sexual and psychological abuse, just days before Pope Francis starts a trip to Chile and Peru where the sexual abuse scandal is expected to play out on the sidelines, reports the Associated Press.
  • Argentine military Bishop Santiago Olivera said yesterday that he has in his power a previously undisclosed book of baptisms carried out in the ESMA chapel between 1975 and 1979. The ESMA (Navy Mechanical School) was the site of a clandestine maternity ward for illicit captives of the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina at the time. Many of the infants born there were given in illegal adoption and their mothers were subsequently killed. The book apparently contains records of 127 baptisms, some of which could correspond to children of military officers, but some may provide clues regarding the still-missing children of the disappeared, reports Página 12. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Decision to terminate TPS will worsen situation in El Salvador (Jan. 10, 2018)

The Trump administration's decision to terminate a residency program for approximately 200,000 Salvadorans who have lived in the U.S. for at least 16 years will be yet another example of how Washington policy affects the fate of El Salvador, according to the New York Times. (See yesterday's post.) 

"The nation that these Salvadorans will be returning to is far deadlier than the one they left. In the capital, the streets have been converted into urban killing fields that, as recently as 2015, registered a homicide every hour during moments of peak violence," write Gene Palumbo and Azam Ahmed. "The government itself has also become an agent of violence. Police officers are granted an open license to go after the gangs under the government’s iron-fist policy, sometimes sweeping up innocent people."

El Salvador's violence-plagued society is intimately linked to U.S. policy, and residents fear the new influx of returnees -- most of whom have lived most of their lives in the U.S. -- will once again worsen conditions on the ground. Returnees will be virtual strangers, and could face additional dangers from entrenched street gangs who might consider them targets. Additionally, they could worsen the unemployment rate. On a broader level, the end of remittances will worsen poverty in communities around the country. Remittances account for 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and a staggering 80 percent of economic growth, according to Inter-American Dialogue research.

The Trump administration's decisions to end protections for certain groups of Latin American migrants who have lived long-term in the U.S. is counter to U.S. interests, and could well foster a new cycle of illegal immigration, warn Michael Shifter and Ben Raderstorf in a New York Times op-ed

Separation of immigrant families could also worsen violence in El Salvador, which is of course what pushes migrants to try to reach the U.S., said Celina de Sola, the vice president and founder of the El Salvador-based NGO Glasswing International, in an interview with Americas Quarterly. "Family disintegration is a huge risk factor for violence. You have people who have lived in the U.S for two decades. They’re participating in the labor force and have kids who are productive U.S. citizens. Ultimately what we want is to reduce crime by reducing vulnerability. But separating families makes people vulnerable whether they’re in the U.S. or El Salvador. And since returned migrants also have a much smaller social and familial network, that also increases the risk factors that lead to crime."

Florida members of Congress -- including Republicans -- branded the decision as "cruel" and "senseless," reports the Miami Herald. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, warned that the “cruel decision” will have "a terrible impact on our communities on 200,000 people, their relatives and the United States."

News Briefs
  • Undocumented Latin American migrants hoping to enter the U.S. are surging again along the border with Mexico. Border apprehensions reached an all-time low, touted by U.S. officials as a "Trump Effect," in which migrants were deterred by the U.S. president's tough talk on immigration issues. (Though experts warned last year that the chilling effect would be temporary. See post for July 3, 2017.) Across the Southwest, border officers are stopping more than 1,000 people a day, reports the New York Times. New data from the Homeland Security Department shows that would be migrants seeking to enter the U.S. surpassed 40,000 along the Southwest border last month, more than double the amount from last spring.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is opening a formal inquiry into mysterious symptoms suffered by U.S. embassy workers in Cuba. The U.S. has alleged "sonic attacks" that affected 24 people working in the embassy. But in a hearing yesterday, Senator Marco Rubio said the State Department “did not follow the law” in failing to set up a review board months ago, reports the New York Times. US investigators are looking at a range of theories – including the possibility of a "viral" attack, reports Reuters.
  • Ecuador's comptroller will open an investigation into debt contracted during the Correa administration, reports Reuters.
  • Ecuador is seeking to find a way for Julian Assange to leave its London embassy. The WikiLeaks founder has lived there since 2012, when he was granted political asylum, but Ecuador officials said it was unsustainable for him to live there permanently, reports the Wall Street Journal. They will be seeking international mediation to reach a final settlement with the UK, reports the Guardian.
  • Paraguayan Attorney General Javier Diaz Veron insists he will not resign from his post, in the midst of an investigation for illicit enrichment, reports EFE. Opposition parties in Congress have called for his ouster in response to allegations of Veron's "unethical and outrageous behavior," reported TeleSUR in December.
  • Argentine social activist Milagro Sala called for an end to judicial harassment towards her. Last week her home was raided by officials seeking evidence in a case alleging money laundering, reports Clarín. It is the fourth such raid, notes Cohete a la Luna.  Horacio Verbitsky reports that her lawyers' offices in Buenos Aires were robbed and vandalized. Sala has been in preventive detention for two years, and was transferred to home arrest last month in response to an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights decision and pressure from rights organizations.
  • The Bolivian government negotiated an end to a 47 day doctors' strike, in response to a presidential decree creating a Supervision Authority for the National Health System and sanctions for professional negligence and medical malpractice, reports TeleSUR. Earlier this month, the Bolivian government and Bolivia’s Doctor’s Association agreed to end the nationwide medical strike and protests while the Bolivian government agreed to revoke the controversial articles of the Penal Code. However medical services were not immediately reestablished.
  • Honduras and Belize are under potential threat of a tsunami after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in the Caribbean sea yesterday, reports the Guardian.
  • Casa Xochiquetzal in Mexico City provides a haven for retired prostitutes, reports the New York Times.
  • Rio de Janeiro favela Rocinha was "once the showcase shantytown in Brazil’s showcase city." But the community has seen a drastic increase in killings this year, as confrontations between drug gangs and police turn the favela into a war zone, reports the Washington Post.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

TPS eliminated for Salvadorans (Jan. 9, 2018)

The U.S. government confirmed the elimination of a program granting Salvadoran migrants provisional residency in the U.S. The decision to end  Temporary Protection Status for migrants from El Salvador affects approximately 200,000 people, who have been living in the country since at least 2001, reports the Washington Post. (See yesterday's briefs.) 

The Intercept phrases it more strongly: "Once implemented, the cancellation could see waves of people who have lived in the U.S. for generations deposited in one of the most dangerous places on Earth." Deportees will be returning to a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Salvadoran officials have appealed to the U.S., saying that the decision will wreak havoc on the country's economy. El Salvador  receives billions of dollars in remittances from the U.S. Returnees will also destabilize the job market there, potentially displacing other people who will in turn be forced to seek alternatives such as migration to the U.S.

In fact,Trump's elimination of TPS for Salvadorans runs counter to the U.S. goal of improving stability and prosperity in Central America, and will likely worsen the factors pushing people to immigrate to the U.S. in the first place, argues Ishaan Tharoor in the Washington Post's Monkey Cage. "... Under Trump, the tacit understandings that governed federal policy on immigration and foreign policy are being shaken. His politics are built on an image of the United States as a passive victim of foreign menace, exploited, hoodwinked and infiltrated by all sorts of dangerous outside actors. "America first" demands that he ignore the pleas of Salvadoran officials ... As was the case with Trump's series of attempted bans on arrivals from certain Muslim-majority countries, the move here seems anchored less in any substantive policy than mere mean-spirited ideology."

But though the potential impact of the policy change is grave Salvadoran officials say the 18 month grace period accorded to TPS recipients is an opportunity to find a permanent protection against deportation, according to the WP.

El Salvador is the fourth country in four months to lose protection under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which since 1990 has offered deportation relief to people from regions experiencing armed conflict and natural disasters, notes the Guardian.

A report last year found 51 percent of Salvadorans with TPS have lived in the US for more than 20 years and 34 percent have homes with mortgages. They live mostly in California, Texas, New York and Washington DC.

News Briefs
  • A cease-fire between Colombia's ELN guerrillas and the government ends today, even as the two sides aim to continue peace negotiations. Yesterday they launched their fifth round of talks in Ecuador, reports DPA. Human rights organizations have called for an extension to the ceasefire, though critics say the ELN has used the respite to recruit and train fighters, reports Deutsche Welle. Negotiations with the ELN have been ongoing for nearly a year, but are proceeding with difficulty, reports the Guardian. In the meantime, FARC demobilization has given the smaller guerrilla group opportunity for expansion, along with paramilitary and criminal organizations.
  • Mexico's Chihuahua state governor Javier Corrales accused the Peña Nieto administration of withholding funding in order to quash an investigation against illegal campaign financing by the ruling PRI party, reports the Guardian. State prosecutors in Chihuahua are examining the alleged embezzlement of more than $10 million in public funds used to finance the campaigns of candidates from President Enrique Peña Nieto's political party, reports the New York Times. In a news conference yesterday, Corrales said the finance minister said Chihuahua would not receive funding aimed at covering a budget short fall unless state officials told the minister more about the investigation. 
  • A reader commented that yesterday's post on U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster's allegations of potential Russian intervention in Mexico's election merits a more skeptical read and should be backed with evidence. Nor is potential Russian intervention the only threat to free and fair elections in Mexico. It's worth noting the impact of media bias in previous elections against front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador.  A study from the University of Texas found that biased coverage against AMLO significantly impacted voters -- enough to swing a close election. Indeed, AMLO lost the 2006 election by a tiny margin, and there were numerous allegations of irregularities in the election, explained Mark Weisbrot in the Guardian several years ago. And AMLO could indeed be perceived as a problem for the U.S.: "We are not going to fight with the U.S government. What we will do is demand our sovereignty – sovereignty with respect," he said at a Wilson Center event last year.
  • Omar Barboza was elected the new National Assembly president in Venezuela, replacing Julio Borges. On Friday he pushed the opposition-dominated Congress to reach a deal with the government, reports the Associated Press. He also told legislators that ensuring a fair presidential election this year should be a top priority. Barboza acknowledged the opposition had made mistakes since winning a majority in congress in 2015 while also accusing the government of purposely trying to create mistrust among Maduro’s foes.
  • Inflation last year in Venezuela was 2,616 percent, according to the National Assembly. Their estimates put December's inflation rate at 85 percent, well past the 50 percent that determines hyperinflation, reports Reuters.
  • Some in Venezuela's political opposition are now calling for military intervention in their efforts to oust President Nicolás Maduro -- following a year of intense street protests and electoral campaigns that nonetheless failed to end the government. But a mutually beneficial alliance between the government and the military makes a coup unlikely, reports the Guardian."Amid the country’s worst economic crisis in modern history and polls showing that the vast majority of Venezuelans want the president to go, they say the armed forces have helped keep Maduro in office in exchange for a growing list of economic perks."
  • The criminal profile of Brazil's Congress only grows: A man sentenced for sexual exploitation of underaged girls will take a seat as a lawmaker, provoking anger among many in the country, reports the Guardian.
  • It's time for a stronger #MeToo (#YoTambién) campaign in the region, argues Ilan Stavens in a New York Times Español op-ed. "We must put machismo on the defendants bench. And confront the elite combating the impunity that protects the powerful. It will not be easy because the crimes of the upper classes tend to remain unpunished; not to try would be a form of complicity."
  • Women's rights groups in Chile are concerned about what the upcoming presidency of conservative Sebastián Piñera could mean for newly earned abortion rights. (See post for Aug. 22, 2017.) A new law legalized abortion in exceptional circumstances last year, but rights groups are concerned that the newly elected president, who has opposed abortion rights in the past, will not fully implement the new regulations or add onerous requirements, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Pope Francis has promised to declassify Vatican documents pertaining to Uruguay's military dictatorship, reports TeleSUR.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri was elected two years ago on a platform promising to upend a culture of political corruption. A recent spate of detentions of former officials and private sector allies would appear to back his promises: except for the fact that only his political opponents have been targeted, notes the New York Times. Critics say the government is using the judiciary to neutralize its political opposition, and even supporters question the timing of detentions. The situation has many in Argentina calling for a wholesale overhaul of the penal code and the judiciary, a proposal that faces stiff opposition from many judges themselves. (On that subject, see an interesting New York Times Español op-ed by José Natanson from December, discussing why the executive branch is loathe to challenge the entrenched interests of the judicial sector.)
  • In a New York Times Español op-ed, Argentine investigative journalist Hugo Alconada Mon calls for better legal tools to assist judicial cases against corruption. He points to the successes of Operation Car Wash in Brazil, particularly prosecutor's use of plea bargains -- though he concludes that nothing will work without magistrate commitment to the cause.
  • Netflix is promoting a boom in Latin American stand-up comedy, an unusual genre in the region, writes Hanna' Tameez in Americas Quarterly

Monday, January 8, 2018

U.S. accuses Russia of meddling in Mexico's elections (Jan. 8, 2018)

U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster said the U.S. had already seen initial signs of Russian "subversion and disinformation and propaganda" in Mexico's presidential campaign, reports  by Reforma. Elections will be held in July. "With Russia we are concerned, increasingly concerned, with these sophisticated campaigns of subversion and disinformation and propaganda, the use of cyber tools to do that," McMaster reportedly said in previously unreported comments at a December event at at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC. "As you've seen this is a really sophisticated effort to polarize democratic societies and pit communities within those societies against each other and create crises of confidence ... 

In November Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray said the country had no evidence of Russian interference. But the Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) voiced concern over the existence of misinformation campaigns on social networks about the electoral process, notes Reforma.

Interfering in Mexico's election is a good opportunity for Russia to complicate the U.S., argued Shannon O'Neill, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a November Bloomberg piece. 

Speculation is that Russia would back leftist outsider candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a front runner for this year's elections, according to Business Insider. Russian media has been supportive of AMLO, as he is called, and he has promised to demand more respect from the U.S., reports Reuters. On a broader level, Russia and China are increasingly showing interest in Latin America as the U.S. takes on an economically protectionist stance. (See below on Nafta renegotiations.)

O'Neill also notes that the elections will not just be presidential, but will also renew the entirety of the Congress, several governors and local posts. More than 3,000 positions in all. "Mexico remains extremely vulnerable to the Russian interference that occurred in the 2016 U.S. election. Facebook, Twitter and Google are important sources of information for many Mexicans. And local papers and TV stations have long run flattering or condemnatory stories in exchange for ad buys or money," she writes. 

(The New York Times recently reported on how Mexico's national, state and local governments use funding to influence press coverage, see last Tuesday's briefs. Also, see last Wednesday's briefs on how journalists are self-censoring in the face of cartel violence, and Thursday's briefs on the difficulties of carrying out reporting from Mexico.)

For what its worth, Russian media has been dismissive of the reports of meddling. Sputnik accuses U.S. officials of grasping at straws: "unable to come up with any coherent evidence proving Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential vote, Washington now seems set on implicating Moscow in interfering in Mexico's upcoming general elections." And RT ran a piece in late December in which Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov rejected accusations of interference.

And last year Videgaray warned the U.S. to stay out of its elections, reported Business Insider in April.

More broadly, "fake news" is a topic in the Mexican election. AMLO has accused the mainstream media of shielding ruling party candidate José Antonio Meade, but he cited a malicious video of Meade edited to make it seem as if he had said the street is for criminals and jail for citizens, reports Animal Político

News Briefs
  • The Trump administration will cancel Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for Salvadorans. The decision would affect the provisional residency of 200,000 people who have lived in the U.S. since at least 2001, reports the Washington Post. A Department of Homeland Security announcement sent to lawmakers today said conditions in El Salvador have improved significantly since a series of earthquakes prompted the granting of TPS in 2001. Salvadorans will have until Sept. 9, 2019 to leave the United States or find a new way to obtain legal residency. The 200,000 are the parents of an estimated 190,000 U.S.-born children. The decision was not, however, surprising. In recent months the administration terminated TPS for 60,000 Haitians who arrived after a 2010 earthquake, and for 2,500 Nicaraguan migrants protected after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Some 57,000 Hondurans were granted a reprieve by then-Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke, but the administration was angered by the move. (See post for Nov. 7, 2017.) Immigration advocates say El Salvador in unprepared for such a large influx of returnees. El Salvador has extremely high rates of homicide and violence, as well as housing and job shortages, reports the Washington Post separately.
  • The Trump administration asked Congress for $18 billion over the next ten years in order to build a polemic wall along the country's border with Mexico. Nonetheless, the U.S. president insisted that Mexico will pay for the wall, reports the Guardian. "I have a very good relationship with Mexico. But yes, in some form, Mexico will pay for the wall." (Mexican officials have repeatedly and emphatically emphasized that they will do no such thing.)
  • White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's perspectives on Latin America were forged during the three years he spent as head of U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), reports the Washington Post. Though some immigrant groups initially hoped for a favorable perspective from a leader with on-the-ground experience on conditions in the region, his time in Latin America hardened his views on border security. "Kelly’s years in Latin America left him with a view of U.S. border threats similar to Trump’s, and not only illegal immigration and drugs. Kelly repeatedly told lawmakers that terrorist organizations could be plotting to sneak into the United States with the help of Mexican criminal groups..." He also tended to forge direct links with national leaders, and strayed from the Obama administration's foreign policy when he defended Honduras' militarized internal security strategy. But other sources speak of his willingness to meet with human rights organizations and efforts to understand the region's fraught history with its militaries.
  • The New York Times profiles a dispute over who can truck Mexican goods into the U.S. heartland as an example of the multifaceted difficulties of the NAFTA renegotiation. Though the 1993 free trade agreement theoretically allowed for Mexican truckers to take their cargo anywhere in the U.S., in practise American truckers lobbied to allow only U.S. nationals to carry that transport. The Trump administration is pushing for Mexico to accept a provision that could block its drivers from delivering within the U.S. Mexico has rejected the proposal. "The dispute offers a window into the stakes involved in rewriting, or blowing up, an agreement that has become highly contentious but also extremely lucrative for all sides. It also hints at the impact that market forces — more than rules agreed to on paper — may have on the ways two nations exchange wares."
  • The New York Times' Interpreter column explores how three Mexican localities that have effectively seceded from the country in a bid to control rampant violence and endemic corruption in security forces. "Each is a haven of relative safety amid violence, suggesting that their diagnosis of the problem was correct. But their gains are fragile and have come at significant cost. They are exceptions that prove the rule: Mexico’s crisis manifests as violence, but it is rooted in the corruption and weakness of the state."
  • Thousands of protesters gathered in San Pedro Sula to protest the results of recent Honduran elections, which officials say granted incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández a second term. The march was led by opposition leader Salvador Nasralla, though he has officially conceded to Hernández, he maintains the election was fraudulent, reports the Associated Press. At least 30 people were killed in the protests that followed the Nov. 26 vote, most at the hands of the Honduran Military Police. But victims have little hope for justice, reports the Miami Herald. More than 90 percent of violent crimes in Honduras go unprosecuted, according to the Committee for the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH).
  • A three week police strike in Brazil's Rio Grande do Norte state has prompted a spike in violence and a state of emergency, reports the Los Angeles Times. Civil and military police walked off the job Dec. 19 to demand back pay and better working conditions. Officers haven’t been paid in full since November.
  • Brazilian police have requested that President Michel Temer answers 50 questions as part of an investigation into alleged corruption in port regulation, reports Reuters. Police are investigating whether Temer took bribes in exchange for shaping a decree in a way that would benefit a logistics firm.
  • On Friday Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced a temporary shutdown of air and maritime traffic with Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. He accused the Caribbean islands of running smuggling operations with Venezuelan goods -- from food to coltan, reports the New York Times. It was not clear what prompted the timing of the 72-hour crackdown, though all the islands are in fact known for black markets for Venezuelan contraband, as well as destinations for refugees from Venezuela's economic disaster.
  • Mobs gathered outside of supermarkets this weekend after a government order for price reductions. The Maduro ordered more than 200 supermarkets to cut prices back to last month’s levels, a significant change in a country with hyperinflation, reports Reuters.
  • Also on Friday, Maduro announced Venezuela would issue 100 million units of its new oil-backed cryptocurrency in coming days, reports Reuters.
  • The U.S. announced sanctions on four acting or retired Venezuelan generals for rights abuses and corruption. That brings the total up to 44 Venezuelan officials have been sanctioned to date including President Nicolás Maduro, reports the BBC.
  • Former Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori said he "Longs for a Peru without grudges, with everybody working for a superior objective." The remarks were made on Twitter, just after he was released from the hospital after obtaining a polemic medical pardon for a human rights violations prison sentence. It's not clear whether the comments auger a more active return to Peruvian politics, where Fujimori is a deeply divisive figure, reports the New York Times. Some lawyers say there is no legal obstacle preventing Fujimori from seeking public office now that he has been released from jail. But other experts say that a medical pardon should not permit him to resume a political career, reports the BBC
  • A photo shared on social media shows Fujimori in a garden surrounded by his four adult children – a sign of unity that fueled speculation he would end a political rivalry between siblings Keiko and Kenji, reports the Guardian.
  • In an op-ed in El Comercio, Prime Minister Mercedes Aráoz defended the decision to pardon Fujimori, saying it aims at reconciliation in Peruvian society as well as humanitarian concern over the former leader's ill-health. But to many observers, the decision seems to demonstrate that President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's embattled administration is now beholden to Fujimori's Fuerza Popular party, according to the Economist
  • In Nacla, Jo-Marie Burt calls the pardon Faustian and explores the new legal battle to have it revoked. "Defenders of the pardon insist that the president has the absolute right to pardon whomever he sees fit, but human rights lawyers say that in Peru, this is not true. Pardons must be clearly and logically reasoned, and must abide by the constitution and by Peru’s international obligations. Aside from the political nature of the pardon, human rights lawyers have identified a series of legal problems with the pardon and a clear strategy to revoke it."
  • María Alejandra Vicuña was sworn in as Ecuador's new vice president, reports EFE. (See last Thursday's briefs.)
  • Guaraní is widely spoken in Paraguay, but is generally relegated to homes. Now officials and intellectuals are working to promote the language, reports the New York Times. Speakers were the target of persecution under dictator Alberto Stroessner, and Paraguayans still consider it "second-class."
  • Five severed heads were found atop a taxi in Mexico's Veracruz state. The torsos of the victims were found in plastic bags inside the car, reports the BBC. Graffiti on the vehicle linked the crime to the Jalisco New Generation cartel.