Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Venezuela and region brace for more unrest (July 26, 2017)

News Briefs
  • A 48-hour strike started today in Venezuela, in protest of this weekend's scheduled vote for an assembly to rewrite the constitution, reports the BBC. (See Monday's post.) Overall, fewer people appeared to be heeding the shutdown than the millions who participated in a 24-hour strike last week, reports Reuters. (See last Friday's post.) Further protests are also expected for Friday, despite increasingly violent police repression, reports the Guardian. And Colombian authorities say they are bracing for a potential wave of migration from this week's unrest, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Under growing international pressure, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro offered a 45 day delay on the election to the opposition in secret negotiations. In exchange, they would have to recall the alternative Supreme Court magistrates appointed by the National Assembly last week and dial back street protests, reports the Miami Herald based on sources familiar with the talks. Maduro is reportedly also asking the opposition for help in avoiding U.S. oil sanctions, which could further cripple the crisis ridden economy. The opposition apparently rejected the offer. Another source told the Herald that Maduro is also dangling the possibility of holding presidential elections before the end of the year. (See Monday's post.)
  • Yesterday, U.S. Senators. Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez asked U.S. President Donald Trump to sanction 10 more high-ranking individuals in the Venezuelan government, reports the Miami Herald. One of the most prominent names on their list is Tibisay Lucena Ramírez, president of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, but it also includes members of the Venezuelan military, a potential attempt to fracture the armed forces' support for the government. (See Monday's post.)
  • Venezuelan government leaders accused Rubio and CIA director Mike Pompeo of secretly conspiring against the Maduro administration in order to install a more friendly regime, reports the Miami Herald. They referred to comments Pompeo made at an Aspen Institute security forum, in which he said he was "hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela and we, the CIA is doing its best to understand the dynamic there ... I was just down in Mexico City and in Bogota a week before last talking about this very issue, trying to help them understand the things they might do so that they can get a better outcome for their part of the world and our part of the world."
  • Two more of the alternative magistrates named to the Supreme Court by the National Assembly last week were arrested by intelligence agents yesterday, reports Reuters.
  • The parents of one young Venezuelan protest victim have requested the Supreme Court open up a case into their son's death seek to sue high ranking officials, who they accuse of covering up security forces' responsibility in the killing, reports the BBC.
  • A lawyer for Colombia's FARC says a criminal gang has offered $1 million bounties for assassins to kill FARC secretariat members, reports Reuters. The FARC, which recently finished handing over its weapons, plans on launching its political party in September. Already killings of social activists and community leaders has become more common in Colombia -- rights groups say 40 have been murdered so far this year. And FARC members fear a repeat of the thousands of killings of members of a leftwing party in the 1980s and 1990s at the hands of rightwing paramilitaries.
  • Colombia's ELN rebel group said yesterday it had proposed a three-month ceasefire to the government, reports Reuters.
  • Brazilian swing voters have gone towards the right, after 13 years of Workers' Party government and the subsequent impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, reports the Guardian. "... disillusioned Brazilians are increasingly looking to free-market liberals, evangelical Christians, and populist, rightwing populists." (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Members of the Brazilian House of Deputies will vote on whether to suspend President Michel Temer to face corruption charges. Government ministers say they have the votes to avoid trial, reports the Guardian
  • Hundreds of members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) have invaded farms belonging to Brazil’s agriculture minister, the former president of the Brazilian soccer association, and a close Temer ally as part of a campaign to pressure lawmakers to vote against the president, reports the Guardian. MST leaders also warn that arresting former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would create widespread unrest and pave the way for his reelection, reports Bloomberg.
  • Brazil's Attorney General's office announced yesterday that it has tripled its 2018 budget for the Operation Car Wash probe into corruption, reports the Associated Press.
  • Chief Brazilian prosecutor Rodrigo Janot noted in Washington this week, there's no putting the genie back in the bottle after the broad devastation Operation Car Wash has wrought on entrenched corruption in Brazilian politics. Nonetheless, international historical comparisons suggest it may take decades for the benefits of accountability efforts to result in less corrupt systems, writes Matthew Taylor for the Council on Foreign Relations. There is also evidence to suggest that anti-corruption gains implemented in recent years could work faster, he notes, referring to countries such as Rwanda and Georgia.
  • The Dominican Republic on Tuesday granted a one-year extension to some 230,000 Haitian migrants trying to renew or obtain residency permits, reports the Associated Press. The issue of undocumented Haitians in the Dominican Republic has been heated for a few years -- since the government announced a plan in 2015 to deport thousands of Haitians without paperwork, many of whom had been born and raised in the DR.
  • The ideas presented at the recent high ranking summit in Miami on Central American development "reflect longstanding, misguided U.S. policies that have bolstered military and corporate interests—ultimately driving the very displacement the conference was ostensibly convened to curtail," writes Lauren Carasik for Boston Review. "The Trump administration’s plan centers on intensified border militarization coupled with a retreat from development assistance. On the ground, this will likely look like an expansion of the worst of Obama’s drug-war and neoliberal policies in the region, such as massive privatization, enforced austerity, the evisceration of labor and environmental protections, and a strengthened military force to back it all up." Though the Trump administration has made it clear it doesn't care about human rights, the human cost in Central America and Mexico will be incalculable, she writes -- and will create blowback. The U.S. government is hoping private investors step in to fill gaps created by reduced budgets for development goals. "But if history is predictive, the model will only inflame instability, not tamp it down. What’s more, this development will be implemented under crisis conditions that are exploited to usher in extreme, opportunistic policies, including the massive privatization of public resources and the evisceration of protections for those affected by the projects, maximizing corporate profits while dispossessing the poor."
  • Trump's proposed cuts to humanitarian aid in Central America has been opposed by Republicans in Congress who see them as harmful to the U.S. exercise of soft power in the region, writes Nancy Hiemstra in NACLA. Their opposition is interesting as an unusually honest indication "the self-serving goals of foreign 'assistance,'" she notes. "The surfacing of the underlying goals of the State Department and foreign aid also offers a rare opportunity for public discussion of fundamental flaws and negative consequences of longstanding approaches to migration and border policing in Latin America. These approaches show continued failure to successfully address the real reasons for migration, such as poverty and violence—which are often linked to past and present U.S. interventions, the favoring private interests at the expense of human rights, and government instability and corruption. Perhaps buried in discussions of soft and hard power is an understanding that the State Department and foreign aid monies ultimately make immigration policing—and dealing with its consequences—cheaper and less messy."
  • Nearly 200 women have been murdered in the first six months of 2017 reported the Violence Observatory of the National Autonomous University of Honduras. Thats one woman every 18 hours, report TeleSUR.
  • Peruvian authorities are cracking down on factories employing forced labor after a warehouse fire last month killed four workers, reports Reuters.
  • Increasing gang violence related to fuel theft in Mexico is likely to harm the international investment the government is seeking in the oil sector, reports Bloomberg.
  • One of the child actors from the acclaimed Brazilian film City of God is a suspect in the killing of a police officer over the weekend in Rio de Janeiro, reports the BBC. (See Monday's briefs.) Ivan da Silva Martins was one of a group of boys from favelas recruited to act in the movie. He is now known as Ivan the Terrible and believed to control drug trafficking in the Vidigal favela.
  • Guatemalans are not just producing great coffee -- they're joining the "third wave" coffee snobbery bandwagon and consuming high end product as well, reports the New York Times.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Arrest warrants issued for three former Salvadoran guerrillas (July 25, 2017)

A Salvadoran issued arrest warrants against three former guerrillas last week, the first since an amnesty law was struck down last year, reports El Diario de Hoy. They are sought in connection to the execution of two U.S. soldiers killed in 1991, in the midst of the country's civil war. 

The warrants come amid mounting criticism of inaction with regards to human rights violations committed during the conflict, which lasted between 1979 and 1991, reports the Guardian. El Salvador’s civil war left about 80,000 people dead, 8,000 missing and a million displaced , according to a 1993 UN Truth Commission report.

The vast majority of war crimes were attributed to the American-backed armed forces and paramilitaries. Which makes it surprising that the first warrants out are for former guerrillas, notes the Guardian.


El Salvador's Supreme Court struck down a 1993 amnesty law as unconstitutional last year. (See posts for July 14 and July 15, 2016.) Chief prosecutor Douglas Meléndez told the court last week that a unit created to investigate war crimes is working on 139 reports of human rights violations during the armed conflict, reports La Prensa Gráfica. But he said he lacks resources -- just three prosecutors are working on a case load that would require 50, he said.

The case in question involves the summary execution of Lt Col David Pickett and Cpl Earnest Dawson, who were wounded when a U.S. army helicopter was shot down by FMLN guerrillas in the San Miguel district. According to the U.N. report, they were killed by Fernán Fernández Arévalo, on the orders of guerrilla leader Severiano Fuentes. The two presented themselves to justice in 1992, and were in pretrial detention when the amnesty law freed them, reports La Prensa Gráfica separately.

News Briefs
  • Mano dura policies are responsible for the severe gang problem El Salvador faces today, according to academic José Miguel Cruz, interviewed in El Faro. But, contrary to popular belief, it is possible for individuals to leave street gangs, though they face considerable difficulties in doing so, he says. He highlights the importance of Evangelical churches in helping gang members change their lives. Nonetheless, youths continue to be recruited, largely because of a lack of alternative options. And rather than rehabilitate, the country's penal system compounds the problem.
  • Bolivian and Chilean border officials are set to meet today for the first time in six years. The goal is to restore normal working relations along their mutual border, a perennial flashpoint since Bolivia lost its coastline to Chile in 1904. In recent months, with 11 officials – soldiers, police officers and customs officers – detained by their counterparts on the other side, reports Americas Quarterly.
  • Volkswagen, was an active participant in the persecution and oppression of political opponents of Brazil's military dictatorship that was in power from 1964 to 1985, according to a new investigation done by a group of German news organizations, reports Deutsche Welle. The accusations are not new, and in fact, the company commissioned historian Christopher Kopper to write on its role during the military dictatorship. The report is expected at the end of this year, and Kopper has said there was regular cooperation between VW's Brazilian factory security service and the police.
  • A tragic human smuggling episode in which migrants were transported in an airless truck led to 10 deaths, and demonstrates "the extremes people will go to to sneak into the United States," reports the New York Times.
  • "The amazing thing about Mr. Trump’s vision of an ever-shifting, ever-shrinking wall (he’s halved its needed length to 700 to 900 miles, plus “natural barriers”) is that House Republican appropriators somehow rate it credible enough that they approved funding last week for the administration’s request of $1.6 billion to start construction. Outside experts have estimated the ultimate cost at $25 billion or more," writes the New York Times editorial board. "The president still insists that Mexico will be brought to heel and pay for the wall. Right now, though, Mr. Trump needs front money, and that has to come from the American taxpayer."
  • Mexico's ruling PRI party is polling third for presidential elections to be held next year, reports Reuters. A Reforma poll shows leftist hopeful Andres Manuel López Obrador in first place, followed by the center-right opposition PAN.
  • Brazil's sweeping Operation Car Wash investigation into corruption has left the country leaderless as major politicians from all parties fall to allegations of misconduct. The speed with which this occurred has left politics unable to renew its ranks, and thrust conservatives into the fore in the country, writes Carol Pires in a New York Times Español op-ed. While it's understandable that the left clings to the still popular (though convicted) former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, its missing a golden opportunity to capitalize on the current government's massive lack of popularity, she argues. "The next leader capable of proposing a unity agenda won't be like Lula, harassed by Car Wash, nor somebody of the old political class who, like Temer, pushes the country towards the past. In order for that politician to not be a dark adventurer, society must not only stop betting on politicians with a guillotine over their heads, but also proclaim what agenda it wants for parties search among their new militants for who can respond to the call."
  • U.S. oil sanctions against Venezuela are on the table, but Caracas has spent at least $1.3 million on Washington lobbyists since Trump's election to try to push against the option, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's post.)
  • The Venezuelan government released a remixed version of the pop-hit Despacito to promote the unpopular constituent assembly election next weekend. But Puerto Rican singers Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee said they rejected the use of their song and called it an illegal appropriation, reports Reuters.
  • "The country that was on the edge of the abyss is collapsing," writes New York Times correspondent Nicholas Casey in graphic article that tells the story of his time covering Venezuela's crisis.
  • Latin America's youths are coming of age in an era of unique opportunity -- they are the first raised in a Latin America where the middle class outnumbers the poor, and they are optimistic. But they also face economic instability, chronic insecurity and deficient infrastructure that makes it difficult for them to advance towards their dreams, according to an Americas Quarterly special report that follows fourth young adults from the region. "The good news is that many of the hurdles we’ve uncovered have policy solutions. Governments should resist the temptation to spend primarily on the old, and work to improve not just education systems but also infrastructure across the board. Smart, pro-business policies will also help ensure the creation of decent jobs that can keep young people engaged in society – and out of trouble."

Monday, July 24, 2017

Venezuela's government insists on constituent assembly (July 24, 2017)

On Friday the opposition-led National Assembly swore in 13 magistrates as replacements for pro-government Supreme Court magistrates. Immediately after, the top judge in the constitutional chamber accused those named by lawmakers of treason, reports the Wall Street Journal. The court's constitutional chamber had previously declared that such a move would constitute a crime and usurpation of powers by congress. Lawmakers say they have the right to name and fire justices under the country's constitution, reports the BBC.

Opposition leaders said Angel Zerpa, one of the 13 alternative magistrates, was arrested on Saturday by the government’s intelligence service, reports the Guardian.

The court has a total of 32 judges. The court has played a key role in stripping down legislative power since the opposition won a National Assembly majority at the end of 2015. The judges lawmakers seek to replace were approved after that election, before the new congress was sworn in. (See post for Jan. 4, 2016.)

On Saturday several thousand protesters attempted to march to the Supreme Court building in support of the alternative magistrates, reports the Guardian. It was however a "disappointing turnout" for the opposition, according to the Associated Press.

Lawmakers last week also discussed a "national unity government," raising the specter of a parallel government, notes the BBC.

The opposition is upping pressure this week ahead of a government convened vote next Sunday for a Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the constitution. Opposition leaders called for a two day national strike against the government after violent clashes between security forces and protesters on Saturday, reports Reuters. Mass marches are planned for today and Friday.

Over the weekend, Maduro promised to push ahead with the controversial plan, despite local and international pressure to change course, reports Reuters. Critics say the assembly will pave the way to an authoritarian government, while the government says its necessary to escape the current political impasse.

The entire process of convening the constituent assembly, as well as how its going to be structured, already demonstrate the government's authoritarian tendencies, argue Laura Gamboa and Raúl Sánchez Urribarri in the Conversation

Venezuela's crisis is terminal, writes Alberto Barrera Tyska in a New York Times Español op-ed. The only option for the government to remain in power is to turn towards illegitimacy, while the opposition lacks the ability to set up a real, functioning parallel state, he warns. Both sides have no option other than the negotiating table. But the real deciding factor will be the military, he argues. The success or not of a negotiation will lie with them, and international efforts should turn towards pressuring the armed forces.

A U.S. oil embargo is effectively the "nuclear" option against the Maduro government, reports the Washington Post. The U.S. receives about a third of Venezuela’s production of about 2.1 million barrels a day, and is a critical source of hard cash for the country. But the effect of an embargo could be so devastating that even some Maduro opponents say it would be a step too far, notes Anthony Faiola. U.S. oil payments fund critically needed imports of food and medicine, and could give Maduro a convenient scapegoat for added misery. A senior member of an opposition party suggested U.S. officials employ more nuanced tools -- such as publishing information about corrupt officials' U.S. holdings, blocking the sale of Venezuelan debt, and tying future projects with Venezuelan oil to National Assembly approval.

At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde review the various international responses to last week's symbolic referendum against the constituent assembly plan and the potential effects of broad sanctions against the Venezuelan government. "There is no way to apply economic sanctions now in Venezuela without making the humanitarian situation much worse. People will starve to death," Smilde told the AFP last week.

Also last week, Moisés Naím, a former Venezuelan trade minister now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Wall Street Journal that an oil embargo would be "political manna from heaven for Caracas," as it would allow Maduro to blame ensuing misery on U.S. imperialism.

Think it sounds like the Cuba embargo debate? Indeed, "the unfolding Venezuela crisis has become Cuban Americans’ new crusade," notes the Miami Herald. In fact U.S. Senator Marco Rubio is among those proposing a hardline against the Venezuelan government, notes Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. (And so is OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro.)

Ahead of next Sunday's vote, government employees are denouncing that they are being coerced to participate -- at risk of losing their jobs, reports Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Local civil society group Provea has denounced that such pressure is a human rights violation. And while casting a null vote apparently isn't an option in the election, local groups are giving instructions on how to trick voting machines to permit them.

The New York Times has a photo essay from the Venezuelan "resistance" front lines. With nearly 100 deaths in over three months of protests, families of victims are carrying on the fight, reports the Miami Herald.

News Briefs
  • Hundreds of relatives of Rio de Janeiro police officers gathered in the Brazilian city yesterday, protesting a lack of resources for security forces combatting organized crime. The demonstration came hours after an officer was killed in an operative in the Vidigal favela. The Brazilian government announced last week it would send an extra 1,000 federal agents to support local police, reports the BBC. Over 90 officers have been killed so far this year, and police say their deaths are given less importance than human rights abuses committed by security operations. According to Amnesty International, more than 800 people were killed by the police in the state of Rio in 2016.
  • New limits on seasonal worker visas to the U.S. have hit businesses that depend on unskilled, nonagricultural workers -- such as carnivals, reports the New York Times. Critics say the system enables worker abuses, but Mexican seasonal migrants say the lack of income is hitting them hard.
  • U.S. plans to end temporary protected status for about 58,000 Haitian immigrants has many migrants living in fear of losing dreams of advancement and having to return to a country with fewer opportunities, reports the New York Times.
  • The Colombian government faces a conundrum in how to deal with small-time coca growers who also process the leaf into coca paste used to make cocaine. A temporary amnesty for small-time growers who agree to participate in a crop substitution program is necessary to convince farmers to participate and is part of the peace agreement with the FARC, explains La Silla Vacía. But 40 percent of these farmers also process the leaf, and including them in the temporary amnesty is politically tricky.
  • Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, has traveled to Cuba several times to explore the possibility of doing business on the island, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Tourism in the first half of the year made the Cuban economy grow, but other sectors have failed to meet government targets, reports the Miami Herald
  • The World Bank's arbitration tribunal has ordered Argentina to pay $320 million plus interest and legal fees to Spanish travel group Marsans for expropriating Aerolineas Argentinas in 2008, reports Reuters.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's mandate is ending, an apparent close to a cycle of female presidencies in the region -- a sign of the difficulties of reaching true political gender equality, reports the New York Times. The cases of Dilma Rousseff, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Bachelet also show some of the difficulties faced by women leaders. All three say their gender exposed them to "particularly virulent backlashes."
  • Code-switchers unite! Spanglish in its various local forms across Latin America needs to be embraced as a linguistic movement in its own right, argues Ilan Stavans in a New York Times op-ed -- in which he compares it to Yiddish.  "It is time we stop this condescending approach to Spanglish. Puerto Ricans are proof of the durability of the phenomenon. In fact, we must see Spanglish as a new language. While it’s still not standardized, millions of speakers use it every day, creating their own syntactic rules. Looking down at them as barbarous speaks tons. ... I will not be surprised if a Nobel is given in the next few decades to a Spanglish author whose oeuvre will need to be translated into Spanish and English to be fully understood by non-Spanglish speakers."

Friday, July 21, 2017

Two die in Venezuelan national strike clashes (July 21, 2017)

Large parts of Venezuela were paralyzed yesterday by a national strike in opposition to a government plan to rewrite the country's constitution. The opposition claimed 85 percent of the country joined the strike. Millions of people participated, and many private transportation groups shut down, reports Reuters. Most Caracas residents stayed home and businesses were closed, reports the Wall Street Journal. Reuters notes that in some poorer Caracas neighborhoods business went on as usual.

There were several reports of confrontations between protesters and security forces in different parts of Caracas, reports the Washington Post. Two people were reported dead in clashes, reports Reuters.

Alfredo Romero, co-director of Foro Penal, a human rights group that defends political prisoners, tweeted that at least 261 protesters were arrested as of 9:30 p.m. yesterday.

President Nicolás Maduro downplayed the effects of the strike, saying major businesses were "100 percent" working. He sang and danced at a youth rally in Caracas yesterday. He also promised to push ahead with an election to choose a constituent assembly that would revise the Venezuelan constitution, reports the Associated Press.

Yesterday a senior member of Venezuela's U.N. delegation Isaias Arturo Medina Mejías, abruptly resigned, citing “irreconcilable differences” with the Maduro government, reports the WP. In a video circulating on Thursday, Medina said he was leaving the U.N. mission to "fight impunity" at home, reports Reuters. He is one of the few members of the government to have broken ranks, according to the AP.

The shut-down effect of the strike was far more widespread than the last one, held in October of last year, according to the WP. (That one had spotty support, see post for Oct. 28, 2016.)  Strikes have traditionally been risky for the opposition, notes the WSJ, referring to one that lasted several months in 2003 against Chávez, but which ultimately polarized the country and led to more government intervention in the economy.

The opposition has called for a national march tomorrow.

News Briefs
  • The belief that an immigration crackdown in the U.S. will keep residents safe from Central American gangs' increasing presence in the United States is misguided, argues Daniel Denvir in a Washington Post opinion piece in which he points to the gangs' origins in U.S. prisons and deportation policies.
  • Guatemalan police arrested a former government minister last week, adding to a corruption scheme that involved top officials in the Otto Pérez Molina presidency. (See Monday's briefs.) Former Infrastructure, Housing and Communications Minister Alejandro Sinibaldi Aparicio. According to International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) investigators, he received $10 million in bribes from private construction companies throughout his tenure in exchange for preferential treatment in areas like project contracting and debt forgiveness. The accusations flesh out a network of corruption so vast that it supports InSight Crime's argument that Guatemala is in fact a mafia state. "Sinibaldi was a figure close to Pérez Molina and his case fits within the structure of the mafia state, above all because according to the formal accusations, he laundered money illicitly obtained from private companies to finance the ex-president's campaigns."
  • A law that would have permitted abortion in limited cases in Chile was rejected by one vote in the country's lower chamber of congress, reports the Associated Press. The bill, which was strongly supported by President Michelle Bachelet was widely expected to pass.
  • There's been much written about China's potential to displace the U.S. sphere of influence in Latin America. Now with efforts to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the U.S., other Asian countries -- especially South Korea -- are also looking to cooperate more with the region, writes Christopher Sabatini at Latin America Goes Global.
  • Judge Serio Moro ordered the seizure of more than $2.8 million in pension funds from former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in connection with his recent corruption conviction, reports the Associated Press. Earlier this week Brazil's central bank froze four of Silva's bank accounts amounting to more than $190,000. Yesterday Lula assured supporters that he is being politically persecuted, reports Reuters.
  • Brazil will double some taxes on fuels, part of an ongoing (and unpopular) attempt to reduce the country's fiscal deficit, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The Peruvian government declared a state of emergency in areas affected by a teachers' strike that has lasted over a month. The measure effectively suspends constitutional rights of individual liberty, security, free travel and assembly for a duration of 30 days, according to TeleSUR.
  • Bolivian polices seized a cocaine shipment worth about $10 million, destined for shipment to Brazil, reports AFP.
  • Eight people were killed by police in a shoot out with suspected gang members in Mexico City, reports the Associated Press.
  • Mexico is testing a new way to protect the environment: insurance. An innovative scheme to protect a coral reef off the coast of Cancún calls for hotels and local government to pay the premiums on insurance to restore the reef from storm damage, reports the Guardian.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

U.N. experts call for independent investigation in Mexican spy scandal (July 20, 2017)

News Briefs
  • Four U.N. human rights experts called for the Mexican government to establish an independent investigation into allegations of monitoring and illegal surveillance against human rights defenders, social activists, and journalists. "We urge the Government to commit to cease the surveillance immediately," they emphasized. "Such commitment must include effective controls over the security and intelligence services in order to prevent unlawful use of the State's monitoring tools." The Mexican government has limited the investigation of allegations of spying using government owned software to the attorney general's office, which essentially means the government is investigating itself with no oversight. The government blocked a proposal for the country’s new anticorruption board to investigate the case, which would have added transparency to the investigation, reports the New York Times. (Among the targets was the then-16-year-old son of journalist Carmen Aristegui. "By targeting her family with tools designed to fight terror and crime, Aristegui told The Intercept, the Mexican government is treating its critics like “enemies of the state.” And she is demanding answers not only as a journalist, but as a parent as well.")
  • The entire scandal gives organized crime in Mexico a window into how the government works against it, and "represents a massive self-inflicted wound" for the government's efforts to combat illicit groups, reports InSight Crime
  • Large portions of Caracas appeared to be shutdown this morning, heeding opposition calls for a massive national strike against the government plan to rewrite the constitution, reports the Associated PressEl País has live updates. (See Tuesday's post.)
  • Earlier this week the U.S. threatened economic sanctions if Venezuela's government moves forward with a plan to rewrite the constitution. But unilateral sanctions are not the way to go, argues Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. "..Well-placed Venezuelan opposition sources tell me that cutting oil imports or suspending U.S. exports of light oils to Venezuela — which the country uses to mix with its own heavy crudes — would have a devastating impact on the Venezuelan people, who are already suffering from widespread food and medicine shortages." Instead he advocates incremental diplomatic measures, more sanctions for individual Venezuelan officials, and releasing information on extensive U.S. holdings by Venezuelan officials. "Most importantly, the Trump administration should condition future U.S. oil contracts with Venezuela on the approval of the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition after a landslide victory in the 2015 elections." (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel called on the government to suspend elections for a constituent assembly, in a New York Times Español op-ed. (See July 12's briefs for more on "El Sistema," and the country's classical musicians' relationship to the protests.) 
  • Two reports by Colombian civil society groups -- Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) and Fundación Paz y Reconciliación (Pares) -- detail how the FARC demobilization is permitting the expansion of other illegal groups, and how the current peace transition phase is characterized by a continuity of organized crime, reports the BBC. Pares also emphasizes the murder of five FARC leaders, allegedly by new criminal structures operating in their territories, reports CNN Español.
  • A report by a Commission of Guarantors of the Referendum in Venezuela emphasizes the massive participation and calm environment it took place in -- "an indication of the organizational capacity of civil society—those who took on the cost of some of the activities and materials–and the democratic conviction of the citizens that understand elections to be a privileged of democracy." However, "despite these achievements, it should be stated that while the preliminary data does corroborate the qualitative impression of a large mobilization, the absence of an electoral registry reduced the technical precision of the popular consultation in establishing the level of participation. In addition, there was no guarantee of the secrecy of the vote. It was common for the citizens to vote in front of those in charge of the table. While this did not appear to cause discomfort–and reflected that the event was fundamentally an occurrence of citizens aligned with the opposition–it distanced the Referendum from one of the fundamental characteristics of an electoral event. The Referendum amounted to a relevant, political event."
  • Fighting the U.S. opioid epidemic means declaring war on Mexican cartels -- like actual, real war -- argues Matt Meyer in U.S. News and World Report. "By "go to war," I mean a formal declaration of war by Congress against Mexico in which we use the full force of our military might to destroy the cartels, the poppy fields and all elements of the drug trade. Ideally, as our fight is not with the Mexican government, its military or its people, which try to weaken the cartels, we would try to partner with those entities against the cartels, much as we partnered with the South Vietnamese government and military against the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. It sounds crazy, I know – unless you acknowledge we are already fighting a war with Mexico."
  • Cubans caught off guard by the sudden termination of a favorable U.S. immigration policy in January are gathering in Mexico to seek alternatives, reports the Guardian. The piece contrasts the difference between Cuban migrants who legally travel through Mexico, and their Central American counterparts who are increasingly detained by Mexican authorities or face grave dangers traveling illegally through the country.
  • Two years after the U.S. and Cuba officially reestablished diplomatic relations, the Trump administration has somewhat changed the narrative, though extensive rollback of rapprochement policies has not taken place, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Former Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori openly sided with his son Kenji over his daughter Keiko, exposing a deep divide within the right-wing party he founded 30 years ago, reports Reuters. In a series of tweets, Fujimori backed his son for "building bridges" with the government of centrist President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Earlier this week, the Popular Force suspended Kenji from its activities for 60 days after he openly criticized the party and voiced support for Kuczynski's 1-year-old government. Fujimori's support for cooperation comes as Kuczynski is evaluating whether to whether to pardon and grant Fujimori early release from prison, where he has been serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations and graft.
  • Haiti's government is taking advantage of reduced political polarization to initial steps aimed at overcoming longstanding problems of governance, rule of law and social and economic development, the U.N. envoy to Haiti Sandra Honore told the Security Council. But while she applauded an improved relationship between the executive and legislative branches, she said the judiciary still is not fully functioning, reports the Associated Press.
  • Brazil's central bank has frozen four bank accounts belonging to ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva due to his recent conviction on corruption charges, reports the Associated Press.
  • Colombia is at risk of a credit rating downgrade. The country is struggling to meet fiscal targets and investors are tiring of overly optimistic government forecasts, reports Reuters.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Cannabis finally on sale in Uruguayan pharmacies (July 19, 2017)

Uruguay's "C" day has finally arrived: Packets of cannabis are on sale in pharmacies for registered users. It's the long-anticipated final phase of a landmark 2013 law that fully legalized marijuana for recreational use.

The move comes as governments in the region are increasingly leaning away from prohibition, notes the New York Times.

"It’s hard to overstate just how important this moment is to the ongoing shift in the global drug policy paradigm: more than 50 years since the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs banned cannabis for all but medical or scientific purposes, adult residents of Uruguay will be able to purchase cannabis in pharmacies for non-medical use across the country," write Geoff Ramsey and John Walsh for WOLA. They also emphasize the importance of the law's focus on public health, state sales are accompanied by public information campaigns aimed at educating citizens about the general risks of cannabis use.


Don't expect the Amsterdam of South America though -- the law limits access to Uruguayan residents and controls the amount they can purchase. Other aspects of the law -- permitting self-cultivation and cannabis clubs have already been implemented. 

And rollout in local pharmacies will be slow, for now it's just 16, selling two varieties of pot at prices intended to undercut the illicit market. Residents will be able to purchase five-gram (0.18oz) sealed packets of marijuana for $6.50 each. A potential downside: low THC content, reports the Guardian.

As of earlier this week, there were 4,959 Uruguayans signed up to begin purchasing cannabis from the state in pharmacies. Meanwhile, 6,948 Uruguayans have registered to grow up to six flowering cannabis plants in their homes (with the understanding that their annual yield should not exceed 480 grams), and 63 “cannabis clubs” have begun operating across the country. Each of these clubs, according to the law, can have between 15 and 45 members that can grow up to 99 plants in the same space, but cannot dispense more than 480 gram annual limit to each member, notes WOLA.

News Briefs
  • U.S. officials are considering moving beyond sanctions against individual Venezuelans, in favor of more broad economic sanctions. These could include a potential prohibition on crude and other petroleum product trade with the country, reports the Wall Street Journal. Venezuela could face a "catastrophic" meltdown if the U.S. blocks crude exports, warned opposition lawmakers yesterday. The U.S. is considering economic sanctions if the Venezuelan government moves forward with a plan to rewrite the country's constitution, reports the Miami Herald. Broader penalties are important if the goal is to push President Nicolás Maduro to step down, but it could also significantly worsen the country's current humanitarian crisis, notes the Washington Post. The Trump administration is also considering imposing sanctions on more Venezuelan officials, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Mexico's government has systematically undermined a much-heralded anti-corruption system implemented last year, say sector activists. Instead, government critics have been spied on illegally using government-owned software, civic organizations have been the target of investigations, and congress has failed to name an anti-corruption prosecutor and judges, reports the Guardian. "The delays and harassment have prompted uncomfortable questions over the government’s commitment to stopping graft. And the failure to implement the SNA as it was designed has led to accusations that Mexican politicians are more keen to cover up for each other than to crack down on kickbacks." This week lawmakers missed a critical deadline to appoint an anti-corruption prosecutor, and he Senate also hasn’t appointed 18 judges to hear corruption cases, and almost half of Mexico’s 32 states haven’t passed legislation required at the local level, reports the Wall Street Journal. Earlier this week U.S. officials said they would seek to include anti-corruption measures in the NAFTA renegotiation discussions.
  • Mexico is a paradox: mass graves alongside economic growth and international tourism. "How can we understand this paradox and classify this bloodshed? Is it simply a horrendous crime problem, or is it an actual war," asks Ioan Grillo in a New York Times op-ed. "The truth is that the conflict is neither just crime nor civil war, but a new hybrid type of organized violence." He looks at the mass grave phenomenon, and the many "civilian" victims of cartel violence. "Yet at the same time, for many Mexicans, life goes on in apparent normality — with no tank battles or aerial bombardments. This is what separates the conflict from a civil war, even though the death toll is comparable. The pattern of killing is perhaps most similar to that of the death squads of a dictatorship."
  • After 13 years the U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti is finally packing up in a few months. But the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, leaves behind a significant legacy of abuse that will make it hard for its successor mission, aimed at improving rule of law institutions, to carry out its work, argues Jake Johnston in World Politics Review. "Whatever the Haitian people or their government may think about the U.N.'s presence in Haiti, the future of the mission is not up to them. Like MINUSTAH before it, the next mission in Haiti will operate under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter, which allows the Security Council to use military force to maintain peace, and does not require the host country's consent. It also means that if the Security Council so determines, foreign troops could be sent back to Haiti at a moment's notice. ... The legacy of cholera and sexual violence, combined with Haiti's enduring economic insecurity and violence, make it hard to consider MINUSTAH a success. The fact that the Security Council has mandated a follow-up Chapter VII mission to monitor human rights and strengthen the rule of law, despite the absence of an armed conflict, may well be a silent admission of failure."
  • Poverty rates are climbing in Brazil, and threaten to put the country back on the U.N.'s hunger map, reports the Guardian. A new progress report on the country's 2030 sustainable development agenda warns that austerity measures will increase poverty in Brazil and said the country should reduce other costs and adopt a fairer tax system.
  • Brazilian prosecutor general Rodrigo Janot is in no rush to file new charges of corruption against President Michel Temer, reports Folha de S. Paulo.
  • Rural communities in Colombia affected by decades of civil war will be assigned land titles within the next six years promised the high commissioner for post-conflict affairs.The title registration process will be implemented this year in 200 municipalities, reports EFE.
  • With the peace process well underway, Colombian farmers are being pushed by the government and former FARC fighters to replace their coca crops with legal -- but less lucrative -- products, reports the New York Times. As part of its reconstruction plan for Colombia’s war-ravaged countryside, the government is promising money to the first 50,000 coca-growing families that take the offer: a monthly payment of about $325 for the first year that farmers give up coca, followed by subsidies to plant new crops and education on how to grow them. And forced manual eradication will be applied to farmers who do not wish to abandon illicit crops. And already prices for coca have dropped, in the wake of increased land under cultivation and fewer growers with the rebels out of the picture.
  • In the meantime, new data this week shows that Colombia is producing more cocaine than ever. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says production grew more than 34 percent last year. And hectares under cultivation grew by over 50 percent. InSight Crime analyzes the numbers in detail, and looks at the changing face of Colombia's criminal groups. "The first thing is to forget about traditional drug cartels along the lines of the Medellín and Cali Cartels. They are long gone as organized crime structures. Forget also the heavily-armed paramilitary army of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). While the generation of criminal groups born out of the AUC demobilization, the BACRIM (so named after the Spanish for criminal bands, "bandas criminales") has its roots in the AUC, it does not have the same military capacity nor territorial control of its paramilitary predecessors. Today it is all about networks, and the most powerful one is group under what we call the "Urabeños" franchise, although this group prefers to call itself the Gaitanista Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC). This franchise has reach across Colombia and is responsible for moving the lion's share of cocaine across the Colombian border. The Urabeños used to work closely with the FARC. The guerrillas would sell them coca base and protect shipments going through their territory. However the departure of the FARC from the criminal scene has changed the drug trafficking landscape, just as the demobilization of the AUC in 2006 did. The new chapter in Colombia's criminal history is now unfolding as the cocaine industry adapts to the FARC withdrawal and seeks to fill the vacuum left by the rebel army. Charting this new criminal chapter is one of InSight Crime's primary aims for the remainder of 2017."
  • Chile's senators approved a bill that would allow abortion in limited cases -- rape, risks to mothers health and fetal inviability. The bill, which would end the country's total ban, goes back to the chamber of deputies now. It has the backing of President Michelle Bachelet, reports the BBC. The bill passed narrowly after a long and fractious debate, reports Reuters.
  • Two Peruvians living in Chile were doused in gas and set on fire by a mob of local fisherman, amid a national debate over increased migration and heightened racial tensions, reports the Guardian. (See June 29's briefs.) The two brothers, who have collected seaweed in the Antofagasta region for the past five years, were left with second- and third-degree burns to over half their bodies after the attack. 
  • Peru's unionized miners started an indefinite, nationwide strike today to protest government-proposed labor reform, reports Reuters.
  • Paraguayan farmers are asking the government to forgive $34 million in debt owed by rural smallholders to both public and private institutions, reports EFE.
  • The Bolivian government plans to massively invest in the country's lithium production sector, reports Deutsche Welle.
  • Ecuador will not comply with OPEC's production curbs, saying it needs more oil to cover its fiscal deficit, reports the Guardian. The decision is not numerically relevant, but its the first crack in unity regarding the cartels recent agreement to cut 1.8 million barrels per day until next year.
  • Bloomberg takes a look at how the very wealthy keep partying in Caracas after a day in the protest barricades. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Venezuela's "Zero Hour" (July 18, 2017)

Venezuela's opposition leaders have called on supporters to escalate street protests -- which have already been occurring daily for over three months -- and to hold a national strike on Thursday. A coalition of about 20 parties gathered yesterday and called for a “zero hour” campaign of civil disobedience, reports the Guardian.

They are specifically working before an election for members of a constituent assembly on July 30. The government backed plan to rewrite the constitution was rejected by more than 7 million voters in an informal plebiscite held by the opposition on Sunday. (See yesterday's post.) Opposition leaders say its the last opportunity to save the country's democracy from a naked power grab and authoritarian government, reports the Washington Post.

In a statement last night U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to impose economic sanctions on Venezuela if the government follows through with its plan for a constituent assembly, reports the Associated Press. Though he did not specify what measures would be taken, his warning that President Nicolás Maduro is ""a bad leader who dreams of becoming a dictator," and a promise that the "United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles," dramatically raises the stakes, according to the AFP. Canada, Mexico, Brazil, ColombiaPeru and the European Union have also come out against the effort.

Yesterday Maduro ratified his intention to continue with the constituent assembly plan, however, and rejected calls from international leaders as imperialist meddling, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Opposition leaders said they were working on a government of national unity that could include dissident chavistas, reports the Wall Street Journal. It would theoretically be set up tomorrow and raises the specter of a parallel government, according to the BBC and the WSJ. On Friday lawmakers in the opposition controlled National Assembly will nominate magistrates to replace Maduro loyalists on the Supreme Court. 

Potential defections from the ruling Socialist party could force Maduro to rethink the constituent assembly plan -- though continued army loyalty could be a more relevant factor, according to the Miami Herald.

Some criticisms of the opposition's handling of the informal referendum over the weekend at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. While congratulating the millions brave enough to face possible consequences of visibly opposing the government, David Smilde notes that the opposition leadership could have crafted the questions asked of the population better to potentially include dissident Chavistas. And the involvement of the armed forces in the second question is polemic.

On the international front, reports yesterday that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos travelled to Cuba to discuss a united diplomatic strategy with regards to Venezuela were downplayed by the Colombian government, reports the Herald. (See yesterday's post.) 

News Briefs
  • Over the weekend former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva again insisted on his innocence -- after being sentenced to nearly a decade of jail on corruption charges. In a press conference on Saturday, his second since the conviction, he assured supporters he will still seek the presidency next year, reports the AFP. (See Friday's post.)
  • Brazilian voters point to corruption as a key concern for their country. But despite allegations (and now conviction) against Lula, he continues to lead in opinion polls. "This is because, in the face of the recession, the unemployment and the unpopular labor and pension reforms, there is nostalgia for the years of economic growth and political stability of his eight years of government, when 40 million Brazilians left poverty," writes Mauricio Santoro in a New York Times Español op-ed. "Among his voters, there are many who believe he is innocent. Others believe he might be guilty, but that corruption is disseminated between Brazilian politicians and at least Lula did good things for the country. There are also those who consider that justice is much more rigorous against the former worker than with members of traditional elites accuse of similar or graver crimes ... That is to say: the environment of generalized mistrust in parties and institutions and the ideological polarization in Brazil make the personal positions of voters on corruption more complicated than what is suggested by the discourse that everybody is united against crime." (See Friday's post.)
  • Homicides in Rio de Janeiro are high, as is police violence. "It is now impossible not to notice that the city’s Police Pacification Units (UPP), once a much-vaunted anti-violence force, have all but collapsed," writes Silvia Ramos in the Conversation. She presents data on their failure, and how the military police's disregard for intelligence now leaves officers at the mercy of "encroaching gangs" in the city's favelas. "People know what needs to happen first: the police must stop shooting. Then, to dismantle not just the gangs but also the gang mentality burgeoning among Rio’s police, the city must invest in intelligence. The answer is not new, but it is globally tried and true: to reduce violence, reform the police."
  • U.S. President Donald Trump notified Congress that will again suspend a section of the Helms Burton act that would permit former owners of commercial property expropriated by Cuba to sue foreign companies and the Cuban government for using or “trafficking” in those confiscated holdings, reports the Miami Herald. In suspending the lawsuit provision for another six months, Trump follows the lead of his predecessors dating back to the 1996 law. It was the first action on Cuba since Trump announced his new direction on U.S.-Cuba relations during a June 16 speech in Miami, notes the Herald. (See June 19's post.)
  • Recruitment for Haiti's new army opened up yesterday and attracted a long line of youths interested in joining up, reports the Miami Herald
  • The New York Times profiles an activist undocumented immigrant in Los Angeles, Lizbeth Mateo, who is also an immigration lawyer. "Allowing undocumented immigrants to work as lawyers is a sign of just how far the acceptance of such immigrants has come in places like California."
  • Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) could potentially allow outsiders to compete for the party presidential candidate nomination, in a bid to escape corruption scandals, reports Reuters. The change could potentially benefit Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade. (See June 30's briefs.)
  • Indeed the country's political and social elite are desperate for a "Mexican Macron," a mythic figure to "unite the country, fend off populism and impose pragmatic, centrist rule," according to the Washington Post.
  • Ecuador suspended work on a wall along the border with Peru that was causing a diplomatic ruckus, reports Reuters. (See last Thursday's briefs.)
  • Climate change in Chile "has now become an issue of profound concern on numerous fronts, from melting glaciers to conflicts over water rights between big agricultural businesses and small farmers," reports NPR.
  • Marijuana goes on sale in Uruguayan pharmacies this week, the culmination of a landmark cannabis legalization law. Though former president José Mujica is generally credited with pushing through the bill, it also owes its passage to a long progressive national history, argues Sylvia Colombo in a New York Times Español op-ed.
  • A 116-year-old Salvadoran man may be the oldest person in the world, reports the BBC. Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in 1901 and had 39 children over the course of his life -- he's survived 14 of them.