Friday, April 20, 2018

Four deaths in Nicaraguan protests (April 20, 2018)

A at least four people died -- including one police officer and two civilians -- in third day of protests in Nicaragua. Dozens have been wounded in demonstrations against social security reforms implemented by presidential decree, reports El País. Unrest spread from Managua to other cities yesterday.

Protesters both for and against the reform, which would reduce pensions in the future and increase worker and employer contributions, clashed in the streets, reports Reuters. Police repressed with rubber bullets and tear gas, and El País says Frente Sandinista militias participated in attacking opponents of the reform.

The government ordered off the air five independent channels covering the protests, reports the Associated Press. The only programs remaining on air are those owned by the Ortega family and a Mexican ally. They broadcast soap operas and "saccharine" news yesterday, including protesters in favor of the new measures, reports El País separately.

Vice President and first lady Rosario Murillo accused of the protesters of being manipulated and trying to “destabilize” and “destroy” the country.

Amnesty International criticized the "blatant and disturbing attempt to curtail" citizen's rights to freedom of expression and assembly.


Guatemalan prosecutors and the CICIG requested the decertification of the ruling FCN-Nación party, after presenting an investigation detailing how a group of business leaders allegedly donated over a million dollars in illicit funding to President Jimmy Morales' presidential campaign, reports EFE. The irregular contributions were allegedly used to finance party monitors for the two rounds of voting in 2015 that elected Morales.

Attorney general Thelma Aldana and CICIG head Iván Velázquez explained that the investigation was aided by two witnesses from the company Novaservicios, S.A., who came forward after allegations were initially aired against Morales last year. They said that Novaservicios channeled funds from business leaders which were used to pay for party monitors, reports Soy 502

Dozens of checks from the country's biggest businesses show the money route and demonstrate the iron-clad alliance between Morales and the business community, reports NómadaLegislators are currently considering changes that would eliminate some crimes and lessen penalties for others, changes that would potentially benefit the businessmen involved in the latest case, reports the Associated Press.The revelations also explain lawmakers haste to pass  the reforms which would eliminate the crime of illicit campaign financing, says Nómada.

The expenditures were not reported to electoral authorities, reason for which prosecutors and the CICIG are requesting the party lose official recognition. Witnesses report that Morales sought to appear independent from business financing, which is why the donations were made this way, according to Nómada.

Last year the CICIG and Public Ministry sought investigate Morales in the case of illicit campaign financing, as he was secretary general of the FCN-Nación party at the time of the campaign. Lawmakers however shielded Morales from the investigation, declining to strip him of presidential immunity. (See post for Sept. 12, 2017.) In an apparent attempt to undercut the investigation, the Morales administration attempted to oust Velásquez from his post.

The case comes as Aldana prepares to step down next month. The system to select her successor has been criticized as open to interference. (Earlier this month InSight Crime reported on how Morales was angling to undercut the fight against corruption, see April 11's briefs.) But this week the selection committee discarded the most contentious candidates to fill the post, reports Americas Quarterly

Other Guatemala news:
  • Guatemalan voters backed a decision to file a claim at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) demanding sovereignty over 53 percent of Belize. The Economist explains why this is actually a positive move.

Paraguayans head to the polls on Sunday, where they are expected to pick the candidate of the conservative ruling party. Mario Abdo is a former senator, and son of the private secretary of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, reports Reuters.

Abdo represents the most conservative branch of the Colorado party, according to El País. He is running on a business friendly platform in a country that has experienced good economic growth, but wide economic disparity. It is also however the most corrupt country in the region except for Venezuela, reports Bloomberg.

Abdo's relationship with the Stroessner regime is a demonstration of Paraguay's failure to grapple with its dictatorship past for the Guardian. Though the candidate was a child during the authoritarian years, he defends aspects of the regime's legacy, such as obligatory military service. Human rights activists say his accent is a result of a legacy of fear that has stopped a real reckoning with violations committed by the Stroessner regime.

News Briefs

Cuba: #somoscontinuidad
  • Cuba's new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, was formally named yesterday by the National Assembly. Díaz-Canel promised revolutionary continuity, and hinted at modest change. He promised to modernize the country’s economy and make the government more responsive to its people, according to the Guardian. He spoke little, and said outgoing president Raúl Castro would remain an important influence in Cuban policy, reports the Washington Post. Castro spoke for far longer yesterday, and described how Díaz-Canel was handpicked by the islands top Communist leadership. He also announced a constitutional reform commission to start in July.
  • The Guardian looks at the issue of internet access, and quotes party insiders that say Díaz-Canel understands the economic benefits of greater connectivity, but fears overwhelming the country's political system.
  • At Americas Quarterly William LeoGrande reviews Raúl's tenure in leadership, and the little known about Díaz-Canel's attitudes regarding unfinished reforms. "The timely and constitutionally prescribed succession of leaders signals the institutional strength of the Cuban regime. That said, Díaz-Canel inherits a formidable agenda of tough issues: fundamental economic changes that are desperately needed but still incomplete, a rapidly evolving public sphere in which Cubans are better informed and more outspoken but have few ways to hold leaders accountable, and an uncertain relationship with Washington that is likely to get worse before it gets better."
  • Though Díaz-Canel is relatively unknown, his actions aim to portray a "regular guy" persona, and show he could bring a new style of politics to the island, argues Lydia Hernández-Tapía in Americas Quarterly
  • A month after photographer Vladjimir Legagneur disappeared in Port-au-Prince, Haitian journalists say they are afraid and that authorities have made little headway, reports AFP.
  • Mexico’s lower house of Congress approved changes to the constitution to eliminate immunity from prosecution for all public servants, including lawmakers and the president. The move is meant to tackle deeply entrenched corruption, reports Reuters. The changes must be approved by the Senate, and would establish that defamation, libel and slander cannot be punishable with jail. The reform also allows a series of public officials, including the president, to be tried politically, reports Animal Político.
  • This campaign season has been particularly bloody for candidates, at least 82 of whom have been killed over the past seven months, reports Animal Político. The victims were mostly vying for local positions, and their deaths are attributed to criminal organizations seeking to control local law enforcement and institutions. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
Peruvian mining
  • Peruvian Prime Minister Martín Vizcarra promised not to impose mining projects on local communities, but that the government will promote mining investments, reports Reuters.
  • U.S and Colombian financial investigators presented new evidence yesterday that Venezuela's food importation program is besieged by fraud, reports Reuters.
  • Finance ministers from 16 countries, including the U.S., E.U. and major Latin American countries, agreed to cooperate in order to to locate and seize the proceeds arising from corruption by Venezuelan government insiders, reports the Associated Press.
  • Thousands of Argentines protested sharp hikes in gas and electricity rates imposed by the Macri administration, reports Reuters.
  • Militia-linked murders in Brazil is shining light on the relatively obscure criminal groups that have a long history of operation in the country, reports InSight Crime. "Rio’s militias are paramilitary-style groups rooted in a nationwide tradition of death squads that grew up in the era of the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from the 1960s to the 1980s. They are typically composed of former and current security force members that use violence and coercion to assert control over typically disadvantaged neighborhoods."
  • Brazil's prosecutor recommended that the country's environmental regulator deny a French company permission to drill for oil near the mouth of the Amazon, reports Reuters.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

AMLO leading in polls (April 19, 2018)

Two weeks before Mexican presidential candidates officially launch their campaigns, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador remains in the lead with 32 percent according to a new poll by Mitofsky, reports Animal Político. A Reforma poll from this week gives AMLO 48 percent, a 22 point lead ahead of right-left coalition candidate Ricardo Anaya, reports Reuters.

AMLO's critics have tried to compare him to Hugo Chávez. But though he has populist tendencies, the real problem is the lack of new solutions for the problems he has correctly identified, argues Foreign Policy. "His vision for Mexico is based on two fundamental ideas: that unchecked corruption by a rapacious elite has undermined much of Mexico’s potential, and that the neoliberal reforms the country has implemented under centrist governments since the 1980s have failed. As for the former, he has a point, and 80 percent of citizens agree. The latter claim requires nuanced examination." (See March 13's briefs for more on AMLO's history.)

Experts criticize that none of the candidates in the presidential race have presented an integral vision of how to combat the country's sky-high rates of violence, reports El País. A campaign on led by Causa en Común aims to have candidates in Sunday's upcoming debate respond regarding whether they'd contemplate an international anti-impunity commission, in the style of Guatemala's CICIG.

Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim hit back against AMLO's promise to scrap a project for a new Mexico City airport if he is elected. Slim, who owns companies involved in the building project, said halting the $13 billion project would be a setback for the economy, reports Reuters.

A series of viral campaign videos set to music portray fictional characters who say they will vote across class lines, reports El País. Both AMLO and Anaya's campaigns deny involvement, though the candidates are endorsed by the videos. One portraying a supposed "niña bien," (rich girl) has particularly had impact. Verificado 18, a media group dedicated to fact-checking the election campaign, found that the video was filmed under false pretenses in chapel and was not the work of a university student as initially rumored. (See Tuesday's briefs on Verificado.)

Other Mexico news
  • A year after an Animal Político and Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad reported on how the government used shell companies and fraudulent contracts to divert public funds, reporters say there have been few political or legal repercussions in relation to their revelations, reports EFE.
News Briefs

Latin America's rightward swing
  • Echoes of U.S. President Donald Trump's rhetoric seem to be increasingly surfacing in the region, where conservative governments are pushing back against immigration, and evangelical churches are pushing socially conservative policies. "But the rise of the right in Latin America is for the most part a homegrown phenomenon," argues Omar Encarnación in Foreign Policy. (See below briefs on Jair Bolsonaro's candidacy in Brazil.)
  • The old leftist axis in the region has fallen apart, but a new wave of progressivism is taking shape and will focus on the transformation "of Latin America toward a productive economy, and not one based the extraction of resources," said Colombian leftist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro in an interview with The Nation.

Cuban presidential handover
  • Cuban state media emphasized yesterday that incoming President Miguel Díaz-Canel may be a new face, but represents continuity with the Castro leadership of the past 60 years, reports the Associated Press.

  • A Netflix series loosely (operative term) based on the sprawling Lava Jato corruption investigation has critics alleging political bias against the left at a critical time ahead of October's presidential election. But as more people watch O Mecanismo, some see a broader indictment of Brazilian politics in general, and worry that the portrayal of a hopelessly corrupt system combined with voter fury could pave the way for anti-democratic arguments, reports the Atlantic.
  • That is precisely the sentiment that's fueling the candidacy of dictatorship apologist Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing firebrand known for misogynist comments. The Guardian reports on how Bolsonaro is positioning himself as a "tropical Trump ... a pro-gun, anti-establishment crusader set on draining the swamp into which Brazil’s futuristic capital has sunk."
  • In the meantime, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's Workers' Party is rallying locally and internationally to raise support for the jailed former leader, reports Bloomberg. The Supreme Court was going to analyze whether convicts should be able to exhaust appeals in liberty, which would get Lula out of jail, but did not take up the constitutional challenge yesterday.
  • The PT insists that Lula will be its presidential candidate for October's election. But former Sao Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad told Reuters that leftist parties are discussing a united front should Lula be barred, as is likely.
  • A campaign against child-killing in indigenous communities in Brazil has raised the question of how much the state should interfere in inhumane indigenous customs, according to Foreign Policy
Colombia's guerrillas
  • U.S. prosecutors have apparently obtained the collaboration of a key witness to provide testimony against a FARC leader accused of trying to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. Marlon Marin -- nephew of FARC leader Luciano Marin, known as Iván Márquez -- was flown to New York where he will testify against Jesús Santrich, who was arrested earlier this month. The case is another blow for the stumbling peace process, reports the Associated Press. (See April 10's post.)
  • Ecuador is withdrawing as mediator between Colombia and the ELN guerrillas. President Lenín Moreno blamed ongoing terrorist activities of the guerrillas, in a statement with RCN that appears to have caught Colombia's government off-guard, reports the Associated Press. Later Ecuador's government said the decision was taken as a result of the “difficult situation” on its northern border with Colombia.  
  • In another interview, Moreno said he wanted his predecessor, Rafael Correa, investigated for allegedly receiving FARC campaign contributions, reports the Associated Press.
  • A new visa will allow Venezuelans fleeing their country's crisis to work and live in Chile for a year. But the measure caused dismay in Caracas this week, with hundreds of Venezuelans lining up outside the consulate, worried they would be unable to enter Chile on previously purchased flights, reports Bloomberg.
  • Venezuela and Spain agreed to restore diplomatic relations after recalling ambassadors in January, after the European Union sanctioned Venezuelan officials, reports Reuters.
  • The E.U. said it would consider further sanctions if it believes democracy is being undermined, reports Reuters.
  • Venezuela's opposition-led gave a group of judges in exile permission to try President Nicolás Maduro for allegedly seeking bribes from Odebrecht. The trial by Venezuela’s "Supreme Court in Exile" started earlier this month in Bogotá, but is considered symbolic as the jurists aren't recognized by Venezuelan law enforcement institutions, reports the Associated Press.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Díaz-Canel to succeed Castro (April 18, 2018)

Cuba's National Assembly -- a group of 605 handpicked politicians who ran unopposed in March's elections -- nominated vice-president Miguel Díaz-Canel to assume the presidency today. The occasion is momentous, as it will be the first time somebody other than Fidel or Raúl Castro leads the island since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. (Confused by Cuba's opaque government system? 14ymedio has a quick guide to what's going on.)

But Cubans are greeting the handover with a shrug, reports the Guardian14ymedio concurs, saying Cubans on the street are indifferent. It is expected that Castro's successor will continue the system Cubans currently live in, though tweaks at minimum will be necessary. Nor will Castro and other members of the revolutionary generation disappear. Castro will stay on as first secretary of the Communist party until 2021 and will retain significant influence. He will also stay on as head of the armed forces, notes Christopher Sabbatini in a New York Times op-ed. Family members hold key posts in the country's police, intelligence and military, making them a force to be reckoned with.

Díaz-Canel will look after the day-to-day decisions, while Castro will retain influence and decision on broader policies, according to the BBC.

Sabbatini also questions a narrative making rounds, that Díaz-Canel is a friendly moderate, saying it is likely at least in part due to propaganda. (See yesterday's post.) Over at El Estornudo Juan Orlando Pérez isn't optimistic that Díaz-Canel will be a force for change, saying the so-called lost generation taking over from the aged revolutionaries is known for its "shameless mediocrity." 

But the change-over still meaningful, and Díaz-Canel will be forced to respond to heightened expectations, according to El País. "... The new government must face anxiety for change, not only related to economic reform."

Fidel Castro sought to avoid a personality cult, and forbade streets being named after him before his death in 2016. Perhaps in keeping with this, the state press has not made a bid deal about Castro stepping down, according to the Washington Post.

News Briefs

Demagoguery on the Rise
  • Foreign Affairs piece by Michael Camilleri analyzes whether anti-establishment sentiment in the region will lead to a rise in demagoguery, both from the left and the right. Though there are some arguments for favoring stability over anti-corruption efforts, such thinking cannot guide policy, he argues.
  • Though regional leaders last week's Summit of the America's focused on the Venezuelan crisis, the situation provided little space for real headway, writes David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. He did however criticize the conservative Lima Group's push to isolate the government, arguing that Venezuela needs engagement now. And no amount of international pressure can provoke democratic change on its own, he argues. For that the country will need an effective opposition.
  • Smilde points out that having Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro present at the Summit would have been more effective than disinviting him. In a New York Times Español op-ed Alberto Tyszka agrees, adding that the Summit's statements both on corruption and Venezuela were toothless and served only to express good intentions. Instead he calls for a reinvention of politics, noting the dangerous tendency towards "anti politics" in the region.
Venezuelan elections
  • Venezuelans subdued about their upcoming elections. Some polls put opposition candidate Henri Falcón, who has defied the opposition party coalition's call to boycott the election, ahead. But they also point to widespread abstention which will hurt Falcón, reports Reuters. And critics say irregularities in the system make the whole exercise a farce, and that Maduro's government is not prepared to relinquish power.
  • The Miami Herald cites surveys that found Venezuelans are too despondent to vote, but a new poll shows there’s still a core group of voters who believe that elections are their only option, a potential ray of hope for Falcón.
The FARC's conflict-laden inheritors
  • Colombia's Norte de Santander province has declared a state of emergency in the midst of a clash between rival rebel groups seeking to control former FARC coca-growing territory, reports the BBC.
  • Ecuadorean authorities identified two citizens kidnapped by a dissident FARC group operating in the Ecuador-Colombia border area. It's the same group that abducted and killed three press workers earlier this month, reports the BBC.
  • Afro-Brazilian community leader and anti-palm campaigner Nazildo dos Santos Brito was killed this weekend. It was the third assassination in four weeks in the north-eastern corner of Para state, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazil's Supreme Court accepted corruption charges against Senator Aecio Neves yesterday, accused of receiving $580,000 from businessman Joesley Batista. Neves, who came in second by a close margin in the 2014 presidential election, is also accused of obstructing justice, reports El País. The ruling was a major step in the country's anti-corruption crusade and will likely be welcomed by the left which has accused prosecutors of bias in favor of conservative politicians, according to the Associated Press.
From the U.S.-Mexico border
  • The Trump administration has quietly reversed a policy that children under the age of 21 who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents obtain a green card, reports the New York Times.
  • A three-episode trilogy by Radiolab explores the effects of the U.S. Border Patrol's "Prevention Through Deterrence" policy, which has been linked to a dramatic increase in migrant deaths along the border.
Mexico's election
  • The newest Reforma poll has presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador ahead by 22 points over his nearest rival, with the projected support of nearly half the country's voters, reports Reuters.
  • At least 82 candidates and office holders have been killed since the electoral season kicked off in September, casting a pall over the national elections in July where voters will choose a president and a slew of local posts, reports Reuters.
El Salvador
  • El Salvador's government insists that extraordinary security measures in effect since 2016 are responsible for lowering the country's homicide rates, but fly in the face of the country's violent reality and international criticisms of the human rights violations associated with the policy, reports InSight Crime.
  • Salvadoran police arrested 200 alleged gang members in a sweep following a journalists murder, reports AFP. (See Monday's briefs.)
  • A Salvadoran court ordered the reopening of a case against the alleged masterminds of the massacre of six jesuit priests and two civilians in 1989, reports El País.

Historical urbanismo
  • An exhibition on six Latin American capitals in the 19th century shows that these cities "were laboratories for experiment and risk," reports the New York Times. "Architects often mixed indigenous, colonial and Beaux-Arts tropes in the service of new national ambitions. Those were also expressed through new public monuments, including humorously near-identical equestrian statuary."

Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take?  Let me know ... 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Castro to step down tomorrow (April 17, 2018)

Cuban President Raúl Castro will step down as president this week, the first time the island will be led by a non-Castro brother in 60 years. The handoff is part of a broader shift of power from the revolutionary of leaders to the so-called "lost generation" born after the revolution that has always followed orders, reports the Associated Press.

The historic National Assembly session in which Castro's successor is to be officially chosen was moved up a day, from Thursday to Wednesday. It's not clear if this means the changeover will happen a day early or whether the session will last two days, reports the Miami Herald. The session will conclude on Thursday, a day of symbolic importance as it marks the anniversary of Cuba’s 1961 defeat of a CIA-backed Cuban exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs, reports Reuters.

Castro will likely be succeeded by first Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, though most experts agree little will change immediately. Continuity is the last thing Cuba needs, according to a Washington Post editorial that strenuously criticizes the Cuban government. "While authoritarianism is enjoying a comeback in Russia, totalitarianism in Cuba never left. Dissidents are regularly rounded up; there is no freedom of information, press or association; and a tired system of Communist Party loyalty and monopoly on power lumbers on. The country is run by a clique — one that in recent years has been getting rich, too — and most Cubans have no say whatsoever in how their country is governed."

To be clear, Cubans do not actually vote for their president, rather they vote for National Assembly representatives -- only one candidate per post, that they can vote for or against -- who then select the leader, explains the Miami Herald separately. Critics call the electoral system a single-party farce. Even among supporters of the government, there are growing calls for a directly elected president.

Nonetheless very fact of a changeover at all is significant. " In a country where transfers of power are rare, the one about to occur is momentous," according to the Economist. "The post-revolutionary generation will bring a change in style and raise Cubans’ expectations of their government. It is unclear whether the new leaders will meet them."

A leaked video of a recent private Communist Party meeting, shows Díaz-Canel railing against the loosening of the U.S. embargo, calling it an attempt to destroy the revolution. He promises to shut down critical media and throttle civil society. But some experts say this was an example of posturing in order to assure his political rise.

Public gestures by Díaz-Canel, such as standing in line to vote in National Assembly elections last month, seem to indicate that the new leader will seek to govern differently from his predecessors. In his home province of Villa Clara, where he served in a gubernatorial post, he"gained a reputation as a hard-working public servant with a conspicuously modest lifestyle," reports the Associated Press. As a provincial official he undertook efforts to reach out to citizens and respond to their everyday problems. More recently, as minister of higher education he was praised for modernizing curricula and introducing computer technology to many university programs. And Díaz-Canel has a moderating role in the government's attitude towards some political opposition, according to the AP.

Relations with the U.S. have returned somewhat to Cold War rhetoric since Donald Trump got to the White House, but meetings have continued to be held on matters of technical cooperation ranging from human trafficking to environmental protections, notes the Miami Herald. Hawks believe the transition is an opportunity to continue exerting pressure on the Cuban government, while engagement proponents say it's time to further deepen relations between the two countries.

Last week the Washington Office on Latin America urged U.S. officials to "maintain and deepen" cooperation with Cuba. "Failing to do so will only imperil U.S. national interests and threaten progress made on important areas of mutual concern." (See last Friday's briefs.) Not that Trump was always anti-Cuba, as William LeoGrande writes at the Conversation.

Just last week, U.S. Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo promised to build up U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba if he is confirmed. However, as the Herald notes, it is not clear what kind of a relationship Díaz-Canel aspires to. 

Castro steps down in the midst of economic reforms that are still being implemented and tinkered with, reports Reuters in an explainer piece. Díaz-Canel will inherit a complicated scenario -- the country is in the midst of its first recession since the fall of the Soviet Union and its deficit reached 12 percent of the GDP last year, notes the Economist. The economic situation is in fact worst than when Raúl Castro took over from his brother Fidel, and it's not clear whether a leader without the Castro credentials will have the social goodwill required to tackle the problems, according to a separate Associated Press article.

"... But this malaise obscures the emergence of a more complex, diversified economy," writes Richard Feinberg in a February Brookings Institution report. "The private economy has taken off, providing jobs and income to as many as four out of 10 Cubans of working age. Qualitatively, the private economy has advanced from fragile microenterprises to more ample small-scale businesses engaged in substantial capital accumulation. Furthermore, international tourism, with the active cooperation of global partners, is another bright feature."

News Briefs
  • Canada recalled the families of its diplomatic staff in Cuba, following the U.S. example after 10 Canadians continue to show unexplained brain symptoms, reports the BBC. Unlike the U.S., Canadian officials discounted the theory of a "sonic attack" against diplomats, and report by a Canadian medical specialist says that a new type of brain injury may be the cause of a mysterious illness. While there have been no new incidents since the autumn of 2017, diplomatic families that have returned to Canada have continued to experience symptoms, which include dizziness, headaches and nausea, reports Reuters.
  • Fake news is besieging Mexico's presidential race. But a team of reporters at Verificado 18 is fighting back with round-the-clock fact-checking, reports the Los Angeles Times. The platform was forged by Mexico's Animal Politico and AJ+, together with an international organization called PopUp Newsroom, is creating content distributed by about 70 other media outlets, including some of Mexico's most-read newspapers. While all of the five leading candidates have been targeted by smears, front-runner leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been the most affected, according to Verificado 18. Roughly 80 percent of fake stories, memes and videos identified by the group have targeted AMLO.
  • AMLO said that corrupt Mexican governments were to blame for Trump's bad impression of Mexicans, promising to change Trump's perception if elected, reports Reuters.
  • Brazil’s public security minister says that investigators suspect that police-linked militias were responsible for killing Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco last month, reports the Associated Press.
  • An internal U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services report released as part of a lawsuit, counters the U.S. government's claim that conditions on the ground in Haiti have improved significantly since a devastating 2010 earthquake. "Many of the conditions prompting the original January 2010 TPS designation persist," an 18-page October 2017 memo from USCIS said. As of August 2017, the country continued "to be affected by a convergence of humanitarian needs including food insecurity, internal displacement, an influx of returnees from the Dominican Republic, the persistence of cholera and the lingering impact of various natural disasters." The report was written before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security decided to terminate temporary protected status for Haitian nationals living in the U.S., reports the Miami Herald. About 40,000 people will be affected.
  • Ecuadorean authorities said two more people were kidnapped by a dissident FARC group in the conflictive Colombian border area where three people were killed last week, reports the Associated Press.
  • The Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office raised to more than $300 million the amount of public funds allegedly embezzled by former President Elias Antonio Saca, reports EFE.
  • Members of Brazil's homeless workers movement (MST) occupied a beachfront apartment implicated in corruption charges against former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Prosecutors say OAS promised the Guarujá apartment to Lula in exchange for helping the construction company obtain contracts with state oil firm Petrobras. Yesterday morning, around 50 activists occupied the apartment for several hours, reports the Guardian. Another hundred gathered outside the building, chanting slogans in support of Lula. Lula’s lawyers say that there is no material evidence linking him to the apartment and that the prosecution’s case rests on the testimony of the OAS executive Léo Pinheiro, who entered a plea bargain to receive a reduced sentence for corruption and money laundering.
  • The British government apologized yesterday for its "appalling" treatment of some immigrants from the Caribbean who settled in the U.K. legally as children but lack documentation, reports the Associated Press.
  • This New York Times piece goes more in-depth than you ever though possible into potatoes in Peru. "Potatoes come in every texture and color. You can see them in the markets: reds, blues, purples, yellows and pinks, sometimes ringed with two colors when sliced open. ... Some are shaped like a puma’s paw; others, an alpaca’s nose or a cat’s claw. Native to the Andes in Peru and northwest Bolivia, potatoes were domesticated more than 10,000 years ago. And yet new varieties are being discovered all the time."

Monday, April 16, 2018

Summit of the Americas weak on corruption (April 16, 2018)

Summit Briefs
  • Latin American leaders promised to take on corruption on Saturday at the eight Summit of the Americas, held in Lima. (See last Friday's and Thursday's posts.) The joint declaration signed by all participants includes 57 action points aimed at preventing future corruption. But many of the governments represented at the summit are facing significant allegations of graft, and experts were skeptical that the agreement would lead to any real change, reports the Associated Press.
  • The Venezuelan crisis dominated the Summit, but faces Latin American leaders with a conundrum: how to oppose an increasingly authoritarian government in a region allergic to intervening in each other's internal affairs, reports the New York Times. Sixteen of the 33 participating nations issued a side statement calling on Venezuela to hold free and transparent elections and allow international aid to the enter the country. But again, the statement didn't differ significantly from previous statements from the mostly conservative-governed countries that signed on, notes the Associated Press.
  • U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met with Venezuelan opposition leaders on Friday and promised a contribution of an additional $16 million in humanitarian aid for people fleeing Venezuela, reports the Washington Post.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales made a pit stop in Caracas to give embattled President Nicolás Maduro a rare show of international support, reports AFP.
  • Corruption headlines in Latin America have reached a fever pitch, leading the New York Times to ask: "In a region where graft is so entrenched, who will be left to govern if the swamp is fully drained?"
  • In the wake of the corruption scandals rocking the region's political establishments, it is worth asking if the push against graft is weakening democratic institutions rather than strengthening them, writes Jorge Castañeda in a New York Times op-ed. He points to the jailing of Brazilian presidential frontrunner, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the resignation of Peruvian Pedro Pablo Kuczynski as potential examples of this vision. But "no matter the inconveniences and dangers of the anticorruption strategy currently employed in the region, they are preferable to the alternative: an intolerable status quo," he writes.
  • Reforming regulation on how political parties and campaigns are financed is key in targeting corruption, says former Peruvian prime minister Juan Jiménez and former head of the OAS backed international anti-corruption commission in Honduras, reports Univisión.
News Briefs
  • Mexico's Congress will regulate government spending on advertising. But critics say the legislation is insufficient to control a system in which government officials have substantial impact on news reporting, according to the New York Times. Last year the Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to regulate official advertising spending so that it is distributed in an unbiased way. The court's decision responded to a case brought by Article 19, which sued the government over its ad-spending practices. But instead of promoting equitable distribution of ad spending, the bill legalizes discretionary spending, say critics, including Jan Jarab, the Mexico representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Peña Nieto administration spent more than twice its budget in 2016 on public-service ads, according to Fundar, a transparency group that examines government data.
  • Trump's harsh rhetoric regarding Mexico could endanger a number of security oriented joint initiatives between the U.S. and Mexico, including efforts to pinpoint poppy and heroin production, reports the Washington Post.
  • A pending Supreme Court ruling could free Lula imminently. Justices are set to revisit a 2016 decision that allowed defendants to be jailed if their graft convictions were upheld on a first appeal. It is that decision that sent Lula to jail 10 days ago. Critics say the decision denies defendants the constitutional right to exhaust the appeals process before being jailed. And several justices say they would overturn the ruling, reports Reuters. But a reversal would deal an important blow to anti-corruption efforts in Brazil, say some experts. (See the issue of ADC's discussed in April 5's post.)
  • Even jail isn't enough to deter Lula's voters. A new poll released Sunday by the Datafolha institute found that 30 percent of voters would still back him, and two-thirds of his supporters would vote for whoever he endorses if he can't run, reports the Associated Press. The poll also found that 54 percent of Brazilians consider Da Silva’s arrest to be fair, while 40 percent disagree. Six percent did not respond.
  • Brazil's attorney general Raquel Dodge charged lawmaker Jair Bolsonaro for inciting hatred and discrimination against blacks, indigenous communities, women and gays. The far-right firebrand presidential candidate has been running second place in polls for October's election. If convicted, Bolsonaro could face up to three years in prison and a $117,000 fine, reports the New York Times. The charging document notes several passages from a speech Bolsonaro gave last year in Rio de Janeiro, in which he spoke disparagingly of traditional Afro-Brazilian communities, women, and gay people. Dodge also charged Bolsonaro's son, also a lawmaker, with threatening a journalist. However, both Bolsonaro's are protected by parliamentary immunity, which means they can only be tried by the Supreme Court. The highest court has a long backlog of cases, making it unlikely they will be tried before the election.
  • Guatemalan prosecutors and the CICIG complained that information leaks thwarted several corruption related arrests. On Friday police and prosecutors were ready to arrest seven people linked to a Social Security corruption scandal, but four were out of the country and three were alerted ahead of time with phone calls. It is the first time the operations coordinated between the Public Ministry and the U.N. backed international commission have suffered information leaks, reports Reuters.
  • Womens rights campaigners in Argentina are celebrating a bill that would legalize abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. If the legislation passes Congress, Argentina would become the most populous country in Latin America to allow women to terminate pregnancies -- in contrast to most of the region which has strict limitations. The New York Times reports on how the momentum behind the proposal is a direct outgrowth of anti-femicide and gender violence campaigns, notably "Ni Una Menos."
  • Indeed, the region's draconian abortion policies have resulted in thousands of needless deaths, said Amnesty International’s secretary general, Salil Shetty after meeting with Argentina's president. "The criminalization of abortion is an extreme form of violence against women. It doesn’t reduce abortions – it just makes them unsafe," Shetty told the Guardian. He also warned that political polarization, economic decline and a growing disenchantment with democracy has led to a crisis of human rights across the region.
  • Latin America is traditionally a Catholic bastion, and is home to 40 percent of the religion's faithful. But Evangelical churches are increasingly impacting on politics in the region, and have pushed back against attempts to liberalize abortion restrictions and legalize gay marriage, reports El País.
  • And Evangelical churches are not immune to the corruption plague, reports the Washington Post. Though many grass-roots churches are credited for filling in for insufficient state efforts, in some cases"the faithful have been exploited by some leaders, who may take advantage of religious-freedom laws to hide illicit activity."
  • Laws prohibiting gay sex between consenting men were found unconstitutional by a Trinidad and Tobago court, paving the road for decriminalization and similar decisions elsewhere in the Caribbean, reports Reuters.
  • Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno confirmed that three kidnapped people were killed by a dissident FARC group operating near the Colombian border, reports the New York Times.
  • A journalist working for El Salvador's La Prensa Gráfica group was kidnapped and killed this weekend, reports the Associated Press.
  • Caribbean Commonwealth countries are calling for a new international system of relief for natural disasters. In a letter to the Guardian Keith Mitchell Prime minister of Grenada and Gaston Browne Prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda note that "The growing severity of hurricanes in the Caribbean is related to climate change, a major global threat primarily caused by countries far richer and larger than our own. ... We should not have to bear these extra costs ourselves through climate risk insurance."
  • Panama is considering building a passenger train to Costa Rica with China, a project that would require an initial investment of $5 billion, reports Reuters.
  • "Anglicismos," usage of English words or phrases in Spanish, are common but sporadic in much of the hispanic speaking world. Not in the U.S. though, where Spanglish is a force to be reckoned with, writes Ilan Stavans in a New York Times Español op-ed. "Here Spanish lives cannabilizing English, reconfiguring and reinventing itself, even as it breaks its syntactic structure. Establishing what is a hispanism and what is an anglicism is a byzantine labor. ... Today we live in a world in which migrations are unceasing and languages enrich and stop pertaining to one side or another of the border. Marginalizing words, like anglicisms, doesn't make sense: they are words that are used in the streets in all of America."

Friday, April 13, 2018

Summit of the Americas likely to fail on all fronts (April 13, 2018)

U.S. President Donald Trump's sudden withdrawal from the Summit of the Americas meeting that starts today is just the most notable of a long string of last minute defections. Cuban President Raul Castro is unlikely to attend, and the presidents of Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Paraguay have all announced they will be staying home, reports the Associated Press.

At the Council of Foreign Relations' blog, Shannon O'Neil argues that Trump's absence might prove fruitful for actual discussion on the corruption theme of the summit. At the Hill, Patrick Duddy concurs, saying Trump's decision to skip will free up leaders to focus on issues other than relations with the U.S. (See yesterday's post for other perspectives.)

Significant headway on the issue of corruption is unlikely however, given the serious allegations affecting many of the leaders in the region, notes InSight Crime. The fact that Peru's president was forced to resign just a few weeks ago, in the midst of a graft scandal, is just the beginning. And the meeting comes as entrenched elites are hitting back at internatioanl anti-corruption commissions in Guatemala and Honduras.

But the political drama headlines focusing on the Summit's poor optics has threatened to opaque the unofficial theme of the meeting, which is the crisis in Venezuela, warns the Atlantic Council's Jason Marczak at Real Clear World. And it's not just in Venezuela anymore, but rapidly spreading to its neighbors in the form of refugees. "The hemisphere urgently needs a strategy to address the crisis around Venezuela as well. ... The country’s rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation has sparked a refugee and migrant exodus that could rival some of the world’s largest outflows, with 1.5 million Venezuelans estimated to have fled. The sudden influx of arrivals has overwhelmed neighboring countries and stretched national capacities to respond. Spillover effects are becoming increasingly evident."

Peru has in fact become a stronghold for Venezuelan political dissent, and is earning a reputation as a place where exiles can thrive, reports the Miami Herald.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is attending the meeting in Trump's stead will meet with Venezuelan opposition leaders today, reports Reuters.

But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a key influencer of the White House's Lat Am policy, may be a more sought after interlocutor, reports the Associated Press. The Florida Republican was scheduled to meet one-on-one with about a half-dozen heads of state — around the same number as Pence himself.

News Briefs
  • The official Cuban and Venezuelan delegations disrupted a civil society conference taking place alongside the Summit yesterday reports the Miami Herald.
  • On the issue of corruption, Operation Car Wash is at a crossroads after the arrest of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva last week, writes Brian Winter at Americas Quarterly. "The race is now on to show that justice truly applies to everyone, not just in Brazil, but elsewhere in the region. Otherwise, the whole anti-corruption movement is at risk of losing momentum, if not collapsing entirely," he writes, noting the significant allegations of corruption against a large swathe of Brazilian politicians.
  • Indeed, "about a third of the legislators face legal challenges but are effectively protected by a Constitution under which high officials and politicians can be tried only in the high courts, which move slowly and rarely convict. For all the successes of Operation Car Wash, nothing has been done to fix the judicial system. The danger of a lurch to populism and political radicalization is obvious," argues a New York Times editorial.
  • In a startling about-face (as usual) Trump said yesterday that the U.S. was looking into rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The same multilateral trade deal he pulled the country out of in the first days of his presidency last year. The change apparently came in response to concerns from Republican lawmakers that businesses in their states would be affected by Trump's tariffs and barrier approach to trade, reports the New York Times. But the pact's members might not ease the way back into the agreement -- having cobbled it back together after the U.S. withdrawal in the first place, reports the New York Times separately.
  • In the meantime the U.S. administration is pushing to reach a new NAFTA deal by the beginning of next month, but the timeline is complicated by its hardline stance on policies aimed at bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., reports the New York Times. The White House is angling for a deal as soon as possible in order to have it submitted to a Republican controlled Congress before next year's midterm elections. Mexico's July presidential race could also complicate negotiations. Trump has threatened to withdraw from NAFTA if a new agreement isn't reached, but the desire to advance could give Mexico and Canada some leverage.
  • White House Chief of Staff John Kelly forged close ties with Honduran military and security chiefs between 2012 and 2016 -- while heading the the U.S. military’s Southern Command -- "even as colleagues elsewhere in the Obama administration raised concerns about links between drug trafficking and high-ranking officials in the Honduran government," reports the Associated Press. The piece contrasts human rights groups' criticisms of abuses in Honduras -- including Human Rights Watch's -- with Kelly's upbeat assessment of improving conditions on the ground. "He praised Honduran political and security officials for making strides fighting corruption and protecting human rights even as media headlines and U.S. government reports continued to link the country’s security forces to murders and corruption."
  • Cuba's impending leadership change next week makes this a critical time for U.S. engagement on the island, according to WOLA. "Failing to do so will only imperil U.S. national interests and threaten progress made on important areas of mutual concern," write Geoff Thale and Marguerite Rose Jiménez. They note a long history of mutually beneficial cooperation between the two countries, despite ideological disagreements. "The Trump administration should take a lesson from their predecessors—both Democrats and Republicans—about the importance of not abandoning cooperation with Cuba even when major disagreements exist."
  • U.S. embassy staff in Havana has been reduced to a bare minimum of 10 after alleged "sonic attacks" affected diplomats last year. But that could change if Mike Pompeo is confirmed as U.S. Secretary of State, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Trump's immigration crackdown has effectively pushed border security deeper into the U.S., forcing undocumented migrants to live in perpetual fear. Texas, where local police increasingly work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is a harbinger of the new, panicky state of affairs for undocumented residents, many of whom have children who are U.S. citizens, reports Politico.
  • Grisly photos appear to show that three kidnapped Ecuadorean journalists' were murdered. Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno said the captors -- believed to be a dissident FARC group -- had 12 hours to prove the contrary before military operations resume in the area, reports the Miami Herald. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he was sending the nation's minister of defense, the head of the armed forces and the chief of police to Ecuador to help coordinate efforts.
  • Tomorrow marks the one month anniversary since Rio de Janeiro councillor Marielle Franco and her driver, Anderson Gomes, were murdered. Increasingly many suspect paramilitary forces in the city of masterminding the killing, and her supporters say it was a political assassination. The Guardian interviews Franco's fiancee, Mônica Benício. And VICE interviews young human rights defenders in Rio who say they are only more committed to the cause after Marielle's death.
  • Rafael Caro Quintero, a veteran drug kingpin convicted over the murder of a DEA agent and then released on a technicality from a Mexican prison has been added to the FBI’s list of its 10 most-wanted fugitives, reports the Guardian.
  • A new series, Startup Cuba, focuses on the entrepreneurs working in the island's private sector, reports the Miami Herald.