Friday, May 25, 2018

Maduro rushes reinauguration (May 25, 2018)

News Briefs

  • President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in yesterday for a second, six-year term. The inauguration was moved up by eight months, after an election considered a sham by the country's political opposition and many governments world-wide, reports the Wall Street Journal. The ceremony was held before the National Constituent Assembly, a supra-congressional body created last year by Maduro and considered illegitimate by the opposition and many international observers. Maduro promised to released some jailed opposition activists, boost oil production and open dialogue with business leaders, reports Reuters.
  • Civil society group Foro Penal Venezolano said the government arrested 15 senior military officials around the election. The arrests came in the context of a government investigation into an alleged conspiracy, reports Reuters. Nine were charged Monday with military rebellion, treason, mutiny and crimes against military decorum. Yesterday Maduro said authorities have been dismantling conspiracies, including a plan allegedly financed by the U.S. and Colombia to divide the armed forces and avoid last Sunday's election, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
  • A central criticism of Venezuela's election on Sunday was government use of much needed aid to push people to vote -- Reuters reports that cash prizes and access to welfare programs were among the incentives.
  • A new InSight Crime investigation into Venezuela's criminal dynamics focuses on the border with Colombia, now one of the main territories for illicit groups in the region. The two countries' separate dynamics are working symbiotically to feed into criminal enterprises such as cocaine, contraband fuel, and illegal mining. Venezuelan border states have become sanctuaries, where Colombian guerrillas and criminal groups exercise considerable influence, according to the report.
  • Wall Street Journal correspondent Anatoly Kurmanaev reflects on Venezuela's crisis, through the lens of growing up in post-Soviet Russia.
  • For the Wall Street Journal Colombian voters will be choosing between "a law-and-order conservative versus a former guerrilla and admirer of the late Venezuelan strongman, Hugo Chávez," in Sunday's presidential elections. (See yesterday's post.) 
  • In the wake of the FARC demobilization, lethal violence against farmers seeking to reclaim lands by paramilitary groups has been a consistent issue, reports NACLA.
  • A landslide at Colombia's Ituango hydroelectric dam this week forced about 26,000 people to evacuate. Activists say the case highlights the project's risks to local communities and the environment, reports Reuters.
  • The Trump administration continues to conflate the MS13 street gang with illegal migration to the U.S. Speaking in Long Island yesterday, U.S. President Donald Trump insisted that gang members have "exploited glaring loopholes" to "enter the country as unaccompanied minors." The White House doubled down on the characterization of the gang members as "animals." The strategy, however, leads to ineffective policies that could actually hinder strategies to counter gang expansion, warns InSight Crime.
  • Alicia Díaz González was killed in her home in Nuevo León, the fifth journalist assassinated so far this year, reports Animal Político. She was found dead by her children with stabbing wounds in her neck, and evidence of beating on her face and head. Díaz González collaborated with El Financiero and the Grupo Reforma owned El Norte.
  • Legal gun sales are tightly controlled in Mexico -- on average 38 are sold each day to civilians. But an estimated 580 are smuggled in illegally from the U.S., a disparity feeding into Mexico's unprecedented levels of gun violence, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • The United Nations human rights office called for an investigation into the deaths of three indigenous men, killed by a military patrol in eastern Honduras, as well as the wounding of three children in protests in the area the next day, reports the Associated Press. Rights groups say the soldiers used unnecessary force.
  • Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli will stop fighting extradition from the U.S. to face charges in his home country of using public funds to spy on political opponents, reports Reuters.
  • Argentina's Chamber of Deputies will likely vote on a bill to legalize abortion next month. The proposed legislation has the support of over 70 lawmakers from several parties, but needs to obtain 129 votes to pass to the Senate, reports the Associated Press. The vote comes as activists have highlighted the case of a 10-year-old girl denied an abortion in the province of Salta. The pregnancy is the result of abuse by her step-father, but authorities refused to carry out an abortion (permitted in these circumstances by Argentine legislation) because the pregnancy was only detected at week 19 of gestation, reports Página 12.
  • Paraguayan Vice President Alicia Pucheta apologized on behalf of the state to relatives of four opposition activists who were “disappeared” by authorities during the 1954-1989 Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship, reports EFE.
  • Eighteen Waorani indigenous communities are petitioning to stop oil drilling in their territory in Ecuador's Amazon, reports Al Jazeera.
  • Wind-farms on Brazil's northern Atlantic coast could become a powerful industry -- now some authorities are proposing a tax, hoping to cash in on potential profits, reports the New York Times.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Colombians head to the polls Sunday (May 24, 2018)

Colombians head to the polls Sunday to pick a new president from five contenders. Iván Duque, anointed successor to former President Álvaro Uribe and opponent to the FARC peace deal is in the lead, though likely no candidate will obtain enough votes to avoid heading to a run-off vote in June.

Duque is projected to win about 41.5 percent, and his primary opponent is leftist former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, with a predicted 29.5, reports Reuters. They are trailed in opinion polls by center-right ex-Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras, the center-left former Medellín Mayor Sergio Fajardo, and lead FARC peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle. As of the most recent polls, Duque would likely win in a second round of voting as well.

Americas Society/Council of the Americas has a roundup of all the polling, with the big caveat that predictions are notoriously unreliable in Colombia. (Anybody else recall choking on a sip of coffee the morning after the peace deal referendum?) 

La Silla Vacía analyzes how voters will lean according to their votes in this year's legislative elections -- a method which puts Germán Vargas Lleras, who resigned as vice president to run, in the lead, followed by Duque.

Most experts are surprised Petro, a former guerrilla, is even in the running, much less polling second, reports the Washington Post. For some, it's a sign of changing attitudes in the wake of the FARC peace process, reports the Guardian. The demobilization means the left has an opportunity for political play. Petro's found popularity as an economically progressive alternative to Duque's market friendly approach -- launching what might be called the great avocado vs oil debate -- reports Bloomberg, a more politically palatable expression of of the discontent previously expressed by the FARC.

In response, Duque is angling for centrist votes, but -- at least in the first round -- carries the burden of a strong portion of voters who reject Uribismo, reports la Silla Vacía

Polarization is a theme of the election analysis, as is the issue of misinformation. Open Democracy has a section dedicated to the issue, produced with Nueva Sociedad and Friedrich Ebert Siftung. 

In a piece delving into the issue of polarization, Sandra Borda analyzes two potential factors: "... that the peace process produced a counterintuitive effect: instead of uniting Colombian society around a common objective, it served only to profoundly divide in an almost irreconcilable way. ... My second argument suggests that we may be confusing polarisation with a phenomenon that appears similar but is also very different. I suggest that the end of the war with the FARC, a revolutionary Marxist guerrilla, opened up the political space for the left that had been politically locked away in the past and has now increased the political ideological spectrum within which Colombian electoral politics functions."

InSight Crime compares the candidates' actual proposals, noting the importance of new criminal dynamics in the wake of the FARC's demobilization.

Ahead of Sunday's vote, authorities insisted that there is no possibility of electoral fraude, reports El Tiempo, in response to Petro's allegations that electoral software has not been adequately audited.

Whoever wins will face an uphill political battle, warns Reuters. While Petro's plans to raise social spending have scared investors, even Duque's business-friendly plan to cut taxes is bad for the budget.

Wrapping up, Carlos Cortés' irreverent La Mesa del Centro round up of the candidates heading into the vote is well worth a few minutes.

News Briefs

  • Four former high ranking military officials were convicted in the landmark Molina Thiessen case. They were found guilty of aggravated sexual abuse against Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen in 1981, and three were found guilty of the enforced disappearance of her 14-year-old brother Marco Antonio, reports the Guardian. Two high-ranking officers previously thought to be untouchable, former Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García and former chief of military intelligence Manuel Callejas y Callejas, were among those found guilty, note Jo-Marie Burt and Paulo Estrada in the International Justice Monitor. They were sentenced to 58 years’ jail by the court. It is the first time senior military officers have been prosecuted for serious human rights violations since the 2013 genocide verdict against the former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was sent back to trial.
  • The Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference suspended the National Dialogue yesterday, after representatives of the government and the "Civic Alliance" failed agree on a work agenda, reports El Confidencial. The process has been suspended indefinitely due to lack of progress, reports the Associated Press. The foreign minister, in representation of the government, refused to discuss the a route to democratization, saying the agenda angles towards a coup against the Ortega administration.
  • The bishops who are serving as mediators had proposed an "agenda to guarantee democratization and justice" in the country, including electoral reform, new government authorities, an international truth commission, and guarantees and indemnization for victims of human rights violations, reports El Confidencial.
  • The U.S. Trump administration is preparing a range of responses, including sanctions, to pressure the Ortega government, reports the McClatchy DC. An administration source said U.S. officials are treading carefully to avoid accusations that the opposition responds to "imperialist" directives.
  • Several small road blocks around the country -- demanding President Daniel Ortega's resignation and in support of the dialogue process -- were attacked by paramilitary forces and members of the Juventud Sandinista yesterday, reports El Confidencial.
  • An InSight Crime investigation into organized crime in Venezuela outlines how the 2009 Honduran coup created an opening for criminal organizations, which created a major cocaine trafficking route from Colombia through Venezuela and Honduras.
  • Colombian authorities dismantled a sophisticated underground cocaine production laboratory in Nariño, suggesting the increasing capacity of dissident FARC criminal groups, reports InSight Crime
  • A charter jet flying from Texas split in half while landing in Honduras this week -- everybody survived. Check out the pictures on the BBC.
Environmental activists
  • The New Republic profiles indigenous women land activists in Ecuador. "Ecuador is unique in terms of oil and conservation; it’s an oil producing and exporting (OPEC) country, and its shaky economy depends on oil. But it also enshrines the rights of nature in its constitution, and many Ecuadoreans see themselves as the guardians of those rights."
  • The New York Times has beautiful pictures of natural diversity in Bolivia's Madidi National Park.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Venezuela expels U.S. diplomats (May 23, 2018)

News Briefs

  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro expelled the top U.S. diplomats in the country yesterday, giving United States Embassy’s chargé d’affaires Todd Robinson and his number two, Brian Naranjo, 48 hours to leave the country. He accused them of conspiring against the government, speaking two days after his reelection in a vote questioned internationally and criticized by the U.S. government, reports the New York Times. It's a sharp escalation of bilateral tensions in the wake of new U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, reports the Washington Post. While Robinson did not speak out regarding the election, he clashed with Venezuelan authorities last week regarding the case of an imprisoned U.S. missionary in a prison where political prisoners rebelled last week. In his announcement, Maduro referred to the U.S. administration as "the government of the Ku Klux Klan," reports the Miami Herald.
  • The legitimacy of the vote is not up for debate, rather, for the New York Times editorial board, the question is how to oust Maduro. The key, argues the piece, is collective pressure, led by regional government, and support for the opposition-led National Assembly. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Unilateral actions must be avoided at all costs, and the end goal must be setting the basis for actually free and fair elections, argues journalist Reynaldo Trombetta in the Guardian.
  • Sanctions won't be enough, and the window of opportunity for forcing elections is fast closing, warns Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. He recommends doubling down on sanctions -- stopping short of a full oil embargo -- and warns that AMLO's election in Mexico bodes ill for regional pressure against Maduro.
  • Illustrating the country's inflationary scourge: it now takes 88 hours of work at minimum wage to buy a kilo of chicken, according to El País.
  • NAFTA renegotiation talks remain stalled on the issue of car production and America First clauses that the U.S. seeks to introduce, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • And infant was killed, 30 people were injured and a trendy neighborhood in Guadalajara resembled a war zone yesterday, in a shootout between hitmen and a former state prosecutor's bodyguards, reports the Guardian. At least 105 public officials have been killed in Jalisco state since 2013. 
  • Presidential candidates are not grappling with the situation of migrants living in the U.S., especially the so-called "dreamers" who have been living there since children but face deportation now, writes activist
    Antonio Alarcón in a New York Times Español op-ed.
Migrants and refugees
  • There has been an alarming spike in asylum seekers and refugees fleeing violence in Central America in recent years, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The UNHCR said the annual figures increased from 18,000 in 2011 to 294,000 at the end of last year. Last year's number represented a 58 percent increase over the previous year's. Most refugee applicants were escaping rampant gang violence in the region, reports the GuardianThe UNHCR also pointed to the changing role of Mexico, which is increasingly a country of destination rather than transit.
  • In El Salvador, gang members seeking a way out have few options. Increasingly turning to Evangelical churches is a way to exit the criminal organizations -- the Economist.
  • Twenty-five migrants from Cape Verde were rescued off the coast of Brazil's Maranhão state, after 35 days at sea, the last without food or water, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazil's progressive forces are in the midst of a potential realignment in the wake of former president Luiz Inácio Luiz da Silva's imprisonment reports Jacobin.
  • Truck drivers went on strike in Brazil yesterday over the cost of fuel, further punishing the country's fragile economy, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Guatemala's new attorney general, Consuelo Porras, takes office in a volatile situation for the country's landmark efforts to oust entrenched corruption. Though the case of a jailed Russian family has received international attention in recent months, it's just a sideshow in a pushback by elites seeking to shield themselves from future investigations, write Kate Doyle and Elizabeth Oglesby in World Politics Review.
  • Leftist former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro is unlikely to win the presidential race this Sunday in Colombia, but he is predicted to come in solidly second. The strong showing for a former urban guerrilla shows the country's current drastic polarization, according to the Washington Post. It's the first time in decades a leftist has had such a following, experts say. 
  • Colombia should move away from eradicating coca cultivation, and instead focus on the crop's lawful potential, according to a new report from Open Society Foundations' Global Drug Policy Program. It proposes building a coca leaf industry that  guarantees a sound income for farmers; provides good quality, sustainable raw materials for manufacturers; and ensures traceability, and control across the supply chain, with adherence to international laws. InSight Crime puts the report in the Colombian context of increased violence in the wake of FARC demobilization and unsuccessful eradication campaigns.
  • Colombian authorities captured one of the last remaining Urabeños, a blow to the drug cartel that could impact the group's power, according to InSight Crime.
  • Roadblock protests around Nicaragua are demanding the resignation of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, reports el Confidencial. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • In the third session of National Dialogue taking place today, participants will seek to force the government to follow Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommendations issued on Monday, reports el Confidencial(See yesterday's briefs.)
  • New President Martín Vizcarra aims to make his mark on anti-corruption measures in the country, after replacing a predecessor forced to quit in the midst of a graft scandal, reports the Economist.
Trans in Argentina
  • A new book by Kike Arnal documents in photographs the lives of Argentina's transgender community, reports the Guardian.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Venezuela increasingly isolated/IACHR censures Nicaraguan repression (May 22, 2018)

In the wake of President Nicolás Maduro's highly questioned reelection, Venezuela found itself the object of further U.S. sanctions and international opprobrium. U.S. President Donald Trump placed new sanctions limiting how U.S. companies and citizens can do business with Venezuela, including its state-owned oil company, reports the New York Times

The order aims to prevent the purchase of Venezuelan debt and and state assets at fire sale prices, reports the Washington Post. Though they complicate oil exports, they remain somewhat symbolic say experts. The new sanctions fall short of a full oil embargo, and still permit buying and selling of Venezuelan oil products. 

A full embargo would likely increase misery in Venezuela, but could also impact U.S. and regional economic interests.

Venezuela has increasingly leaned on China and Russia for credit, and a U.S. official said the Trump administration is pushing those countries to avoid issuing new debt, reports Reuters.

The Lima Group, which includes Brazil, Colombia and 14-other countries from the hemisphere, said it did not recognize the legitimacy of the elections, and the German and U.K. governments also criticized the process. Today the European Union lamented that the government had not guaranteed free and fair elections, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

The diplomatic pressure will increase Venezuela's reliance on Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Cuba, all of which offered Maduro congratulations after Sunday's vote, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Opposition leaders within Venezuela said that if Maduro pushes forward and is sworn in to a new six-year term in 2019, he will have seized power, reports the Associated Press.

International pressure is more relevant than ever as the fractured political opposition within the country appears increasingly powerless, reports the Associated Press.

But international pressure alone will not topple the government, and should instead focus on strengthening domestic pressure which has largely died off after protests last year were violently repressed, argues Mark Feierstein in Americas Quarterly.

The opposition must find a way to overcome internal divisions and old grudges, and construct power from below, writes Alberto Barrera Tyszka in a New York Times Español op-ed

In fact, the key to Maduro's eventual overthrow likely lies in the popular classes that have until now supported him, argues Gabriel Hetland in The Nation.

Sunday's results preclude an electoral resolution to the country's crisis in the near future, writes Tulio Hernández in a New York Times Español op-ed, in which he argues that the options left open range from a military coup, a popular uprising, or a foreign intervention -- or a mix of the three. 

Other Venezuela news
  • Malaria infection rates have made a comeback in Venezuela, once seen as a global example of eradication, reports the Guardian. The incidence of the disease increased 69 percent in 2017 over the previous year, five times higher than the 2013 rate. All part of the country's growing healthcare crisis with growing maternal mortality, tuberculosis and HIV infection rates, for example.
News Briefs

  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the Nicaraguan government's response to protests. The IACHR found that the government's crackdown resulted in rights abuses, torture and possibly murder. A visiting investigative mission found that  documented that since April 18 at least 76 people were killed, and 868 injured, reports Reuters. The preliminary report found that there might be evidence of extrajudicial executions, and urged the government to stop repressing protests. The commission found that there was "disproportionate use of force" and "indiscriminate" use of firearms, rubber bullets, tear gas and possibly even snipers by security forces seeking to break up protests, reports el Confidencial. (See yesterday's briefs.) 
  • The list of 76 dead is far higher than initial estimates, and comes from the government itself, which up until yesterday had only recognized about a dozen deaths, reports el Confidencial. The number is higher than estimates from rights organizations, which said they would be comparing data.
  • The Nicaraguan government accepted to address the list of 15 recommendations, reports DPA. And the Catholic Church Episcopal Conference together with the “Civic Unity Alliance for Justice and Democracy”, made up of students, business people and civil society, agreed to establish mechanisms to monitor compliance.
  • In the National Dialogue discussions yesterday, the University Coalition proposed a framework for democratic transition, which would immediately oust President Daniel Ortega, reports Confidencial.
  • Presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador has caused polemic with a proposal to amnesty criminals, as a radical counter to the failed war on drugs policy. Little more is known about how it would work, as he has been intentionally vague, writes Luis Gómez Romero in the Conversation. But there are hints that it would be considered a transitional justice program of sorts, though its not clear what would compel criminal organizations to sign up. He is the only candidate, however, to venture out side of tired old, law-and-order style promises.
  • Three dozen electoral candidates have been killed in Mexico since last September, raising a unique challenge for political parties seeking to fill the slots left empty on ballots in the bloodiest campaign season on record, reports the Washington Post. (See last Tuesday's post.)
  • The OAS anti-corruption mission in Honduras is under serious threat reports the American University in its latest MACCIH Monitor publication. The international commission's most important judicial cases face significant obstacles, and the public prosecutor proposed by the OAS has not yet been accepted by the Honduran government. Spokeperson Juan Jiménez Mayor's resignation in February left the mission open to criticism of lack of support and fund mismanagement. And lawmakers accused of corruption are challenging the agreement that created MACCIH, which could lead to the dismantling of the commission.
  • Honduran drug kingpin Sergio Neftali Mejia-Duarte received a life sentence in a U.S. court for drug trafficking, reports Voice of America.
  • A verdict is expected in the Molina Theissen case this week, a landmark human rights trial focused on a 1981 enforced disappearance, reports the International Justice Monitor.
  • An old CIA memo has given new proof of human rights violations under Brazil's dictatorship (see May 14's briefs) and is fueling calls to reexamine the country's amnesty law and reestablish a Truth Commission, reports the Washington Post.
  • Unpopular President Michel Temer has officially decided not to run for election in October, and will instead through his (rather null) support behind his former finance minister, Henrique Meirelles. Both were polling in the low single digits, reports Reuters.
  • If Brazil has become the poster-child for zealous prosecution of corruption, Argentines have largely ignored the Lava Jato investigation evidence pointing towards wrongdoing in their own country, writes investigative journalist Hugo Alconada Mon in a New York Times Español op-ed. Politicians of diverse political stripes and business leaders share an aversion to delving into corruption that could land many of them in jail, as has happened in Brazil, he argues. But more significant is the apathy of the Argentine public, a key factor in an eventual fight against impunity.
Did I miss something, get something wrong, or do you have a different take?  Let me know ... Latin America Daily Briefing

Monday, May 21, 2018

Maduro wins by a landslide -- but most people didn't vote (May 21, 2017)

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro officially won a second term yesterday, in a vote qualified as a sham by the country's main opposition parties and members of the international community.

Maduro received a landslide 68 percent of the vote, though a low turnout of 46 percent belies the legitimacy of the win, reports Reuters. The past two presidential elections had about 80 percent turnout. The country's main opposition coalition did not participate in the election and called on supporters to boycott elections without guarantees of fairness. Many of the parties were disqualified from running, and main opposition leaders were banned.

Polling stations in both government and opposition dominated areas were emptier than in past years, and the main opposition coalition claims turnout was even lower, at about 30 percent, reports the Washington Post. A source within the electoral agency told Reuters that turnout as of 6 pm yesterday was only 32.3 percent, reports the BBC. An exit poll cited by the Miami Herald found only 17 percent participation. Social media was full of desolate polling stations.

As of yesterday, Maduro had about 5.8 million votes, compared to opposition candidates Henri Falcón with 1.8 million (21.2 percent) and Javier Bertucci with 925,000, reports the New York Times. That is 1.5 million votes less than Maduro obtained when he was elected in 2013. 

For some the government didn't even have to rig the vote due to the uneven playing field it created.

Falcón accused the governing party of pressuring voters yesterday. Though the government said checking in after the vote could not be linked to individual votes, many citizens feel authorities could track and punish opposition votes.

Venezuelans who voted yesterday scanned social security cards ID cards in hopes of obtaining prizes, a practice critics said was akin to buying votes from citizens terrified of losing much needed food aid, reports Reuters separately. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Human Rights Watch's Tamara Taraciuk and Provea's Rafael Uzcátegui document how government control of accessibly priced food has been abused by the administration.

The U.S. State Department and the 14-member Lima Group said they would not recognize the legitimacy of the results, reports Reuters. The U.S. threatened a new round of sanctions, and the regional governments represented by the Lima group said they would seek to financially isolate the Venezuelan government, reports the Miami Herald. Allies including Cuba and Bolivia sent congratulations. 

The Guardian quotes WOLA's Geoff Ramsey who predicts sanctions against Venezuela's oil sector in the near future.

In the wake of the disastrous election campaign, the two main opposition coalitions have promised to unite, reports the Associated Press. But Maduro's most significant enemy by now is the country's crushing economic crisis, according to Bloomberg.

The New York Times Español opinion section has snippets from hardships on the ground from Venezuelans battling hunger and lack of medicines.

News Briefs

  • Anti-mutiny police attacked a protest of university students on Saturday night, wounding four and violating the terms of an just started national dialogue, reports Confidencial. On Friday the Episcopal Conference, which is mediating talks between the government and protesters, announced a "48 hour truce," in which the government committed to retire police to barracks and call off armed sympathizers, reports Confidencial separately. The rector of the Universidad Naional Agragria, Telémaco Talavera, criticized the attack on the institution's students, despite being a prominent government supporter.
  • The attack comes in the midst of a visit from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which visited the site of the attack on Saturday, reports Confidencial. The fifteen person mission received over 3,000 citizen denunciations over the past few days, the visit is aimed at investigating the repression of protesters against the government starting in April, reports La Prensa. The mission also visited health and detention centers as part of its investigation, reports El Nuevo Diario. In Masaya over 100 victims and relatives gave testimony to the IACHR, reports Confidencial.
  • There are still six people unaccounted for, after the corpse of one missing student was accounted for last week, reports Confidencial.
  • On Friday the national dialogue talks continued for eight hours, behind closed doors. The government was represented by foreign minister Denis Moncada. The IACHR mission was also present on Friday, and protest representatives reproached government officials for refusing protesters medical attention at health centers, reports Confidencial.
  • Leftist presidential candidate Gustavo Petro closed his campaign yesterday with accusations of potential electoral fraud in May 27's vote, reports EFE. The allegation were made in reference to the software which will be used, which he said an electoral observers were unable to monitor.
  • The newly active Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) temporarily suspended an extradition process involving FARC leader "Jesús Santrich," last week, reports RCN. The decision was heavily criticized by the government, opponents, and even sectors within the JEP, reports La Silla Vacía.
  • La Silla Vacía compares the presidential candidates' stances on key issues, such as the peace accord-mandated crop-substitution program for coca growers.
  • A 40-year-old plane leased by Cubana de Aviación crashed and killed 110 people on Friday, is a demonstration of the national airline's crisis, affected by economic mismanagement and the U.S. embargo, reports the New York Times. The Mexican charter company which owned the plane has been the subject of two serious complaints in the past decade, reports the Associated Press.
  • Mexican presidential candidates debated yesterday, but each promised to demand more respect from the U.S. Trump administration, while emphasizing the importance of a good relationship with the U.S. reports the Washington Post. Front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador's opponents sought to paint him as an out of touch old-school politician, while he portrayed the other candidates as members of a corrupt elite. AMLO, who is significantly in the lead, sought to deflect hard questions, according to Reuters, and stayed in good humor despite barbs from his opponents aimed at riling his temper.
  • Mexico's national electoral institute (INE) hired a cyber security company affiliated with billionaire Carlos Slim to protect the country's voting system for the July 1 presidential election. For some, the decision is polemic given Slim's confrontation with AMLO, reports Forbes.
  • In a passionate letter published in Le Monde last week, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defended his candidacy in October's elections. "I am a candidate in order to give dignity back to the poor and outcast, guarantee their rights and give them hope of a better life," he wrote, describing obstacles he overcame over the course of his political career. Lula is currently in jail on a corruption conviction, that would likely disqualify his candidacy. He cannot however be preemptively barred from running said the Supreme Court today, he must be allowed to present his candidacy. Lula continues to lead in polls for the presidential elections.
  • Candidates must be registered by Aug. 15, and the field is still wide open. Americas Quarterly reviews the situation as is, including the probability that right-wing firebrand Jair Bolsonaro will pass to a second round, despite (or because of?) his constant stream of troubling commentary.
  • Former president Dilma Rousseff told the BBC that Lula would have a stabilizing effect on democracy if he could run.
  • Major international oil companies are flocking to the region, seduced by liberalized energy markets in Brazil and Mexico, reports the Wall Street Journal.
El Salvador
  • Pope Francis announced on Saturday that Oscar Romero, who was the archbishop of San Salvador, will be canonized in October, reports EFE.
  • El Salvador Perspectives has the details of an informal community's eviction in San Salvador. " ... Their story is an all too familiar one of the powerlessness of the poor against the plans of the rich and powerful, their lawyers and a compliant judicial system."

Friday, May 18, 2018

Riot in Venezuela's Helicoide prison (May 17, 2018)

  • Inmates at an infamous Venezuela intelligence agency run prison in Caracas, el Helicoide, rioted yesterday. Videos posted on social media and reports from people in contact with inmates, who include political prisoners, said they had taken control of the facility yesterday afternoon, reports the Guardian. The standoff with security forces outside the prison continued today, reports Efecto Cocuyo. The group includes a former mayor, Daniel Ceballos, and U.S. citizen Joshua Holt. The prisoners are demanding their cases be reviewed and judicial processes carried out, the so-called Plan Cayapa. They are also calling on Venezuelan authorities to permit the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference to enter the prison and guarantee inmates' human rights. Police and Sebin agents have surrounded the prison, and family members of the inmates are demanding information as to their wellbeing, reports Efecto Cocuyo separately.
  • Maduro called for dialogue with Washington yesterday, along the lines of talks planned between the U.S. and North Korea, reports AFP.
  • Opposition candidate Henri Falcón is not only facing off against Maduro in this weekend's upcoming election, he is also challenging the main opposition coalition's call to boycott the vote, widely considered to lack basic guarantees of fairness, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • In her last act as Guatemalan head prosecutor, Thelma Aldana, revealed new details of an investigation into alleged illicit campaign funding involving the ruling party and President Jimmy Morales. She said the evidence, still being processed, was enough to again seek to have Morales' presidential immunity from prosecution lifted, reports the Associated Press. The new head prosecutor, chosen this month by Morales from a nominating committee short-list, will have to choose whether to pursue the case or not. The case is a joint investigation with the U.N. backed anti-corruption commission the CICIG. The case involves about $2 million in unreported campaign donations by a group of businesspeople, while Morales was party secretary-general. The public ministry and the CICIG revealed the names of businesspeople involved in the scheme, who have been cited to an audience scheduled to start next month, reports Prensa Libre. Two attempts to lift Morales' immunity last year were not approved by lawmakers. This is the third phase of this case, explains InSight Crime, which summarizes the investigation since August of last year.
  • Incoming attorney general María Consuelo Porras swears in today, and will have to rapidly determine how to continue the case against Morales and the ruling FCN party. InSight Crime says how she deals with this and other politically sensitive issues will be a rapid litmus test for the relatively unknown Porras.
  • The changeover and new accusations come as the CICIG is in battle with the Morales administration -- which has found an unlikely Washington ally in U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, reports the Guardian. (See last Friday's briefs and May 7's post.)
  • Along with the U.S., Guatemala moved its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem this week. Morales, along with family and a committee of 44 lawmakers and government officials flew to Israel in a private plane owned by U.S. magnate and major Trump donor, Sheldon Adelson, reports Nómada.
  • The first session of a national dialogue in Nicaragua, yesterday, ended in reproaches between the government and student protesters, reports EFE. President Daniel Ortega and his wife, first lady Rosario Murillo, attended the session in at the Our Lady of Fatima Seminary in Managua, where university students expressed anger at repression that killed nearly 60 people over two weeks in April. El Confidencial lists some impacting moments, such as students calling out the names of those killed. Carlos Chamorro analyzed the issue on his television show, Esta Noche.
  • Continued clashes killed at least three protesters on Tuesday in Matagalpa, reports el Confidencial.
  • Ecuador's government under former President Rafael Correa spent at least $5 million on a secret intelligence budget to protect WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who sought refuge in the country's London embassy, reports the Guardian.
  • Correa called the current Ecuadorean government's policy of isolating Assange in the embassy a form of torture in an interview with the Intercept. He also called the Guardian's piece "sensationalistic."
  • In a New York Times op-ed I discuss abortion bills under consideration in Argentina's Congress and how they are related to Ni Una Menos activism against femicides.
Today's briefing is abbreviated due to travel.  Latin America Daily Briefing

Venezuelans vote Sunday - sort of (May 18, 2018)

Venezuelan head to the polls Sunday -- at least some of them. President Nicolás Maduro is expected to win another term in an exercise criticized for lack of electoral guarantees. Though some polls show opposition candidate Henri Falcón in the lead, "the government’s willingness and capacity to manipulate the voting process and results to its own advantage" and a call by the country's main opposition parties to boycott the vote makes a Maduro win likely, explains Geoff Ramsey in a helpful Q&A at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.

Obstacles to a free election have been in place for months, and include the barring of principal opposition parties and leaders from participating. Lack of electoral guarantees include lack of electoral software auditing, a rushed registration period, and lack of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting, notes Ramsey. The election date was set hastily, and gave the opposition little time to organize primaries, notes the International Crisis Group.

As Human Rights Watch's Tamara Taraciuk and Provea's Rafael Uzcátegui noted in a recent New York Times Español op-ed, the Maduro administration has called for citizens to use a sort of social security card when voting, provoking many to fear their access to scarce supplies could be cut short.

There is also about 20 percent of the population that supports the government, notes Reuters.

Whether to vote or not has been a subject of heated debate among those who oppose the government. For Javier Corrales, "The correct question to ask is not whether voting is ideal — it certainly is not. We should be asking whether voting is better than doing nothing," he writes in a New York Times op-ed arguing in favor of participating, despite the massive irregularities. "The more the opposition votes, the more the regime will be forced to either cheat on Election Day or acknowledge publicly its electoral weaknesses, both of which will weaken Mr. Maduro within his own movement."

On the other side, in another New York Times Español op-ed, Elizabeth Núñez argues that participating legitimizes an illegitimate vote

Falcón's long-shot candidacy has injected a measure of debate into the electoral process, though the boycott-favoring opposition parties say his candidacy lends a veneer of legitimacy to a sham vote, notes the New York Times. And many suspect that even if he somehow wins, he won't be allowed to assume office, notes the Associated Press.

The U.S., the E.U. and several Latin American countries have said they will not recognize the results. This will likely lead to more sanctions in the short-term and further isolation of Venezuela, said international expert Mariano Alba in an interview with Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Earlier this week the E.U. foreign policy chief suggested that Cuba could help broker dialogue, reports Reuters.

The election takes place in a country that "is fast becoming a failed state," reports the Washington Post. "Armed gangs and Colombian guerrilla groups are operating unchecked on Venezuela’s borders. Pro-government militias are terrorizing urban areas, while police stand accused of extrajudicial killings. Four of the 10 most dangerous cities in the world are now in Venezuela, according to a 2017 study by the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank that studies violence."

According to the Wall Street Journal, the military has become a pressure cooker of discontent and the Achilles' Heel of the government. But conspirators have been thwarted by intelligence operations and doubts whether the opposition can be counted on for support, according to the piece.

Moving forward, a negotiated transition of some sort is the likely path out of the crisis, recent high-profile calls for a military coup notwithstanding. David Smilde notes that there is little guarantee that a military intervention would lead to more democracy. WOLA calls for meaningful dialogue between the government and opposition. "This is partly because we support solutions that fully restore the rights of Venezuela’s people while avoiding bloodshed. But it is also because we are realistic about the current power dynamics in the country. We know that any meaningful solution will have to be a negotiated one, as political elites in Venezuela are unlikely to cede power without some kind of guarantees—however difficult these may be."

  • Relatives of political prisoners in the Helicoide prison, which was taken by inmates on Wednesday, said they lost contact yesterday afternoon, when authorities supposedly recovered control of the facility, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Confusion remains over what is happening in the prison and the fate of prisoners, including U.S. citizen Joshua Holt, reports the Miami Herald.
News Briefs

  • The U.S. and Mexico are exploring an agreement that would force asylum seekers to petition Mexico for refuge rather than the U.S. The "safe third country" agreement would allow U.S. authorities to legally turn away asylum seekers who cross Mexico to reach the U.S., reports the New York Times. But critics say Mexico's asylum system is already overwhelmed, and would be ill-equipped to deal with the sudden surge in petitions that would result from such an agreement. The carrot for Mexican officials would be exemption from steel and aluminum tariffs and flexibility with NACLA negotiations reports Apro
  • Independent candidate Margarita Zavala announced her withdrawal from the presidential race earlier this week, potentially boosting the odds for second-place runner Ricardo Anaya, reports the Wall Street Journal. The former first lady said she is open to discussions with Anaya as well as the lagging PRI candidate, José Antonio Meade, reports Animal Político.
  • Frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador extended his lead to 19 percentage points in May, reports Reuters.
  • A mayoral candidate for the Juntos Haremos Historia coalition was kidnapped in her Michoacán state municipality yesterday, reports Animal Político.
  •  Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh) is suing a Dutch development bank in relation to the controversial Agua Zarca dam project. The family of assassinated Copinh leader Berta Cáceres is joining the organization's suit, which alleges the FMO failed to observe the human rights of local people affected by the project and disregarded warnings about human rights violations perpetrated in the area, and raised by Cáceres before her death in 2016, reports the Guardian.
  • Right-wing candidate Ivan Duque is in the lead for Colombia's upcoming presidential election. Thirty-five percent of voters said they planned to back him in the most recent poll, reports Reuters.
  • Thirty-four Chilean bishops have offered to resign in the wake of a sexual-abuse cover up scandal. It is not clear whether Pope Francis will accept some or all of the resignations, reports Reuters.
  • Several Latin American countries have rushed to follow the U.S. lead to open Jerusalem embassies. Though Paraguay, Honduras and Guatemala all have large evangelical Christian populations and long-standing ties to Israel, the reason is more likely related to currying U.S. favor, writes Rick Noack in the  Washington Post.
Soap operas
  • A mostly white cast on a soap opera set in the Brazilian state of Bahia, where most of the population identifies as black or mixed race has raised hackles. The national Labour Prosecution Service issued a recommendation to O Globo to review the cast, reports the Guardian.