Thursday, September 21, 2017

Guatemalans demand Morales', lawmakers' resignation (Sept. 21, 2017)

Thousands of Guatemalans protested yesterday against government impunity, demanding the resignation of President Jimmy Morales, the 107 lawmakers who voted to relax anti-corruption legislation last week, and in favor of the fight against impunity, reports El Periódico. It's the latest move in an ongoing struggle between anti-impunity efforts --  led by the Public Ministry and the U.N.'s anti-corruption commission -- and entrenched structural corruption in the political elite. Yesterday's protests deepened national turmoil, but also potentially pointed to how "a wave of domestic pressure could shape the outcome," according to InSight Crime.

"Guatemala needs another plaza, because nobody else fits in this one," tweeted El Faro journalist Carlos Dada. Unarmed contingents of National Civil Police officers were deployed outside various public buildings, including the Government Ministry and the National Palace of Culture to provide security, reports EFE.

Police estimates of participants range from 50 to 125 thousand, reports Nómada -- the largest outpouring since protests in 2015 led to the ouster of then President Otto Pérez Molina, charged with leading a massive customs graft scheme. Organized by Justicia Ya and the Asociación de Estudiantes Universitarios (AEU) de la Usac, yesterday's national strike should be considered a success, according to Nómada, which notes that Morales' support among legislators is waning.

Today lawmakers will vote to resume the discussion over whether to lift Morales' immunity from prosecution -- in relation to allegations of campaign finance irregularities -- after voting last week to protect him, reports Nómada.

Public pressure is mounting, and "if sustained, protests could even lead to the toppling of Morales, much like his predecessor," argues InSight. Anti-government protests have been held almost daily since Sept. 15, notes TeleSur.

Members of several organizations of civil society presented a request for a preliminary trial against lawmakers that voted for polemic reforms to the criminal code, potentially shielding themselves for jail sentences for corruption, reports El Periódico. (See Sept. 12's post.)

And this week several key cabinet members resigned, further deepening the political crisis. (See yesterday's briefs.)

What happens now will "determine, in good measure, whether Guatemala advances towards democracy and transparency or regresses to authoritarianism and impunity," argues Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, Nómada's editor, in a New York Times Español op-ed. The country is in the midst of a battle between the interests of mafias representing the military, politicians, much of the media and some big businesses, up against the citizens battling corruption and impunity through organizations of civil society, universities, the private sector and other media outlets. "The problem is that both sides no longer fit together on the street. Or the corrupt mafias go to jail, or they will end up imposing themselves and jailing those of us who fight against corruption."

Morales congratulated protesters on their pacific demonstration, but ignored the calls for his resignation, reports El Periódico separately. He called for a dialogue to prioritize an agenda of national interests.

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Collapsed Mexican school symbol of earthquake tragedy

The tragic earthquake in Mexico this week has brought out citizen volunteers from all walks of life -- pulling victims from the rubble, distributing supplies, and helping organize shelters and assistance, reports Animal Político. The spirit of solidarity is transcending Mexico’s usually rigid class divisions, according to the Washington Post. Telecom companies enabled free text messaging and provided Internet service at points across the city. Private car services, as well as public buses and subways, offered free rides.

"Disasters bring out the best in Mexicans," according to the Economist. "Within minutes, ordinary people clutching buckets to collect rubble dashed to help. Thousands laboured alongside rescue workers. They directed traffic and donated food and water. Though in smaller towns there were fears of looting, Mexicans showed that they are not the “bad hombres” of Mr Trump’s imagination."

"Nothing provokes so much aging in such a short time as an earthquake," writes Carlos Manuel Álvarez in a New York Times Español op-ed detailing his experience in Mexico City helping rescue efforts in his neighborhood. "The convulsion is sudden, it comes to the city from the mouth of the stomach."

In the midst of so much destruction, the story of the Enrique Rebsámen school which collapsed and killed at least 30 children, has become a painful symbol of the disaster. Rescue workers appear to have located a girl buried in rubble but still alive, reports the New York Times. "The search for the girl known as Frida Sofia became the top priority at the school, and maybe for all of Mexico," reports the Washington Post. But hope is starting to fade, reports the Wall Street JournalAnimal Político details the focused work of marines and volunteers in the area. 

Mexico City is a particularly bad place to be in an earthquake, because it sits on a former lake bed and near an array of tectonic plates that crash into each other. The consistency of the soft soil amplifies tremors, explains the Wall Street Journal. Most of the affected buildings, about 38 in the capital collapsed, were located in areas of the former lakebed. Areas of the city and surrounding suburbs located on bedrock fared much better. Shorter, older structures -- built before Mexico's dramatically improved building codes in the wake of the 1985 earthquake -- were also more affected. That the destruction was far less than in 1985 is a small consolation, pointing to the success of the building code measures instituted since, notes the Economist.

Mexico itself is prone to strong earthquakes because it is in a so-called subduction zone, notes the New York Times in a piece that explains the term. The Guardian delves even deeper into earthquake science and compares those caused by ruptures within tectonic plates (like this one) and those that result from clashes between tectonic plates.

The New York Times has a list of organizations for those looking to make donations. The Topos, a volunteer force renowned around the world for helping to rescue quake victims. They were founded in the wake of the 1985 earthquake, and are in full force helping in Mexico City, reports the Wall Street Journal. They use picks, shovels and small drills to tunnel into rubble, eschewing heavy machinery that could kill survivors.

As of yesterday the official death toll stood at 230, reports the Guardian.

News Briefs
  • Hurricane María crossed the Virgin Islands as a Category 5 storm, slammed into Puerto Rico where it left all residents without electricity, and is now predicted to pass north of the Dominican Republic, though downgraded to a Category 2, reports the New York Times. Relief agencies reached Dominica yesterday, where officials estimated at least 70 percent of the island's structures sustained storm damage, reports the Washington Post. (See Tuesday's post and yesterday's briefs.)
  • Trump's "rhetorical attacks and financial sanctions against the Venezuelan government suggest a shift toward coercive diplomacy aimed at achieving regime change, but U.S. power faces significant limits in the conflict-ridden country," according to Michael McCarthy at the Aula Blog. "While the United States, Europeans, and Latin Americans are operating in loose formation – with Washington ratcheting up pressure while everyone else scrambles for negotiations – China and Russia are sticking to their strategic game.  As Maduro’s main financial backers, they are betting talks can stabilize the situation bit by bit.  They may kick in some more financial assistance if and when Maduro restores some stability by holding peaceful regional elections, delivering on the dialogue, and making large upcoming debt payments.  But while there is some basis for the geopolitical schadenfreude of Beijing and Moscow making it harder for Washington in Caracas, there are also signs that both have buyer’s remorse.  While they prefer Maduro stay afloat, they seem unlikely to extend loans that help stabilize the economy unconditionally."
  • Brazil's anti-corruption crusade is at a turning point. Former Attorney General Rodrigo Janot's term ended last weekend, and his parting shot was accusing President Michel Temer of leading a criminal corruption gang within the government. "The prosecutor has deepened suspicions about the president’s conduct while leaving room for doubt. People who feel threatened by the broader Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption probes are seizing on what they claim are weaknesses in Mr Janot’s case to call into question the entire process. Now Brazilians wonder whether Mr Janot’s successor, Raquel Dodge (pronounced “dodgy” in Brazil), will pursue it with the same zeal," reports the Economist.
  • A majority of Brazil’s Supreme Court rejected a request by Temer's lawyers to suspend the criminal charges filed against him, but the decision may actually favor the president by leading to a swift resolution, according to Bloomberg.
  • Thousands of Haitian protesters demanded the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse after a national budget proposal viewed as unfavorable for the country's poorest, reports AFP.
  • Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández told Reuters that the Trump administration’s effort to combat violence and poverty in Central America will not mean greater militarization in his country.
  • A union representing more than half of Avianca's pilots declared a 60 strike, leading the Colombian airline to cancel nearly a hundred flights so far, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Over 200 dead in Mexican earthquake (Sept. 20, 2017)

At least 217 people were killed in a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that rocked Mexico, flattening buildings in the capital. The death toll was expected to continue rising as emergency crews and citizens attempted to rescue people from the rubble. 

The powerful earthquake hit shortly after noon yesterday, on the anniversary of a 1985 quake that devastated Mexico City and killed 5,000 people, reports the Guardian. It was the second large earthquake to hit the country in two weeks, and appeared to have triggered an eruption of Mexico’s Popocatépetl volcano.

Mexico City’s mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, said buildings collapsed at 44 different locations in the capital, with many high rises swaying after the quake, reports the New York Times. The New York Times has a map and photos of the destruction.


Citizens worked throughout the night, often without light, and with their bare hands attempting to rescue people from the rubble, reports the Washington Post. The plight of a collapsed school where over 20 children were killed has particularly horrified people.

Yesterday, President Enrique Peña Nieto urged calm in a video message, saying "the priority at this moment is to keep rescuing people who are still trapped and to give medical attention to the injured people."

Mexico is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes, and the one in 1985 wound up sparking major political change, reports the Washington Post separately. "Many people were incensed by the lackluster response of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and real political opposition formed to challenge Mexico's entrenched one-party system, ultimately leading to the PRI's ouster in 2000."

News Briefs
  • U.S. President Donald Trump used his address to the U.N. General Assembly to threaten Venezuela with "further action" if the government "persists on its path to impose authoritarian rule," reports the Guardian. However he stopped short of repeating threats of a military operation, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Russia will supply around 600,000 tonnes of wheat to Venezuela over the next year, reports Reuters.
  • Caribbean leaders appealed to international organizations to provide funding to help recover from climate-change wrought disasters in their region. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres convened a special session yesterday, in which leaders called for the General Assembly to rethink humanitarian aid. "They asserted that because climate change is fueling more intense storms, vulnerable countries must have a better way to recover than to beg for money with each new devastation," reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's post.)
  • "While it doesn’t make for catchy headlines, the reality is that as the Caribbean has been hit by stronger and stronger storms in recent decades, while state capacity to respond to natural disasters has diminished due to increased levels of debt, reduced government revenue and lower development aid. This has led to skyrocketing rates of food insecurity, poverty, and unemployment. On their own, the Caribbean cannot adapt fast enough to face the relentless destruction brought about when climate change is thrown into the mix," argues Kevin Edmonds in NACLA, criticizing international coverage of Irma's aftermath in the Caribbean.
  • Cuba is postponing municipal elections -- originally scheduled for October -- by a month due to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma, reports Reuters. It was not immediately clear whether yesterday's announcement would also have the effect of delaying provincial and national elections. President Raúl Castro has promised to pass on the mantle of presidency next year, the first time in 40 years that the country is led by a non-Castro. (See Feb. 22's briefs.)
  • At least 6 people were killed by Hurricane María in Dominica, and Puerto Rico is bracing for a direct hit by the Category 5 storm, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Guatemalans are gearing up for a national strike today, organized against government impunity by #JusticiaYa. Organizers have emphasized the protest is apolitical and asked demonstrators to remain peaceful, reports El Periódico. Hundreds of protesters were already gathering this morning, reports Prensa Libre.
  • In the midst of an ongoing political crisis, three cabinet ministers resigned, saying they have been unable to carry out their programs, reports El Periódico. One of the three, Francisco Rivas Lara, the Ministro de Gobernación, is considered a key ally of the CICIG and the Public Ministry, who are pitted against President Jimmy Morales, reports Plaza Pública. Rivas remained in the government after Morales' failed attempt to kick out U.N. anti-corruption commission head Iván Velásquez three weeks ago, in part at the request of civil society organizations who sought to ensure guarantees for protests, according to Plaza Pública.
  • Speaking at the U.N. yesterday, Morales pledged the firmest intention to strengthen and support the International Commission against Impunity of Guatemala (CICIG), while stressing that no institution should interfere in the country’s administration of justice.
  • A Brazilian federal judge approved "conversion therapy" for gay people, a widely discredited treatment aimed at "curing" homosexuals. Waldemar de Carvalho's decision overruled a 1999 decision by the Federal Council of Psychology that forbade psychologists from offering such "treatment," reports the Guardian. The judge  backed a psychologist who had her licence revoked for offering so-called "conversion therapy," reports the BBC. The decision provoked widespread backlash and fears of a conservative turn against progressive social policies.
  • A huge nature reserve in Brazil's Amazon rainforest that the government wants to open to foreign mining companies already suffers from illegal mining activity, according to Greenpeace. Investigators flying over the Renca reserve found at least 14 illegal mines and eight clandestine landing strips used by miners, reports the AFP.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales is pushing ahead with a polemic road project through the protected Tipnis reserve, expected to have grave repercussions for the environment and indigenous groups that live there. Critics say the road serves the interests of coca cultivators, and that the president is courting their support ahead of an attempt to run for office for a fourth term, argues Raúl Peñarada U in a New York Times Español op-ed. The project would be destructive for the fresh water system in Bolivia, as well as for the significant biodiversity in the area. (See Sept. 11's briefs.) Activists are now focusing on attempting to shift the project to circumvent the national park in the east, reducing the potential devastation. 
  • The U.S. is contemplating closing its Havana embassy in the wake of mysterious "attacks" on personnel (see Monday's briefs), but such a move makes little diplomatic sense and would "seriously damage U.S. interests," argues William M. LeoGrande in the Huffington Post. Experts don't believe the Cuban government is responsible for the sonic incidents that seem to have harmed U.S. and Canadian staff. "Regardless, closing the U.S. embassy in Havana would be a self-inflicted wound, reversing not just Obama’s policy, but the policies of the previous six presidents, three of them Republicans, all of whom saw the value in maintaining the U.S. diplomatic mission that President Jimmy Carter established in 1977 as an Interests Section (one step short of a full-fledged embassy)."
  • The United States and Cuba held their sixth Bilateral Commission meeting — the first of the Trump presidency. The Cuban delegation complained that the meeting occurred against the backdrop of a "reversal" in Cuba-U.S. relations. It also protested the U.S. president's “the disrespectful, unacceptable and meddling statements" at the U.N., reports the Miami Herald.
  • The ongoing drama between Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno and his predecessor, Rafael Correa, continues. Moreno accused his former boss of planting a hidden video camera in his office so that he could spy on him remotely, reports the Associated Press.
  • An average of one person per day died in detention or in encounters with security forces in Buenos Aires province last year, according to report by a local organization. The Comisión Provincial por la Memoria (CPM) said at least 20 percent of the 109 deaths from police firearms were minors, reports La Nación.
  • Climate change is also affecting farmers in Argentina, where increased rainfall in some areas and droughts in others are wrecking agricultural output, reports Bloomberg.
  • Confident of a win in next month's mid-term elections, the Argentine government is preparing bills aimed at enticing investment, including cutting subsidies and reforming the fiscal and tax systems, reports Bloomberg.
  • Uruguay announced a change to its legal marijuana market, in response to banking obstacles created by international financial laws prohibiting money tied to the drug. Pharmacies selling the product have faced threats to have their accounts shut down. So instead Uruguay will set up shops to sell marijuana for cash, reports the Associated Press.
  • Peru’s opposition Popular Force party opened a disciplinary investigation against Kenji Fujimori, son of jailed former dictator Alberto Fujimori, reports EFE. The probe was initiated to address Kenji Fujimori’s open defiance of the party’s decisions, said Popular Force officials. The younger Fujimori is seeking a pardon for his father, who  has been serving a 25-year jail sentence for crimes against humanity.
  • Mexican leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who leads the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party, is the front-runner ahead of next year’s presidential election, according to a newspaper poll published on Monday, reports Reuters.
  • A new poll found that former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva remains strongly in the lead for next year's presidential elections, with a projected 32 percent of the vote, compared to just under 20 percent for his nearest rival, the right-wing dictatorship apologist Jair Bolsonaro, reports AFP.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

María slams Caribbean, will hinder recovery from Irma (Sept. 19, 2017)

Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica yesterday. The storm, which went from a Category 1 to a 5 in just one day, caused devastating and "mind boggling," according to Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, who communicated his experience live on Facebook. "So far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with," he wrote, after detailing how the winds tore off the roof of his residence, reports the Guardian. There was no official news of deaths yet. The immediate focus today is on rescuing people Skerrit said.

The arrival of María so soon after Hurricane Irma already devastated the region could complicate disaster recovery and much needed aid, reports the New York Times. María was expected to hit the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico today, islands still working to restore services and even food supplies, reports the Guardian separately. Guadeloupe, which is serving as a base for relief operations and a sanctuary for St Martin refugees is also is also in the storms path, notes the New York Times in a separate piece. The constant onslaught also sparks resistance among residents who are forced to evacuate and prepare for disaster repeatedly. In other cases, preparations for Irma are serving residents now in Maria's path.

The number of storms in the Caribbean this year is not unheard of, but is higher than average so far this year. A typical season has 12 named storms, six of which become hurricanes, with three of those becoming major hurricanes. So far this season, which is more than halfway through, there have been 13 named storms, including seven hurricanes, four which have been major, according to the NYT.

Irma killed nearly 50 people two weeks ago, and destroyed thousands of homes and livelihoods. In all, rebuilding the ruins in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, will cost nearly $13bn, according to the Centre for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction Technology in Germany. As these storms become increasingly likely, rebuilding will have to take such disasters into account -- especially considering that tourism is the economic lifeblood of the region, argues the Economist.

Several factors play against such preparedness, writes Sarah Maslin: weather patterns are changing more quickly than expected, short-term thinking often encourages economic growth over sustainability, and entrenched poverty in the region's countries. Donors are quick to alleviate immediate disasters, but often fail to help prepare for them in advance, she notes. 

And when it comes to climate change, it's always hard to pin responsibility on any one factor: "Rich countries have resisted the idea that they bear unique responsibility for climate change and should pay compensation to countries that suffer from it. Besides, it is hard to figure out what part of the damage from bad weather comes from global warming, what nature would have done anyway and how much responsibility developing countries bear for poor planning and shoddy construction."

News Briefs
  • NAFTA discussions are moving forward at "warp speed," it's just not very clear where they're going and whether they'll get there in time, said Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative. The Trump administration has promised to substantially change the agreement, which governs most of North America's economy, in record time. Elections next year could complicate legislative approval in all three countries, so negotiators are aiming to have a new agreement by the end of the year. But some of the more ambitious proposals, such as setting new requirements for the use of American-made goods and lowering barriers to exporting American agricultural products are meeting with resistance from Mexico and Canada, reports the New York Times. And a new U.S. proposal requiring countries to reaffirm the pact every five years (a "sunset clause") could complicate long-term planning for businesses.
  • Trump said that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is responsible for the country's "growing crisis” and that the U.S. was ready to take further action to ensure democracy was restored in the Latin American nation, reports Politico. The U.S. President spoke at a dinner with Latin American presidents, held on the sidelines of this week's U.N. General Assembly meeting. Last night's dinner included President Michel Temer of Brazil, President Jose Manuel Santos of Colombia, President Juan Carlos Varela of Panama and Vice President Gabriela Michetti of Argentina, along with other officials and diplomats from the region. (See yesterday's post.) Trump is expected to call out Venezuela in his address to the U.N. today, reports the Associated Press.
  • Venezuela’s opposition blamed the government for the death of a sick activist in detention, saying he was framed and then denied medical help, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's post.)
  • A U.S. security expert revived allegations that a Venezuela-owned company in Nicaragua may have laundered money for Colombia's demobilizing FARC guerrillas in testimony before the US Senate, reports InSight Crime. Douglas Farah, the president of the national security consulting firm IBI Consultants, pointed to ALBA Petróleos and Albanisa, two subsidiaries of Venezuela's state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA), which operate in El Salvador and Nicaragua, respectively as potential money laundering vehicles for the FARC. The allegations are not new, notes InSight, which spoke with Farah about the allegations. "One of the clearest indicators [of illicit activity] is when things make no economic sense," Farah told InSight Crime. "What we saw in Nicaragua was this company [Albanisa] suddenly flushed with cash and setting up a whole host of companies overnight, but the purpose of these activities can't be generating profit; it is money laundering. Money laundering doesn't require investment to make profit, just to move large amounts of money though the system," Farah told InSight.
  • Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales will also address the U.N. General Assembly today, and is expected to mention the U.N. backed anti-corruption commission that has accused him of involvement in illicit campaign financing, reports El Periódico. (See yesterday's briefs.) Government sources say Morales will not meet with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. Morales is attempting to oust CICIG head Iván Velásquez, who Guterres has supported.
  • Raquel Dodge swore in as Brazil's new prosecutor general, assuming office just after her predecessor accused President Michel Temer and the country's two previous presidents of commanding criminal networks. "Now, the entire nation will be watching to see whether Ms. Dodge pushes forward with the judiciary’s crackdown on political corruption, or dials back the pressure in the interest of political stability," reports the New York Times.
  • U.S. diplomat William R. Brownfield is stepping down from the State Department after 40 years in foreign service focused on Latin America, reports the Washington Post. The departure comes at a poor moment for U.S. counter-narcotics efforts abroad, and as a cocaine production surge in Colombia affects relations with the U.S. "Colombia’s drug-production relapse has clearly weighed on Brownfield, and he said whoever succeeds him will have to cope with both a flood of methamphetamine and opioid trafficking from Mexico as well as the latest new surge of South American cocaine," reports the Washington Post.
  • A Colombian court sentenced 32 former paramilitary leaders for crimes committed under the banner of the former Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC. The case shows "that justice can be achieved under special frameworks created by peace agreements between the government and armed groups, even if it involves lengthy and complicated judicial proceedings" reports InSight Crime. The cases examined more than 250 homicides, over 320 incidents of forced disappearances, 213 incidents of forced displacement, as well as incidents of illegal recruitment and gender-based violence -- all committed between 1999 and 2006.
  • Bolivian lawmakers from the ruling MST party have asked the country's Constitutional Court to allow President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term, despite a referendum last year in which citizens rejected changing the constitution to remove presidential term limits, reports the BBC.
  • Venezuela's crime surge is caused, in part, by institutional weakness and disruption caused by: a surge in oil income, a revolutionary form of governance, and militarized policing, argues David Smilde in the latest issue of NACLA. In the same issue, Rebecca Hanson moderated a round-table discussion that pointed to militarized policing initiatives such as the Operación Liberación del Pueblo as a motor of violence in the current context. (See Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights for those pieces.)
  • Health and environmental concerns are pushing textile artists around the world back towards natural dyes. A New York Times feature looks at the Mexican village of Teotitlán del Valle a historical weaving center where some families are working to preserve traditional dying methods.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Venezuelan gov't, opposition talking about negotiations (Sept. 18, 2017)

Venezuela's government and opposition coalition are having pre-negotiation discussions on several key issues, though the talks are flying well beneath the radar for now, reports Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights

Both sides sent delegations to Santo Domingo to start discussing a negotiated solution to the country's political crisis, reports Reuters. Though President Nicolás Maduro predicted the foreign mediated efforts would soon yield an agreement, the opposition MUD coalition stressed that the talks were only "exploratory" and would not proceed without firm guarantees of democratic change. After failed negotiations last year, the opposition is seeking "iron clad" guarantees this time around, including a date for next year's presidential election, freedom for jailed political activists, and respect for the opposition-led National Assembly.

Information is limited because the opposition paid heavy political costs for failed dialogue processes in 2014 and 2016, notes Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. But the MUD's demands also include guarantees for a fair electoral process for next year's presidential elections. And they stated support for any eventual agreement to be approved by popular referendum.

Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina said Mexico, Chile, Bolivia and Nicaragua would join a new round of talks on Sept. 27, with two other countries to be defined. The Democratic Unity coalition said on Saturday one of those was Paraguay. Mexico and Chile have been critical of the government, while Bolivia and Nicaragua are staunch allies, notes Reuters.

It's not clear if the government and opposition delegates spoke face-to-face or exchanged messages through Medina and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, reports the Associated Press.

This weekend U.N. Secretary General António Guterres congratulated Medina for his leadership on the issue, reports EFE.

Unlike on previous occasions, the Maduro government might be pressured into participating in good faith by the threat of potential European Union sanctions, notes Ramsey.

On Sunday, Maduro claimed there have been hundreds of meetings between the government and opposition leaders, saying key leaders including National Assembly President Julio Borges, MUD Secretary General Henry Ramos Allup, Leopoldo López (who is still under house arrest), reports Efecto Cocuyo. He said he opened the possibility of incorporating between 50 and 100 opposition representatives to the Constituent Assembly, an offer eventually rejected by the opposition.

López, who is prohibited from speaking to the media, denied the meetings vía Twitter, but said he favored a negotiated solution, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Separately, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has appointed three international experts to assess whether the situation in Venezuela should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for consideration. Information gathering will be supervised by former ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo. The process will include public hearings to be conducted at OAS headquarters and information submitted by more than 50 organizations that have been conducting research and/or investigating circumstances of the crisis in Venezuela. The information obtained will contribute to a final report, to be reviewed by the independent panel for recommendation to the Secretary General. The OAS cannot institutionally send a case to the ICC, but any one of its 28 member states can, reports EFE. In the 15 years the ICC has functioned, no country has denounced another yet, as permitted by the Rome Statute.

Trump is reportedly having a LatAm dinner in Trump Tower tonight, ahead of this week's United Nations General Assembly meeting. The presidents of Brazil and Colombia will be present, and Venezuela's crisis is one of the main topics on the agenda, reports El País.

Opposition party Primero Justicia denounced that a jailed official died under arrest with the Sebin, after not being permitted access to medical attention, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Shortages in Venezuela have eased somewhat, but price-controlled basic items remain unobtainable, and the prices for the rest remain out of reach for most people, reports Bloomberg.

News Briefs
  • Social protests in Guatemala forced legislators to backtrack on an ill-advised attempt to shield themselves from potential corruption sentences on Friday, reports El País. Lawmakers unanimously voted to repeal measures modifying the Penal Code that would have allowed jail sentences of up to 10 years for corruption to be commuted with a fine. But the apology wasn't enough, and lawmakers went from congratulating themselves on "listening to the people" to having to be evacuated from Congress by security officials amid crowds demanding their resignation, reports Nómada. Though lawmakers found themselves confined to the building, the protesters were mostly peaceful and family oriented, notes Carlos Dada in El Faro. (See Friday's post.)
  • But President Jimmy Morales isn't backing down from his conflict with the U.N. anti-corruption commission head Iván Velásquez. Guatemala activated a conflict mediation mechanism in the U.N., the formal way of attempting to force Velásquez's ouster, reports EFE. The latest move comes after a failed attempt to expel Velásquez unilaterally was blocked by Guatemala's Constitutional Court and heavily criticized internationally. (See Aug. 30's post.) 
  • Morales, who is having a "political suicide" month, as El País puts it, released a video in which he promised to return about $70,000 in monthly payments from the Armed Forces, reported on last week by Nómada. (See Friday's post.)
  • Guatemala's political upheaval comes just two years after a government was ousted on charges of corruption and a non-political candidate running on a platform of "non corruption" was elected to run the country. The reason is the underlying "corruption pact" responsible for running the country, argues Martín Rodríguez Pellecer in Nómada. Reforms and corruption investigations need to continue in order to purify the country's institutions, he writes, supporting calls for a protest on Wednesday.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski reshuffled his cabinet yesterday, swearing in more conservative ministers in several key posts, in an attempt to woo the right-wing Popular Force which has a majority in Congress. Congress revoked its confidence in the outgoing cabinet on Friday, in the midst of conflict over a teachers strike and a school curriculum that stresses gender equality, reports Reuters. Kucsynski named Vice President Mercedes Araoz to be the new prime minister, a choice welcomed by Popular Force.
  • A Peruvian plan to virtually connect isolated indigenous communities with medical services is bumping up against a small flaw: many of the target villages lack stable electricity, much less internet, reports El País. The Cuninico community in the Peruvian Amazon is reporting symptoms related to contaminated water, and have been found to have abnormally high levels of mercury and cadmium in residents' blood, according to Amnesty International.
  • Less than two weeks after Hurricane Irma devastated the Caribbean, the region is bracing itself for Hurricane Maria, reports Reuters. A hurricane watch is now in effect for Puerto Rico, the US and British Virgin Islands, St Martin, St Barts, Saba, St Eustatius and Anguilla, reported the BBC this morning.
  • For those into visualizations: New assessments from the United Nations and Copernicus, a European Union program, show the damage to buildings and infrastructure on three of the hardest-hit islands: St. Martin, Anguilla and Barbuda, reports the New York Times. The destruction is such that some St. Martin's residents are wondering if it's worth rebuilding at all, or whether starting anew elsewhere might be better, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The Trump administration is considering closing down the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, after a string of unexplained health incidents with staff members in Havana, reports the Associated Press. Of the 21 medically confirmed US victims, some have permanent hearing loss or concussions while others have suffered nausea, headaches and ear-ringing. Some are struggling with concentration or common word recall. Cuba has denied any involvement or responsibility but stressed it is eager to help the US resolve the matter.
  • A location manager working for the Netflix series Narcos has been killed while searching for places to film when the show moves from Colombia to Mexico for its fourth season, reports the Guardian.
  • A wave of homicides is affecting previously peaceful tourism meccas in Mexico as criminal groups battle to control trafficking routes in the Baja California Peninsula and for dominance of local criminal enterprises, particularly the drug trade servicing tourists, reports the New York Times, in a piece that focuses on gaping inequality in Los Cabos.
  • A Mexican rural school teacher won an award for his work connecting a remote indigenous village to the internet, but was denied a visa application by U.S. officials because he was unable to provide a street address and because he does not have a bank account, reports the Guardian.
  • Thousands of people protested in Mexico City in response to the killing of a 19-year old student earlier this month after taking a Cabify -- an app-based taxi service -- home from a party, reports El País. Demonstrators emphasized an impunity rate of 90 percent when it comes to femicides in Mexico, and called for an end to the daily harassment and violence faced by women in the country. The National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi) says five women are killed every day in Mexico, reports the BBC.
  • Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS SA named founder José Batista Sobrinho to replace his jailed son as chief executive, a move likely to disappoint shareholders who have called for outside management in the midst of a mounting corruption scandal centered on the company, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Aggressive processed food company marketing is contributing to an obesity epidemic in underdeveloped countries, reports the New York Times. "In many ways, Brazil is a microcosm of how growing incomes and government policies have led to longer, better lives and largely eradicated hunger. But now the country faces a stark new nutrition challenge: over the last decade, the country’s obesity rate has nearly doubled to 20 percent, and the portion of people who are overweight has nearly tripled to 58 percent. ... Brazil also highlights the food industry’s political prowess. In 2010, a coalition of Brazilian food and beverage companies torpedoed a raft of measures that sought to limit junk food ads aimed at children. The latest challenge has come from the country’s president, Michel Temer, a business-friendly centrist whose conservative allies in Congress are now seeking to chip away at the handful of regulations and laws intended to encourage healthy eating."

Friday, September 15, 2017

Guatemala's impunity tug-o-war (Sept. 15, 2017)

Guatamala's Constitutional Court provisionally suspended a polemic penal code reform that would have let corrupt politicians off the hook, yesterday evening. But not before the "national emergency" laws passed Wednesday by lawmakers generated anger in a wide swathe of citizens -- from conservative business groups to students. Hundreds of citizens gathered yesterday to reject "corruption deal," reports El Periódico.

The reforms gutted campaign finance rules, and would have permitted many criminals to get out of jail in exchange for a small fine. Guatemalans largely interpreted their aim as a way to protect hundreds of political and business leaders accused of corruption by the Public Ministry and the U.N.'s  International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) notes the New York Times.

Even before the court's ruling, legislative leaders were trying to find a legal way to backtrack the reforms they had considered a "national emergency" just the day before, reports El Periódico. Legislators might gather today to vote back the laws before they are sent for the president's approval. Social pressure played a large part in spurring their repentance, reports Plaza Pública.

Several human rights organizations -- including Acción Ciudadana and la Fundación Myrna Mack -- presented requests to suspend the reforms, reports El Periódico separately.

The court reacted quickly in an escalating political crisis that has been building for weeks, since the CICIG requested permission to investigate President Jimmy Morales -- along with other leading politicians -- in relation to illicit campaign financing. (See Aug. 28's post.) Morales responded with an attempt to oust CICIG head Iván Velásquez, a move met with international condemnation and also blocked by the Constitutional Court. (See Aug. 30's post.) Legislators defended Morales, and decided not to lift his immunity from prosecution earlier this week. (See Tuesday's post.)

Experts say the battle between the anti-impunity commission and Guatemala's politicians is far from over, according to the NYT. The CICIG's new focus on electoral financing -- which Velásquez has called Guatemalan democracy's "original sin" -- means a broad sector of politicians and business elites are affected by the investigations. 

And this week's reforms were just the tip of an impunity iceberg, that could have included measures to further institutionalize corruption, reports Plaza Pública. A measure that was missing from the "Impunity Wednesday" was a proposal to give the president the power to oust the attorney general Thelma Aldana without just cause, reports El Periódico. It is unclear whether such a measure is under consideration. 

The CICIG has strong U.N., U.S. and international support. And also has broad popularity among citizens. Manfredo Marroquín, president of the board of Acción Ciudadana, Transparency International’s Guatemala branch said the protests that helped oust former President Otto Pérez Molina on corruption charges two years ago could start again.

Regret and apologies aren't good enough though, argues an angry Plaza Pública editorial. It's time to take back democratic institutions and rebuild. "Let's leave aside the formalities, that is to say, the masquerade, the capitalizations: Patriotic Fathers, Legislators, Popularly Elected Representatives. We know the Fraude on which they are founded. Lets stop pretending we believe they're politicians: the vast majority are criminals, delinquents, truants, thieves: tricksters and pretenders. They approve laws and gifts with the gesture of an assassin sharpening his knife. They are the shipwreck of history."

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Janot's parting shots

Outgoing Brazilian attorney general Rodrigo Janot has filed charges of racketeering against President Michel Temer and six party allies, three of whom are already in jail, reports the Guardian. Temer and two others are also accused of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors accuse the group of PMDB politicians of receiving $188m in bribes in return for public contracts, since 2006. Temer is accused of leading the criminal organization since he took over the presidency in May of last year. Though he is also charged with influence from before, a sitting president can only be judged for crimes committed while in office, reports El País.

Temer denied the charges, and Congress must again decide whether to lift his immunity from prosecution and force him to face the charges. 

Last month Temer mustered up enough support in the lower chamber to avoid facing previous charges of corruption. (See Aug. 3's post.) Critics noted that Temer engaged in extensive dealmaking with legislators before the vote, and distributed millions of dollars in federal money for local projects.

Though these charges are more robust, it is expected that lawmakers will also discard them, reports El País. Signs of economic recovery in Brazil could strengthen his hand with legislators, according to the Guardian. However, though legislators may be wary of subjecting the country to further political upheaval, the charges will also likely weaken Temer's ability to pass unpopular economic reforms that form the centerpiece of his agenda, report the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Janot's term ends Sunday, and his hand has been weakened after a plea bargain from which he obtained evidence against Temer has been questioned. (See Sept. 6's post.) The Supreme Court is currently evaluating the validity of the testimony. This week the Supreme Court rejected Temer's request to have Janot removed from cases against the president, reports El País.

Janot is definitely going out with a bang -- in ten days he's accused the last three presidents of serious corruption charges, notes El País in a separate piece.

Temer is scheduled to have dinner with U.S. President Donald Trump and give the opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, notes the WSJ.

News Briefs
  • A day after meeting with Democratic leaders for dinner, Trump said he'd back a deal to protect young, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children in exchange for a “massive” border security upgrade, reports the New York Times. The polemic and oft-discussed border wall with Mexico need not be part of the package, he said. Last week, Trump said he would phase out the Obama era the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and gave lawmakers six months to replace it with legislation. (See Sept. 6's post.)
  • "A rabbit is not a pet; it’s two and a half kilos of meat that is high in protein, with no cholesterol," argues Venezuela's urban agriculture minister, Freddy Bernal. His vision is not shared by members of 15 communities where the government handed out baby rabbits as part of a pilot plan to counter chronic food shortages. Bernal later returned to the communities to find them bedecked in bows, reports the BBC. "A lot of people gave names to the rabbits, they took them to bed," he said. The minister urged Venezuelans to start seeing rabbits "from the point of view of the economic war." The opposition has dismissed the plan as nonsensical, reports Reuters.
  • El Helicoide, a modernist Caracas building initially planned as a luxury shopping mall, has become a prison feared by political prisoners who describe torture cells, reports the Guardian. Celeste Olalquiaga, a cultural historian who grew up in Caracas, said: "El Helicoide is a metaphor for the whole modern period in Venezuela and what went wrong." She has launched a project to document its extraordinary history and current status.
  • Trump said he considered downgrading Colombia in an annual U.S. review of global narcotics hubs. A "decertification" could affect the country's access to funding and aid, and would be the strongest criticism from the U.S. towards Colombia since the 1990s, reports the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. has been increasingly critical of Colombia's coca eradication efforts, after the country prohibited a U.S. funded aerial fumigation program and focused on crop substitution programs in a peace deal with the FARC. The Colombian government defended its drug fighting record yesterday, saying "threats are not needed to motivate us to meet this challenge." (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • More than a week after Irma, St. Martin is trying to figure out how to move forward, reports the New York Times.
  • Trump blamed his weeklong delay in offering condolences to Mexico for an earthquake that has claimed nearly 100 lives on faulty mobile phone reception, reports the Guardian. The excuse seems fairly implausible, explains the Washington Post.(See yesterday's briefs.)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Guatemalan lawmakers reform criminal code to protect Morales (Sept. 14, 2017)

Guatelmala's lawmakers approved a "national emergency" decree to curb penalties for illegal election financing. The bill passed yesterday seems tailor-made to protect President Jimmy Morales from allegations involving over $800,000 in unexplained campaign funds in 2015. The reform passed by 105-19, just days after Congress voted to shield Morales from being investigated in the case headed by the U.N. backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Public Ministry. (See Tuesday's post.)

The change eliminates criminal responsibility for "authorizing" electoral funds that prove to be illegal and makes party accountants responsible for irregularities rather than party leaders, reports Reuters. The reform also reduces the penalty for illegal election financing to a maximum of ten years in jail, and allows that to be commuted by paying a fine.

Lawmakers argued they and senior party leaders can’t be held responsible for campaign finance violations because they are often unaware of the details of the campaigns, explains the Wall Street Journal. The bill was presented by lawmaker Orlando Blanco Lapola, himself former secretary general of the UNE political party during the questioned 2015 campaign, and target of a financing investigation, reports El Periódico.

The decision is a slap in the face to the CICIG, which has been at the center of a political battle since last month, when it asked the Supreme Court to lift Morales' immunity so he could be investigated. Morales attempted to oust CICIG head Iván Velásquez, but was blocked by the national Constitutional Court and criticized by the international community which has supported the anti-corruption commission.

Critics say the measure is merely targeted at protecting the president and his allies. "The congress appears determined to legalize corruption and campaign finance fraud," Woodrow Wilson Center expert Eric Olson told the WSJ. Others noted that lawmakers have acted quickly on this matter, postponing votes on school meals and other issues, reports the Associated Press.

The U.S. Embassy reacted harshly, with a mocking Twitter post saying the Guatemalan Congress considers reforming election financing crimes a national emergency, but not schools, hospitals and roads.

Within Guatemala business associations, including the Comité Coordinador de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras and the Cámara de Industria de Guatemala, were critical of the lawmakers' swerve towards impunity.

The CICIG called illegal electoral financing the "original sin" of Guatemalan democracy, reports El Periódico.

The case of illicit campaign financing has however unified political parties that had until now bitterly opposed each other: Morales' FCN and UNE, notes Nómada.

More broadly, yesterday's reforms to the Criminal Code allow jail sentences for over 400 crimes -- 89 percent of those contemplated in the penal system -- to be commuted with fines, reports Prensa Libre. The effect is to defang efforts to disarticulate large criminal networks, argued a Public Ministry official cited in the piece.

The new reforms essentially roll back measures implemented against corruption after 2015, when social pressure and a CICIG investigation helped topple then-President Otto Pérez Molina, argues Paola Hurtado in Nómada.

Separately, Nómada reported this week that Morales cashed a check for 50,000 Quetzales (about $6,800) from the armed forces, in addition to his presidential salary. The check from the Guatemalan Military was cashed in March of this year and cannot be justified legally, according to experts consulted by Nómada. Morales is among the best remunerated executives in the region, with a monthly salary of $20,000. Nómada notes that the check's timing occurred as Morales publicly complained he was facing legal costs of defending his brother and son from judicial investigations into corruption.

Yesterday it turned out that the check from the military was actually a monthly payment -- "bonus" -- indeed aimed at supporting the president's mounting legal bills, reports Nómada.

News Briefs
  • ConfidencialHN has an explosive investigation alleging that Honduran President Juan Orlando benefitted from a criminal network that funneled public funds and collaborated with drug trafficking cartels in order to win the presidency.
  • U.S. lawmakers have reiterated their support for anti-corruption efforts both in Guatemala and Honduras -- and seem prepared to back that sentiment with cuts to aid and potentially sanctions, reported InSight Crime earlier this week.
  • Governments in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are far more interested in cracking down on gangs than on instances of political corruption, notes InSight Crime. Northern Triangle authorities arrested nearly 500 gang members in recent days on charges of extortion, homicide and other criminal activities. But "the mass arrests are unlikely to have any substantial long-term impact on gangs' ability to operate in these countries. And perhaps more concerningly, operations like these may be drawing resources and attention away from investigations into mounting allegations that high-level elites across the region have engaged in criminal activities."
  • Pushback against corruption initiatives is hardly limited to Central America. In Brazil President Michel Temer has successfully evaded corruption charges so far, supported by the country's lawmakers. And critics say Supreme Court justice Gilmar Mendes is pushing back against the judiciary's strong anti-corruption efforts, reports the Wall Street Journal.  
  • Honduran journalist Carlos William Flores was killed in the Cortes department, near the Guatemalan border, reports Tiempo. Flores directed a television program, "Sin Pelos en la Lengua," that was critical of major agribusiness enterprises that lead to deforestation in the area, reports C-Libre. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro condemned the "social communicator's" assassination, reports Proceso.
  • Northern Triangle organizations of civil society asked the IACHR to develop concrete measures to protect deported migrants who return to situations of violence and insecurity, reports Radio Progreso. (See Sept. 6's briefs for more on the Mexico City IACHR hearings.)
  • On the issue of gangs, Pacific Standard has a feature on women -- girls rather -- who are increasingly participating in the criminal networks, spurred by a lack of opportunity and the dangers they are exposed to in El Salvador. "In a patriarchal society increasingly controlled by violent, male-dominated organized crime groups, rape, domestic violence, and the murder of women have become commonplace."
  • "Autocracy doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a slow transition," writes Venezuelan activist Lilian Tintori in a New York Times op-ed"A regime that violates the rights of its people to fuel its own power and greed can’t be considered legitimate. And without an honest commitment to human rights, democracy in Venezuela will die." She notes the extent of the Venezuelan crisis, and how the displacement it's causing will increasingly affect the country's neighbors. "The long-term solution to our woes is clear: We need the full restoration of our democracy. This includes the release of all political prisoners, respect for the democratically elected National Assembly, and general elections managed by a newly appointed, independent electoral commission. The international community can help by refusing any dialogue that gives leeway to the Maduro regime."
  • U.S. officials were critical of Colombia's peace deal with the FARC in a U.S. congressional hearing this week, in which participants argued the fight against drug trafficking had been sacrificed for the cause of peace. "Opinions voiced during the hearing do not necessarily have direct implications for official US policy. But they add to signs of growing tensions between the policy preferences of important US actors and the Colombian government's preferred approach to the peace process," explains InSight Crime.
  • Ecuador is on the brink of a potential "democratic transition" from former President Rafael Correa's populist authoritarianism to current President Lenín Moreno's democratically minded government, argues César Ricaurte in a New York Times Español op-ed. Correa and Lenín, formerly allies in the same party, are now on opposite sides of an increasingly acrimonious schism. 
  • Jamaica's authorities are carrying out a new militarized anti-gang initiative in Kingston based on erroneous data, reports InSight Crime. The neighborhood of Mount Salem has been designated the first Zone of Special Operations (ZOSO), but appears to have been deployed based on data exaggerating gang presence and homicides in the area. It's hotspot policing -- but in the wrong place. "To be sure, the decision to maintain the ZOSO in Mount Salem even after having to publicly admit its error, illustrates that the government is ready to adapt the reality to match the policy rather than the other way around."
  • The U.S. Virgin Islands likely won't have electricity for months in the wake of Hurricane Irma -- but residents are showing their resiliency, reports the Washington Post.
  • A new Pew Research Center survey shows 65 percent of Mexicans view the U.S. unfavorably, up from 29 percent two years ago in the Obama era, reports the Washington Post.
  • That can hardly have been helped by Trump's failure to quickly offer condolences for an earthquake that killed nearly 100 people last week in Mexico, reports the New York Times.
  • Strange health symptoms experienced by U.S. diplomats in Havana, initially believed to be the result a sonic weapon, defy attempts to identify a culprit or device, reports the Associated Press.Some victims now have problems concentrating or recalling specific words, several officials said, the latest signs of more serious damage than the US government initially realized. 
  • The infamous ice pick used by a Stalinist secret agent to assassinate Leon Trotsky in 1940 in Mexico City has emerged from decades in the shadows. It's slated to go on display next year at Washington’s International Spy Museum, after spending 40 years under the bed of the daughter of a Mexican secret police officer, reports the Guardian, in a piece that vividly recounts the bloody climax of the political fight between Josef Stalin and Trotsky.