Monday, August 31, 2015

Guatemala's Congress to decide whether Pérez Molina should face trial (August 31, 2015)

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina steadfastly refuses to resign, no matter how many thousands of Guatemalan's crowd the plazas demanding his ouster and despite the ever mounting pile of evidence linking him to outrageous corruption scandals.

A Guatemalan congressional committee on Saturday recommended that President Otto Perez be stripped of immunity from prosecution over his suspected involvement in a customs racket, paving the way for a full vote in Congress, reports Reuters. If Congress votes to lift his immunity, the Supreme Court then turns the matter to prosecutors, who would then able to bring charges against him in court.

The next 48 hours will be critical for Guatemalan history. Between today and tomorrow Congress will vote on the immunity issue. 

Congress's president Luis Rabbe told the Associated Press yesterday that party leaders would meet on Monday to set the legislature's agenda. By law, 24 hours must pass between then and the session, so lawmakers should vote on the issue on Tuesday, he said.

But Pérez Molina is cornered and everything indicates that he's losing the support of his last remaining political allies, Líder and the PP, reports Nómada.  

To strip Pérez Molina of immunity will require two thirds of Congress's 158 votes. How Líder -- the party of Manuel Baldizón, the front-runner for next week's presidential elections -- votes is critical. Baldizón has not publicly supported stripping Pérez Molina's immunity because he's scared that if Pérez Molina is sent to pre-trial detention on Wednesday, the Sept 6 elections could be jeopardized, according to the Nómada piece. But he is wavering and Pérez Molina is losing congressional support.

El Periodico has a piece on Pérez Molina's busy attempts to drum up support.

As Pérez Molina has had to replace a significant portion of his cabinet, the telecommunications sector -- specifically magnate Mario López, Central America's richest man -- has been benefitted, reports Plaza Pública. The spots occupied by the new minister of economy and a presidential commissioner for competitiveness were previously occupied by the business association CACIF, which earlier this month called for Pérez Molina to resign. (See last Monday's post.) The support for Mario López, who acts independently of the leading business association, is evidence of a deal that might even include the lucrative 4G monopoly reports Nómada

News Briefs
  • Colombia is to offer citizenship to Venezuelan relatives of Colombians who have been deported from Venezuela, reports the BBC. Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said that the government wanted to help those Venezuelans married to Colombians who wanted to move to Colombia. "We're going to give them Colombian citizenship, we want families to live together, not to break them apart."

  • Brazilian news magazine Epoca has accused former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of acting as lobbyist in Cuba for Brazil's largest engineering firm Odebrecht, which built the container terminal at the Cuban port of Mariel, reports Reuters. The magazine cited Brazilian diplomatic cables about visits to Cuba by Lula after he had left office. A spokesman for the Lula Institute said Lula's activities were normal and that the ex-president did nothing illegal. The head of Brazil's state run development bank, BNDES, Luciano Coutinho, testified before a congressional panel investigating BNDES transactions in search of possible connections with a massive corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras. He denied that former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva ever sought to influence lending decisions, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. And the passions Lula inspires are not to be dismissed. In a rather bizarre indicator,AFP reports that a 12 meter high blow up "Lula" in jail garb -- a rallying point for right-wing demonstrators against President Dilma Rousseff's government -- was stabbed by a Workers' Party supporter. The drama surrounding the incident is indicative of the polarization in Brazil, according to the piece.
  • Reuters also has a piece on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's new ally, Senate president Renan Calheiros. "... many believe Calheiros, who prosecutors have said is one of 32 politicians under investigation, is only cozying up to Rousseff in the hopes he can avoid prosecution," reports the piece.

  • Rolls-Royce is cooperating with the Brazilian investigation into Petrobras bribery, reports The Guardian. The company confirmed that it was now cooperating with investigators after being asked about its relationship with a businessman facing various investigations connected to the scandal. 

  • The Associated Press reports on concerns about the Venezuelan government's crime-fighting initiative launched in July, Operation Liberate the People. It has already seen police shoot and kill more than 80 suspected criminals, according to an AP tally based on officials' statements to the media. There have been no reports of police injuries or deaths during the blitzkrieg-style operations aimed at taking back neighborhoods over-run by gangs.
  • An 8-year-old girl with epilepsy could become Mexico's legal user of marijuana, reports theWashington Post. Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that the Mexican government could not prevent the girl's parents from importing cannabidiol (CBD) from the U.S. to treat her seizures. The experimental treatment has used on American children, but in Mexico public opinion remains staunchly against legalization, according to the piece.
  • The first polls in Argentina since primaries earlier this month showed Daniel Scioli, of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's Frente para la Victoria party, is still leading, but not enough to avoid a runoff with with more business-friendly Mauricio Macri, current mayor of Buenos Aires. Scioli is favored by nearly 40 percent of voters ahead of the Oct 25 election. Though he says he will maintain Kirchner's economic policies, he supports a more pro-market approach, reportsReuters.
  • Heroin addition is soaring in the U.S., leading Mexican opium production to skyrocket: it increased by an estimated 50 percent last year alone. The New York Times reports on the impoverished Guerrero communities benefiting from the boom, especially their children who are taken out of school to help in the lucrative harvests.
  • The Inter-American Dialogue's Latin America Advisor looks at a Peruvian legislative decree from last month that requires telecommunications companies to grant police warrantless access to geolocation and other call data from cellphones in real time and requires companies to store that data for three years, a measure the government has said is necessary to fight organized crime in the country, adding that a warrant must retroactively be obtained to use that data in court. Is the new measure necessary to fight crime and corruption, or does it go too far and undermine parts of Peru's 2011 law that established protections for personal data, it asks.
  • Tropical Storm Erika caused flooding and mudslides that killed at least 20 people and left more than 50 missing on Dominica, reports Reuters. But the storm was losing its punch as it drenched Haiti and the Dominican Republic early Saturday, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Border Strife: Venezuela/Colombia & Haiti/Dominican Republic (August 28, 2015)

BORDER STRIFE: Venezuela/Colombia & Haiti/Dominican Republic

Venezuela and Colombia have recalled their ambassadors, escalating tensions between them, according to the Associated Press. (While the Ven Foreign Minister tweeted her solidarity with the Colombian people yesterday, the Colombian newsweekly Semana explains the heightened tension in Colombia). The New York Times focuses on the hundreds of Colombians fleeing back home across the Venezuela border as Maduro threatened to raze down a border town, while the AP reports on Colombians who fled their own civil war years ago and now face an anti-immigrant crackdown in their new home.  

Semana and the BBC have stark videos of individual Colombians explaining how they left 'with only the clothes on backs.'  Pres. Santos said “raiding houses, removing the inhabitants by force, separating families, not allowing them to take with them their few belongings and marking the houses in order to demolish them later on, these are totally unacceptable actions that recall bitter episodes of humanity that must not be repeated." Santos has received united support across the political spectrum, according to El Espectador.   Foreign Policy suggests "Colombians Are Paying to Save the Venezuelan Regime" in the sense that they are the pawns in an electoral strategy by Pres. Maduro. A Venezuelan blogger on Pro DaVinci says this just might work.

In other border news: the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is still heated, according to the Miami Herald and Agence France Press, where the "Dominican truckers’ strike entered its 32nd day and frustrated Haitians block[ing] a road to the border." The U.S. Ambassador in Port-au-Prince, Pamela White, said she doesn’t want to link “truckers, which I am furious about, and the deportations, which I am not furious about.” The Dominican truckers’ strike "greatly concerns the United States, which has invested hundreds millions of dollars" in a local industrial park there. Dominican Today suggests that the truckers' union still holds the cards. Ambassador White is transitioning from her post in September and says, "I leave without a good understanding of what was going on in the political field." 

  • Guatemalans hosted massive rallies yesterday against the corruption led by President, many communicating through the #27A hashtag (August 27). As the protestors convened, Pres. Pérez Molina reiterated his refusal to resign, in an interview with Radio Sonora.  Groups representing U.S. interests made interesting comments on social media: the US Embassy in Guatemala retweeted yesterday's NYT editorial calling for the resignation of the President; while McDonalds tweeted that they would close all their stores in support of the marches, Burger King called for a corruption-free country and declared Guatemala was the King for the day. Semana Economica and WOLA post an overviews of 'What's Happening in Guatemala's Political Crisis?'
  • A Salvadoran government website, Transparencia Activa, brings up a 5-year old video that shows opposition leader Rodrigo Avila (ARENA) warning against a CICIG counterpart in their country.
  • Bloomberg dives into the thousands of documents released in Mexico last week that cleared the president and his wife of wrongdoing, but quotes several officials and opposition leaders that it just doesn't "pass the smell test" and that the investigation is an “offensive joke.” The Democratic Revolution Party said on its website the verdict “lacks credibility. The probe was led by the federal comptroller, who reports directly to Pres. Pena Nieto.
  • Why are Brazil’s environmentalists being murdered? asks the Washington Post. The reasons "are simple," writes the newspaper: "The country’s land ownership is among the most concentrated and unequal in the world, leading to conflicts between subsistence farmers or indigenous groups and well-connected landowners." Between 2002 and 2013, at least 448 environmentalists were killed in Brazil, about half of all the environmentalists murdered worldwide, according to Global Witness. 
  • Environmental activists in Ecuador are feeling the squeeze, according to an essay in Foreign Affairs. The piece includes a review of what has happened at the Yasuni National Park, "one of the most biodiverse places in the world, but [which] also contains 20 percent of Ecuador's crude oil." Many supporters of the president, the article suggests, have now turned against him as a result of his environmental politics which are becoming "increasingly authoritarian."
  • Half way through his 6-year term, Mexico's Pres. Peña Nieto shuffles his cabinet, according to Milenio and the Wall Street Journal.  Most worrisome, says Proceso is that he is naming his third leader in three years for his Cabinet-level Comisión Nacional de Seguridad (CNS), suggesting that he doesn't know how to responde to the crisis of violence and citizen security.  Keep an eye out for Manlio Fabio Beltrones, says Reuters about the Minister who moves from the Foreign Ministry to the Social Development Ministry - he is a top candidate for the 2016 dedazo.
  • WOLA highlights (and translates) an interview Colombian legal expert Rodrigo Uprimny (De Justicia) gave to Verdad Abierta about the peace process. "His message here combines optimism and alarm. A peace accord could come sooner than we think, he says, because negotiations are advancing fast. However, Colombia’s legal system is not prepared either to ratify or to implement it."
  • Five leading opposition candidates have been disqualified from running for office in Venezuela’s upcoming elections, according to Human Rights Watch, which in turns calls for other organizations (like OAS, UNASUR and MercoSur) to denounce these infringements on democracy.
  • Brazil's Prosecutor General was voted in 59-12 for another term by the Senate, according to Reuters. Rodrigo Janot is leading "a massive corruption investigation that has put dozens of politicians under scrutiny for allegedly receiving kickbacks."
  • Brazil's big bet on a China-driven commodity boom is going sour and the country is now looking at another "lost decade," according to the Wall Street Journal. The country is likely already in a recession, says Reuters.  And while the  The Economist argues that Brazil's tanking economy could be as disastrous as political corruption, market traders tell Bloomberg it is most certainly politics and not economics that could sink the country in the end.
  • Finally, Stephen Fry. The British author-tv star-gadfly stars in his own 'celebrity travelogue' Stephen Fry in Central America which curiously starts in Mexico, where he was "moved to tears by a demonstration against the drug wars," according to The Guardian.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Legislating & Defining Violence (August 27 2015)


In Brazil, a congressional bill that would roll back gun control measures will be voted on in a committee hearing today. Three OSF grantees wrote an op-ed in yesterday's O Globo questioning the proposal, saying that the current law has saved 160 000 lives. Among the suggested changes: lowering the the minimum age for the purchase of weapons from 25 to 21; increasing the number of weapons you can purchase from 6 to 9 and the number ammunition from 300 to 5,400 per year. Also: loosening the rules on advertising for the sale of weapons and ammunition, currently restricted to specialized publications. The op-ed was written by leaders at Instituto Igarapé, the Instituto Sou da Paz) and at Viva Rio. (On a technological note: the Brazilian Congressman who is sponsoring the bill had a public video chat on his legislation earlier this week.)

El Salvador's Supreme Court declared street gangs, like Marasalvatrucha (MS-13) and those who finance them would be deemed "terrorist groups," according to the Associated Press and Diario La Página. "It defined terrorism as the organized and systematic exercise of violence" and found that "telephone wiretaps and the freezing of funds belonging to third parties tied to terrorist groups are constitutional."

Mexican NGOs Desarma México and the Centro de Estudios Ecuménicos report that armed violence has claimed the lives of 80 thousand people in the last five years, according to Proceso.  As Mexico is hosting the Arms Trade Treaty in Cancun, they are pushing for the Mexican government "to provide all end-user data to exporters" in order to "prevent arms and ammunition imported legally be diverted into the hands of criminals."  Read more about the Arms Trade Treaty conference on Desarma Mexico's page.

  • Guatemala's President Pérez Molina gets his own NYTimes editorial this morning as he is "on the cusp" of being brought down, with a lot of credit going to CICIG.  "In a region where judicial institutions are notoriously weak, politicized and corrupt, the transformation of Guatemala’s rule of law sector is a rare success story." While the Times thinks Pérez Molina is heading to jail, an essay in Insight Crime is skeptical. Separately: a story on Public Radio International debates whether there is a Central American Spring or not.
  • Leaders in El Salvador's GANA and PCN parties do not want a CICIG counterpart - they say their own anti-corruption institutions work just fine, according to El Mundo.  ARENA put forth a proposal for such a possibility.
  • Tomorrow (Friday) the event 'El Futuro de la Política de Drogas en Chile' (see program) will be held in Congress and will include UNASUR's president (and former Colombian President) Ernesto Samper. It is convened by 'Diálogos Suramericanos Sobre Drogas' a multi-country conference that will also convene evensats in Brazil, Uruguay, Peru and Colombia, according to El Espectador. On Monday, Samper will be in Montevideo for the 'II Reunión Extraordinaria del Consejo Suramericano sobre el Problema Mundial de las Drogas', according to Uruguay's El Pais.
  • The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime announced last week that Bolivia had reduced the amount of land planted with coca for the fourth year running, according to Mac Margolis' oped in Bloomberg who suggests that the steep retreat in Bolivia "was achieved far from the gimlet eye of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency." Pres. Morales kicked out the DEA in 2008. However, Bolivia focuses on the reduction of coca leaf and not on how much is being converted to cocaine. 
  • Former Brazilian opposition presidential candidate Aecio Neves (runner up in 2014) took bribes from a corruption scheme, according to an accusation by convicted Brazilian money launderer Alberto Youssef at a congressional hearing, reports Reuters. For her part, Pres. Rousseff was given 15 more days by Brazil's highest accounting court "to respond to accusations she doctored the government accounts last year to hide the deterioration of the country's finances," according to Reuters.  Separately, the president's Chief of Staff is now under investigation for bribery, also according to Reuters.
  • Brazil's Attorney General, Rodrigo Janot, denies there was a secret deal to shield some suspects in graft scandal, according to UOL. Janot is overseeing the investigation into the Lava Jato scandal but his term ends on Sept 17. However, he seems more likely than not  to be re-confirmed, according to the Wall St Journal who quotes David Fleischer saying, "having Mr. Janot confirmed will keep the investigation going on at the current speed. ... If he is confirmed, he will be there until September of 2017, when many say the Lava Jato investigations will be over. His second mandate will tend to be more difficult than the first."
  • Argentina's opposition parties are pushing for transparency measures in October's presidential elections, according to EFE. Meanwhile, the top presidential candidates have "exchanged accusations after protests over alleged vote fraud in a northern province were broken up with tear gas and rubber bullets, reports the Associated Press. With 81% of the vote, he candidate of President Fernandez’s Front for Victory winning by a substantial margin, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune.  Separately, Andres Oppenheimer interviews government candidate Daniel Scioli who is leading in the polls; Oppenheimer pessimistically predicts what will happen in a post-Christina Argentina, in his column in the Miami Herald.
  • Colombia's and Venezuela's Foreign Ministers met yesterday and promised to ease tensions caused at their shared border, according to the Associated Press. Venezuela's Foreign Minister suggested that Colombia's media was obscuring the truth, according to her press conference yesterday. There was, however, no decision to re-open the border crossing or end the deportations from Venezuela, reports Semana. Among the challenges: smugglers in the border town of Cucuta "purchase gasoline in Venezuela at less than a penny a gallon and resell it for huge profits in Colombia," says the AP. (El Espectador goes deeper on the gasoline issue.)  
  • The BBC reports that Colombian Pres. Santos has visited the border region, a place that Semana describes as "hell." A photo-essay in The Guardian affirms this characterization. The BBC piece is accompanied by a helpful map of the area.  Separately, UNASUR has offered to mediate the crisis, according to El Universal. Even during all of this, Venezuela's border dispute with Guyana has not yet simmered down, reminds a COHA backgrounder.
  • Venezuelan Pres. Maduro's opposition has taken to calling him the Latino 'Trump', according to Reuters. Separately, poll numbers by by the Venezuelan Institute of Data Analysis (IVAD) suggest that 87% believe "the country is moving in the wrong direction," according to a blog post on AEI's website.
  • Family members of the 43 Mexican students missing in Ayotzinapa will meet with the Pope during his visit to Philadelphia next month, according to Proceso magazine. It's been eleven months since they went missing, reminds El Espectador.
  • Several Colombian political parties are moving forward to ending obligatory military service, according to El Espectador.
  • Mexican Musical Chairs: Agustín Basave Benítez, who recently switched parties from the PRI to the left-of-center PRD is angling for party leadership, according to profiles in Milenio and Proceso. Meanwhile, ex-PAN leader Manuel Espino Barrientos and former supporter of PRI president Peña Nieto is now a federal deputy for the Movimiento Ciudadano (MC), according to Proceso

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Guatemala's Supreme Court takes first step in stripping president of immunity (August 26, 2015)

Guatemala's political upheaval continues, amid ever growing corruption scandals that have engulfed the country's top leadership (see Monday's post).

Yesterday the Supreme Court unanimously accepted the pretrial case presented against President Otto Pérez Molina by the U.N.'s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Public Ministry. The case now goes to Congress, which must decide whether to strip the Pérez Molina of his immunity and force him to face trial on corruption charges. Yesterday's session of Congress was suspended due to lack of quorum, but a plenary session is expected for tomorrow, reports El Periódico. Earlier this month Congress already avoided stripping him of immunity in other charges, notes the piece.  

In the meantime, Pérez Molina named two new ministers, but still has nearly a dozen slots left to fill, after virtually the entire cabinet resigned after he was accused of participation in a massive customs fraud scheme on Friday.
Former vice president, Roxana Baldetti was ordered to stand trial yesterday in the same case, reports El Periódico.

The upheaval engulfing the country since the scheme came to light in April could be a sign of positive change, reports the Associated Press. "It's very exciting in some ways for those who forever have been deeply concerned about corruption and the elite political class that pillages the state," said Eric Olson, a Central America expert at the Washington-based Mexico Institute. "They got their hands caught in the cookie jar this time, and it's pretty bad."

The New York Times has an in-depth on the situation in Guatemala, and asks: "For a nation with the cards stacked against it — among the highest poverty and murder rates in the hemisphere and a history of violent government repression — the emergence of large public protests is being greeted as a major step. But a pressing question looms: Will the momentum continue? After the high-profile arrests and the emergence of peaceful protests in a place silenced by a history of civil war, will lasting change occur?"

As protesters block intersections, pledge more demonstrations in the coming days and demand postponement of September 6th's presidential elections, that is a critical question.

The piece quotes Colombia University's Christopher Sabatini who says "There is an inherent problem with anticorruption movements ... As positive as they are, the problem is that it is never clear what it leads to in terms of a policy prescription." 

La Línea, as the multi-million dollar scam is known, is not the only corruption scheme Pérez Molina was involved in, reports Nómada, which says an investigation of theirs into a carbon energy plant scheme -- for which his son-in-law and former secretary general is in jail -- shows the president's involvement.

In Nómade interviews, business association leader Jorge Briz and farm-worker organizer Daniel Pascual separately call for Pérez Molina's resignation.

News Briefs

  • Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt can stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity – but cannot be sentenced because the 89-year-old suffers from dementia -- according to a national court decision announced yesterday. A special trial could be held behind closed doors, and Ríos Montt can be found guilty or not guilty, but will not receive a sentence because of his health conditions, reports the Associated Press. The ruling revives the hopes of human rights groups, two years after a historic conviction of the former strongman was thrown out on a technicality. Ríos Montt is accused of responsibility for the killings of nearly 2,000 indigenous Maya during a particularly brutal stretch of the country's 36-year civil war, reports Reuters. The in-camera ruling means that reporters will not be allowed to cover the new trial, reports the New York Times.
  • More than 100 Colombians began fleeing their homes in Venezuela yesterday, wading knee-deep through a river separating the two countries, as President Nicolas Maduro vowed to extend a crackdown on illegal migrants living along the border, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's post by Eduardo Romero.) Many of the Colombians have lived in Venezuela for years, but are abandoning their shantytown homes after being given 72 hours to leave by Venezuelan security forces. Most of the refugees have lived for years in Ernesto Guevara, an extremely poor Venezuelan border village, or other nearby settlements, but they were forced to leave after Venezuelan authorities marked their homes with a "D" for "demolition" over the weekend, reports Reuters.
  • In the meantime, numerous violent clashes that have flared around the country in recent weeks as Venezuelans wait for hours in long supermarket lines for basics like milk and rice, reports the Wall Street Journal. Shortages have made hunger a palpable concern for many Wayuu Indians at the northern tip of Venezuela’s 1,300-mile border with Colombia. Soldiers deployed to stem rampant food smuggling and price speculation have become targets after they seize contraband goods. In a national survey, the pollster Consultores 21 found 30 percent of Venezuelans eating two or fewer meals a day during the second quarter of this year, up from 20 percent in the first quarter, reports the piece.
  • Drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán decided to escape from a Mexican high-security jail because there was an imminent possibility that he would be extradited to face charges in the U.S., reports The Guardian. "Extradition was always his main concern," Guzmán's lawyer, Juan Pablo Badillo Soto, told the Guardian. "Once it became clear the extradition process was underway, it was logical he decided to go."
  • It's time to debunk certain myths about Mexican-U.S. relations, argues Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. in a Brookings blog. "One is that the relationship during President Felipe Calderón’s term (2006 to 2012) was “narcotized,” meaning it had become heavily slanted toward counternarcotics cooperation. The other is that nothing was done to promote immigration reform in the United States. Both of these arguments are utterly groundless, in large part because the bilateral relationship is too multifaceted to reduce it to only one issue. Even if one of the two nations were determined to boil it down to one single issue, the day-to-day of the agenda is so broad and deep that it would be impossible to turn it into a monothematic interaction."
  • The Colombian left-wing political party Union Patriótica ceased to exist more than a decade ago, as thousands of its members were attacked in the 1980s and 90s by right-wing paramilitary groups. Now the party, which was founded as a way of permitting guerilla's to lay down weapons and participate in democratic politics, is staging a comeback. How the UP fares in upcoming elections will be key to the Havana peace talks with the FARC reports the Miami Herald
  • In Haiti local observer groups say sanctions against 16 candidates in this month's violence-marred elections (see August 10th's post) are not enough, and are calling for an independent investigation, reports the Miami Herald. Apart from the violence that marked the polls, human rights groups say there was massive fraud -- stuffing of the ballot boxes and people voting multiple times because their fingers were not properly marked with ink. They also voiced concern that flimsy dividers and transparent ballot boxes jeopardized voter confidentiality.
  • A Brazilian judge asked prosecutors to investigate a potential shell company that received $446,000 from the 2014 re-election campaign of President Dilma Rousseff, reports the Wall Street Journal. It was the second time in less than a week that Electoral Judge Gilmar Mendes has asked for a probe of funds linked to Rousseff's campaign (see Monday's briefs.)
  • In another hit for Rousseff, Vice President Michel Temer on Monday decided to drop his role as day-to-day political coordinator in Congress for the president but is not leaving her government, reports Reuters. But yesterday he reversed his decision, saying Rousseff asked him to continue to be her government's liaison with its coalition in Congress in a new phase now that major fiscal austerity legislation has been approved, reported Reuters. He said impeachment of the embattled president is "unthinkable."
  • A feature piece in The Guardian from this weekend wonders whether Rousseff can withstand the political pressure she's facing, and goes into her history and political trajectory.
  • Brazil's state-owned lender Caixa Economica Federal began steps toward holding an initial public offering for its insurance subsidiary as part of an effort to help the government improve its fiscal situation, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Murders in El Salvador are hitting new records: over 40 a day on several days last week. A piece in The Guardian looks at the situation of violence plaguing the country.
  • An essay by Teju Cole in the New York Times Magazine examines "Men on a Rooftop," a photograph taken in  São Paulo in 1960 by René Burri. The image of four men on a rooftop " literally portrays the levels of social stratification and the enormous gap between those above and those below." He visits São Paulo in order to delve deeper into the image.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Venezuela/Colombia Border Crisis (August 25, 2015)


The crisis along the Colombia and Venezuela border intensified yesterday as Pres. Maduro gave a press conference where he accused former Pres. Uribe of being a "promotor del narcotráfico y cómplice de asesinatos," according to Venezuela's El Universal and Colombia's Semana. After Venezuela closed down two border crossings, there have been calls in Colombia to call back their Ambassador from Caracas, according to Semana

If you can only read one article on this, it should be WOLA's Venezuela's blog that puts things in chronology and is packed with links for more details. Another good piece is from El Espectador (from Colombia) which puts the whole affair into the electoral context that both countries are engaged in.

The Wall St Journal reports that 1,000 Colombians have been deported from Venezuela (the Guardian says the number deported in recent days is equal to almost half the 1,772 expelled all of last year) while that country's army is increasing their presence at the border. "For years, residents along the border region trafficked goods subsidized by Venezuela such as baby formula, rice and gasoline to Colombia, where they are sold for handsome profit."  In his press conference, Maduro suggested that Venezuela has been "inundated by more than 100,000 Colombians in recent months," according to the LATimes.

The OAS has offered to mediate this crisis but that seems unlikely as Maduro also took time in the press conference to explain why the OAS is nothing but a yanqui tool.  "Beware of a self-coup ('auto-golpe')," warns the Miami Herald's Andres Oppenheimer who suggests that Maduro is not taking any chances in the elections.  In Buzzfeed fashion, TeleSur offers the Top Ten phrases from the Maduro press conference including: "we love Colombians so much that we have 5 million of them living in Venezuela." 

A meeting between Foreign Ministers is expected next Wednesday. 

  • Though the Obama administration has employed a more "inclusive, multilateral approach" with Latin America, it has increasingly less and less leverage in Latin America, according to a piece in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. Though Pres. Obama has not only talked about “a new chapter of engagement” and an “equal partnership" but has also delivered, according to the article, with Cuba, initiatives to help Central American governments battle drug-related crime and the Caribbean to overcome energy shortages.  The region has undergone "dramatic changes in Latin America, which have inevitably reduced the United States’ influence."  China's role in the region is an important reason why the U.S. isn't getting as much traction, according to Michael Reid, the author of the story. Last week, Inter-Press Service reported on China's relationship with Latin America and led with Costa Rica’s new national stadium, "donated by China as a gift for the reestablishment of bilateral ties in 2007." Another huge Chinese investment is the new canal in Nicaragua, although a recent Bloomberg piece questioned its progress.
  • 21 Congressional Democrats, led by Rep. Hank Johnson and Jan Schakowsky, are calling on the Obama administration to stop funding Honduras’ security forces, according to an essay on CEPR's blog. The blog notes that though the congressional letter has had little coverage in the US (here's something from Miami's El Nuevo Herald), Honduran media have paid attention including Proceso and Tiempo.  El Libertador publishes a Spanish version of the letter with all the co-signers.
  • Latin American currencies sank to 22-year lows yesterday, according to Bloomberg while a series of articles wondered whether the Brazilian real will reach 5 to US$1 (Estadao), questioned the fluctuations of Venezuela's bolivarianos (El Mundo), and worried about Black Monday in Mexico (Proceso).
  • How Bolivia successfully rejected the U.S. model of illegal drug control is the focus of a WOLA podcast interview with Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network (44 minutes). Yesterday the Dialogue's Daily Advisor asked: Are Improved U.S.- Bolivia Relations in the Near Future?
  • Facing increasing pressure to resign, Guatemala's President Pérez Molina has turned to attacking the CICIG and the business community, according to Prensa Libre, which uploads audio of Sunday's 5-minute presidential address. Adding to his woes, the Ministers of Finance and Communications have resigned, reports Reuters; three other ministers stepped down over the weekend. Though CICIG's tweets seem have gone silent since Aug 21, their website offers a round up of local headlines including the recent arrest of the Vice-President.
  • Peace talks between the Colombian government and the ELN are set to move beyond their "exploratory" stage, according to El Espectador. Peace talks with the FARC have an eye toward getting a blessing by the Pope during his visit to Cuba, according to Spain's El Pais. Still, it's two steps forward, one step back as a FARC commander finally admitted that their forces assassinated AfroColombian leader Genaro García, according to El Tiempo. "There will be justice," Commander Pastor Alape tweeted
  • Venezuela and Ecuador are caught up in the global price drop in oil that adds to the "fears of unrest," according to the NYTimes. Venezuela is in a tighter crunch as it has very little foreign exchange reserves.
  • Half of babies born to 15- to 19-year-old Hondurans are the result of rape, where emergency contraception was banned six years ago, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
  • Mexican newsweekly Proceso dedicates its cover story to the narco-invasion of the United States.  Separately a Texas "soccer mom" was really a Mexican drug dealer, according to the Dallas Morning News. "She was sentenced on Monday to 9 years in federal prison in Fort Worth for a money laundering conspiracy."
  • The New Yorker reports on the pollution in Guanabara Bay which will be used for sailing competition in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. "The Brazilian sailor Lars Grael, a two-time Olympic medalist, told the Times last year that he has seen human bodies on four separate occasions."
  • 14 gang members have been killed in a prison in the north of El Salvador, according to the BBC. "Officials said the bodies of the men, who were all members of the country's notorious Barrio 18 gang, were discovered in two separate locations during a routine inspection of the prison in Quezaltepeque."
  • 1% of Brazil's population owns 50% of the land, according to a feature in this morning's Morning Edition on NPR.
  • Mexico is hosting the first conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), "a pact to regulate the trade that took force in December but has yet to agree fine print on how it will be implemented," according to Reuters. They have not yet agreed on transparency rules for publishing arms sales, "a contentious point that arms control lobby groups say has met with resistance from some European exporters." The International Committee of Red Cross says the illegal transfer of weapons is rife, according to a related video press release.
  • The NYTimes offers an editorial essay on how Cuban dissidents have been faring with the evolution of US/Cuban relations. In general, it's thumbs up for the new policies. Says one dissident, "repression has increased, but not because [of] the new policy ... it has increased because every day there’s more activism and courage and the regime fears it will lose control." Separately, the executive director of the 'Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation' calls for renaming the Cuban Embassy’s D.C. address as No. 1 Oswaldo Payá Way, in an op-ed in the Washington Post.
  • And then there was this: Colombia's Semana reports on actor Tom Cruise visiting troops in the department of Amazonas.  In turns out he will play an ex-CIA agent who collaborated with Pablo Escobar in a film slated for a 2017 release.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina accused in corruption scandal (August 24, 2015)

On Friday the International Commission Against Immunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Guatemalan Public Ministry filed charges against Perez Molina in the country's Supreme Court saying he led a crime ring known as "La Linea." The charges could lead to the embattled president being impeached, reports VICE.

"We have found the very regrettable participation of the president of the republic and Mrs Roxana Baldetti at every level of the organization" behind the scheme, said Ivan Velasquez of the U.N. backed CICIG.

Velásquez said they had found evidence tying Pérez Molina and Baldetti to La Línea criminal ring, including a real estate sales plan in which the client was the President, and checks in the former veep's name reports Plaza Pública.

Pérez Molina rejects the accusations, and says he will defend himself in court. In a televised message to citizens yesterday he said the investigation is an example of international and special interest meddling in politics and called on rural workers and indigenous groups to demonstrate in his favor, reports El Periódico

La Línea has rocked the Guatemalan political scene since April, when the CICIG announced that it had uncovered a scheme involving high level politicians taking millions of dollars from businessmen who paid bribes in order to evade import duties. Altogether, Guatemalan taxpayers have been defrauded of $120 million, according to the investigation.

More than 30 people have been detained so far, reports the BBC.
On Friday Velasquez and Guatemalan attorney general Thelma Aldana announced that they now have proof that Pérez Molina and Baldetti were involved in the scheme. They present as evidence 89,000 wiretaps, 5,000 e-mails, 17 raids, and dozens of thousands of documents, reports Nómada. The investigation has centered heavily on hard evidence instead of witness information, reports Plaza Pública.

"Everything was arranged, with consent, with superior authorization. All these references to 1 and 2 [in the wiretaps] … each one of these pieces was in order to articulate with President Otto Pérez Molina and former vice president Roxana Baldetti," said Velásquez on Friday. Double-entry accounting on raided computers show each financial movement of the corruption scheme, explained the officials on Friday, saying it was fortunate that the criminals kept neat books.

"From the evidence seized in raids along with wiretaps, it is probable that the president of the republic has participated in committing the same punishable conduct as the other suspects in the scheme, Aldana said on Friday.

Guatemala followers will enjoy the sordid details: Baldetti was charged in a room in a private hospital, where she had checked in complaining of gastro-intestinal distress, though the media reports that information skeptically, saying it was probably a last ditch attempt to avoid jail. (Photo of Baldetti being charged.)

Weekly protests in Guatemala, spurred by La Línea and other corruption scandals including one affecting the national social security institute, have demanded the resignation of Pérez. A vote in Congress last week to strip him of the immunity granted to the office narrowly failed last week.

This weekend thousands of citizens gathered in Guatemala City demanding Pérez’s resignation, but he continues to refuse, reports AFP. His cabinet is hemorrhaging as officials rushing to step aside  -- though El Periodico reports that Pérez Molina isn't accepting resignations. 

Fernando Carrera, Guatemalan ambassador to the U.N. and former Minister of Foreign Relations has a piece in Soy 502 calling on Pérez Molina to resign in order to strengthen the institutional process Guatemala is undergoing. He notes the importance that all of the accusations and defense are taking place in a democratic and constitutional framework.

But resigning might be a moot point, explains Nómada. Should the president be stripped of his immunity, declare in the ensuing trial and be sentenced to pre-trial detention he would automatically lose the office.

Three months ago the Supreme Court already rejected a petition to strip Pérez Molina of immunity, and he cobbled together a narrative of staying in the presidency to maintain Guatemala’s institutional stability, argues Martín Rodríguez Pellecer in another Nómada piece. Pérez managed to stay in power thanks to the support of the Guatemalan business community, the opposition-led Congress (under the leadership of Manuel Baldizón, who has been leading the polls to win the upcoming presidential election) and the U.S. Embassy. 

Now, with a solid accusation against him – and evidence gathered by the CICIG and the Public Ministry – those supports are likely to dissolve. Already on Friday the main business association, Cacif, called for Pérez Molina to resign. 
"Today the President is linked to a contraband structure, which gravely compromises his situation and position as head of the Executive and makes it truly unsustainable," said Jorge Briz, head of the Chamber of Commerce and accompanied by business leaders, reports Nómada. The piece notes that the business community has been largely silent throughout the months of political upheaval since La Línea was revealed.

In a Nómada article from Thursday (before the revelations) Martín Rodríguez Pellecer analyzes the importance of the support of the business community for Pérez Molina’s continued governance – and thus the relevance of their ending that backing on Friday. According to Rodríguez’s analysis the Cacif is one of the major factors that permitted Pérez Molina to continue until now – along with the U.S. Embassy.

Following Baldetti’s resignation earlier this year, Congress approved the appointment of former constitutional court justice Alejandro Maldonado as vice president, who will take Pérez’s if he leaves before the end of his term, reports Bloomberg.

All of this occurs just two weeks before presidential elections are scheduled for September 6. Protesters have increasingly called for the election to be delayed, but Guatemala’s electoral court discarded that option. (See last Monday's post on the upcoming elections.)

Of course, the elections are hardly a way out of the current political mess, notes the New York Times. The front-runner, a businessman named Manuel Baldizón, has been taken to task by the electoral authorities for overspending in his campaign and his vice-presidential candidate, Edgar Barquín, the former head of Guatemala’s Central Bank, is facing prosecution in a separate inquiry involving money laundering.

A journalist on Friday asked Velásquez and Aldana whether the announcement had been timed regarding the elections. They rejected the idea, saying they came out as soon as they had the relevant information.

Those who might optimistically think that at least customs fraud in the country is done with are wrong, explains Mario Archila in Plaza Pública. What the case indicates, he says, is the importance of black market importations, as those are the kind of companies that benefit from this kind of under-estimating the value of importations.

And those interested in the winding roads of corruption in Guatemala should look at a piece in Plaza Pública that explains how La Línea is only the latest iteration of a customs racket system put into place in the 1970s.

News Briefs

  • Venezuelan authorities are using bureaucratic minutia to eliminate opposition candidates for the upcoming December legislative elections, reports the New York Times. Nine opposition leaders have been disqualified in recent weeks, though authorities reject political maneuvering as the reason. Barring opposition candidates could stop some popular leaders from gaining votes, and could create divisions among the broad opposition to the Maduro administration.
  • Eduardo Cunha, Brazil's speaker of the lower house of Congress was accused of taking as much as $40 in bribes in the context of a wide-ranging Petrobras corruption scandal (see Friday's post). Far from admitting guilt, he's saying he's at the center of a conspiracy to deflect attention away from his former ally, embattled President Dilma Rousseff. His lashing out "is raising concern over the potential for even more political upheaval as the government grasps for ways to deal with dismal approval ratings and a sharply contracting economy," reports theNew York Times.
  • A Brazilian federal judge has asked prosecutors to investigate donations to Rousseff's 2014 re-election campaign, citing signs that money from a high-profile corruption scandal ended up financing her campaign, reports the Wall Street Journal. The request further complicates the already struggling president, though any verdict on that matter could take months, or even years to be reached explains the piece.
  • After last year's migrant minor crisis in the U.S., the numbers of unaccompanied children arriving at the border has sharply decreased. But the crisis has simply shifted, reports the New York Times. It's now playing out in courtrooms where thousands of children without lawyers have been issued deportation orders, some because they never showed up in court.
  • El Daily Post reports on Encuentro mortales, a new Spanish-language open-source reporting project aims to become a reliable database that documents the killing of undocumented immigrants during interactions with law enforcement in the United States.  Encuentros mortales is collecting public records and media reports of undocumented immigrants killed during interactions with law enforcement, starting from the year 2000, with a focus on the southern border of the United States. It will also rely on crowdsourced submissions to fill in the gaps, mining Spanish-language news outlets along the border and promoting itself widely within Spanish-speaking communities. The project is similar to Fatal Encounters, a site also created by D. Brian Burghart that records police killings across the United States. Burghart's motivation was the realization that such encounters were woefully underreported and he hoped to present a more accurate picture of police violence through the collection of more rigorous data, explains the piece.
  • The families of Mexico's thousands of missing people say they have little help from the government. About 25,000 people have "disappeared" since 2006, according to estimates by the government and human rights groups. Not clear is how many of them may have been victims of foul play, but some fear that many are dead because of the high levels of violence since federal crackdowns against drug cartels that began that year, reports the Los Angeles Times. Women in particular are vulnerable. (See Thursday's post on femicide in the region.)
  • President Enrique Peña Nieto's wife and finance minister were absolved after a seven-month conflict-of-interest government investigation into the purchase of luxury homes reports theNew York Times. Government influence was not used in the case and the purchase of the homes in question was previous to Peña Nieto's presidency, which means no laws were broken, concluded Mexico's comptroller. But experts said his conclusion, bolstered by a final report that is thousands of pages long, failed to dispel doubts about the independence and scope of the probe said the Wall Street Journal.
  • Chinese market losses and falling commodities prices led to an investor selloff that hit Mexican stocks and the peso today, reports the Wall Street Journal.

  • Venezuelan security forces have deported hundreds of Colombians as part of a security offensive along the border that is ratcheting up tensions between the two neighbors, reports the Associated Press.

Note: Eduardo Romero will be posting the briefing tomorrow (August 25), Thursday (August 27) and Friday (August 28) of this week.