Friday, May 27, 2016

Santos defends peace plebiscite (May 27, 2016)

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos asked the Constitutional Court, yesterday, to authorize a referendum he is proposing on an eventual peace deal with FARC guerrilla group, reports EFE.

"For peace, for our social rule of law, for the victims, for the future of Colombia, for the potential hope of finally living in a normal country, without war, I respectfully ask" that the Statutory Peace Referendum Law be declared constitutional, he said.

Though Santos technically has the power to sign an agreement without submitting it to referendum, his government has been adamant about taking this step, reports Silla Vacía.

Santos noted that a yes vote would give the agreement popular legitimacy. (See  May 12's briefs and May 13's post.) The Constitutional Court must approve a law passed last year that would allow for a plebiscite on the peace deal, reports AFP.

Santos' high profile defense of the referendum lays to rest rumors that his government was seeking a judicial scuppering of the referendum in order to avoid losing at the ballot box, according to Silla Vacía.

Peace negotiators in Havana said yesterday that they will be in "permanent session" in order to finalize a deal as soon as possible, notes EFE.

The EU will contribute a new 575 million dollar package to support the transition to peace, reports AFP.

News Briefs
  • The Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) has kidnapped three reporters in Norte de Santander, along the Venezuelan border. (See Wednesday's briefs.) Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said yesterday that the ELN was "responsible for the disappearance" of the three journalists, but avoided calling the events kidnappings, reports Reuters. Salud Hernández-Mora, a well known reporter in Colombia, is known for her defense of kidnapping victims, according to Silla Vacía. She is known for her strong stances against the Havana peace negotiations with the FARC and against President Juan Manuel Santos' administration.
  • As if the situation wasn't complicated enough, a farmworkers strike scheduled to start Saturday could complicate the manhunt in the Catacumbo region, reports Silla Vacía.
  • Panama's  Supreme Court is seeking the extradition of former President Ricardo Martinelli from the United States on charges related to illegal wiretaps against dozens of opponents while in office, reports the Associated Press.
  • Venezuela's OAS ambassador said yesterday that the country's government faces a "distorted" campaign aimed at justifying political intervention, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Though these cases are high profile, Silla Vacía visits the case of a disappeared community organizer whose disappearance four months ago hasn't been cleared up yet.
  • Student protesters in Chile demanding the government accelerate reforms that would provide universal free university education clashed with police yesterday, reports the BBC. The government said demonstrators refused to take an alternative route suggested by police and threw stones at security agents, while the students say they were brutally attacked.
  • Peruvian right-wing presidential contender Keiko Fujimori has a strong lead over her opponent heading into the last week before a run-off election, reports AFP. She has 46 percent of the vote and her rival, center-right economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, 38.9 percent, according to a poll released yesterday.
  • El Salvador's Congress approved a bond issuance of $152 million to finance a series of measures aimed at tackling endemic gang violence, reports Reuters.
  • A time of tense issues between Mexico and the U.S., a new high profile ambassador takes the post in Mexico DF this week. Roberta Jacobson is expected to engage the Mexican government on issues of human rights and security, reports the Associated Press.
  • Authorities in Central America are clamping down on migrant routes. Earlier this month, Colombia became the latest, closing its border with Panama and stranding hundreds of Cubans seeking to reach the U.S., reports the Guardian.
  • Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra is running for the post of U.N. Secretary General, but her chances could be hurt by her stance against Venezuela in the OAS, reports Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri is part of what Graciela Monteagudo characterizes at the "third wave of neoliberalism" in a NACLA piece. So why hasn't his austerity oriented administration sparked massive outcries? She points to "an enhanced welfare system that keeps the most vulnerable barely afloat, the shifting alliances of governors and legislators, and Macri's ability to negotiate with at least some unions and community leaders" as well as a disarticulation of social movements that she says occurred under the Kirchner governments. 
  • "The slow rollback of South America’s "pink tide" is laying bare the endemic corruption that was hidden beneath the economic success once enjoyed by the region's progressive governments," argues Uki Goñi in the Guardian.
  • Brazil's government plans to lift limits on foreign ownership of agricultural land. Secretary of Investment Moreira Franco called the restriction, aimed at limiting foreign control of large tracts of arable land, "nonsense," reports Reuters.
  • In an odd twist, even for Brazil, Acting President Michel Temer is battling rumors that he is a devil worshiper, and asked prominent evangelical pastors for help, reports the Washington Post.
  • Brazilian police are searching for more than 30 men suspected of participating in a gang rape of a 16-year-old in Rio de Janeiro, reports the Associated Press.
  • The Guardian has a piece on the environmental mess that is Guayaquil's river delta.
  • It's too hot for suits in Cuba, so people seeking a classy look in their ID photos digitally add formal wear to the picture, reports the Associated Press.
  • Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, this year's Pritzker Prize winner, says Latin America's slums should be inspiration for new housing. He rejects romanticization of favelas, but says they highlight human resilience and the instinctive capacity for home-building, reports the New York Times.
Note: There will be no briefing May 30-June 2. Sarah Maslin will be putting together the briefing June 3-15.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Scarcities eroding Venezuelan government's support (May 24, 2016)

Note: this is the post for May 24, which did not get published due to a technical problem.

A university poll in Venezuela found that 12 percent of those polled are eating less than three meals a day. With shortages of meat, beans and milk, those who are eating, have seen a deterioration in the quality of their diet and are resorting to pasta, rice and arepas, reports the Guardian. The government has been urging citizens to begin producing their own food via urban agriculture, reports the Miami Herald, a modern day version of WWII's Victory Gardens.

The price for April's food basket shows an increase of 718 percent in a year, and costs 16 minimum wages to purchase, reports the Caracas Chronicles based on numbers by the Teachers' Federation's Center of Documentation and Social Analysis.

Nine NGOs, including Provea, are suing for the protection of the populations' rights to health and life, in light of medicine shortages. They hope the Supreme Tribunal will order the government to improve availability or accept offers of international cooperation and aid, reports Efecto Cocuyo

Scarcities are forcing even government loyalist bastions such as residents of housing projects to protest, reports the Guardian separately.
(See last Monday's  Tuesday's and Thursday's posts as well as Wednesday's briefs.)

On the recall referendum: The Venezuelan electoral authority, the CNE, has no date for the gathering of signatures from 20 percent of the electorate that would trigger a recall referendum, reports Efecto Cocuyo. The CNE is currently verifying the signatures of one percent of the electorate, gathered earlier this month as a first step.

Government officials, including President Nicolás Maduro, insisted last week that there is no obligation to carry out the referendum this year (which would trigger a new election for Maduro's successor). But the constitution says otherwise, according to experts cited in Efecto Cocuyo.

In the midst of increasing tensions between the government and the political opposition, Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan historian and university professor, argues that the search for a peaceful transition will face very difficult challenges. In an interview published at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, she also asserts the important contributions of NGOs and social media to the country's democratic transformation. "We need to open our eyes, because the democracies of the 21st century are not the democracies of the 20th century. They are a different type of democracy with different types of representation and mediation," she said.

Venezuela asides: Venezuela's state-oil company Pdvsa is seeking to offer service providers a debt exchange in order to lighten the load of some $20 billion worth of unpaid invoices, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Venezuela seeks to rejoin the Kimberly Process, an international group dedicated to verifying the legitimacy of diamonds for export to to end trade in conflict diamonds, reports Reuters. Venezuela left in 2008, and rejoining could provide an important economic boost in the long run, according to experts. 

Colombian professor Socorro Ramírez analyzes Colombian-Venezuelan relations in Nueva Sociedad. The two countries share a long border, and hundreds of thousands of residents have migrated between the two. Nonetheless, opposite political trajectories have divided the countries' governments and decimated trade. As Venezuela nears a political paradigm shift, and Colombia draws closer to a post-peace scenario, the two have an opportunity to focus on the complicated border area and begin a new era of cooperation, she argues.

News Briefs
  • Argentina and Brazil plan to work together to help find a solution to Venezuela's crisis, announced the Brazilian foreign minister yesterday. Yet, both countries agreed to secure trade deals independently rather than through the Mercosur trade bloc, which includes Venezuela, reports the Associated Press.
  • Brazilian Planning and Budget Minister Romero Jucá said he'd take a temporary leave of absence from his post while prosecutors investigate a recording in which he allegedly discusses how to derail a corruption investigation with another government official, reports the Wall Street Journal. In the recording, he said President Dilma Rousseff's removal was key to quashing the Petrobras corruption investigation, known as Lava Jato (Car Wash), reports theGuardian. (See yesterday's briefs.) Jucá denies wrongdoing, and said he will return to the Senate, reports the New York Times. It's the first political crisis of Acting President Michel Temer's two-week old administration. The accusations against Jucá could also increase scrutiny on his new cabinet, which was meant to increase investor confidence in the country. Seven of Temer's new ministers are implicated in the Petrobras graft investigation already. 
  • Artists and musicians across the country are occupying public buildings demanding Temer's ouster, reports the Washington Post. The cultural revolt was inspired by the elimination of the country's Ministry of Culture as part of an austerity push. On Friday singer Caetano Veloso performed a free show for thousands outside the landmark Ministry of Culture building in Rio that is occupied by protesters. 
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is in the midst of a funding crisis which could lead to the lost of 40 percent of its staff by August, writes James Cavallaro, the body's president, in El País. The IACHR survives thanks to contributions from the U.S., Canada, the European Union and its member states, as well as the OAS. It's time for Latin American countries to step up to the plate and fund the human rights control system, he argues.
  • Cuban migrants arriving in the U.S. -- via Mexico or arriving at international airports without visas -- in the first six months of this fiscal year are already on pace to match the numbers for all of the 2015 fiscal year, reports the Miami Herald. That year was already a record.
  • Cuban human rights activists and U.S. officials say that the island's government has carried out a campaign to criticize U.S. policy in the wake of U.S. President Barak Obama's March visit, reports the Miami Herald. Efforts are being made to diminish the importance of the visit. (SeeMarch 22's post, for example.)
  • Mexico's War on Drugs "has only brought a large-scale deterioration of its institutions and social fabric. The impunity over human rights violations and corruption generates an unconscionable mixture, in which the strong economic and political interests of criminality go unscathed. At the same time, it is the most marginalized, and often innocent, people who face the worst consequences. In short, the negative impact on human rights of the war on drugs in Mexico is not a mere analytical hypothesis to be proven; it is, rather, a daily reality experienced for more than a decade by thousands of families scarred by the crisis of violence," reports the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, republished by InSight Crime.
  • Last week the new international anti corruption mission to Honduras -- MACCIH -- completed its first month in action. The OAS backed group has hinted that it intends to "take a follow-the-money approach to pursuing corrupt officials," reports InSight Crime. This means, for example, targeting police officers with illicit-enrichment investigations, though they may also be suspected of worst (but harder to prosecute) actions.
  • Haitians are still waiting for the presidential election that will give them a successor to former President Michel Martelly. But the leader who stepped down in favor of an interim government in February has quickly reverted back to his musical career as his alter-ego "Sweet Mickey," reports the Miami Herald.
  • Abortions are common in Jamaica, though they are formally illegal except to save a woman's life or preserve her physical or mental health. The WHO estimated there were more than 22,000 abortions on the island of some 2.8 million people in 2011. Yet the issue remains a local taboo and women who have had them are shamed and shunned in much of the island nation's dancehall music, reports Reuters.

Mexican security forces' kill rate indicate summary executions (May 26, 2016)

Experts examining the Mexican armed forces' kill rate say the high lethality rates indicate summary executions, reports the New York Times. Thousands of accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings have piled up since the government began a war on drug trafficking cartels a decade ago. Of the 4,000 complaints of torture that the attorney general’s office has reviewed since 2006, only 15 have resulted in convictions.

But the government is loathe to crack down on the security forces most able to take on the fight against criminal organizations, according to the piece.
"Not only is torture generalized in Mexico, but it is also surrounded by impunity," said Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture. "If the government knows it is frequent and you still don’t get any prosecutions, and the ones you do prosecute usually wind up going nowhere, the blame lies with the state."

Earlier this month soldiers accused of executing over a dozen alleged gang members after their surrender were released (see May 17's briefs).

Mexico asides: Homicides in the country are ever rising, but government officials persist in denying that fact, reports Alejandro Hope in his Daily Post column. April's average daily murder rate of 56.1 was the worst since the government began officially counting victims in January 2014. (See Monday's briefs.)

Lawlessness in Tamaulipas state has residents threatening to throw out the ruling PRI party -- they say they're voting on local issues: kidnapping, extortion and unsafe highways, reports the Guardian.

The U.S. border with Mexico is seeing a surge of migrants ahead of a possible "Trump Wall," reports the Washington Post

News Briefs
  • A recording of senate leader Renan Calheiros suggesting legal changes that would weaken the massive corruption investigation into graft at Petrobras appears to strengthen suspicions that top lawmakers are seeking to quash the probe that has implicated many of them, reports the Associated Press. In the recording, published by Folha de S. Paulo, Calheiros suggests legal changes to bar the use of plea bargains for people who have been arrested. Such deals have been used to persuade suspects to implicate high-ranking businessmen and politicians, including Calheiros. Ironically, the recording seems to be a conversation with former Senator Sergio Machado, who reached a plea-bargain agreement with the Supreme Court, reports Reuters.
  • Brazilian diplomats have been ordered to refute foreign press, governments and international organizations that criticize the impeachment of suspended President Dilma Rousseff, reports Reuters.
  • Brazil's Rio de Janeiro state missed an $8.4 million payment to the French Development Agency, part of an ongoing debt crisis, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Acting Brazilian President Michel Temer's government continues to name insiders to top positions. Paulo Rogério Caffarelli was named president of Banco do Brasil, the biggest bank in the country by assets, and Gilberto Magalhães Occhi will be president of Caixa Econômica Federal, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Prosecutors in Brazil are expanding a corruption probe into the upcoming Rio Olympics to include all the venues and services financed with federal funds, reports Reuters.
  • New York Times editorial calls Bolivian President Evo Morales the "worst boyfriend in the country." The piece reviews the scandal that has captured the country since early this year, when a former girlfriend of Morales, Gabriela Zapata, was accused of making a fortune off of Chinese companies who hired her to secure state contracts. The tale became more compelling when Zapata, who was then arrested by the government for influence peddling, revealed the two had had a child. Morales believed the child had died in infancy, but he was alive and 8 years old, she said. The editorial denounces the jailing of Zapata's lawyer and an aunt, who defended her version of the boy. But the BBC notes that the boy apparently does not exist after all, and a family judge found as much after Zapata presented a boy at court, but refused to allow DNA testing. La Razón reports that Zapata's lawyer is in jail for knowingly presenting false evidence, in the form of the boy, though he says he is a political prisoner. (See Feb. 19's briefs on how the whole scandal affected Morales' failed attempt to expand presidential term limits.)
  • A Venezuelan opposition demonstration drew scant crowds yesterday, a sign that Maduro opposers should better marshal their energies in the an unequal battle against government forces, said political opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, according to Efecto Cocuyo.
  • A piece in Reuters' ongoing series on abortion in Latin America focuses on how women in the Caribbean travel to secure abortions that are illegal in their home countries or to avoid getting the procedure in small places where they might be identified. Travel between countries applies elsewhere in the region as well, according to the piece. For example, the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association has received so many patients from neighboring Brazil that they are considering opening a branch closer to the border.
  • A Colombian court struck down a law requiring that mining permits be issued exclusively by the national government. The decision could allow provincial and local authorities to restrict mining in their areas, reports Reuters.
  • A Spanish journalist reported missing in Colombia's Catacumba region is working on a story about the ELN rebel group and is expected to return in the coming days, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said yesterday, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Former Honduran President Mel Zelaya, ousted by a coup in 2009, announced interest in running for the country's top office again in the next electoral cycle, reports TeleSur.
  • An Ecuadorian environmental activist says he received threats from Chevron after he became a key witness in a case accusing the oil giant of environmental contamination in the Amazon, reports TeleSur.
  • A U.N. official said Argentina's indigenous people face "appalling" plight. Mutuma Ruteere, U.N. special rapporteur on racism and related intolerance said the country must do more to ensure indigenous groups can defend their land rights and claim title deeds without facing intimidation and violence from security forces, reports Reuters.
  • Argentine judges will deliver a verdict tomorrow on the first case to focus on Operación Condor, an international program designed by South America's authoritarian regimes to kill thousands of exiled leftwing activist who challenged the regions' military dictators in the 1970s and 80s. Eighteen former military officers – including Argentina's last dictator Reynaldo Bignone, 88 – will on Friday be sentenced on charges including kidnapping, torture and forced disappearance, reports the Guardian.
  • Latin America should look to Saudi Arabia's example in mapping out economic independence from commodities, argues Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Austerity measures proposed in Brazil (May 25, 2016)

Acting Brazilian President Michel Temer announced a slew of measures aimed at boosting investor confidence in the country and distancing himself from suspended President Dilma Rousseff. 

He said he would try to repeal nationalist oil legislation, curb public spending and shut down a sovereign wealth fund, though he did not go into detail as to how he plans to convince Congress to approve the program, reports the New York Times.

The measures could include shutting down a $563 million sovereign wealth fund created during Brazil’s commodity boom and requiring the early repayment of some $28 billion of debt that state development bank BNDES owes to the national treasury, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Temer proposed an unusual constitutional change aimed at limiting government spending. The bill would cap federal spending increases to the previous year's inflation rate, reports the WSJ.

When he assumed office two weeks ago, Temer promised a particular focus on overhauling the pension system, and set a 30 day deadline for a proposal, reports the Wall Street Journal separately. The new finance minister, Henrique Meirelles, said the system must be "sustainable and self-financed." But talk of raising the retirement age has incurred the wrath of powerful unions and pensioners groups.

Getting the proposals approved will be a test for the new government. Though he has broad support in the Congress, Temer needs a supermajority in the legislature to pass a constitutional change.

Yesterday the new government scored a legislative victory: Congress approved a revised budget plan for this year that allows a government deficit of $48 billion, reports the Wall Street Journal in another piece. It reflects a new, pessimistic, budget unveiled by Meirelles last week. 

Without the change, the acting government would have been forced to meet nearly impossible surplus goals set out last year. Rousseff presented a similar measure in March, to recognize the inevitable deficit, but Congress was focused on her ouster and never debated the measure, reports El País.

Temer accuses critics of carrying out "psychological aggression." 

News Briefs
  • Three journalists have disappeared in Colombia's volatile Catatumbo region, a situation that raises pressure on President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his presidency on establishing peace with the country's armed groups. Salud Hernández-Mora, a correspondent for Spain's El Mundo newspaper who writes a popular weekly column in El Tiempo has been missing since Saturday, and there is speculation that she was kidnapped by the ELN. Two journalists from the right-leaning network RCN who were in the region covering the manhunt for Hernández-Mora are now also unaccounted for, reports the Guardian.
  • The disappearances show how the central government lacks territorial control in vast swathes of the country, according to Colombia Reports. Catacumbo is one of the country's prime coca growing areas and has long been under control of armed groups. The entire episode endangers the incipient ELN peace accord process, and shows its fragility, argues Silla Vacía. (Though Silla Vacía in another story has a source that says Hernández-Mora is not kidnapped at all but in pursuit of a story.)
  • Constitutional Court public hearings for the peace plebiscite in Colombia start tomorrow. Santos will speak, as will Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo, High Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo, and the government's lead negotiator with the FARC, Humberto de la Calle, reports El Espectador. The court will decide the legality of legislation passed by Congress last year that modifies the threshold for a positive referendum on the peace deal, lowering it to 13 percent for "yes," and allows public officials to campaign in favor of the agreement, reports El Heraldo.
  • Without a positive vote, the peace agreement hammered out in Havana with the FARC cannot be enacted, warned Santos, according to El Tiempo.
  • Mary Anastasia O'Grady uses her Wall Street Journal column this week to denounce Santos' request to Congress for powers to amend the constitution, saying he has borrowed a leaf from the the "Bolivarian strongman" playbook. "Santos wants this authoritarian power so he can unilaterally change the constitution to include the terms of a "peace" accord he has been secretly negotiating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for almost five years. He initially promised a referendum on the final agreement so Colombians could vote point-by-point on its particulars, such as whether guerrilla felons should be able to run for office. But he went back on that promise—and many others—a long time ago," she argues.
  • Actually, the Colombian Constitution is a big winner in the process, argues Silla Vacía. The 1991 document will hardly be touched by the peace agreement, which will only require a few transitional amendments. The process shows the strength of the constitution, rather than its weakness as critics say, according to the piece.
  • Guatemalan police say they've captured six Mara Salvatrucha gang leaders. They were apparently captured at an international meeting of representatives of Mara Salvatrucha leaders from Central America, reports Soy 502.
  • Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced the approval of reforms to the country's electoral and political party law, passed in April by the Guatemalan Congress. He said he is preparing a new bill that will address issues not contemplated by the new law, reports La Hora. The reforms address voting abroad, better supervision of political organizations, strengthening of public financing for political organization, prohibition of public officials to proselytize at public activities, regulation of payment of advertising space, among others. But Morales said the reforms left out a budgetary increase for the electoral tribunal, internal democratization of political parties, and did not contemplate term limits for legislators and discarded quotas, parity and minority representation.
  • Immigration to the U.S. from El Salvador and Honduras is often driven by brutal gang violence. But Guatemalans undertaking the dangerous journey are often spurred more by economic concerns, reports the Guardian. The piece focuses on the case of Cajolá, a small, indigenous Guatemalan town, which has nearly a third of its population in the U.S. already.
  • Part of an ongoing series on abortion in Latin America by Reuters reports on how women in Colombia, where abortion is technically legal, find the practise out of reach due to bureaucratic hurdles, dangerous delays and stubborn attitudes.
  • Another piece from the Reuters series, looks at Brazil, where abortion is illegal except in cases of rape or incest or if the life of the mother is in danger. The government has cracked down on hundreds of illegal abortion clinics over the past decade, due to a rising numbers of evangelical Christians in the Brazilian Congress, according to human rights groups. Press reports say that a woman dies every two days from an illegal abortion.
  • Argentina's resolution of a 15-year debt legal battle, along with economic reforms carried out by President Mauricio Macri are paying off in loans. The World Bank's International Finance Corporation is more than tripling its investment in Argentina, reports Bloomberg.
  • Cuba's government said it will seek to legalize thousands of small- and medium-size businesses that have sprung up in recent years, a step that could encourage more entrepreneurship in the country, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Assistant Secretary of State William W. Brownfield said talks with Cuba over law enforcement issues shouldn't get ahead of broader bilateral negotiations, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Afro-Cuban activists are caught between a government that denies the existence of racism and fellow black Cubans who lack racial consciousness, reports The Nation.
  • Chilean high school students posing as tourists burst into the Chilean presidential seat, el Palacio de La Moneda, and protested the government's educational reform. They say they were not consulted for President Michelle Bachalet's signature policy and demand more access and financing from the state for university students, reports El País.
  • Peru's government declared a state of emergency in a dozen towns along the Brazilian border, due to mercury contamination. The heavy metal is used in gold mining, and up to 50,000 people could be affected, reports TeleSur.
  • Amnesty International is demanding the Mexican government apologize to Jacinta Francisco, an indigenous woman who spent three years in jail accused of kidnapping six security force agents, reports El País.
  • A mob in the small Mexican town of Atlatongo, in Mexico State is holding the mayor hostage, demanding the liberation of 18 townsfolk detained over the lynching of two people. They were kicked to death, accused of kidnapping by a crowd of nearly 600, reports El País.
  • Kinder Suprise and McDonald's Happy Meals will be forbidden in their current, toy-carrying form in Chile, as part of a new bill attempting to curb rampant child obesity, reports El País.
  • Patricia Derian, known as Patt, who served as U.S. President Jimmy Carter's chief human rights advocate, died last week. She is credited with saving thousands of lives through her campaigns to pressure authoritarian regimes to spare dissidents. "She had frank confrontations with a number of heads of state, warning them that American aid would end unless they granted due process to political prisoners and stopped killing political rivals. Some leaders were receiving opposite signals from others in the government, according to later disclosures, and were furious about it," writes the New York Times in its obituary. A piece in COHA celebrates her lasting impact on U.S. foreign affairs, despite successive governments that eschewed her political stance.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Salvadoran attorney general targets government official (May 23, 2016)

El Salvador's Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has already arrested nearly 20 people who helped carry out a 2012 gang truce credited with drastically reducing homicides in the country. (See May 6's post.) The detentions earlier this month include one of the truces' main mediators, former FLMN legislator Raul Mijango.

But Meléndez is aiming higher politically, and is preparing to ask Congress to impeach the defense minister, General David Munguía Payés, and remove his immunity, reports the New York Times.

Prosecutors investigating the gang truce have found there is enough evidence to ask for Munguía Payés' arrest, and have prepared a 152 page document asking legislators to remove his immunity (granted to all cabinet members) so he can be charged with illicit association and arbitrary actions, reports El Faro.

Portraying the arrests earlier this month as a politically motivated show in support of the government's "mano dura" crackdown on gang leaders, several pieces noted that Meléndez had not gone after top officials, including Munguía Payés, who served as the former administration's security minister at the time of the truce negotiation.  (See also May 9's post.)

Prosecutors are also going after Ricardo Perdomo, who now heads El Salvador's bank regulatory agency and served as the country’s director of intelligence during the truce.

Meléndez's actions put him on a potential collision course with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who has expressed support for Munguía Payés, notes the NYTimes.

(See last Friday's post on the increasing human and economic impact of gangs in El Salvador.)

News Briefs
  • El Salvadoran officials have officially recommended women postpone pregnancy for two years due to an outbreak of Zika virus which can cause fetal malformation. But the virus has done little to spur conversation about abortion in the country, which is barred without exception for rape, fetal deformity and danger to the mothers' life, reports Reuters.
  • New York Times editorial sounds the latest death knell for the region's pink tide: "Latin America's leftist ramparts appear to be crumbling because of widespread corruption, a slowdown in China’s economy and poor economic choices." While the moment is an opportunity for the U.S. to forge better relations with its backyard, "a brighter future for struggling Latin Americans cannot depend on the United States. Ultimately, that will require leaders who are accountable to their citizens, are willing to invest in long-term prosperity rather than their political brands and stand ready to acknowledge the colossal mistakes of their predecessors," argues the piece.
  • Transcripts published this morning in Folha de S. Paulo show explicit plotting between the new Planning Minister (then-Senator) Romero Jucá and former oil executive Sergio Machado – in which both agree that removing President Dilma Rousseff is the only way to end the corruption investigation both are formal targets of, reports The Intercept. The conversations also show the role played in her removal by the country's most powerful institutions, including military leaders, says the piece which questions whether media outlets should start calling the ouster a "coup." "The transcripts are filled with profoundly incriminating statements about the real goals of impeachment and who was behind it. The crux of this plot is what Jucá calls 'a national pact' – involving all of Brazil’s most powerful institutions – to leave Michel Temer in place as President (notwithstanding his multiple corruption scandals) and to kill the corruption investigation once Dilma is removed." Jucá said today he will not resign, reports Reuters.
  • The Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) is now in charge of leading the country out of the political and economic quagmire it's in. But the party has governed the oil-rich Rio de Janeiro state for most of the past decade, and it's hardly an example of exceptional management, reports the New York Times.
  • Brazil's new foreign minister, Jose Serra, marks a new focus on trade rather than ideology for the government, reports Reuters. He visits Argentina today, where he is expected to focus on on restoring South America's Mercosur bloc to its purpose as a free trade area.
  • Critics say the new Brazilian government could roll back environmental protections for the Amazon rainforest, reports the Washington Post.
  • Violent protests that erupted during Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's state of the union speech this weekend led to one death, reports the BBC. Demonstrators set up barricades and hurled firebombs in Valparaiso, where Chile's Congress meets. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons. Bachelet said the country is firmly on the path of reform, as evidenced by a free education policy, but that other reforms would be delayed due to an economic downturn.
  • A growing group of Mexico's politically influential people are concerned about what a Trump presidency in the U.S. could mean for the relationship between the two countries, in addition to the negative impact the campaign has already had, reports the New York Times.
  • The Mexican government authorized a U.S. extradition request against drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, reports the Wall Street Journal. He would face charges in courts in Texas and California for crimes including drug trafficking, homicide and money laundering. Guzmán can appeal the decision under Mexican law. But U.S. authorities seem to have quietly dropped charges for a series of brutal murders committed inside Mexico, reports the Guardian. The move could make it easier to secure drug trafficking convictions and avoid legal disputes over U.S. courts' authority over murders committed on foreign soil.
  • An upsurge in killings has made Acapulco, the glamorous beach resort, one of Mexico's most violent places, reports the Associated Press
  • El Daily Post's Alejandro Hope reports on the latest homicide stats in Mexico: April's average daily murder rate of 56.1 was the worst since the government began officially counting victims in January 2014.
  • CICIG advances against corruption in Guatemala show a marked difference with a region under attack by graft and lacking institutional strength to combat it, according to participants in a forum on Central American journalism organized by El Faro. Participants included CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez and former prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz who emphasized that the CICIG was created to disarm criminal structures embedded within the state, not to take down governments.
  • An Ipsos poll yesterday showed Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori pulling ahead over her rival for June 5's run-off election, reports Reuters. She's projected to win 52.5 percent of the vote, despite a money-laundering scandal involving a close aide.  (See last Tuesday's and Thursday's briefs.)
  • Separately, the Associated Press reports that Peruvian prosecutors confirmed they've opened a preliminary investigation against Fujimori and her American husband for money laundering.
  • Hondura's telecommunications commission said it's taking 21 channels off the air, because they supposedly failed to renew their licenses. But ppposition channel Globo TV condemned the decision, calling it a reprise for constantly criticizing the government in its TV shows, reports TeleSur.
  • A U.S. law that seeks the extradition of anyone involved in the production and trafficking of drugs to the U.S. has some Colombians afraid that small coca farmers in the country could be targeted, according to Colombia Reports.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said the U.S. is aiming to divide the loyalties of the country's military, reports Reuters. The Venezuelan military has come under increased scrutiny in the midst of an increasingly tense standoff between the government and the political opposition which seeks to oust it. (See last Monday's  Tuesday's and Thursday's posts as well as Wednesday's briefs.)
  • Coca-Cola is stopping the Venezuelan production of its namesake beverage due to a sugar shortage related to the country's economic crisis, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • This weekend Bolivia enacted a gender identity law allowing transsexual and transgender people to change their name, sex and photo on official and private documents, reports AFP.
  • The Ecuadorian government named a young Galapagos Island native to manage the national park and marine reserve, one of the world's treasures, reports the New York Times. The job awarded to Africa Berdonces is one of the most significant environmental posts in the world, according to the piece.
  • Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra announced her candidacy in the race to become the next secretary general of the United Nations on Friday, reports the New York Times.
  • Cuban cigars have long been banned in the U.S. due to the trade embargo. As the ban seems near its end, excitement is building for a huge economic opportunity. But tobacco production on the island has declined, and likely will not be up to the challenge of quick massive expansion, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Reporting on Central America's ongoing gang crisis (May 20, 2016)

The flood of unaccompanied Central American minors fleeing to the U.S. in order to escape gang violence at home has receded since 2014. But the reduction belies "the gritty persistence of an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe," reports The Intercept.

The decline is largely due to a U.S. policy of subcontracting the job of turning back migrants to the Mexican government. Apprehensions in Mexico have gone up by 71 percent, without an accompanying expansion of screenings for legitimate asylum claims.

The piece goes in depth on the dangerous journeys taken by would-be migrants seeking asylum from gang violence at home.

The human cost of gang violence in El Salvador is excruciating, but the gangs also have an important financial toll: they cost the country up to 16 percent of its GDP, reports the Economist.

A vast network of gang organization is a central feature of life in El Salvador. Authorities estimate that up to 70,000 people belong to gangs, and that another half a million financially depend on them.

While the gangs are less wealthy and politically influential than their Mexican cartel counterparts, observers fear their influence could grow. Already Salvadorans pay $756 million a year, about 3 percent of GDP, to gangs, according to a study by the country's central bank and the UNDP.

And the extortion racket is intimately linked to the humanitarian crisis organizations are increasingly pointing to. "Salvadorans have always emigrated north in search of better paid jobs. But as the country struggles to contain ferocious gang violence, it is the threat of attack and the burden of extortion rackets that are pushing more of its citizens to flee, and their businesses to close," reports Reuters.

News Briefs
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has fended off protests and ouster attempts before, but this time he is increasingly relying on repressive measures rather than social programs to retain control, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Confused about Venezuela? Michael McCarthy summarizes the 6 things you need to know about the crisis in the Washington Post. They include a review of the country's dependence on oil and a presidential system lacking in checks and balances.
  • Leaked NSA documents show that the show that the agency aimed staff training on national security issues in Latin America at steering the region towards U.S. interests, reports TeleSur. The report is based on the latest batch of National Security Agency documents revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden this week, and released by The Intercept.
  • Brazilian acting President Michel Temer is shuffling top government jobs. His latest appointment is Pedro Parente, formerly the top executive at the Brazilian unit of U.S. agribusiness giant Bunge, to head state oil company Petrobras, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • That's not all though, in the week since he's taken the reins of government, Temer's administration has already started scaling back social policies enacted by the 13 years of Workers' Party government, reports the Guardian. "Moves are under way to soften the definition of slavery, roll back the demarcation of indigenous land, trim housebuilding programs and sell off state assets in airports, utilities and the post office. Newly appointed ministers also are talking of cutting healthcare spending and reducing the cost of the bolsa familia poverty relief system. Four thousand government jobs have been cut. The culture ministry has been subsumed into education." 
  • Rousseff's impeachment put the future of the country's democracy and its robust tradition of citizen participation and struggle at stake, argues Jeffrey Rubin at The Conversation. "Will the presence of newly empowered citizens claiming, voting for, and implementing inclusive policies continue through this tempestuous time? Or, will right-wing politicians and business people again succeed in turning back these achievements, at great cost to poor majorities and a democratic government," he asks. "The key issue right now is less who is governing than how they are governing. The prospects are not encouraging," he writes, predicting a rollback of economic and political rights.
  • At least somebody is happy though. Andrés Oppenheimer celebrates what he sees as a positive change in Brazil's foreign policy, a step away from the unconditional support of "Cuba, Venezuela and other authoritarian regimes."
  • In the lead up to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the New York Times has a "Room for Debate" feature over whether they should be postponed. Theresa Williamson of Catalytic Communities laments the damage already done, which includes 77,000 evictions and increased police killings. "The Olympics should not have been held in Rio in the first place. We could have foreseen such damage in a city that has a history of only building to show off and not serving its citizens," she writes.
  • In need of literary diversion? The English translation of Luiz Eduardo Soares' book on Rio is out. "The nine tales are all standalone but they have a lot of connecting tissue. As a body of powerful descriptive essays, they gradually reveal the violence and corruption that underpins so much of the quotidian experience of the Cariocas, as the inhabitants of Rio are known. The fabled party culture exists both despite and because of the lurking nightmares," writes Misha Glenny in a review for the Guardian.
  • A reporter killed this weekend in Mexico's Veracruz state became the sixth journalist to be assassinated in the country this year, and the second in the state, reports the Guardian's Roy Greenslade. "According to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least six journalists have been killed in direct retribution for their work since Javier Duarte de Ochoa became governor of Veracruz in 2010."
  • Last week's absolution of three soldiers accused of homicide in the so-called "Tlatlaya Massacre" in which at least a dozen alleged gang members were executed after they surrendered shows how even in an emblematic case, with clear proof about the crime, "Mexican authorities have failed to sanction perpetrators of extrajudicial killings," writes WOLA's Maureen Meyer. (See Tuesday's briefs.)
  • Agricultural overexploitation of aquifers in Mexico's Guanajuato State is leading to water shortages and tainted supplies for locals, reports the New York Times.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri confirmed his veto of a law passed this week in Congress that doubled indemnities for layoffs, in an attempt to stem unemployment, reports La Nación. (See yesterday's briefs.)