Monday, October 31, 2016

Fears of escalation in tension between Venezuelan gov't and opposition (Oct. 31, 2016)

Talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition parties kicked off last night, mediated by the Vatican, and former presidents of Spain, Panama and the Dominican Republic. The meeting lasted over six hours, until dawn today, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Five opposition leaders, including coalition secretary-general Jesus Torrealba and opposition governor Henri Falcon, attended yesterday, reports Reuters.

The main demand of the opposition is a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro to be carried out this year, as well as freedom for political prisoners, humanitarian aid amid an unprecedented economic downturn, and respect for the opposition-led National Assembly.

The government says it seeks to avoid street violence and urges its critics to reject neo-liberal economic policies.

But critics say the discussions are merely a stalling tactic for the government, which seeks to deflect pressure from its unpopular government. And fifteen parties of the MUD opposition coalition boycotted the talks, reports the Associated Press.

"For an eventual dialogue to take place it has to be very clear from the outset that the aim is agreeing on the terms of a democratic transition in the remainder of 2016," the parties said in a statement.

Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, a Vatican envoy to the talks, urged both sides to make concessions in order for the talks not to falter like the previous attempts. (See Friday's post.)

Efecto Cocuyo has details on the ins and outs of reaching the meeting last night -- especially who wanted to sit down and why.

Opposition-oriented Caracas Chronicles shows the opposition fear that the government is just playing for time. Francisco Toro hypothesizes that the opposition representatives sitting down at the table are also concerned that demonstrations will end violently. He also criticizes the opposition's lack of unity on the issue. (See Friday's post.)

The opposition, in the meantime, is ramping up pressure on the government this week. It has called for a protest march -- demanding a recall referendum -- that will go up to the Miraflores presidential palace. That's a symbolic flashpoint in Venezuela, the opposition hasn't been near it since a brief 2002 against then President Hugo Chávez, according to the AP.

The Financial Times characterizes Thursday's planned demonstration as a face-off between an increasingly radicalized opposition and government supporters who will fiercely resist the march.

"The scheduled march of November 3 “to Miraflores,” is potentially the most dangerous step by the opposition," argues Hugo Pérez Hernaíz at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. "The government has been quick to establish parallels with the failed coup attempt against the late President Hugo Chávez on April 11, 2002. On that day the coup was triggered by violence in Caracas when a huge crowd by the opposition, originally gathered in the east of city, attempted to reach the presidential palace. Even independent journalists are concerned about the eerie parallels with the 2002 events and the strategy the opposition is now setting."

Avoiding the march is on the agenda of both the government and some factions of the opposition who are anxious to avoid street confrontations, according to Efecto Cocuyo.

Also the National Assembly, operating on a symbolic plane since the Supreme Court declared it in contempt ten days ago, is advancing with a political trial of Maduro -- though it lacks the constitutional power to impeach him. In the meantime, Maduro has threatened to arrest legislators if they move forward with the show trial.

Excellent New York Times op-ed by David Smilde, which says that "Chavismo has come full circle. From a movement that showed how nonelite actors could use the instruments of electoral democracy to upend an entrenched elite, Chavismo has itself become an entrenched elite preventing those same instruments from upending it."

Smilde argues that there is a real threat of violence, and cautions that while vital, international pressure must work intelligently. U.S. sanctions up until now have backfired, for example. 

"Effective international engagement must be multilateral, preferably working through existing institutions. While Venezuela has long dismissed the Organization of American States as an imperialist tool, Secretary General Luis Almagro’s invocation of the Democratic Charter in June seriously got their attention. That initiative needs to be taken up again. The Union of Southern Nations does not have the institutional strength the O.A.S. has, but it has the government’s ear. Venezuela has embraced its role in the United Nations and would find it difficult to deflect a special envoy. Perhaps the only thing the opposition and the government have agreed on this year is the desirability of Vatican mediation in Venezuela," writes Smilde. "Any dialogue that occurs should not be seen as an alternative to the referendum but should focus primarily on restoring the people’s right to choose their leaders. Debate regarding the economy, education and crime would serve only as a red herring for a government that is doing whatever it can to prevent change."

A chilling note in the piece refers to the large circle of acquaintances who have lost significant weight, a sign of the widespread food shortages that have been widely reported on.

News Briefs
  • The Brazilian electorate expressed anger at the country's mainstream politicians, and elected conservatives and fringe candidates to mayoral posts this weekend, reports the Wall Street JournalMarcelo Crivella, a senator and evangelical bishop won the mayorship of Rio de Janeiro. And in Belo Horizonte the former president of a local soccer club narrowly beat out a former player, in a campaign that emphasized his lack of political credentials. The elections emphasize the fall of the Workers' Party and the rise of evangelical Christian parties, notes the Guardian.
  • Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua's first lady, is almost sure to win the post of vice president in this weekend's elections. Her husband, President Daniel Ortega, is running for his third consecutive reelection. And some critics have pointed to the husband-wife ticket as a sign of increasing centralization of power. (See last Friday's briefs, for example.) But others say it is in fact a recognition of the de facto role Murillo already plays in government. "Ms. Murillo, 65, is already a de facto cabinet member, deeply involved in every aspect of the government. She is the one who gives daily news briefings about the latest earthquake or damage from an industrial fire. If a child has Zika, Ms. Murillo knows the boy’s name and might just call the parents herself. She meets regularly with municipal leaders and makes it clear that decisions cannot be made without her approval," reports the New York Times. (See also Aug. 3's post.)
  • Representatives of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will travel to Mexico in November to verify the state of the Ayotzinapa investigation, reports El País. Over two years after the 43 students disappeared in Iguala, it will be the first international supervision of the case since the IACHR's interdisciplinary group of experts left the country earlier this year after heavily criticizing the government's handling of the case. (See April 25's post, for example.) The committee will be implementing a year-long "mechanism" following the case and will advocate for the implementation of the GIEI's recommendations, reports Deutsche Welle.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos promised a new peace accord with the FARC by Christmas, in an interview with the Observer. "I hope that Uribe will also come on board because we want as large a consensus as possible," said the president. But he continued: "If [Uribe] decides not to join the bandwagon, then he will simply be isolated and we will continue with the other people [who previously opposed the accord] because we cannot simply stop the process – because it will come to an end if we do not continue it."
  • El Salvador's murderous hostilities between street gangs have shifted into a war between gangs and the state, reports the Washington Post. "Soldiers and police are being linked to human rights abuses and assassinations, an echo of the civil war between leftist guerrillas and the U.S.-backed government fought a quarter-century ago. The conflict is prompting massive population flight." And creating a simmering resentment in communities where heavy handed police tactics kill alleged gang members.
  • Former Salvadoran president Elias Antonio Saca was arrested on charges of stealing millions of dollars in government funds, reports the BBC. The former president was detained at his son's wedding, and is accused of diverting more than $18 million from government coffers to the private accounts of acolytes, reports El Faro. Four of his closest officials were also arrested this weekend, as were three current government functionaries.
  • El Faro has a new report on videos that appear to show negotiations between the governing FLMN party and El Salvador's three main street gangs. In one of the videos appears to show a current cabinet member, Arístides Valencia offering to create a fund of $10 million for the gang leaders to administer and carry out a microcredit project for gang members.
  • Argentina is once again facing its classic dilemma: economists recommend austerity to rein in inflation, but in the meantime poverty increases and discontent along with it. President Mauricio Macri has already backpedaled from last year's "zero poverty" campaign promise. The government estimates that about a third of the population is living beneath the poverty line, and efforts to cut subsidies have worsened the impact of 40 percent inflation, reports the Associated Press
  • Nonetheless, insecurity is topping Argentines' list of concerns. Macri has declared war on the drug traffickers who have turned the country in to a transit route for cocaine. But experts warn that the militarized approach he seems to be adopting repeats the failures of a policy increasingly rejected in the region, reports the Financial Times. "It is ironic and tragic that Argentina has not learnt from this regional and international debate, and is now reverting back to [militarised] policies that have failed," says Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.
  • American ballet in Cuba -- another area favored by detenté, reports Reuters.
  • Mezcal is turning into a slow-food celebrity, but the popularity is threatening the Mexican alcohol's reputation and the small rural communities where it's produced, reports the Guardian.
  • Happy Halloween: Mexico celebrated the Day of the Dead with a parade in Mexico City, for the first time ever. It was partly inspired by the James Bond movie Spectre and organizers hope to bring tourism to the country, reports the Guardian.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Little support for strike in Venezuela (Oct. 28, 2016)

A general strike called by Venezuela's political opposition drew spotty support today, reports Reuters

But some stores and schools closed, and rush-hour traffic was "noticeably lighter" today, according to the Associated Press.

Efecto Cocuyo notes that the strike was felt more in Caracas' western side than eastern.

Among the factors dissuading participants were government threats to expropriate businesses that closed. Government officials also threatened major business leaders with potential jail-time for joining the strike aimed at pressuring the government to permit a recall referendum.

The pressing issue of shortages also kept people on the streets, notes Reuters. 

Yesterday Maduro raised the minimum wage 40 percent, the fourth increase so far this year, reports the Wall Street Journal. Experts say the measure was targeted at sapping support for the opposition led protests calling for a recall referendum. The president also announced that public sector Christmas bonuses will be paid out on Monday. Nonetheless, the new wage still only covers a quarter of the basic monthly food basket. 

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has come out strongly against the Venezuelan government this year, and urged member states to invoke the organization's democratic charter to suspend Venezuela's membership. But no concrete steps have been taken in light of the most recent developments, reports a despondent Miami Herald.

Yesterday Peru's Congress approved a motion petitioning President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski to protest diplomatically and to convoke the OAS to invoke the diplomatic charter, reports La República. PPK in turn promised to bring it up at this weekend's Cumbre Iberoamericana de Cartagena, reports El Comercio.

On the issue of a Vatican mediated dialogue between the government and the opposition -- scheduled to start Sunday, though it's unclear whether opposition leaders will attend (see yesterday's post) -- Human Rights Watch urged Pope Francis to ensure that the talks effectively address "head-on the Venezuelan government’s authoritarian practices." The letter emphasizes the imprisonment of political leaders, and their subjection to flawed judicial practices. It points to an imbalance of power between the government and the opposition, and says that an effective dialogue would require the Maduro administration to: stop arresting and abusing opponents, release political prisoners, allow the National Assembly to operate, allow the referendum process to move forward immediately, acknowledge it's facing a humanitarian crisis and seek international aid.

Venezuela briefs
  • Venezuela's Supreme Court blocked a congressional investigation that found Rafael Ramirez, the former president of state oil company PDVSA, was responsible for corruption and malfeasance that cost the firm $11 billion, reports Reuters.
  • U.S. prosecutors allege the nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's wife were attempting to carry out a multi-million dollar drug deal in order to fund political campaigns, reports Reuters.
News Briefs
  • The crisis brewing at the Mexico-U.S. border is not about security, rather a potential humanitarian emergency, according to a new WOLA report based on research and a field visit to El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico earlier this year. "At a time when calls for beefing up border infrastructure and implementing costly policies regularly make headlines, our visit to the El Paso sector made clear that what is needed at the border are practical, evidence-based adjustments to border security policy, improved responses to the growing number of Central American migrants and potential refugees, and strengthened collaboration and communication on both sides of the border," write Maureen Meyer and Adam Isacson and Carolyn Scorpio.
  • Mexican homicides are on the rise -- the total number of homicides during the first three quarters of 2016 reached 15,201, a more than 20 percent increase in comparison to the same period last year. But a new study found that increasingly these murders are related to criminal organizations, pointing to an even more disturbing trend, reports InSight Crime. The new homicide ranking that results points to the Mexican states with the most violence. In absolute numbers, Guerrero takes the cake, followed by Mexico, Michoácan, Chihuahua and Sinaloa states.
  • A person was killed in Brazil every nine minutes in 2015. The country had a total of 58.383 homicides, coming up to an average of 160 per day, according to a new report by the Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública. The numbers obtained by the group thanks to an access to public information law show that between 2011 and 2015 more people were killed than in the same time period in Syria, reports O Globo. And about nine people per day, on average, were killed by police, according to the same report, notes Agencia Brasil
  • The 1,200 people displaced by the massive Samarco mining waste flood last year in Minas Gerais remain in temporary housing, waiting to be moved to new homes, reports the Associated Press. Most are still waiting for reparations. The company is facing manslaughter and environmental charges for the accident, which killed 19 people and contaminated an extensive chunk of the Brazilian province. But the region also depends on mining income, and has been affected by the closure of the mine in the past year.
  • The Colombian government cancelled the opening ceremony for peace negotiations with the ELN, scheduled for yesterday evening in Ecuador. President Juan Manuel Santos is demanding the release of their last political hostage before discussions can formally begin. Some reports say the release of Odin Sanchez is already in motion, reports the Associated Press. And talks could begin within the next few days, according to Reuters.
  • Interesting InSight Crime comparison of the presidential corruption scandals in Brazil and Guatemala. Among the many relevant points brought up in the piece: while judges in both countries have spoken of "systemic corruption," in the case of Brazilian politicians "appears to be more closely linked to political incentives than the desire for personal enrichment on the part of the participants, though the latter certainly played an important role. ... In Guatemala, on the other hand, the evidence suggests personal enrichment trumped political expediency as the primary motivation for the graft." Another point is that corruption in Brazil appears to have been more decentralized, whereas former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and his VP Roxana Baldetti ran more of a mafia-style operation that took a cut of illegal activities.
  • Nicaraguan voters go to the polls next weekend to pick a president, vp, and legislators. President Daniel Ortega, running for third consecutive reelection, is slated to win handily -- a recent poll predicted he'll get 65 percent of the vote, reports the Economist. The political opposition, which has accused President Daniel Ortega -- running for third consecutive reelection -- of using the courts to block opponents. Though he blocked international monitoring of the election, an OAS delegation was invited to attend this week, reports Deutsche Welle
  • Experts say that the U.S. embargo against Cuba can only be lifted by Congress. But in a Hill op-ed trade attorneys Stephen Heifetz is a partner and Peter Jeydel argue that the outmoded legislation could be undone by executive action. The embargo law essentially permits the Treasury Secretary to permit trade in areas that haven't been specifically prohibited by Congress. "... This leaves open a wide range of activities that can be authorized.  For example, the Treasury Secretary could authorize U.S. manufacturing and energy companies to begin operations in Cuba," they write. "In the dwindling days of the President’s term, an Administration that wanted to be really bold could go even further.  The President could declare that the specific congressional prohibitions, such as the ban on tourist travel to Cuba, contravene the President’s authorities unless these prohibitions are interpreted to permit presidential waivers.  The President, in the exercise of his constitutional powers, should be able to waive restrictions on commerce that are inconsistent with U.S. foreign policy interests.  This is a view with strong scholarly support." The time for such a bold action -- which would, of course, anger many members of Congress -- is now, in the president's lame-duck period.
  • Obtaining water in Haiti nearly three weeks after Hurricane Matthew remains a tricky proposition, with many families forced to carry out arduous treks or use up meager savings in order to obtain uncontaminated supplies, reports the Associated Press.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Venezuela's opposition takes to the streets (Oct. 27, 2016)

Hundreds of thousands of protesters crowded the streets of Venezuelan cities yesterday. Dressed in white, the demonstrators demanded the ouster of President Nicolás Maduro, after the government postponed a recall referendum drive last week.

The Associated Press reports tens of thousands of demonstrators on Caracas' main highway yesterday, and police clashes with protesters in several other cities. A police officer was shot and two others wounded in Miranda, under unclear circumstances. And a rights group, Foro Penal, estimates that 140 people were detained by police in relation to the protests.

The political opposition says they have no legal recourse left to challenge Maduro, and have promised to maintain popular pressure on the government. Leaders called for a 12-hour general strike on Friday, and another march, to the presidential palace, next week of the government doesn't give in to demands for a referendum, reports the New York Times.

But the massive turnout surprised observers, who thought efforts might be dissipated by a Vatican mediated dialogue announced earlier this week, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Unlike the Sept. 1 protests, yesterday's were organized in a matter of days and featured mostly local protesters. (See Sept. 2's post.)

If the government maintains its block of the referendum, "it would be a significant escalation of tensions and likely lead to clashes with pro-government supporters," according to the Miami Herald, which makes reference to 2014 protests which left 43 dead.

The Wall Street Journal says it has been difficult for the opposition to mobilize since then, though turnout at demonstrations has grown in recent months, and hazards that the government could turn to violent repression again.

Foro Penal documented dozens of injuries yesterday, mostly from rubber bullets used by security forces to disperse demonstrations, reports the WSJ. Efecto Cocuyo reports 30 injured, half in Merida.

But other pieces focus more on the lack of cohesion within the opposition as a reason for lack of protests in recent years, despite a worsening economic crisis. David Smilde told the NYT that the opposition is "underperforming given the level of discontent," and that its challenge now will be to "take this outpouring and channel it into a sustained movement on the streets."

The opposition has been barred from protesting in front of the presidential palace since a march there helped spur a short coup agains t former President Hugo Chávez in 2002, according to the AP.

It's not clear who from the opposition coalition, if anybody, will participate in this weekend's Vatican mediated dialogue with the government, according to the NYT. And while Venezuelans are angry about the rampant economic crisis, which they blame on government policies, the Maduro administration is firmly in control of all of the state institutions (including military and judiciary) with the exception of the National Assembly, notes the AP.

The Miami Herald reports efforts by the government to limit the impact of the protests, including closing roads and large segments of the Caracas metro, and turning back journalists arriving in the country to cover the protests.

With no clear legal recourse to oust Maduro, it's natural that the opposition is turning to civil disobedience, argues a New York Times editorial, that says mediation is unlikely to yield results. The piece calls for harsher regional condemnation of the government and places responsibility for any protest related violence squarely at Maduro's feet. "In the meantime, ordinary citizens suffer from malnutrition and are dying needlessly, problems aggravated by the Maduro government’s refusal to accept humanitarian aid. As the situation worsens, it is only logical that more Venezuelans will be driven by desperation to rise up."

"Facing the certainty of electoral exit, the government and the ruling part have shown themselves willing to take risky alternate, potentially explosive, decisions. After all, they are exchanging the "certainty" of an ouster by referendum for the "risk" of an exit provoked by popular actions or reactions that could occur ... or not," writes Luis Vicente León in Prodavinci. He too predicts violence, but not massive, but rather focused on dividing and dissuading opposition leaders.

In the Miami Herald, Andrés Oppenheimer says "there is only one way to prevent a possible bloodbath: an international diplomatic offensive to restore democracy in Venezuela." Regional expressions of concern are no longer enough, Venezuela must be suspended from the OAS if it does not allow the referendum to go forward, he writes.

Over at Prodavinci, lawyer José Ignacio Hernández analyzes the National Assembly attempt to oust Maduro accusing him of carrying out a coup. (See yesterday's post.)

Mercosur aside: The trade bloc's foreign ministers are meeting today in Colombia to debate suspending Venezuela for violating the group's democratic charter, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

News Briefs
  • The U.N. General Assembly voted, as it has for the past quarter-century, to condemn the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. But for the first time the U.S. abstained on the vote. The resolution passed with 191 votes in favor, none against, and two abstaining (Israel accompanied the U.S.). The New York Times reports that U.S. ambassador Samantha Power "beamed" when she announced the change, referring to the resolution as "a perfect example of why the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was not working – or worse, how it was actually undermining the very goals it set out to achieve." The Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, said the costs of the 50 "blockade" have been incalculable, and the effects have been felt by the entire Cuban population. The U.S. vote drew condemnation from South Florida lawmakers, who pointed to it as another example of the Obama administration bowing to the Cuban government, reports the Miami Herald. The embargo can only be lifted by Congress, and continues to have support among Republicans there.
  • Panama signed onto an international treaty aimed at curbing tax evasion -- committing the country to sharing information with 104 other signatories, reports the Wall Street Journal. The move comes seven months after a massive document leak showed how shell companies and offshore accounts allow the world's rich and powerful to avoid fiscal responsibilities. 
  • Colombians are watching to see if the ELN releases its last political hostage in order to start peace talks scheduled for today. La Silla Vacía reports that he may have already been liberated, but the government maintains that talks will not start until Odín Sánchez Montes de Oca is freed.
  • Observers of Mexican corruption have latched onto the case of former Veracruz governor Javier Duarte, who is being charged with corruption and racketeering. But whether or not he winds up in jail belies the wider systemic corruption that allowed him to operate for years, argues Daniel Moreno in at New York Times Español op-ed. He criticizes President Enrique Peña Nieto's toothless fight against corruption. "Without a significant change in the mechanisms of controllership, a governor in jail would be a poor sign of change."
  • TeleSur reports that the U.N. Human Rights Committee accepted a petition from former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's lawyers, claiming a judge overseeing the Petrobras corruption case violated Lula's rights by charging him with the same allegations several times and detaining him arbitrarily without any evidence.
  • Puerto Rico is losing its doctors to higher salaries and lower living costs on the U.S. mainland, leaving the island woefully short of specialists, reports the Associated Press.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Venezuela's takeover (Oct. 26, 2016)

Venezuela's opposition has called for massive street protests today in response to the government's indefinite postponement of a recall referendum effort, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's post, and Monday's.) 

The "Takeover of Venezuela" as organizers are calling it. Already today there were reports of roadblocks by security forces delaying entrance into Caracas, and of shuttered businesses, reports Reuters

In the western part of the country protesters clashed with security forces for a second day. And Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino spoke dressed in camouflaged fatigues and surrounded by the top military command urging dialogue but calling on the opposition to respect the constitution, reports the Associated Press.

He also rejected the opposition's characterization that Maduro has staged a coup, reports EFE. As a "strictly professional" institution, the military remains "unconditionally loyal" to the head of state and commander in chief, Padrino said.

Opposition legislators in Venezuela started proceedings yesterday to put President Nicolás Maduro on political trial. They argue that Maduro has forsaken his duties as president by causing the deepest recession in the country’s modern history, reports the Wall Street Journal. The move is largely symbolic, as the National Assembly has been declared null by the Supreme Court. And the National Assembly doesn't have the power to impeach the president in Venezuela.

Maduro, speaking at a rally Tuesday, accused opposition lawmakers of behaving like members of a "circus" and trying to carry out a "parliamentary coup," reports the Associated Press.

Note: Yesterday's post mentioned a piece by Mark Weisbrot in Truthout and incorrectly characterized the author as "defending Chavista policies through 2014." While the piece does say that the "Bolivarian experiment did pretty well until 2014," the author notes that the central problem of multiple foreign exchange rates began well before that, in 2012. And the focus of the piece is mostly on that issue and it's negative impact on the Venezuelan economy, as well as how that might be rectified moving forward.

News Briefs
  • U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, said the organization's refusal to accept responsibility for Haiti's cholera epidemic is a "disgrace." In a scathing report delivered yesterday to the general assembly, he said that flawed and unfounded legal advice provided by the UN lawyers was preventing it from accepting responsibility for the outbreak, reports the Guardian. He linked the U.N.'s legal stance to U.S. pressure, reports ReutersHe said the United States seemed to believe that the United Nations "must follow American legal practice, which generally takes the view that legal responsibility should never be accepted when it can possibly be avoided because one never knows the consequences for subsequent litigation."
  • The U.S. State Department and certain members of Congress will likely face-off over more than $50 million in aid for Honduras, reports the Los Angeles Times. Approval of the aid package, part of the Obama administration's $750-million aid package for Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle, hinged on the countries demonstrating improvement on human rights issues. The State Department has certified Honduras' commitment. But several members of Congress, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, point to the country's dismal human rights record over the past year -- including the deaths of several prominent environmental activists.
  • An Oxfam report on the dangers human rights activists increasingly face in Latin America hits on several broad -- timely -- topics. Homicides against defenders are increasing. The murder of Berta Cáceres in Honduras is emblematic, but there have been dozens of cases in the region so far this year. Oxfam "believes that this situation is linked to an economic model that creates extreme inequality and undermines people’s fundamental rights. Other key factors include the cooptation of state institutions by powerful groups and the scant attention paid by governments to fulfilling their obligations to respect, protect and promote human rights." But the report also the financial crisis faced by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (see Monday's briefs). "Oxfam draws attention to three significant factors in order to understand the nature and scope of this rising tide of violence in the region: first, violence experienced specifically by female human rights defenders due to the prevalence of a patriarchal culture; second, the link between the expansion of extractive activities and projects and the increase in human rights violations in these areas; and third, the cooptation of state institutions in favour of de facto power which is exercised outside of formal channels (i.e. which does not necessarily coincide with the state apparatus)."
  • On the subject of the patriarchy, the Conversation has Mexican Ariadna Estévez's exploration on the subject of femicide in Latin America, looking at the history of the term, the incredibly high female body count in Mexico and the link between physical violence against women and the phenomenon of #MiPrimerAcoso. The Brazilian initiative that encouraged women to share stories of their first harassment experience, spread around the region and shows how "this type of abuse is so systematic and widespread that women have learnt to live with it. They, we, see it as normal."
  • Indigenous groups in Colombia are dismayed by the expansion of the Cerrajón coal mine, an operation they say is jeopardizing their health, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazilian voters are fed up with traditional politicians -- and expressing their anger at the ballot box. The ruling PMDB has little chance of gains in the upcoming final round of municipal elections this week, and the PT already lost heavily in the first round of voting this month, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Zika has left a puzzling path of damage in its spread across the Americas since last year. About 650,000 people have been infected in the region in the past nine months since it was declared a global health emergency. But 75 percent of Zika related fetal malformation has been concentrated in Brazil. Scientists believe this could indicate a secondary causal factor, reports the Washington Post. In the meantime, summer is coming in the southern hemisphere, and getting a mosquito net installed in Buenos Aires seems to require several weeks of waiting already.
  • Argentina's government is on a borrowing bonanza -- bringing a flood of foreign currency in to boost the economy, but raising questions over a high level of debt, reports the Financial Times. Investors are loving it, but say fiscal austerity will need to be implemented after next year's midterm elections if it's to be sustainable.
  • The Roman Catholic Church will release archives from Argentina's dictatorship era, making digitized documents available to victims and their relatives, reports the Associated Press. The decision has been taken at the request of Pope Francis "in the service of truth, justice and peace," reports the BBC.
  • Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is under constant surveillance by masked guards while in jail, a situation that is impacting his mental health, said his girlfriend to the Mexican National Human Rights Council, reports the BBC.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is increasingly reviled by his electorate. In a plea for positive thinking and in defense of his government, he said “I don’t think presidents get up, nor have they got up thinking, and forgive me for saying it, how to screw Mexico,” using the word “joder”, a vulgar term with a variety of colloquial uses across the Spanish-speaking world, reports Reuters.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Vatican to mediate between Venezuela's polarized politicians (Oct. 25, 2016)

The Vatican stepped into the increasingly tense Venezuelan political battle, where both the government and the opposition-led congress accuse each other of acting illegitimately. (See yesterday's post.)

Government representatives and Jesús Torrealba, the secretary general of the coalition of opposition parties, agreed to Vatican mediation in a dialogue expected to start this weekend, reports the Associated Press. Representatives will meet on Isla Margarita, under auspices of the Vatican and UNASUR, 

However, other opposition leaders did not attend the meeting, leaving open the issue of whether the opposition will maintain unity, reports the New York Times. Most of the MUD coalition's major parties said they would not participate. Leaders publicly argued yesterday, as the decision to enter a dialogue clashed with plans for a major street protest the opposition is calling for tomorrow, reports Reuters

The opposition has long rejected offers of talks with the government, saying negotiations would serve as a distraction from the country's economic woes. Other leaders say dialogue must be conditioned to the release of jailed opponents, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Leopoldo López, a jailed opposition leader, wrote in a series of Twitter messages that a dialogue was “not possible” after the recall referendum was suspended and “the people’s right to express themselves was robbed,” notes the NYT. And Henrique Capriles said he found out about the plan via television. 

Both ratified the call to protest tomorrow.

President Nicolás Maduro met with Pope Francis yesterday, in a surprise meeting in Rome. 

In a statement, the Vatican said the pope received Mr. Maduro "within the framework of the worrisome, political, social and economic situation that the country is going through," according to the WSJ.

(Earlier this month, Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights reported that Vatican mediation was one of the few things all parties could agree on.)

Student leaders reported 27 demonstrators against the government were injured in clashes with the police yesterday in San Cristobal, a hotbed of anti government sentiment, according to Reuters.

In a strange development, some opponent legislators have said they will present evidence today in the National Assembly that Maduro is a dual Colombian citizen, and therefore ineligible to hold the Venezuelan presidency, reports the Associated Press.

"Regional governments should press the administration of President Nicolás Maduro to adopt immediate measures to better address the profound humanitarian crisis, including by exploring avenues for increased international assistance," said Human Rights Watch yesterday. The group released a 78-page report, which "documents how the shortages have made it extremely difficult for many Venezuelans to obtain essential medical care or meet their families’ basic needs."

Yesterday Argentine President Mauricio Macri, in a press conference with his Uruguayan counterpart Tabaré Vásquez reiterated calls to expel Venezuela from the Mercosur trade bloc, citing the so-called "democratic clause," reports the Buenos Aires Herald. (See a Sept. posting in Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights on Venezuela's potential expulsion from the regional group.)

There's a useful Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights post from this weekend that has some more of the back and forth at the heart of the postponed recall referendum mess. And Hugo Prieto has an op-ed in New York Times Español from last Friday that gives helpful background on the referendum issue as well.

Mark Weisbrot mounts a defense of Chavista policies through 2014 and analyzes the economy's downward spiral for the past three years in Truthout. He argues that serious reforms are necessary to jumpstart the economy, including dismounting the multiple currency exchange rates, and expanding direct subsidies to low-income families to shield them from the ensuing spike in inflation. (See last Thursday's briefs on other proposals to save the country's economy from its current disaster.)

News Briefs
  • The U.N. is scrambling to implement a $400 million cholera response package in Haiti -- which would include compensation cash payments to victims or their communities. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been criticized for evading responsibility for the disease which experts say was introduced to Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers in the wake of a devastating 2010 earthquake. In recent months Ban has assumed moral responsibility, but lacks the funding for his proposed remediation program, which is expected to be officially rolled out soon. And critics say the organization is still avoiding legal responsibility for the epidemic, reports the New York Times
  • Colombia's second largest guerrilla group, the ELN, has accused the government of "torpedoing" peace talks before they begin Thursday. The rebels have balked at an ultimatum to release a hostage -- believed to be their last -- before the discussions can start, reports the BBC.
  • Brazilian police are investigating whether a woman who says she was attacked and gang-raped was previously attacked by the same group, reports the Associated Press. Another example of the rampant violence against women in Brazil and the region.
  • Brazil's weapons manufacturing is expanding at breakneck speed, and its products are increasingly turning up in world hot-spots such as Yemen, where thousands of civilians have died in an ongoing civil war, write Igarapé Institute's Robert Muggah and Nathan Thompson in a New York Times op-ed. They emphasize the lack of transparency of Brazilian arms sales, though sales have routinely been approved to countries with poor human rights records. The country's "unchecked arms industry and its involvement in foreign conflicts around the globe," threaten Brazil's legacy as an "international reputation as an advocate of peacebuilding and diplomacy." Measures they urge politicians to take include: full ratification of "the A.T.T., the development of more rigorous oversight and transparency mechanisms during the licensing and export process, and a stringent program to guarantee that weapons do not end up in the wrong hands. The country’s policies are dangerously out of date and out of control, generating real suffering at home and abroad."
  • Mexican authorities detained more than 20,000 unaccompanied migrants last year, mostly from Central America, reports AFP. That's more than double the previous year.
  • Tomorrow the U.N. is expected to once more issue a resolution agains the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. The 25th year running that Cuba obtains overwhelming international support for the end of the "blockade," reports the Miami Herald.
  • Four communities have refused to halt protests at Peru's Las Bambas mine, reports TeleSur. So far clashes between protesters and police this year have killed one more civilian, bringing the total tally of deaths since 2014 up to six.
  • Water provision is a top priority for Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, reports the Guardian. He has promised that all Peruvians should have 24-hour access to potable water and be connected to the sewerage system by the time he leaves office in 2021, and conserving watersheds is a key component of the plan.
  • Peruvian prosecutors asked a court to sentence a deputy minister to nine years of jail for alleged graft, a blow to PPK's tough on corruption discourse, reports Reuters.
  • Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández vowed not to stand by his brother if he is convicted in a drug-related crime, as alleged, reports AFP. (See last Tuesday's briefs.)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Venezuela's increasingly polarized political battle (Oct. 24, 2016)

Venezuela's opposition-led National Assembly declared yesterday that President Nicolás Maduro staged a coup by blocking efforts to oust him through a recall referendum.

In a "raucous" session, legislators vowed to put the president on trial after the national electoral council delayed a signature drive scheduled for this week, reports the Associated Press. (See Friday's post.)

They also approved a resolution asking world leaders to step in to "protect the people’s right to democracy by any means necessary."

Red-shirted government supporters burst into the session at one point chanting that "congress will fall." Opposition lawmakers said there were injuries, reports Reuters.

Legal actions against Maduro will likely fail as his supporters dominate the courts, notes the AP. The Supreme Court has itself ruled the National Assembly to be operating illegitimately after swearing in three members whose elections are contested.

On Friday opposition leaders called for citizens to take to the streets in protest of the government postponement of the referendum signature drive, reports the New York Times.

In turn Maduro has called the referendum movement a coup attempt. The opposition has considered it the only legal recourse to ousting Maduro. 

Venezuela asides:
  • Colombian airline Avianca temporarily cancelled flights to Caracas after a Venezuelan Air Force jet intercepted one of its planes, but resumed full service after talks with  both governments, reports the Associated Press.
  • The Wall Street Journal has a feature on Venezuelan oil production, which is falling fast due to mismanagement, at a time when the country can ill-afford a drop in revenue.
News Briefs
  • The Haitian government is determined to coordinate efforts to remedy Hurricane Matthew devastation in the country, largely in response to the international aid group dominated response to the 2010 earthquake. Interim President Jocelerme Privert told the New York Times that this time around the government is seeking to implement sustainable solutions -- salvaging communities, rather than having them move to temporary housing, for example. But the country is also fighting other legacies of 2010 -- such as donor fatigue that have kept funding at a fraction of what is needed, and a resurgence of cholera, brought by U.N. peacekeeper after the earthquake. But the government's priorities may be unrealistic in light of the emergency situation, say some aid groups. For example, the interior minister has refused to distribute tents for hundreds and thousands of homeless people. But in the meantime, people have no shelter and the rainy season will soon begin.
  • At least 150 Haitian inmates remain on the run after a mass prison breakout this weekend, reports the BBC.
  • Chile's conservative coalition, Vamos, was the big winner in yesterday's municipal elections, reports Reuters. The right-leaning group won dozens of mayoralities and got slightly more votes than President Michelle Bachelet's left-leaning Nueva Mayoría coalition. Conservative gains were especially marked in key swing cities, including Santiago, a potential signal for next year's presidential elections. The results are a victory for conservative former president, Sebastián Piñera who is favored in next year's race. But low voter turnout and the popularity of some independent candidates also shows popular anger with the political establishment, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See Friday's briefs.)
  • Colombian government and FARC negotiators met in Havana on Saturday for the first time since voters narrowly rejected a peace deal hammered out between the two. Both sides reported optimism in reaching a new agreement, according to Deutsche Welle. On Friday the government expected that a new pact could be reached rapidly, reported the Wall Street Journal.
  • Mexican authorities captured the former municipal police chief in charge in Iguala when the 43 students from Ayotzinapa disappeared two years ago. Felipe Flores Velázquez has been at large since then, reports the New York Times.
  • The case of Veracruz governor Javier Duarte, who resigned his post early and is now wanted on charges of racketeering and money laundering, is unusual not because of a corrupt official, but because he might be called to justice, reports the New York Times. Of course, that would require finding him -- after he fled authorities last week. (See last Wednesday's briefs.)
  • A political race in Brazil's Belo Horizonte city -- in which two soccer associated candidates are competing in a mayoral runoff -- is an example of voter fatigue with traditional politicians in that country, reports the Associated Press.
  • Brazil's powerful evangelical bloc, which has veered politics to the right, is only set to become more powerful and influential, reports the Financial Times. An evangelical conservative is poised to win the mayorship of Rio de Janeiro this weekend.
  • A local environmental official was gunned down in front of his family in Brazil's Pará state, a sign of increasingly violence against environmental activists in Brazil, reports the Guardian.
  • The OAS postponed a decision on whether to fund the region's two main human rights organisms: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The human rights organisms had requested a duplication in regular funding from member states, to make up for a fall in voluntary contributions which made up half of their operating budget, reports AFP. A decision is expected next week.
  • OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said political pressures and verbal attacks on El Salvador's Supreme Court and Attorney General are a serious threat to independence of powers in the country, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Former Guantanamo bay prisoner Jihad Diyab has reportedly received an offer for asylum in an unidentified Arab country, and has given up his 68 day hunger strike. He received asylum in Uruguay in 2014, but struggled to adapt and has demanded to be reunited with his family, reports the BBC.
  • New U.S. regulations for trade with Cuba announced last week imply real change, reports the Miami Herald. "A restaurant franchisor or a U.S. distributor of tires could negotiate a future contract in Cuba. A U.S. engineering or architecture firm could work on a public transportation project or new Cuban hospital. An American traveler to Cuba can load up on premium cigars and bottles of high-end Santiago or Havana Club rum."

  • Read more here:"
  • Femicides in Argentina "are the end result of small, daily acts of machismo," writes #NiUnaMenos collective member Soledad Vallejos in a Guardian op-ed. She calls for effective public policies, but also individual responsibility for private behavior. A massive march last week to draw attention to the phenomenon, the third in a year and a half, contrasts with headlines today of a "triple femicide" in Mendoza province, where a martial arts expert killed his girlfriend, her aunt and grandmother, and wounded his 10-month old baby and another child. "They made me lose my temper," he explained, according to La Nación. (See last Thursday's post.)

Friday, October 21, 2016

Venezuela's #RR postponed indefinitely

Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) has postponed a signature collection effort aimed at demanding a presidential recall referendum. Authorities cited four injunctions by provincial courts yesterday alleging fraud in the opposition-led effort, reports Efecto Cocoyuo. The process is suspended until further notice.
The news incensed the opposition, which is expected to respond later today, reports Reuters. MUD opposition coalition executive secretary Jesús Chúo Torrealba promised it would be "convincing and serene," however, notes Efecto Cocuyo.
(Follow the play-by-play at Prodavinci's live blog.)
Yesterday's decision was unexpected, reports the Wall Street Journal. The injunctions were emitted by criminal court justices, and issued just hours after four ruling-party governors lodged complaints of fraud in relation to an earlier signature drive required for the referendum.
The CNE's decision also appears to invalidate it's own August validation of the signatures in the first drive, reports the Associated Press.
Already next week's signature drive, which needed to have the support of 20 percent of the electorate in each state, was taking place under difficult conditions (few polling places and restricted to three days). And even if successful, the recall referendum would not have taken place until next year, which means that if it successfully ousted President Nicolás Maduro, it would not trigger a new election for his successor.
Polls suggest the government would lose the referendum vote by a wide margin, reports the Guardian.
Nonetheless, the decision leaves the opposition with little legal recourse to fight the government. And seems to extinguish any hope that Maduro could be legally removed from power, reports the Wall Street Journal in a later article.
The move comes as the opposition dominated National Assembly is increasingly sidelined -- such as a Supreme Court decision last week which permitted the magistrates to approve the national budget instead of congress. (See Oct. 13's post.) Earlier this week the government also postponed state governor elections, slated for December, until next year. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
Separately several MUD leaders, includying Chúo Torrealba and Henrique Capriles were forbidden to leave the country by a judicial order, also yesterday, reports Efecto Cocuyo. The document with the prohibition, published by the opposition leaders, only included a list of names and did not give reasons for the ban, reports Reuters.
Very interesting post on Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights on a new phrase gaining ground in the midst of Venezuela's economic and political crisis: “I am Chavista, not Madurista." The piece focuses on the collectives, radical groups in Caracas that pledge allegiance to the legacy of the late Hugo Chávez. The important take away is that even blocks with unswerving Chavista loyalty are questioning the current government.
News Briefs
  • Hopes for finding people disappeared in Hurricane Matthew alive are dimming in Haiti, reports the Associated Press. In the meantime, local officials in the hardest hit southwest area say they are lack the equipment and resources to help families search through the wreckage. The official death toll stands at 546 dead and 128 missing, but many believe that number doesn't take into account many isolated areas. In the meantime, others accuse some townships of inflating numbers of dead and disappeared in order to receive aid priority.
  • Eight BHP Billiton employees face criminal charges over the collapse of the Samarco tailings dam in Brazil's Minas Gerais last year. Brazilian prosecutors on Thursday charged 26 people, 21 for qualified homicide, for their alleged roles in the disaster, reports the Guardian.
  • More on Braços Abertos, this time from the Conversation. Luís Fernando Tófoli explains how São Paulo’s incoming mayor has promised to shut down the innovative social-care program, and will instead focus on abstinence-based programs for the city's notorious Cracolândia. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The majority of migrant families facing deportation from the U.S. -- mostly from Central America -- have no legal representation. And that means they're more likely to be subjected to faster proceedings and to be deported, reports the Guardian.
  • Mexico's U.S. sponsored immigration crackdown has pushed Central American migrants to use more perilous routes through the country, and has led to a record level of health problems. "Two-thirds of migrants interviewed at shelters across the country reported suffering at least one violent attack – such as assault, rape or kidnapping – during their journey, according to a survey conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)," reports the Guardian.
  • The Colombian government's proposed tax reform promises to be a difficult battle in the wake of a lost plebiscite on a peace accord with the FARC, reports the Financial Times. "At stake in the tax overhaul is the vaunted investment grade credit rating of Latin America’s fourth biggest economy; the country’s ability to implement an eventually revivified peace deal with rebel leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc; and Mr Santos’ legacy." (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • This weekend's municipal elections in the Chilean city of Valparaiso will pit a new "citizens movement" against traditional political coalitions. The race is of relevance in a country where disgust with the political elite is high, after a string of corruption scandals, and voter turnout in upcoming national elections is expected to hit an all time low, reports the Guardian.