Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Chile leaves behind total abortion ban (Aug. 22, 2017)

Chile's Constitutional Court approved a law permitting abortions in limited circumstances, yesterday. The bill -- which permits termination of pregnancy in cases of rape, risk to woman's life, or fetal inviability -- passed Congress earlier this month after two years of debate. It in fact reinstates a right Chilean women lost 28 years ago, towards the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, notes the New York Times

Groups in favor and against the law demonstrated for the four days the court considered the case. Judges voted six to four to dismiss two requests for review that argued the bill would violate the constitutional guarantee of "protection of the unborn."

Though the measure had ample public support -- 70 percent of Chileans favored decriminalization -- "the opposition was formidable," according to Giselle Carino, CEO of International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Western Hemisphere Region. "The margins for passage in the Senate, a bicameral commission, and the Constitutional tribunal were razor thin. A well-funded, well-organized opposition fought tooth and nail against this bill every step of the way—and they have vowed to continue to challenge abortion rights."

The main opponents of lifting the total abortion ban came from Chile Vamos (Let’s Go Chile), a coalition of right-leaning parties, including National Renewal, the party of presidential front-runner Sebastián Piñera, noted the Economist earlier this month.

The passage of the law, backed by President Michelle Bachelet, takes Chile out of a small club of countries that prohibit abortion in all circumstances -- leaving HondurasEl SalvadorNicaraguaDominican Republic, Malta, and The Vatican, according to the BBC.

News Briefs
  • El Salvador is suffering a "hidden tragedy" due to gang-related violence, said U.N. Special Rapporteur Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, who examines the human rights of internally displaced persons. She emphasized that  that gangs dominate people through threats, intimidation and "a culture of violence." "The problem is more significant and widespread than the Government is currently accepting," she added. "The Government needs to acknowledge the full extent of internal displacement and act to tackle it and the gang violence which is driving it."
  • Testimony from five different people -- three former Odebrecht execs and two Brazilian publicity gurus -- detail how the Brazilian construction giant funneled $3 million into the 2008 presidential election campaign of Mauricio Funes in El Salvador, reports El Faro. The testimony given to Brazilian prosecutors links former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the participation of publicists  Joao Santana y Mónica Moura in the successful campaign. Santana and Moura have been convicted in Brazil of money laundering.
  • A U.S. judge has ruled in favor of extraditing a suspect in the killing of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989 to Spain for trail, reports the BBC. Col Inocente Orlando Montano was the deputy minister of public security when the priests were shot dead along with their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter on 16 November 1989 by an elite unit of the Salvadorean army.
  • Testimony by a former gang member in El Salvador's "Truce Trial" has raised a series of questions about the legitimacy of the country's 2014 elections, the role of the country's main political parties' leadership in the vote buying allegations, as well as why the country's chief prosecutors aren't pursuing allegations involving the participation of the state and Salvadoran political elites in a criminal enterprise, reports InSight Crime. (See Aug. 14's post.)
  • A potential $200 million IDB loan to Guatemala to implement fiscal and migratory controls at border crossings with Mexico would work with the country's Defense Ministry, a potential rights red flag, warns Kelsey Alford-Jones, Senior Campaigner for the People, Land and Resources Program at the Center for International Environmental Law. "The IDB project involved activities that fall outside the mandate of the Defense Ministry, an issue that would raise concern in any country. Yet in Guatemala, these concerns are exacerbated by the recent legacy of intense state-sponsored violence and the nation’s ongoing struggle to define a clear – and appropriately limited – role for the military. For example, fiscal controls fall explicitly within mandate of a different agency, and empowering the military by giving it control of the program budget would expand its duties unnecessarily."
  • Ecuadorean politics are marked by the schism between current President Lenín Moreno and his predecessor, Rafael Correa. Though they form part of the same Alianza País movement, they have split since Moreno assumed the presidency this year. Earlier this month, Moreno suspended Correa ally, vice president Jorge Glas, who is accused of Odebrecht corruption.  (See Aug. 7's briefs.) Correa accused his sucessor  of betrayal. "The political and economic transition Lenín Moreno is carrying out has obliged him to fight with his predecessor," argues Raúl Aldaz in Nueva Sociedad. "The proof that slowly "appears" about cases where there were suspicions of corruption are opportune for Moreno: they get closer each time to Glas and could help him get rid of a heavy load and lend him legitimacy to open spaces of dialogue with other sectors outside of AP. His objective is not only to create legislative majorities, but also to chanel other demands and contain the social backlash to some of his reforms."
  • Venezuelan star conductor Gustavo Dudamel's U.S. tour with the Venezuela's National Youth Orchestra has been cancelled. Dudamel spoke out against the government in recent months, including a New York Times op-ed in July, reports the BBC.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Venezuela’s former chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega is being “protected” in Colombia and will receive asylum if she asks for it, reports the Miami Herald. (See yesterday's post.)
  • U.S. VP Mike Pence will visit with Venezuelan exiles in Miami tomorrow, capping off a LatAm trip that was largely focused on the Venezuelan crisis, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Violence is rising across Brazil, but is particularly impacting the country's north, reports InSight Crime. Pernambuco, Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte respectively witnessed a 38 percent, 32 percent and 26 percent rise in murders compared to last year. This is due to a broken truce between the country's most violent gangs, which has pushed up drug violence. Experts also point to cuts in social programs. 
  • Chile's government rejected a billion-dollar mining project because it would disrupt sea life, including endangered penguins, reports the BBC.
  • A grassroots environmental movement has carried out a coral restoration effort in Belize that is hailed as a striking success reports the Guardian. Coral cover has risen from 10% to 17.5% since 2006 – much healthier than many other reefs.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Venezuela's ANC sidelines Congress (Aug. 21, 2017)

Venezuela's National Constituent Assembly (ANC) essentially voided the country's legislature on Friday. The newly elected pro-government body assumed "the ability to legislate over matters directly related to guaranteeing peace, security and sovereignty," among other areas. And effectively side-lines the opposition-led National Assembly, the only branch of government not controlled by President Nicolás Maduro's allies, reports the New York Times.

The decision was criticized by opposition leaders, who said the ANC lacked legitimacy for such a move. Several regional governments and international bodies have criticized the ANC, and refuse to recognize its decisions, notes the BBC. Lawmakers said they would not recognize the ANC decision, which doesn't dissolve the body outright, and asked for international supporters to remain firm, according to the Miami Herald.

The actual practical effects will be few, as the government has sought to neuter the National Assembly since the 2015 election that gave opposition parties a majority there, reports the Guardian.  

And, the dubious legal standing of the ANC's decisions could affect the ultimate aim of displacing the legislature, which is accessing international loans, according to the Wall Street Journal. Legislators say 

Friday's decree follows an aborted attempt in March for the Supreme Court to usurp legislative power. That was met with widespread anger, and -- though the decision was rapidly recanted -- spurred months of protests that have left over 100 people dead.

And in the midst of a crackdown on opposition leaders, prominent Chavista dissident Luisa Ortega and her husband, Germán Ferrer, fled to Colombia, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See last Thursday's post.) Colombian authorities said they arrived in Bogotá on Friday afternoon aboard a private plane traveling from Aruba.

Her access to information in her previous post could make her a formidable enemy for the government, notes the Guardian. Ortega said the government's persecution of her is in fact due to her investigations regarding Odebrecht bribes to officials in Venezuela, reports Efecto Cocuyo. She spoke via video link to a regional summit of prosecutors and said her investigation involved Maduro and close associates. Members of the Public Ministry, which she led until her ousting earlier this month, have been subject to official harassment, and 74 national prosecutors specialized in corruption have been prohibited from leaving the country, she said.

A recent report from Armando.info shows that Maduro received 35 million from Odebrecht in the 2013 presidential campaign. His opponent, Henrique Capriles, also received funding, 15 million. Both were in exchange for the understanding that the government would respect existing public works contracts awarded to the Brazilian construction giant. The report is based on leaked plea bargain testimony from Euzenando Azevedo to Brazilian prosecutors.

Aside: A new film, La Soledad, explores Venezuela's social ills from the vantage point of an old patrician house now inhabited by a working-class family, reports the Guardian.

News Briefs
  • Nafta negotiators should incorporate a strong human rights chapter into a revised free-trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, argues Jorge Castañeda in a New York Times op-ed. Significant human rights abuses in Mexico -- as well as a growing number in the U.S. -- require strong pressure from abroad, he writes. "What better way to achieve this than with a binding and detailed human rights chapter in Nafta, with teeth: enforcement provisions and trade-related sanctions for noncompliance. The argument that free trade alone would automatically bring human rights improvements has not proven true over time."
  • The Guardian profiles a U.S. volunteer group that roams the Cabeza Prieto desert on the U.S.-Mexico border. They "search on foot in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the United States in the hope they’ll find migrants alive so that they can give them water and call for help. Often, though, they’ll find their bodies or bones. The only hope they have then is that they can successfully repatriate their remains with their families, giving grieving relatives some kind of closure."
  • Arizona State's "Tent City" jail -- compared to a concentration camp by advocates and critics -- is finally closing down after 20 years. The outdoor prison, just 10 minutes away from Phoenix, was used by Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, for up to 200 undocumented immigrants in recent years, reports the Guardian. The space has been the subject of multiple lawsuits from former prisoners, public outrage, and criticism from rights groups, including Amnesty International.
  • A year after the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, three favela inhabitants reflect on the security crisis facing the city and how it's affecting their communities. Their pieces in the Guardian  (and here, and here) discuss a war against crime, including deployment of thousands of troops, and the failure of the UPP project.
  • The future of Brazil's much debated pension reform bill remains uncertain, amid the political hits President Michel Temer has taken this year and with a rapidly approaching election year that will make legislators unwilling to back unpopular measures such as this, reports the Economist. Though Temer is now expected to finish out his term, he has already made concessions regarding the timeframe in which the age of retirement would be raised, and will likely have to cede in other areas. "The result may provide just half of the savings originally hoped for. That is worrying: even the original proposal would not have been enough to stop Brazil’s public debt rising."
  • Fast food chain Burger King is purchasing animal feed produced on land taken from tropical rainforests in Bolivia and Brazil, reports the Guardian. Environmental group Mighty Earth produced a report, based on aerial drones, satellite imaging, supply-chain mapping and field research that shows a systematic pattern of forest-burning in order to grow soybeans for Cargill and Bunge.
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, IAHCR, has condemned the conditions of Argentine social activist Milagro Sala's house arrest, arguing she is being subjected to "annihilation by the State," reports TeleSUR. After numerous international criticisms of her ongoing pre-trial prison detention, judicial authorities ordered her transfer to a vandalized house lacking in basic amenities, a switch Francisco Eguiguren, IAHCR's head, called a "change from one prison to another prison."

Friday, August 18, 2017

Venezuela's ANC to legislate against hate, protesters (Aug. 18, 2017)

News Briefs
  • Venezuela's National Constituent Assembly (ANC) is set to approve a law "against hate and intolerance" today. Rights groups say it will be used against opposition demonstrators, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's post.)
  • However, the protest movement sustained by the opposition since March has somewhat paused since the ANC took office, and opposition political leaders are trying to navigate the tricky waters of upcoming gubernatorial elections in what they have denounced as an authoritarian context, reports the Christian Science Monitor. "In the end, the largest parties within the opposition coalition decided to participate. But it raises questions about how best to pressure a government into negotiations or leadership change in an environment where the rules of the game are constantly changing. And their choice has left a powerful showing of public pressure via street protests in limbo. While the opposition seems to be making a bet on the possibility of peaceful political change, past missteps and growing national unrest are hanging over the decision."
  • Venezuela's government has around $2 billion in available cash to make $1.3 billion in bond payments by the end of the year and to cover the import of food and medicine, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.
  • Trump's foreign policy towards Latin America is a strange cross between "... two essential elements: first, strong and sometimes bellicose rhetorical opposition to the Obama Administration’s policies; second, significant substantive continuity with Obama Administration policies combined with threats to change that fact," argues Greg Weeks at Global Americans. "Combined, the disjuncture between rhetoric and action fosters uncertainty as U.S. administration officials policy makers walk back Tweets and offhand remarks on a regular basis. That’s one thing for domestic policy, but overseas it weakens the administration’s diplomatic position, especially in Latin America."
  • Evangelical Christians are playing an increasingly prominent role in Brazilian politics -- raising the possibility of "a "Brazilian Christian right"—a movement similar to the American Christian right in its ability to reshape politics," writes Omar G. Encarnación in The Nation. In fact, there are significant ties between the U.S. and the Brazilian evangelical communities, he notes. "More significant, however, is that in the last two decades several American Christian groups, many of the veterans of the American culture wars, have set up shop in Brazil."
  • The State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) cancelled classes for an indeterminate amount of time, amid mounting budget difficulties that have left professors and staff without salaries for months, reports the Washington Post. "UERJ has the reputation for being not only one of the best universities in the country, but also the school that has done the most to address educational inequality in Rio."
  • Manuel Ramiez Mosquera, a social leader in Colombia's Choco state, was killed, one of over 50 social activists killed so far this year, reports TeleSUR. Yesterday a FARC leader was also killed, one of nine killed since the signing of peace accords.
  • Peruvian authorities say a new cocaine producing hotspot is growing near the country's border with Colombia and Brazil, and could be strengthened by dissident FARC guerrillas, reports Reuters.
  • Chile's Constitutional Court is set to decide today on a new law that would allow abortion in limited circumstances. The measure, backed by President Michelle Bachelet would allow abortion in cases of rape, threat to women's health and fetal inviability. (See yesterday's briefs.) Chile is one of only four Latin American countries that forbid abortion under all circumstances, reports the New York Times.
  • El Salvador, another of the countries in the region with an absolute prohibition against abortion, might also be moving to permit it in extremely limited circumstances: when its necessary to save the pregnant woman's life and when the pregnancy is the result of rape. A potential bill has the support of 31 FMLN lawmakers, and a handful of rightwing party representatives. They are angling for two more votes needed to change the country's penal code, reports El Faro.
  • Salvadoran lawmakers abolished a polemic law permitting men to marry underage girls they had impregnated, reports Reuters. Critics say the law is often used to cover up rape.
  • Peruvian military staff were convicted today in the 1983 mass killings of 53 people at a barracks, who they wrongly claimed were part of the Shining Path rebel group, reports AFP.
  • Mexico's Human Rights Commission condemned a video threatening El Universal columnist Hector De Mauleon, reports the Associated Press. At least eight journalists have been killed this year in Mexico, and De Mauleon has received threats in the past for his coverage of organized crime in Mexico City.
  • The flow of Haitian migrants from the U.S. to Canada is spurred by fear of deportation from the U.S. -- but many will have difficulty proving they meet the conditions for asylum, namely that their lives are in danger in their home country, reports the Miami Herald. And if they are denied asylum, many will face the difficult choice about what to do with their U.S. born children. (See Aug. 4's post.)
  • U.S. Vice President Mike Pence ended his LatAm tour a day early. Throughout the visits to Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama, he assured regional allies that the Trump administration's "America First" policies do not mean eschewing multilateral trade, reports the Wall Street Journal. Pence sought to push back against perceptions that the Trump administration is isolationist, according to Reuters. Though he did not refer to the "military option" in reference to Venezuela, he did say the country was becoming a dictatorship and that the United States would not stand by while it was destroyed. (See Monday's post.)
  • Paraguay is a global marijuana powerhouse -- the world's fourth largest producer. Though drug cartels have not generally had a strong foothold in the country,  "its porous borders and central position on the continent, among other factors, have begun to attract increasing attention from major drug gangs," according to the Washington Post.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Venezuelan officials target Luisa Ortega (Aug. 17, 2017)

Venezuelan officials accused two prominent political dissidents of running an extortion ring. Former attorney general Luisa Ortega was accused of turning her office into a blackmail center. Her husband, lawmaker Germán Ferrer, was accused of extorting millions of dollars from victims with the aid of corrupt prosecutors, reports the New York Times. Both are vocal dissident Chavistas who broke with the ruling party earlier this year.

Ortega denounced a police raid on the couple's home. Officials asked that Ferrer be stripped of parliamentary immunity so he could be arrested. Ortega said the accusations were vengeance for fighting against the country's totalitarianism, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

Current prosecutor general Tarek William Saab, appointed earlier this month by the Constituent Assembly (ANC) when it ousted Ortega, said he had received proof from ANC member Diosdado Cabello that Ferrer deposited $6 million in Bahamas bank accounts, reports Efecto Cocuyo. Ferrer denied the accusations and challenged Saab to compare the signature on Cabello's documents to his own.

The accusations come amid a broader crackdown on political dissent:  At least five mayors have been sentenced to jail for permitting protests in their neighborhoods, and thousands of Venezuelans have been detained for participating in protests.

A new ANC truth commission will investigate opposition politicians running in gubernatorial elections later this year, specifically in reference to their participation in the ongoing protests against the government, reports Reuters. Critics say the commission is designed to sideline the opposition. The ANC is also considering a bill that would punish those who express "hate or intolerance" with up 25 years in jail, which the opposition fears will be used to silence criticism.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged Venezuela's government and the political opposition to re-start negotiations. He called for a brokered solution to the country's economic and political crisis, reports AFP.

News Briefs
  • Venezuelan prosecutors say at least 37 people have been killed in a prison riot in the country's south, reports the BBC.
  • Seven people were killed and a dozen more injured in a shooting in a Guatemalan hospital. The injured include a four-year-old boy. Police suspect Mara Salvatrucha street gang members attempting to free a jailed faction leader, reports the BBC. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that the attack was staged to free a gang member identified as Anderson Daniel Cabrera Cifuentes, reports the Los Angeles Times. He had been brought to the hospital for a blood test on a judges order, reports El Periódico.
  • The killings occurred as Guatemalan lawmakers are considering an anti-gang law that would allow gang members to be accused as "terrorists" and sentenced to 30 years in jail, reports El Periódico separately. The bill would modify the country's penal code and enter into effect immediately.
  • NAFTA trade renegotiation talks got off to a rocky start yesterday, with U.S. trade representatives arguing the agreement is skewed against the U.S., reports the New York Times. The U.S. has a $55.6 billion trade deficit with Mexico, and a historic imbalance with Canada, said officials. Canadian officials said trade balance wasn't an appropriate metric to evaluate the agreement's benefits, while Mexico says trade should be expanded, not restricted.
  • In the meantime, thousands of Mexican farmers and workers demonstrated yesterday against the free-trade agreement, reports Reuters.
  • The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) announced the list of finalists in this year's Excellence in Journalism contest, including coverage in El Confidencial, Animal Político, Factum, El Faro, Plaza Pública, Agência Pública, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The contest is held each year to encourage excellence in journalism, and the defense of freedom of expression throughout the Americas.
  • An Argentine court granted house arrest to social activist Milagro Sala yesterday. She has spent more than 19 months behind bars on suspicion of mishandling public funds, an accusation critics say is politically motivated, reports EFE. The tribunal in the northern province of Jujuy authorized the house arrest in response to a request from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. (See July 31's briefs.)
  • A landmark bill that would allow abortion in limited circumstances in Chile is facing a final hurdle: the country's constitutional tribunal, reports the Guardian. The bill, backed by President Michelle Bachelet spent two years under debate in Congress. It would would permit termination of a pregnancy when a woman’s life is in danger, fetal inviability or in cases of rape.
  • About 2,500 police officers and military personnel were deployed in a crackdown in a Rio de Janeiro suburb, Niteroi, reports the BBC. At least 18 people were arrested, out of 26 targets, reports O Globo. Operation "Double Dose" focused on the Caramujo favela complex, and involved more than 3,000 police officers and soldiers, according to the Associated Press.
  • A crime map created by the Public Security Institute (Instituto de Segurança Pública - ISP) in Rio de Janeiro could help authorities carry out "hot spot" policing that targets specific areas. " But in order for this type of strategy to be successful, authorities will need to identify and address the specific risks and needs of these communities, rather than simply occupying them with militarized force," argues InSight Crime, referencing the failed community policing efforts of the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (UPPs).
  • Brazil's Supreme Court ruled against a state that sought federal compensation for lands used to create three indigenous reserves, reports the Associated Press. The decision is seen as a defeat for groups trying to limit indigenous groups' claims.
  • Brazilian politicians strapped for campaign cash are proposing creating a taxpayer fund. Sources of revenue for election campaigns have been greatly reduced since the Supreme Court banned corporate donations to campaigns in 2015 and bribery scandals have reduced the under-the-table financing many parties used, reports Reuters. Most parties back the measure, which would aim at making politicians more accountable, but critics say it's a poor use of public funds in the midst of the country's budget crisis.
  • Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva launched his presidential campaign for next year's election early, embarking on a bus tour of around 20 cities through the country's northeast, reports AFP.
  • At least 14 people accused of running a corruption network manipulating judicial processes against criminals were arrested in El Salvador this week, part of an ongoing battle against corruption led by Attorney General Douglas Meléndez, reports InSight Crime.
  • Colombian officials announced a plan to send thousands of troops to protect the 26 FARC demobilization zones across the country, reports AFP. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Colombian miners have denounced police use of snipers against demonstrators, reports TeleSUR.
  • A country-wide ban on metal mining in El Salvador could create an opportunity for organized crime to move into the newly illegal industry, reports InSight Crime. (See March 30's post.) Artisanal miners, who have been grandfathered in for a two year period, will likely be the most susceptible to encroachment from illegal groups if the government fails to offer them economic alternatives.
  • U.S. Vice President Mike Pence sought to soften the Trump administration's America First message in a whirlwind LatAm tour this week, reports the New York Times. "Under President Donald Trump, the United States will always put the security and prosperity of America first," he said yesterday in Chile. "But as I hope my presence today demonstrates, ‘America first’ does not mean America alone."
  • Increased security spending over the past decade in Mexico has done little lower violence in the country, according to a study by the Ethos Laboratorio de Políticas Públicas. The problem isn't necessarily spending, but resource allocation, reports InSight Crime.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski urged striking teachers to return to work, after clashes with security forces in a protest demanding higher wages, reports Reuters.
  • Peru declared a 30-day state of emergency in several towns to end a protest blocking trucks from the Las Bambas mine, reports Reuters.
  • There are reports that Argentina's soccer hooligan groups -- "barras bravas" -- are moving up the criminal ladder and serving as muscle for a Buenos Aires extortion ring, reports InSight Crime.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The new FARC: Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria de Colombia (Aug. 16, 2017)

Colombia's demobilized FARC handed over the last of their weapons to U.N. monitors yesterday. The U.N. mission head Jean Arnault said a total of 17 containers of arms had been handed over over the past year, reports the BBC. They will be smelted down and made into three monuments to be installed in Bogotá, Havana and New York. 

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos declared the conflict officially over and called it "a historic day for the country" at a ceremony to mark the occasion in Fonseca, on the eastern border with Venezuela, reports Deutsche Welle.

With the completion of the FARC disarmament, the concentration zones become centers where the former combatants are to receive job training and other assistance to ease their return to civilian life, explains EFE.

The former Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia handed over 8,112 weapons to monitors, ending 53 years of armed insurgency. However, there are still numerous weapons caches around the country that the U.N. has been unable to secure, notes InSight Crime. 

In September the FARC will launch a political movement dubbed the Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria de Colombia -- a name that preserves the recognized acronym, reports Semana. The guerrillas were also supposed to hand over a definitive list of patrimony to be used for reparations to victims.

The example of verified disarmament has been an international example, but now begins a period of short-term uncertainty for the former guerrilla fighters, according to la Silla Vacía

Though the gathering of FARC members in concentration zones was carried out relatively well, the process now gives fodder both to the Uribista opposition and to the FARC force itself. The spots seem likely to become permanent FARC enclaves, raising the specter of independent zones where the former guerrillas have territorial and political control. The still incomplete villages also give the FARC arguments about the unfulfilled government promises, notes la Silla Vacía. As of yesterday, the U.N. monitoring and verification of these concentration zones has ended, and Colombian security forces assume responsibility for these areas. The infrastructure also becomes public space, that can be used by local citizens as well as former fighters. 

The public policy focus is now on reincorporating former fighters into society, reports Semana separately. Key issues include education -- most of the demobilized fighters have only a primary level education -- and community support for fighters without family ties. 

The possibility for former fighters to make a living is a key issue say experts."... The former FARC rebels are more vulnerable than ever. It is largely up to the government to provide what they most need to survive and integrate into civilian life and society in order to dissuade them from falling back into crime," argues InSight Crime

Just this past weekend an alleged FARC leader was assassinated just outside of a camp, and scores of social leaders have been killed so far this year, notes InSight. (See Monday's briefs for an Americas Quarterly piece by Robert Muggah and Katherine Aguirre on how peace has pushed up homicides and criminal gang activity in certain areas of Colombia.)

The newly created Unidad Nacional de Protección (UNP) is working on schemes to train former guerrilla's to protect FARC leaders considered under threat, reports El Espectador.

In the meantime the FARC is making efforts to become more relatable and enjoy the fruits of peace, including potentially launching a futból team, La Paz Fútbol Club reports la Semana.

News Briefs
  • Several armed Venezuelan soldiers were caught begging for food in neighboring Guyana, a sign of the country's growing hunger problem, reports the Miami Herald. Though shortages have been occurring for a long time, the military has had privileged access to scarce basics. Lately there have been reports of soldiers in outposts going hungry though, according to the Herald. 
  • U.S. President Donald Trump is cutting off a pathway allowing Central American youths who have been denied refugee status to temporarily live in the U.S., reports the New York Times. The parole program was established by the Obama administration in 2014 as a way of dealing with the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America arriving at the U.S. border. "Parole will only be issued on a case-by-case basis and only where the applicant demonstrates an urgent humanitarian or a significant public benefit reason for parole and that applicant merits a favorable exercise of discretion," said the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Deportations of undocumented migrants under the Trump administration have actually slowed down compared to his predecessors tenure, reports Politico. This doesn't necessarily reflect the administration's priorities, as deportations lag  behind arrest rates or removal orders -- which have apparently increased greatly. Instead, it is due to a backlog of cases in immigration courts, and Trump's decision to eliminate prioritizing apprehension of migrants with criminal records.
  • Recreational sales of marijuana in Uruguayan pharmacies, the recently implemented final stage in the country's landmark cannabis legalization, is under threat from U.S. banking regulations prohibiting national banks from taking money coming from legal cannabis enterprises, reports El Observador. Several banks have already closed down the accounts of businesses working with cannabis. Several pharmacies have said they would desist from selling rather than be shut out from the banking system.
  • Permitting drug addicts to consume in shelters, or even provide them with coca paste, were among the policy proposals aired by Bogota's Security Secretary Daniel Mejía in a recent forum. He proposed harm reduction policies for users of coca paste, known locally as bazuco, and said that providing users with high quality substances was part of the path to helping them, reports El Espectador.
  • Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS's CEO, Wesley Batista, may cling to his post, even after admitting to participating in a multimillion-dollar bribe scheme, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A protester who disappeared nearly two weeks ago in Argentina was last seen in the midst of a violent police crackdown against an indigenous group, reports Página 12. (See last Friday's briefs on Santiago Maldonado.)
  • Ecuadorean authorities have detained the crew of a Chinese fishing boat suspected to have caught endangered sharks in the Galapagos Islands, reports the BBC.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Trump's threats strengthen Venezuelan government's hand (Aug. 15, 2017)

Venezuela's military is preparing for a potential U.S. invasion. (See yesterday's post.) "Civic-military" exercises are due to take place next week, reports the BBC

Though few expect an actual military operation against Venezuela, the threat has hit hard in a region with a bloody history of U.S. intervention, reports the New York Times. A fragile regional alliance against authoritarianism in Venezuela has been imperiled by Trump's tempestuous threat -- and countries that last week were condemning President Nicolás Maduro's government (see last Wednesday's post) are now warning against military solutions. 

The threat has also permitted Maduro to frame the debate in terms of pro and anti imperialism, asking the national political opposition whether they support U.S. intervention, notes the BBC. It's pure propaganda gold for the regime, which could use the threats to rationalize a greater crackdown on political dissent, according to the Miami Herald. Anti-imperialist rallies were held across the country yesterday.

Yesterday, Maduro asked the polemic pro-government constitutional assembly to investigate the opposition for allegedly supporting Trump's remarks, reports the Associated Press.

This weekend, 33 Venezuelan human rights organizations signed a joint statement rejecting Trump’s threat of a possible "military option" to address the situation in Venezuela, reports Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. A military intervention would likely aggravate human suffering at a time when the country is already grappling with a severe economic crisis, note the signing organizations, which reject economic sanctions on the same grounds. They urged the international community to respond with diplomatic efforts in support of a "peaceful, negotiated solution."

The remarks were also poorly received in Washington, where where members of Congress from both parties who have backed sanctions on Venezuela said they would not support going to war there, reports the Los Angeles Times.

U.S. intelligence sources received uncorroborated information that Maduro hired a hitman to kill Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a high-profile critic of the government. While the threat is not corroborated, it was enough to warrant a security detail for several weeks, reports the Miami Herald.

News Briefs
  • Emilio Lozoya, the former chief executive of Pemex, received about $10 million in bribes allege former Odebrecht SA executives. The accusations were made to Brazilian prosecutors, and involve the head of Mexico's state run oil company at a time when he was a top campaign official for current President Enrique Peña Nieto, reports the Wall Street Journal
  • When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was elected in 2012, he announced education reforms intended to be his administration's flagship policies. They included efforts to eradicate corruption from the country's main teachers' union, improve teaching standards, and create a modernized education model, reports the Guardian. Some progress has been made, but millions of dollars are still misspent -- including salaries to teachers who never set foot in the classroom according to analysis by Mexico Evalúa watchdog and Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education. In the meantime, demonized teachers are working in situations of rampant poverty in which many children go to school hungry.
  • "... Institutionalized public malfeasance is pretty old news in Mexico," writes Luis Gómez Romero in the Conversation. "And yet, by any measure, graft in Mexico has reached stunning new highs this year. Over the past five months, three state governors have been arrested abroad while trying to escape justice, and fully eleven of the country’s 32 total governors are currently under investigation or fighting prosecution for corruption." The salacious tales are yet another blow to Peña Nieto's legacy and his promises to combat graft. "... Political analysts in Mexico are now considering the current political class a lost generation of public servants."
  • Mexico's ruling PRI party has been heavily hit by Peña Nieto's flagging popularity ratings, and recently implemented rules allowing nonmembers to run for president on the party ticket. (See last Friday's briefs.) The PRI's president said the changes are necessary to stop leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from winning office next year, reports Reuters.
  • Nafta renegotiation talks begin tomorrow in Washington. While Mexico will bear the brunt of the U.S. administration's reform efforts, Canada is concerned that it's neighbor to the south will attempt to gain concessions in such politically contentious sectors as lumber, dairy and wine, reports the Washington Post. All three countries seek to modernize the agreement to deal more adequately with trade in services and the digital economy.
  • U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is in Argentina today, where he is expected to praise the government's economic reforms, reports the Associated Press.
  • Argentina's Buenos Aires province senatorial primary remains undetermined -- 4.31 percent of polling booths remain uncounted, and could throw the results in favor of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, reports La Nación. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Bolivia's President Evo Morales approved a controversial highway that would cut through an Amazon biodiversity hotspot that is home to 14,000 mostly indigenous people, reports the Guardian. The 300 km road will cut through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park and strip it of the protections won in 2011. The legislation passed through Bolivia’s Senate last week where Morales’ governing Movement Toward Socialism party holds a two-thirds majority, and was enacted on Sunday. Rival political parties and the Catholic church opposed the law, joining activists and indigenous groups who marched in several cities across the country. Opponents of the road say it will open up the park to mining and oil and gas exploration, as well as loggers and coca farmers.
  • Finding ways to reduce illicit coca cultivation is a key challenge for Colombia's government. In some areas, like Putumayo, that will mean rethinking the entire local economy, reports the BBC. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Colombian authorities discovered an arms cache belonging to members of the FARC rebel group who reject the peace accord, reports EFE.
  • Brazilian police arrested a man suspected of involvement in the shooting of a British tourist, during an operation in which two other men were killed, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Another 24 former agents of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship have been sentenced by the Court of Appeal of Santiago in Chile after being proven guilty in two criminal cases, reports TeleSUR.
  • Archbishop Óscar Romero was born 100 years ago this day, on August 15th 1917. He was murdered by El Salvador’s state forces on March 24th, 1980, reports the Irish Times.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Trump's military bluster hinders regional Venezuela diplomacy (Aug. 14, 2017)

U.S. President Donald Trump set off a diplomatic storm on Friday evening, when he explicitly included a "military option" among potential U.S. responses to the Venezuelan crisis, reports the Guardian. "We have many options for Venezuela and by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option," he said. "We’re all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very very far away, Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and dying. We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary."

The White House also released a statement saying it had rejected a request from Maduro to speak by phone with Trump. The statement said: "Trump will gladly speak with the leader of Venezuela as soon as democracy is restored in that country."

Predictably, Venezuelan officials considered the statements a threat to national sovereignty.

Critics of the Venezuelan government immediately noted that such an approach is a boon for the Maduro government. Venezuela's government has long accused the U.S. of imperialist conspiracies aimed at toppling it -- and Trump's threat could breath new life into those wild claims, reports the New York Times. "Maduro’s theory of war will be much more concrete and believable," WOLA analyst David Smilde told the NYT. "This will undoubtedly galvanize his coalition."

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, tweeted: "Perhaps since [Hugo] Chávez named him his successor, no one had helped Maduro as much as Trump and this nonsense he said today."

WOLA  Associate for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey noted that the statements threaten to "undermine diplomatic efforts to address Venezuela’s crisis, led by governments in Latin America. While a growing group of countries in the Americas have taken serious steps to pressure the Venezuelan government to abandon its authoritarian slide, President Trump’s suggestion that the United States might exercise a military option appears to dismiss these efforts."

Countries in the region, many of which united in rejected a pro-government Constituent Assembly, rejected Trump's statements. Peru, Mexico, Colombia, and the Mercosur trade bloc, all critical of the regime, rejected the use of force. Peru, which on Friday expelled Venezuela's ambassador from Lima, noted Trump's threats ran counter to United Nations principles, reports Reuters.

"Every country in Latin America would not favor any form of military intervention," warned Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in a joint press-conference with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence yesterday in Cartagena. Pence played down the threat, saying Trump's statement merely reflected the importance he has granted the crisis, reports the Wall Street Journal. "We have many options for Venezuela, but the president also remains confident that working with all of our allies across Latin America we can achieve a peaceable solution." Pence also emphasized that the "full range of additional economic sanctions" was still under consideration.

Most analysts believe there is little likelihood that the U.S. will use military force against Venezuela. Still, yesterday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo says Venezuela could "very much" become a risk to the United States, reports Voice of America. "The Cubans are there; the Russians are there, the Iranians, Hezbollah are there. This is something that has a risk of getting to a very very bad place, so America needs to take this very seriously."

Even by Venezuela's crisis-beset standards, the economy has gotten worst in recent weeks, reports the Washington Post. Local currency depreciated 45 percent against the dollar after the July 30 Constitutional Assembly vote. Street prices for staples such as bread and tomatoes have doubled in less than two weeks. And a sovereign debt crisis could further intensify the pain later this year.

Information about British weapons sales to Venezuela over the past decade -- despite official concerns over human rights -- has prompted calls for Theresa May to suspend controlled export licenses, reports the Guardian. Overall, £2.5m of military goods have been sold to the country since 2008, including components for military radar, weapon sights and military aircraft engines. In the last year of figures, to March 2016, licenses for goods worth more than £80,000 were approved, including equipment for crowd control to be used by law enforcement agencies.


El Salvador's political parties accused of buying votes from gangs

El Salvador's two main political parties -- the FMLN and ARENA -- bought electoral backing from gang leaders in the 2014 presidential elections, according to testimony from a former gang leader. Carlos Eduardo Burgos Nuila, a former Barrio 18 Revolucionarios leader said FMLN paid the country's three leading gangs $250,000 to ensure the votes of members and families. And that ARENA paid $100,000 with the same intent, reports El Faro.

ARENA has denied the payments, but admits to meeting with gang leaders, while the governing FMLN has not responded to the allegations, reports Factum.

Nuila, known as Nalo de Las Palmas, testified in the fourth day of a trial against 18 former government officials involved in negotiating a gang truce between 2012 and 2014. (See last Friday's briefs.) The accusations of vote buying and voter intimidation are not actually related to the current trial, which is focused on benefits granted to jailed gang leaders such as transfer to minimum security facilities and allowing prohibited objects such as cell phones into the prisons. 

 Prosecutors would not say whether there is an active investigation regarding the vote buying allegations, which throw the 2014 election of current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén into doubt.

In testimony last year, accessed by El Faro, Nuila detailed how government officials bartered improved jail conditions in exchange for homicide reductions, and cash in exchange for votes and intimidation of citizens planning to vote against the parties in question.

Nalo specifically mentioned former Justice Minister Benito Lara and current Government Minister Arístides Valencia as participants in the 2013 vote buying meetings, according to Factum. The $150,000 handed over by the FMLN was divided among the gangs, and part of the portion taken by Barrio 18 Revolucionarios was used for a weapons buying fund, said Nuila.

By the second round of voting, FMLN leadership again paid the gangs for support. But opposition ARENA leaders, including current legislator and San Salvador mayoral candidate Ernesto Muyshond, also vied for gang support offering money and the promise of another truce if they won.

Nuila testified that mediator Raul Mijango provided assistance both negotiations.

Nalo's testimony also sheds light on how gang leaders used homicide counts to pressure government officials during the truce.

News Briefs
  • Trump's Venezuela comments have complicated Pence's Latin America tour, originally intended reinforce relations with four U.S. allies -- Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama. Now "he has to spend all of his time not contradicting Trump, but reassuring Latin American countries that the United States will not intervene militarily," Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center told the Wall Street Journal. All part of the delicate balancing act that has defined Pence's term so far, according to the Associated Press.
  • The issue of Colombia's booming coca cultivation also came up, notes the WSJ piece. Colombia's government is determined to maintain a ban on aerial fumigation of the illicit crop, in favor of voluntary eradication efforts. The U.S. is pressuring the country to resume polemic aerial spraying, which, with U.S. sponsorship, reduced production for over a decade, though at questionable health and political costs. Coca reduction efforts represent a potential diplomatic problem between the two countries. (See last Tuesday's post.)
  • The dividends of peace in Colombia have actually been a rise in homicides in some cases, write Robert Muggah and Katherine Aguirre in Americas Quarterly. "While lethal violence is falling in most urban centers and even some individual areas traditionally affected by conflict, homicides in former conflict zones overall have increased by 15 percent. As the FARC withdraws from these areas, new criminal factions are filling the void," they explain. And social leaders have been particularly targeted, over 50 have been assassinated this year.
  • A closely watched primary race in Argentina's Buenos Aires province yesterday ended in a technical tie between former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the governing Cambiemos coalition's candidate. The two will run against each other for Senate seats in October, but the race was widely seen as a gauge of popular support for President Mauricio Macri's economic reform agenda and Fernandez's chances of staging a presidential comeback in 2019, reports Reuters. The vote will likely be interpreted positively by investors who were scared of a change in course, reports the Wall Street Journal. Nonetheless, investors will likely hold out until October's elections, hindering Macri's campaign, which depends on investment to reactivate the economy, reports the Financial Times.
  • Though details of a supposed sonic attack against U.S. diplomats in Havana are still unclear, the incidents "could cause further disruptions in U.S.-Cuban relations, already on shaky ground after President Trump’s June 16 declaration that he was “canceling” President Obama’s policy of normalization," writes William M. LeoGrande at Aula Blog. Nonetheless, "speculation that this was a Cuban “attack” intended to injure the diplomats does not make sense, either. U.S. diplomats in Havana have faced petty harassment over the years, but even when relations were at their worst, there was never an attempt to inflict physical harm," he writes. Yet "the impact of the alleged attacks and U.S. retaliation on the bilateral relationship has been minimal so far.  Senior diplomats on both sides seem reluctant to allow the incidents to put a brake on improvements in areas of mutual interest.  The fact that both countries agreed to keep the alleged attacks and the expulsion of Cuban diplomats quiet suggests neither wanted the issue to get out of hand."
  • Gang controlled areas can be deadly for the occasional tourists who accidentally wander there in Rio de Janeiro state. A recent shooting involving a British family near Angra dos Reis could affect tourism which is vital for the local economy, reports the Guardian.
  • Brazil’s democracy is at risk if the armed forces are not properly funded to fight organized crime, Defense Minister Raul Jungmann told Bloomberg. The army is participating in operations against organized crime in Rio de Janeiro -- earlier this month a joint task force of around 5,000 military personnel and police officers targeted factions involved in drug-trafficking and cargo theft.
  • Ciudad Juárez's violent history has left it with a legacy of empty houses. Some community efforts to combat youth gang membership have centered around turning the abandoned spaces into gathering spots in a city with few options for the young, reports the Guardian.
  • Part of the reason for the avocado shortage in Mexico is local mafia control of commercialization, reports a Guardian reader in response to a piece last week on how Mexico might have to start importing the key guacamole ingredient. (See last Monday's briefs.)
  • Chewing gum, in its modern form, originated in Mexico -- and in Mexico City, the task of removing discarded bits from public spaces is a monotonous battle, reports the Guardian.
  • A Chilean judge is charging six people in connection with the 1982 death of former President Eduardo Frei Montalva, reports the Associated Press.
  • Chile's clean energy grid "is one of the most ambitious in a region that is decisively moving beyond fossil fuels," reports the New York Times. Big hydropower projects have already made Latin America a leader in renewable energy, but investment in the sector in Latin America has increased 11-fold since 2004, nearly double the global rate. Chile, Mexico and Brazil are now among the top 10 renewable energy markets in the world.