Friday, December 22, 2017

PPK survives narrowly (Dec. 22, 2017)

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski narrowly survived an impeachment vote yesterday, when opponents in Congress failed to gather two-thirds majority in order to oust him. He was charged with "moral unfitness" in relation to revelations that a consulting firm he owned had accepted payments from scandal-plagued Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. (See yesterday's briefs.)

The opposition fell just eight votes short of ousting him yesterday, after an 11 hour debate. The ouster garnered 79 votes, of the 87 out of 130 needed to impeach. Twenty-one lawmakers abstained, including 10 from the Fujimorista Fuerza Popular party that led the charge against PPK. One of the abstaining lawmakers was Kenji Fujimori, younger brother of Fuerza Popular leader Keiko Fujimori, indicated a deepening schism between the offspring of former Peruvian leader Alberto Fujimori.

Analysts say Kuczynski's threat Wednesday that his two vice presidents would quit if he were impeached -- triggering new presidential and legislative elections -- likely influenced the final result, reports the Guardian. Lawmakers from some smaller parties that were considering supporting the impeachment pulled back in light of a potential crisis, according to the Wall Street Journal.

PPK was saved by negotiations with lawmakers that continued until the end of the debate, as well as the "sensation that it was a sort of coup by the Fujimoristas," according to La Tercera

PPK defended himself yesterday before lawmakers, saying he had been careless, but had not accepted a bribe or knowingly allowed conflict of interests. His lawyer also noted that avoiding impeachment does not mean the case will not be investigated, reports the New York Times

Nonetheless, he is politically weak, and will have to achieve alliances in an opposition dominated Congress, according to La Tercera. The political crisis is far from over, according La Mula. Kuczynski called for the start of a "new chapter" for Peru and for reconciliation.

The Washington Post said the result leaves PPK as somewhat of a lame-duck leader, less than a year and a half into his five-year mandate.

And Odebrecht revelations are also impacting on Fuerza Popular -- accused of receiving millions of dollars in illicit donations -- and Keiko Fujimori herself, under investigation for laundering $15 million. The impeachment efforts have come just as prosecutors are making headway in their investigations against Fujimori, notes the Post.

And the unequal pace with which alleged improprieties by PPK and Fujimori have been addressed also raise questions about the impartiality and fairness of the country's institutions, notes the Los Angeles Times.

News Briefs
  • The end of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's mandate in March will close off a decade of women presidents in the region, reports Reuters. "Together with Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez, Bachelet embodied the major strides made by women across a region that has passed laws deterring rampant violence against women and set quotas for political participation that have given Latin American women a bigger share of parliamentary seats than in Europe. But now some worry that progress on women’s rights could stall." In particular, conservative groups in the region are tareting efforts to incorporate gender equality in school curricula, notes the piece.
  • A group of 20 U.S. Democratic lawmakers asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to support a fresh presidential election in Honduras, in light of irregularities detected by international monitors, reports the Associated Press. They also asked Tillerson to denounce "excessive use of force" by Honduran security forces handling the streets protests since last month's election. Nonetheless, U.S. authorities are leaning towards recognizing the results that give President Juan Orlando Hernánedez a second mandate, according to the AP. (See Wednesday's post.)
  • Honduras is not legally obligated to follow the OAS recommendation to hold a new election. (See Monday's post.) For the Christian Science Monitor, the post-electoral "confusion underscores the region's lack of trust in governing institutions, while raising questions about the role of election observers." The piece notes that such a strong denunciation of an election, to the point of calling it invalid is extremely rare in the region. "Over the past three decades, election monitoring has become a global norm, but in some ways that has diluted the power election monitors have in practice."
  • Corruption costs Mexico about 5 percent of its GDP each year, according to local nonprofit Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity. The group's work, including expose more than two-dozen alleged instances of high-profile corruption over the past two years, seem to have struck a nerve with government officials. The nonprofit's head, Claudio X. González, said they have been hit with intense government scrutiny as a result, and even intimidation, reports the Wall Street Journal. (The NYT had a similar story a few months ago, see Aug. 30's briefs.) The group's most explosive investigation focuses on at least $4 million of allegedly illegal campaign contributions by Odebrecht, in exchange for public works contracts.
  • Mexican leftist presidential frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador polemically suggested an amnesty for drug cartel leaders in exchange for peace in the country. But it's not so easy, warns InSight Crime. His "proposal denotes a certain ignorance regarding criminal dynamics in Mexico. Large criminal organizations like the Knights Templar, Sinaloa Cartel, Zetas and the Familia Michoacana have fragmented after the death or arrest of their leaders. This prevents the possibility of negotiating with a single and clear figure. Moreover, any negotiations must also be seen as similar to those playing out in Colombia’s post-conflict peace process between the government and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). Mexican cartels could potentially respond like some factions of Colombia’s armed groups, which have shown independence, a resistance to abandon their lucrative criminal activities and a willingness to continue using violence to maintain territorial control and protect their criminal enterprises."
  • Colombia's government has given out conflicting versions of how many illicit coca crops it aims to eradicate next year, a sign of its "struggle to balance forcible eradication with voluntary crop substitution programs," reports InSight Crime. Reports this year indicate that voluntary substitution programs are not working as well as projected, and analysts point to U.S. pressure in favor of forced eradication.
  • China offered support for Venezuela, saying a country has a right to choose its development path, reports Reuters.
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed its concern over Argentina's "inadequate" and "disproportionate" use of force against protesters demonstrating against pension reform last week and this one, reports Página 12.
  • NAFTA negotiations are dragging on, and though the trade ties between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada are strong, they are starting to fray, argues Daniela Stevens at the AULA blog. Though Mexico and Canada prefer to maintain a form of NAFTA, they are also looking for trading partners beyond the U.S., she writes.
  • Brazilian pop sensation Anitta's "Vrai Malandra" video has critics and fans discussing inequality, racism, sexist abuse and cultural appropriation, reports the Guardian.
The Latin American Daily Briefing will be off from Dec. 25 until Jan. 2. Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Ortega denounces massacres by Venezuelan security forces (Dec. 21, 2017)

A former Venezuelan attorney general is denouncing thousands of killings by security forces in recent years. Luisa Ortega, who was ousted by the government earlier this year, said her office recorded the slayings of 8,292 people by the police, the National Guard, the army and Venezuela’s internal intelligence agency, from 2015 through the first six months of this year. Prosecutors and human rights groups are pointing to "recurring and escalating lethal attacks carried out by police or soldiers," often targeting poor neighborhoods, reports the Wall Street Journal. Ortega and human rights groups criticize the attacks as a poorly executed security policy in traditionally chavista neighborhoods. 

The result is "a systematic policy against a social sector," Ortega told the WSJ. An independent Caracas human-rights group, Families of Victims Committee, or Cofavic, tallied 6,385 extrajudicial executions from 2012 through the first three months of this year. The group is calling them social cleansing operations by state forces. Ortega recently filed a 495-page report on rights abuses at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands, asserting that "the civilian population is victim of these criminal attacks."

Ortega is working from Colombia, with a half dozen exiled prosecutors and former aides, working with international authorities to build cases against senior Venezuelan government officials, reports the Associated Press. But others question the scope of the evidence Ortega claims to have. The AP reports that U.S. officials privately "question Ortega's willingness to cooperate, saying she may be more motivated by ambitions of becoming Venezuela's first female president than revealing details of the corruption they believe she surely was aware of as the nation's top law enforcement official for a decade, while pressing what many see as trumped-up charges against prominent government opponents."

News Briefs
  • Flows of migrants from Venezuela have increased more than seven-fold over the past three years. A new report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) found there were more than 629,000 Venezuelans living in nine major South American countries in 2017 — up from just 85,000 in 2015. The trend is notable in a region where migrants tend to head to the U.S. or Europe, notes the Miami Herald. In Colombia the increase has been most notable: from 44,615 in 2015 to an estimated 470,000 in 2017. Those numbers do not include Venezuelans seeking asylum: According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, from 2014 to 2017 more than 100,000 Venezuelans sought asylum protection in foreign countries — half those applications were filed this year.
  • Venezuela's Constituent Assembly (ANC) approved a measure yesterday aimed at blocking major opposition political parties from participating in next year's presidential elections, reports the New York Times. The decree requires political parties to have been active in recent elections in order to participate in the presidential race, retaliating against parties that called for a boycott of this month's municipal elections. (See Dec. 11's post.) The decree particularly affects Acción Democrática (AD), Voluntad Popular (VP) and Primero Justicia (PJ), notes Efecto Cocuyo. They will have to apply to the pro-government electoral commission in order to run.
  • Critics say the fast-track Peruvian lawmakers are using in impeachment proceedings against President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski are an assault on democracy and have bypassed due process, reports the Washington Post. The impeachment drive, led by the opposition Popular Force party comes just as prosecutors have advanced corruption investigations against the party's leadership. 
  • PPK spoke in Congress this morning, to defend himself from accusations of Odebrecht related corruption. (La República has live updates on the session, which could oust him later today.) 
  • PPK said the ouster attempt is a coup, and that his two vice presidents would quit if he is impeached, reportsReuters. Should that occur, new presidential and legislative elections would have to be called.
  • The country's political crisis raises the question of why the country's presidents are prone to unstable mandates, writes Bret Rosen in Americas Quarterly. "The answer lies in a democracy that has yet to fully mature. Whether or not Kuczynski is impeached on Thursday, Peru’s parties and political institutions are in desperate need of reform," he argues.
  • Brazilian construction magnate, Marcelo Odebrecht, was released to house arrest earlier this week. The Odebrecht SA executive served two and a half years of an almost-twenty year sentence, but negotiated a lighter sentence in exchange for testifying in the massive corruption scandal centered around his company. His release to his São Paulo mansion sparked public outrage, reports the Wall Street Journal. His arrest two years ago had raised hopes that corruption investigations were making an inroad into a culture of impunity, and some question whether the leniency shown in this case is a throwback. But others defend the deal, saying it was integral to pursuing further corruption cases.
  • Brazilian federal prosecutors on charged a Spanish-Swiss banker with laundering $21.7 million in graft money for Brazilian clients involved in the country’s Lava Jato corruption scandal, including jailed former lower house speaker Eduardo Cunha, reports Reuters.
  • At least 6 Mexican journalists were killed this year in retaliation for their work, making the country the deadliest for journalists outside of a war zone, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The advocacy group is investigating whether three other assassinations were in relation to the victims' work, which would bring the total up to nine, reports the New York Times. A possible tenth death was reported this week. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • A former deputy in Mexico's ruling PRI party was arrested yesterday, as part of an investigation into illicit funding for in campaigns in Chihuahua state last year. The case has already implicated more than a dozen former state officials, some of whom are now cooperating with the authorities. But it could reach the highest ranks of government according to the New York Times.
  • A teachers union leader recently released from jail has become an unlikely ally for the PRI in upcoming presidential elections, reports the Guardian.
  • A ProPublica investigation by Ginger Thompson sheds light on how a secret DEA operation played a role in the disappearance of five innocent Mexicans in 2010. For years relatives of the victims wondered why they were kidnapped from a Holiday Inn in Monterrey by Zeta Cartel operatives -- they were never seen again. But the investigation found that the cartel was reacting to information about a DEA surveillance operation run out of the hotel, working undercover to track a Zetas leader. "The DEA didn’t hang around to figure out how the tables had been so violently turned. It evacuated the SIU officers from Monterrey, and never looked back at the innocent people who weren’t so lucky. The agency never revealed its role in what had happened to either local or federal authorities. It didn’t offer to help investigate the incident, or to use its surveillance capabilities to track the kidnappers. Nor did it turn its scrutiny inward to figure out whether the intelligence leak that had drawn the Zetas to the Holiday Inn had come from within the SIU." ProPublica notes that the incident is hardly isolated, a previous investigation linked a DEA information leak to a Zetas massacre in the town of Allende -- leading to at least 60 deaths, perhaps as many as 300. (See June 13's post.)
  • Mexican officials suggest that corruption isn't actually worst, it's just easier to detect thanks to social media and such. "An extensive review of publicly available data suggests that corruption in Mexico has indeed become more widespread in recent years. What's more, evidence suggests that social media and an open press actually decrease public perceptions of corruption, contrary to what Peña Nieto and others claim," writes Viridiana Rios in Americas Quarterly.
  • At least 105 social activists have been killed in Colombia this year, according to the United Nations, which called on the government to improve protections, reports Reuters. More than half of the assassinated activists and community leaders killed this year were gunned down by hit men, the UN said. "The Office notes with deep concern the persistence of cases of killings of human rights defenders in the country," the UN human rights office said. "Cases of killings of male and female leaders and [rights] defenders have occurred in areas from which the Farc has left, and which has created a vacuum of power by the state."
  • Chile's Supreme Court defended the right to information over the right to be forgotten, in what the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas calls an unprecedented decision. "The court decided in favor of the Center for Investigative Reporting, CIPER, against a doctor's request to remove a report about medical malpractice from CIPER's site."
  • New York Times Español has the Spanish language version of an op-ed by Héctor Timerman, denouncing his detention in a treason case as politically motivated.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

JOH declares himself president-elect, calls for dialogue (Dec. 20, 2017)

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) -- declared this week the winner of last months presidential election -- called for dialogue and an end to violence, reports La Prensa. The vote count has been heavily questioned by international observer missions, and the OAS called for fresh elections this week, saying the results announced could not be trusted. (See Monday's post.)

Violently repressed protests on Monday after the results were announced led to three deaths, reports TeleSUR. At least 17 people had already died in election related protests since the election nearly a month ago. U.N. and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights experts condemned the post-election violence, and called on authorities to investigate the deaths.
Honduran opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla agreed to enter into talks with JOH. Nasralla has been calling for new elections, in line with the OAS recommendation, but agreed to dialogue with the president, reports the BBC.
Nasralla has called on the international community not to recognize Hernández as the election's winner. Though the U.S. has not officially done so yet, the State Department said in a statement on Monday that "the United States notes that Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal has declared incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández the winner" of the election.

The Mexican government yesterday congratulated JOH on his win, reports La Prensa. Mexico's statement is an important support for Hernández, who declared himself president-elect yesterday, notes Reuters.

However, several U.S. lawmakers have thrown their weight behind the OAS call for new elections, reports the New York Times.

U.S. silence on the matter is highly problematic, argues Inter-American Dialogue president Michael Shifter in Foreign Affairs. "Although it may be tempting for Washington to try to sweep the problems of democratic legitimacy and corruption under the rug, given its partnership with Honduras in fighting drug trafficking and illegal immigration, doing so would be a mistake. The experience of Honduras over the past eight years offers a cautionary tale for Washington: Unless Honduras' democratic legitimacy is restored, the country will continue to struggle to alleviate the many symptoms of its broken system."

News Briefs
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski will have an hour to defend himself in Congress tomorrow, where opposition parties say they have enough votes to oust him by the weekend, reports the New York Times. (See Monday's and yesterday's briefs.)  Some analysts say impeachment proceedings against  parallel the ouster of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on minor charges. Other point to a widening ripple effect of Odebrecht corruption revelations, reports the Guardian. Odebrecht represents a turning point for Latin American voters who have traditionally accepted a degree of corruption as inevitable, according to the  PPK , reports NYT. But, also like the Rousseff impeachment, it also showcases the difficulty facing many of the region's corruption investigations: "how to oust politicians in governments where few judging them are considered any more clean — and in some cases far less so," according to the NYT. The result has been use of corruption charges for political purposes, Jo-Marie Burt told NYT.
  • Chile's runoff election on Sunday finished in a surprisingly strong win by former president Sebastián Piñera. Though the results appear to ratify the country's regional reputation for being boring, it's the second time this year Chilean voters have defied polls and experts in a surprise result, writes Patricio Fernández in a New York Times Español op-ed. "Everything indicates that communication between political and cultural elites and those who they pretend to represent is spoiled," he writes "The result is an unheard-of ideological disorder."
  • Mexican journalist Gumaro Pérez Aguilando was shot while attending his son's Christmas pageant in school yesterday. He is the twelfth media worker killed this year, reports the Guardian. Mexico and Syria are the world's most murderous countries for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders.
  • "Intense gang warfare continues to plague El Salvador, undeterred by successive governments’ heavy-handed and militarised repression policies," according to a new Crisis Group report. "More investment in holistic violence prevention strategies and economic alternatives to criminal violence are necessary if the country's chronic insecurity crisis is to be alleviated."
  • Opposition dysfunction in Venezuela, as well as another failed round of dialogue, may have contributed to analyst fatigue, writes David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, noting "a dearth of realistic and detailed analysis of Venezuela’s current process of negotiation in the international media and blogosphere." He highlights several interesting pieces that came out in Venezuelan media this week however. "Negotiations have been put on hold until January, but these analyses will continue to be relevant in the coming weeks and months."
  • Mexico's presidential election next year could get very dirty, warns Bloomberg. Leftist Andres Manuel López Obrador has an 11-percentage point lead ahead according to a poll taken last week, reports Reuters. The Parametria poll found that 31 percent of those asked who they would vote for if the election were today would choose Lopez Obrador, followed by former Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade, seeking nomination for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), on 20 percent.
  • Brazilian President Michel Temer's approval rating is going up -- doubling to 6 percent in a new poll published this week, reports Reuters. Analysts say the increase reflects an improved economy.
  • Rio de Janeiro's police broke up a drug-smuggling ring that used luggage labels of innocent travelers in the city's international airports to send cocaine abroad. Twenty-seven people were arrested, including airline and airport staff, one foreigner, and an official from the Brazilian tax office, police said. The scheme involved duplicating luggage labels for domestic travelers -- subject to less scrutiny -- in order to get suitcases full of cocaine into restricted areas, where they were then loaded onto international flights, reports the Guardian.
  • Widespread opposition to the Argentine government's pension overhaul plan has called into question President Mauricio Macri's ability to follow through with ambitious, investor-friendly reforms, reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's post.) Clashes between protesters and security forces as Congress debated and ultimately approved the bill, left 141 people injured, including 88 police officers, and led to the detention of 70 people in Buenos Aires. At least 28 journalists were injured covering the protest. A survey by the polling company Ricardo Rouvier and Associates showed that two out of three Argentines rejected the overhaul, which the opposition has characterized as an austerity move.
  • In a New York Times op-ed former Argentine foreign minister Héctor Timerman (my father) denies the charges of treason that an Argentine judge has used to put him in pre-trial detention. (See yesterday's briefs for Human Rights Watch's criticism of the case and the use of pre-trial detention against former government officials.)
  • At least 12 people died yesterday when a bus carrying cruise ship passengers to Mayan ruins in eastern Mexico flipped over on a highway, reports the Associated Press.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Argentina passes pension reform (Dec. 19, 2017)

Argentina's Congress passed a pension reform bill early this morning, amid violent clashes between protesters and security forces, reports Reuters. The reform is a cornerstone in President Mauricio Macri's fiscal austerity program, aimed at attracting foreign investment.

The bill passed the Chamber of Deputies after an all-night debate session by a vote of 128-116. The Senate had approved it last month. Opposition lawmakers and labor unions, who say it will hurt retirees.

Demonstrators took to the streets yesterday, and security forces clashed with rock throwing protesters. The country’s main union called a 24-hour general strike in opposition to the new law. About 150 people were injured and about 60 were arrested in clashes between police and demonstrators yesterday, reports the Associated Press. Demonstrators threw stones, bottles, rocks and petrol bombs, while police in riot gear responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon, reports the BBC. (La Nación has pictures of the street battle.) 

In the evening, pot banging protesters took to the streets outside Congress and in other major cities, reports Página 12.

Debate on the bill was suspended last week amid violent demonstrations.

In Cohete a la Luna Horacio Verbitsky analyzes the militarization of internal security, a critique that has implications for other countries in the region.

News Briefs
  • Impeachment proceedings against Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) have created a political crisis in a growing economy and international investment darling, according to the Wall Street Journal. An ouster "could usher in a period of instability less than 20 years after the last political upheaval, when then-President Alberto Fujimori was removed from office. While Mr. Kuczynski’s vice president, Martin Vizcarra, would replace the president in the event of impeachment, there are doubts about whether he would be able to govern until the end of the term in 2021 because of the weakness of the ruling party in Congress." (See yesterday's briefs.) His removal would be the first of a sitting president in relation to the Odebrecht scandal rocking the region, though Ecuadorian vice president Jorge Glas has been convicted in relation to receiving Odebrecht bribes. Current Brazilian President Michel Temer and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have also been accused of Odebrecht related corruption.
  • Within Chile, Piñera's election can be seen as "more a vote for continuity than radical change," for the Economist.
  • Americas Quarterly reports on a broad "and generally overlooked," generational change in Paraguay's politics and public debates. "Long written off as hopelessly conservative and stuck in the past, Paraguay is rarely mentioned in debates about the current political upheaval and renewal in Latin America." But "in several ways, a new generation of Paraguayans is beginning to change politics, though perhaps in a less dramatic fashion than elsewhere in Latin America," writes Oliver Stuenkel. 
  • Another Americas Quarterly piece from last week has some analysis as to why Sunday's primary election for the ruling Colorado Party resulted in a voter rebuke of President Horacio Cartes. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The idea of unfair elections is hardly surprising for Hondurans, who largely mistrusted their elections even before this, reports the Washington Post based on data from the AmericasBarometer poll. Last year's poll, carried out by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) found that trust was even lower among supporters of the newer anti-system parties. 
  • The OAS call for new elections in Honduras (see yesterday's post) puts the U.S. administration in a difficult position, according to the New Yorker. "If the Trump Administration does accept the recommendations of the O.A.S., it would be nullifying the election of an ally ... In 2009, the U.S. looked the other way when a cadre of generals and right-wing politicians in Honduras launched a coup to overthrow a sitting President. Hernández was one of the plotters."
  • Already, opposition parties in Honduras have attacked the failure of the US to denounce the controversial declaration of President Juan Orlando Hernández as winner of a widely disputed election, reports CNN.
  • New York Times op-ed by Silvio Carillo criticizes the U.S.'s acceptance of the much questioned elections in Honduras. (See yesterday's post.) "The story here isn’t the machinations President Hernández and his henchmen have used in this election. It’s the acceptance of those machinations by the State Department and the American Embassy in enabling Mr. Hernández to stay in power. This is the tyrannical regime that killed my aunt because she stood up for the rights of Honduran people — rights that include the most fundamental one we in the United States enjoy, the right to choose our elected leaders and hold them accountable," writes the nephew of assassinated Honduran activist Berta Cáceres. "That is what voters in Honduras were trying to do on Nov. 26. They voted and rejected Mr. Hernández, his cronies and some 80 years of destructive United States policy: the policy that arms and trains Honduran security forces who commit human rights abuses against their own people; the policy that accepts knowingly flawed crime statistics to help Honduras secure American assistance; and the policy that allows corrupt strongmen to enrich themselves and those around them."
  • Honduras' political crisis in the wake of an election condemned as irregular by the OAS is haunted by the ghost of dictatorship, according to Honduras Culture and Politics, which analyzes the historical context for the country's iron-clad constitutional clause against reelection. "#CariasQueHubieraHecho?" is appearing on social media, a reference to Tiburcio Carías Andino, who "first took supreme executive control of Honduras in 1924, during a period of substantial political conflict. In 1932, he ran for election and started an unprecedented period of 16 years in that office. The constitution in force at the time prohibited consecutive terms as President, so Carías Andino initiated the writing of a new constitution. This allowed him to stay in office, and consolidate executive control."
  • Sebastián Piñera's decisive win in Chile's presidential elections on Sunday consolidates the region's right-ward shift, eliminating "the left’s last hope of hanging on to power in one of the region’s economic and diplomatic heavyweights," reports the New York Times. (See yesterday's briefs.) 
  • The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is considering the case of 11 Mexican women who were sexually abused, tortured and jailed in the context of a police crackdown on a social protest movement in the town of San Salvador Atenco 11 years ago. The women are seeking accountability from officials they say ordered the crackdown, a group that includes President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was then governor of Mexico State. The case "has become emblematic of human rights violations by the police in Mexico," reports the New York Times.
  • Human Rights Watch criticized a recent judicial decision that put several former government officials in pretrial detention on charges of treason, and called for the detention of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is protected by parliamentary immunity. The indictment "points to no evidence that would seem to substantiate those charges," Human Rights Watch said in a statement today. "The new indictment fails to explain any clear need for pretrial detention. Under international human rights standards, pretrial detention should be used only as a means of last resort, often because other means are insufficient to guarantee a person’s appearance at trial, protect public safety, or safeguard the integrity of an ongoing investigation. The seriousness of an alleged offense is not in and of itself a legitimate reason for pretrial detention."
  • "The government of Colombia has issued seemingly contradictory statements regarding the amount of coca it aims to forcibly eradicate next year, while evidence from the eradication campaign this year has raised questions about the feasibility of this strategy," reports InSight Crime.
  • Venezuela's government accused the U.S. of trying to manipulate public opinion and politicize the trial of Josh Holt, a U.S. citizen detained on weapons charges in Venezuela since last year, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Vaccines, diagnostic kits and drugs developed by Cuba's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology are exported to 51 countries -- but not the U.S. Scientists in the island's largest research center hope to change that, seeing an opportunity to help patients and generate needed revenue, reports the Miami Herald.

Monday, December 18, 2017

OAS calls for new Honduran election, Piñera wins in Chile, impeachment proceedings started against PPK (Dec. 18, 2017)

President Juan Orlando Hernández was officially declared the winner of Honduras' elections. Hours later, the OAS called for new elections, saying the vote carried out last month was of "low technical quality," plagued by irregularities and lacking integrity, reports the Guardian

This morning security forces dispersed protesters in Tegucigalpa with tear gas, reports Reuters.

The electoral commission, which is controlled by government allies said Hernándz had won by about 50,000 votes over the opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla. Yesterday's announcement came after a call by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro to hold back on the announcement, after the an electoral observer mission criticized the quality of the election. 

The OAS report described irregularities - including deliberate human intrusions in the electoral computer system, pouches of votes opened or lacking votes, and “extreme” improbability around voting patterns it analyzed, reports Reuters.

In what could be a sign of an escalating fight between the OAS and the Honduran government, a top presidential advisor Almagro of violating the observation mission’s protocols and of "generating more violence," reports the New York Times. He also said Almagro had schemed with Nasralla to steal the election.

An analysis for the OAS by Georgetown University professor Irfan Nooruddin found that "the difference in vote patterns between early- and late-reporting polling stations shows marked changes that raises questions as to the accuracy of the late-reported returns. ... The differences are too large to be generated by chance and are not easily explicable, raising doubts as to the veracity of the overall result."

However, both the OAS and the European Union electoral observer missions noted that there were no significant differences between the tally sheets held by the political parties and those counted by the electoral commission.

The vote count following the Nov. 26 election was highly questioned by opposition parties. Protests repressed by security forces led to 17 deaths. Nasralla is in Washington D.C. and is meeting the US State Department, the OAS and organizations of civil society. He said he will present evidence of alleged fraud.

News Briefs
  • Sebastián Piñera won Chile's presidential election yesterday. The former president obtained 54.57 percent of the votes to his opponent's 45.23 percent, reports Reuters. Piñera's margin over Senator Alejandro Guillier was wider than expected in recent days. Piñera's win forms part of a right-ward trend in regional politics. The election itself was viewed as a referendum of sorts on the government of current President Michelle Bachelet. Though neither candidate represented a major shift in the country's free-market friendly model, Piñera is an investor favorite and is seen as more pro-miner. In addition to the left-right wing narrative, the Chilean election represents a light model of insider-outsider disputes that are seen in other elections coming up in the region, according to the New York Times.
  • Chilean voters are disillusioned with the country's governance -- though it is considered an international success story, high inequality means that for the average Chilean "wages and pensions are low, living expenses high, and basic public services — particularly health care and education — of poor quality. Adding to voters’ concerns, economic growth has been sluggish in recent years because of a drop in prices for copper, a major export," reports the Washington Post.
  • Peruvian political parties agreed on Friday to start impeachment proceedings against President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK). Analysts expect he will be ousted by the opposition-led Congress on Thursday -- though according to La Republica only the Fujimorista Fuerza Popular is determined to advance with the impeachment. The president is accused of failing to disclose payments made by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to a consulting firm he owned. PPK denies wrongdoing and has refused to step down, calling the move an "assault against the democratic order," yesterday. He has promised to open his bank accounts to inspection. (See Friday's post.) PPK also linked the move to impeach him to Fujimorista efforts to oust head prosecutor Pablo Sánchez, reports La República. (See post for Nov. 22.)  Critics say nearly $5 million in payments were made to a company he directed, and one owned by a business partner, during the time PPK served as finance and prime minister in the government of Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006). The Guardian quotes investigative journalist Gustavo Gorriti, who said: “The president has worn down the truth repeatedly," and that at least one payment was made while PPK served on the cabinet. Neither of the country's two vice presidents would open the door to new elections by resigning in the event of PPK's ouster, reported Reuters last night. If PPK is impeached, First Vice President Martin Vizcarra would immediately replace him. New elections would be called if Vizcarra and Second Vice President Mercedes Araoz resigned. "We’re going to ensure that this government continues in power. Peru elected the three of us and both of us vice presidents are going to defend our mandate," Araoz told Reuters. And Odebrecht has said that the payments made to PPK do not form part of the vast web of corrupt deals it made throughout the region in exchange for public works contracts, reports Reuters separately.
  • Children in Venezuela are dying of starvation in alarming rates, according to doctors in public hospitals. Though the Venezuelan government has not made malnutrition death statistics public, a five-month investigation by the New York Times gathered data from doctors around the country, who said "that their emergency rooms were being overwhelmed by children with severe malnutrition — a condition they had rarely encountered before the economic crisis began." Before the crisis, child malnutrition cases tended to stem from parental neglect or abuse, said the doctors. "But as the economic crisis began to intensify in 2015 and 2016, the number of cases of severe malnutrition at the nation’s leading pediatric health center in the capital more than tripled, doctors say. This year looks even worse." Official statistics are carefully guarded or inexistent. Doctors say they are scared to report information that could be critical of the government, and that they have been warned not to include reports of malnutrition in official records.
  • Venezuela's government and opposition leaders will resume talks aimed at resolving the country's political crisis in January, after they failed to reach an agreement on Friday, reports Reuters.
  • Venezuela's government has awarded licenses to Russian energy giant Rosneft to develop two offshore gas fields, reports the BBC.
  • Mexico's Congress passed an internal security law strengthening the military's role in battling organized crime, a measure that critics say will increase human rights abuses, reports the New York Times. Those opposed to the law say it cements the military strategy against criminal organizations, reports the Guardian. The new rule would allow the government to unilaterally militarize parts of the country, and doesn't allow for eventual handover to reformed police forces. Advocates counter that for the past decade, the national war on drugs has been militarized without a legal framework, and that the new law aims to rectify the situation. Critics especially criticize the lack of civilian oversight over military troops that would be carrying out internal security under the new law. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, and the United Nations special rapporteur on arbitrary executions, along with other United Nations experts, also raised concerns.
  • Leftist Mexican presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador entered into a polemic coalition with the Social Encounter Party (PES), a tiny party with religious roots that pushes an anti-gay and anti-abortion agenda, reports Reuters. Analysts say it could provide him with votes needed to win in next year's election, but the alliance is provoking cracks in his progressive base.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump's stance against Cuba is strengthening the hand of Havana hardliners who seek to slow down economic reform and rapprochement with Washington, write Fulton Armstrong and William M. LeoGrande at the AULA blog. "Cuba has long been adept at dealing with U.S. sanctions and pressure, so Trump’s policies are more an irritant than a threat, but the effect they have in Havana is to slow the implementation of changes that would improve the standard of living of ordinary citizens and to reduce the willingness of Cuba’s leaders to engage with Washington in ways that would serve the interests of both countries."
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales will run for a fourth consecutive term -- he was officially nominated ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party on Sunday, reports EFE.
  • Paraguayan Senator Mario Abdo Benitez, a lawmaker with ties to a former Paraguayan dictator, won the ruling Colorado Party’s presidential primary yesterday. The result is a rebuke to President Horacio Cartés of the same party, reports Reuters.
  • Brazil's Workers' Party formally supported former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's presidential run for next year, despite a conviction of corruption that could hinder his candidacy, reports Reuters.
  • Brazilian police and prosecutors successfully stopped a scheme to illegally export precious hardwoods from the Amazon to China. Two Chinese entrepreneurs apparently agreed to pay a Brazilian company $15 million dollars (and had already paid $3 million) in order to export 50,000 sq meters of wood, reports the Guardian. That company then bribed environmental authorities in order to launder the illicit wood as "sustainably harvested." Authorities say they saved the state from $30 million worth of potential environmental damage.
  • Colombia’s leftist ELN rebels said on Sunday they are willing to extend a ceasefire set to expire next month if there is sufficient progress at peace talks with the government, reports Reuters.
  • Argentine judge Claudio Bonadio's accusations of treason and arrest for former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and members of her government of the federal judiciary's offensive against the former administration, "a sort of selective mani pulite," writes José Natanson in a New York Times Español op-ed. He reviews the case against Fernández, noting that much of the evidence is frail and the interpretations forced. He criticizes the institutional design of the federal justice system, which concentrates discretional power in the hands of few judges. As a result of their clout, successive administrations have discarded reform projects. "Warned of the risks, government prefer to reach implicit coexistence agreements rather than facedown a handful of powerful judges that habitually sleep with their fingers on the trigger."
  • The former head of Interpol has denounced Bonadio's accusation that he colluded in an alleged coverup of Iranians suspected of masterminding a 1994 terrorist attack in Buenos Aires. American Ronald K. Noble vehemently rejected the accusation and countered that the judge has brought forth a poorly investigated case, reports the New York Times
  • A mudslide in near Chaiten in Chile killed five people and left 15 missing, reports Reuters. Bachelet declared the area a disaster zone.
  • On the region's right-ward swing: In an interview with EFE, the executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said the conservative shift in countries like Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Paraguay has prioritized economic growth without giving up social progress.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Peruvian lawmakers call for PPK to resign (Dec. 15, 2017)

Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) said he will not resign, in response to growing pressure regarding allegations of corruption. Scandal-plagued Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht SA paid Kuczynski $5 million dollars in advisory fees while he was Economy Minister a decade ago. Kuczynski initially denied links to Odebrecht, but later admitted to carrying out an advisory role. (See Tuesday's briefs.)

On Wednesday a Peruvian congressional committee investigating allegations stemming from Brazil's massive "Car Wash" graft investigation said it had information showing a consultancy set up by Kuczynski received payments from Odebrecht when he was a minister. The committee said documents received from Odebrecht showed the company paid $780,000 from 2004 to 2007 the financial-consulting business set up by Kuczynski and of which he was sole director, reports the Wall Street Journal. In a defiant address yesterday, Kuczynski said payments were made by Odebrecht to Westfield Capital Ltd a company he said he owned but did not manage while he held senior government roles. 

Last weekend Kuczynski also said he had also worked for a different consultancy after he left the Toledo administration. That firm, First Capital Inversiones Y Asesoriase, received some $4 million from Odebrecht for work that included an irrigation project in northern Peru, according to the WSJ.

Peru's right wing Popular Force, which has a legislative majority, has threatened to begin impeachment proceedings if PPK does not resign, reports the BBC. Four other opposition parties joined calls for his exit, reports Bloomberg. They joined the promise to impeach if PPK does not resign, reports La Republica. And several senior officials in the government privately favored Kuczynski's ouster rather than a protracted battle for survival, reports Reuters.

The struggle could be on the level of the worst crisis Peru has faced since dictator Alberto Fujimori fled in 2000 over a corruption scandal, according to Reuters. La Republica analyzes potential paths of succession.

The president was adamant yesterday. On Twitter he wrote: "It cost us a lot to get our democracy back. We're not going to lose it again. I'm not going to give up my honor, nor my values, nor my responsibilities as president of all Peruvians." He promised to give authorities access to his banking records and submit to questioning in Congress next week, as well as by the attorney general’s office.

And in a speech to the Peruvian Army's officer school Kuczynski urged Peruvians to focus on the country's urgent problems, such as "corruption resulting from the administrative disorder, the lack of culture and honesty, drugs damaging society, as well as poverty in Andean and Amazon regions," reports Andina.

In a landmark plea deal last year with U.S., Swiss and Brazilian authorities, Odebrecht admitted last year to paying $800 million in bribes, including $29 million in in Peru over three administrations from 2005 to 2014. 

In an unrelated scandal, PPK is considering releasing authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori, who is serving a 25 year jail sentence for crimes against humanity, reports U.S. News and World Report. While PPK says there is a humanitarian argument for a "reprieve" for the 79-year old former dictator, who oversaw rampant graft, death squads and vote-rigging, reports U.S. News.

News Briefs
  • Chilean voters will choose their next president in a run-off election on Sunday. The results are likely to be close, between right-wing former President Sebastián Piñera and leftist Alejandro Guillier. Though Piñera was originally considered a shoo-in, Novembers first round of voting saw more support than expected for a more radical leftist candidate, as well as candidates with more extreme views to the right. The result has been an attempt to woo over voters more on the extremes of the centrist views of both candidates, according to Reuters. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Colombia's largest criminal gang, known as the Gulf Clan or the Usuga Clan and the Autodefensas Gaitanistas, declared a unilateral cease-fire on Wednesday, reports the BBC. Colombia's government is working on implementing a legal framework that would permit members' surrender, reports Reuters.
  • Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles said the fragmented opposition coalition is trying to organize primaries to select a presidential candidate for elections expected to occur at some point next year, perhaps as early as February, reports Bloomberg. The initiative would be complicated by several limitations imposed by the Venezuelan government, including a ban on many lead opposition figures' participation in politics, and even of many parties that boycotted recent municipal elections. Potential challengers from dissident chavismo are also being sidelined by government moves, notes the Economist.  
  • Two nephews of Venezuela's first lady, Cilia Flores, were sentenced to 18 years imprisonment in a U.S. court on drug conspiracy charges, reports the Associated Press. They are accused of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. in order to help fund the Maduro administration in Venezuela.
  • High-level Venezuelan officials in the Chávez administration, along with businessmen and alleged front-men, are accused of commissions of up to 15% for awarding state petroleum firm contracts, reports El País. Ten people are suspected of earning more than €2 billion in illegal commissions for facilitating contracts with PdVSA, according to Andorran police reports.
  • And after a Venezuelan crackdown on corruption in PdVSA -- which critics say is a power consolidation move for President Nicolás Maduro -- the oil and energy industries have become essentially paralyzed, reports Reuters.
  • An opinion piece by Steven Levitsky  in the Los Angeles Times warns that Honduran "democracy is under assault," and calls on the international community to support protesters.
  • Upside Down World interviews Gabriela Blen, a founding leader of Honduras' indignados movement, which led calls for an independent U.N.-backed anti-impunity commission. In reference to the current political crisis she says: "I think that this whole conflict between certain economic and criminal elites has managed to turn many inhabitants back into citizens. It has managed to wake up the consciousness of people who thought politics was an issue for others."
  • Widespread disgust at rampant political corruption in Brazil has inspired a young generation of citizens to get involved, reports the Economist. But would-be independents face significant hurdles to challenging the political status quo. One innovative program that aims to remedy this is "RenovaBR, a programme to support young Brazilians who want to run for congress. Financed by entrepreneurs, it offers 150 “scholars” courses on Brazil’s institutions plus advice on campaigning and policy. It has thousands of bidders for a half-year programme starting in January. Scholars will get a monthly stipend of 12,000 reais ($3,645). They will be selected by written tests and interviews. They can belong to any party, but cannot hold extremist views. In return the scholars vow to complete their mandate, justify their voting decisions to their constituents and avoid hiring family as staff members. Eduardo Mufarej, who started the project, hopes to see at least 45 scholars elected."
  • Senior U.S. and Mexican government officials promised to continue cooperation in combating drug cartels and other international criminal groups. But they avoided discussing Trump's proposed border wall and NAFTA renegotiation discussions, reports the Los Angeles Times
  • USA TODAY Network investigation finds the number of migrants who died crossing the U.S. border with Mexico since 2010 is higher than what federal officials have reported.
  • Brazil's pension reform debate has officially been postponed to next year. The delay will only lessen the unpopular bill's chances of passing, as next year's presidential race heats up, reports the Associated Press. President Michel Temer maintains that the austerity bill is vital to the country's economy, but it has been met with resistance from citizens.
  • Argentina's House of Deputies suspended a vote on a pension reform bill yesterday, amid violent clashes between protesters and security forces outside the congress building, reports Reuters. Several opposition lawmakers were caught up in the scuffle and reported blows and tear gas exposure, reports La Nación.  (La Nación has photos, including a photo journalist covered in bloody rubber bullet wounds.) The bill aims to reduce the country's fiscal deficit, but also shows resistance to President Mauricio Macri's pro-business agenda. Macri reportedly considered passing the reform by decree yesterday, a move opposed by members of his own coalition, but will instead angle for another Congressional session next week, reports La Nación. Argentina’s largest union threatened to call a general strike if the measure was approved, reports the Associated Press.
  • Argentine social activist Milagro Sala is nearing on two years of pre-trial prison. After numerous international calls for her release or at least transfer to house arrest, including an order from the Intern-American Court of Human Rights, she has been transferred to a house, though it is not her actual place of resident, reports Horacio Verbitsky in his newly launched news site, El Cohete a la Luna.
  • A lawyer for a Salvadoran woman sentenced to 30 years in prison for what she says was an obstetric complication has promised to continue fighting to free his client, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • LGBT advocates in Paraguay fear discrimination could become worst in the wake of a government decision to ban classes on sexual diversity in schools, reports the Associated Press. The ban was implemented in October after schools began using a United Nations Children’s Fund guidebook for teachers on avoiding discrimination between girls and boys and achieving gender equality.
  • Mexican front-runner presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised more support for the country's poorest, without increasing taxes or debt. Yesterday he said he'd name Carlos Manuel Urzua to head the finance portfolio. Urzua is an academic who served as finance minister of the Mexico City government when AMLO was mayor there, reports Reuters. The promised nomination is aimed at promoting AMLO as a pragmatic moderate, rather than the leftist firebrand critics warn about.
  • Volkswagen said that a historian commissioned by the company found that some of the security staff at Volkswagen do Brasil had cooperated with the country’s former military regime, reports Reuters.
  • The first wave of Zika epidemic babies born with brain damage are turning two. A new study points to  a lifetime of care for the most severely affected, reports the New York Times.
  • Carlos Manuel Álvarez strongly recommends a new Netflix documentary, "Cuba and the Cameraman," in a New York Times Español op-ed. The film follows the lives of three families, along with interviews with Fidel Castro, and the long-standing relationship of filmaker Jon Alpert with the island, he writes.