Friday, June 23, 2017

Homicides in LatAm will continue to rise without intervention - Instinto de Vida (June 23, 2017)

Latin America's average homicide rate is already the highest in the world -- but if nothing is done, projections have predict a climb from 21 homicides per 100,000 to 35 in 2030, according to a new Instinto de Vida campaign report, based on Igarapé Institute's Homicide Observatory. But the violence is distributed unequally. Seven countries -- Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, México and Venezuela -- concentrate about a third of the world's homicides. Certain cities -- 120 in the region specifically -- similarly concentrate higher homicide rates, and within these, certain blocks and streets further concentrate violence. 

Furthermore, violence begets violence -- in general each new homicide in Latin America means another 0.66 the following year. The causes for all the violence however are far from homogenous, and often have a heavy local component, notes the report. Yet certain common factors include: inequality, youth unemployment, impunity, and arms trafficking. 

The campaign is a call to action, for evidence based and results focused policies. They call for citizen participation, access to justice and due legal process -- as well as containing violence and considering citizen protection and security a public good. (See yesterday's briefs.)

News Briefs
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto admitted yesterday that his government purchased the sophisticated software apparently used to spy on critics and human rights activists. He said the government had not ordered that surveillance, and promised an investigation into misuse. However, he also threatened to investigate those who “have raised false accusations” against his administration -- a group which would presumably include the victims themselves, reports the New York Times. Hacking victims reacted with shock, but a spokesman said the president was not threatening the group nor the NYT which broke the story earlier this week. Civil society groups said his statements were inappropriate and threatening, reports Animal Político. Peña Nieto said he himself has received suspicious messages (presumably akin to those used by the Pegasus software to infect victims' electronics) and is careful about his phone conversations, reports Animal Político.  (See yesterday's briefs and Wednesday's.)
  • A lack of agreement at the OAS foreign ministers' meeting this week in Mexico appears to have strengthened the Venezuelan government, according to David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. "...The domestic opposition is on its heels, Luisa Ortega is isolated, and the countries of the region have broken into finger-pointing and excuses." However, he also notes that support for the Maduro government itself was lackluster, instead opposition to a resolution condemning the administration focussed on procedural issues. "But beyond the actual votes and resolutions, these meetings deepen countries´ knowledge, develop their commitment to the issue and prime them to act. When the Maduro government, less than 48 hours later tried to use the SupremeCourt (TSJ) to grab what power the National Asembly had left, they were taken aback by the chorus of criticism from the region. The OAS is in permanent session regarding Venezuela, suggesting they may take up the issue again. It is not clear that this would be helpful. Venezuela has stated clearly that it would not accept any sort of solution or initiative coming from the OAS and it is clear they are serious about that. Turning around now and accepting an OAS solution would clearly amount to a loss of face and it is unlikely they will do so."
  • Speaking of intervention: The U.S. treats no other country in the world as it does Cuba -- "What makes Cuba different from countries such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or Iran, where systemic human rights violations prevail," asks Ted Piccone at the Brookings Institution's Order from Chaos blog. The answer is not related to national security, but rather national politics, he argues. "What really makes Cuba exceptional is that it faces an organized, well-financed political machine of angry exiles in vote-rich Florida that extracts certain demands from political leaders for its votes." The blog gathers several other reactions to Trump's Cuba announcement. (See Monday's post.)
  • For now U.S. companies are not sure what the Cuba policy change implies, as regulations won't begin being drafted for another month. In the meantime "Don’t expect a rush by U.S. companies that have proposals pending before the Cuban government to get deals inked before the new rules go into effect," reports the Miami Herald.
  • Also a reaction from last week's Miami meetings: the U.S.'s shift in attitude towards Central America is a swing back to "war on drugs" type of policies, according to InSight Crime. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said that Washington assigns a large part of the responsibility regarding the war on drugs to Central America, and that such remedies are needed to strengthen public order. "In a nutshell, US policies in the region are going backwards. Washington has done nothing more than return to its outdated foreign policy doctrines, first used in Central America following the Cold War; those involving combatting drug trafficking via the one-size-fits-all approach of police and military intervention and the deportation of undocumented persons as a US national security strategy."
  • Central American gangs are playing an increasingly active role in trafficking cocaine and laundering money, in part through the use of the dark web, reports InSight Crime.
  • Though the White House is apparently pushing Colombia to resume aerial fumigation of illicit coca plants, U.S. officials speaking to InSight Crime tried to backtrack a bit on the issue. (See June 15's briefs.)
  • Mexico City authorities failed to properly investigate the murder of photojournalist Rubén Espinosa, activist Nadia Vera and three other women in a Mexico City apartment in July 2015, said the president of the city's human rights commission, reports the Guardian.
  • Bolivia is wandering in an authoritarian direction -- and keeping it on track will be a test case for the region's commitment to democracy, argues Oliver Della Costa Stuenkel in a piece for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He nods towards President Evo Morales' success as the country's first indigenous president, and notes his relative moderation, despite unflinching support for Venezuela. "Morales brought social inclusion, relative stability, steady economic growth, and falling poverty levels. Even opposition figures readily recognize his remarkable capacity to get things done in a country that has seen far too many economic crises to count and more than 150 changes of leadership since it gained independence in 1825. ... However, other recent trends threaten to undo Morales’s otherwise positive legacy. He is exerting tighter control over the judiciary and the opposition media. And even more significantly, he has chosen to ignore the result of a 2016 referendum that should have prevented him from seeking a fourth presidential term."
  • InSight Crime examines why Colombia's government has tried and failed to capture Urabeños leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," for two years. Despite the extensive manhunt, and the capture of thousands of its members, the powerful illegal organization is still growing, and seeking to capture former FARC territories.
  • Shortages are spurring Venezuelans to take on increasingly dangerous occupations, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The United States has suspended Brazilian meat imports over "recurring concerns about the safety of products intended for the American market," reports the BBC.
  • "South America is a hotbed of potential viruses that could be the next major threat to the world's health, according to "danger maps,"" drawn up by EcoHealth Alliance in New York, reports the BBC.
  • Nazi week in the Southern Cone: Newly released archives from the Chilean police document how Nazi supporters in the country supplied information to the Third Reich and planned to bomb mines in Chile, reports Reuters. Earlier this week Argentine police uncovered a trove of Nazi paraphernalia hidden behind a Buenos Aires bookcase -- the New York Times has lots of pictures for WWII history buffs.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Alliance for Prosperity efforts could create more rights violations, displacement (June 22, 2017)

The Alliance for Prosperity, a key U.S. policy aimed at improving conditions in Central America in order to stem the flow of migrants headed north, could trample the rights of the local population and cause even worst displacement, reports Reuters

In 2014 the U.S. committed $750 million to create jobs and cut murder rates and corruption -- under Trump the focus has shifted to supporting policing efforts and increasing investment. The result could be reduction in regulation and investment in infrastructure megaprojects, which often foster violent displacement. 

Billy Kyte, a campaign leader for rights charity Global Witness, said the Alliance's silence on the property rights of regular people means more could be driven from ancestral homes. And Amnesty International and Oxfam said the strategy sticks to a model based on private investment that has failed to stem migration for four decades, and voiced concern that human rights abuses might follow.

News Briefs
  • Four National Civil Police officers and 15 soldiers participated in death squads that killed 36 people in El Salvador, between 2014 and 2016, according to the national prosecutors office. Arrest warrants were issued for the government agents and nearly three dozen civilians who allegedly participated in the killings, reports the Associated Press. Some of the victims were alleged gang members, and others appeared to be targets of contracted killings. National Civil Police Director Howard Cotto says the squads began killing gang members, but branched out to make money.
  • El Salvador -- where government officials cynically congratulated themselves for security success in 2016, despite having the highest national homicide rate in the world -- is basically a model of how not to put together a country, writes Óscar Martínez in NACLA. "The persistence of repression is one of the primary features of this manual. Repression at the center of the security strategy. The unchallenged idea that violence can be solved with bullets. ... But then El Salvador became illustrative of other key elements in the manual on how not to assemble a country: the inability of a country to learn from its own past and the cowardice of leaders, who give preference to votes instead of lives."
  • Murders in Mexico topped records in May -- surpassing even those for the same month in 2011, the previous monthly high. (See yesterday's briefs.) Analysts point to various reasons for the increase, including increased cultivation of heroin to meet US demand and the legalisation of marijuana in some U.S. states, which has caused cartel profits to plummet and prompted criminal groups to diversify into crimes such as kidnap and extortion, reports the Guardian. Others question the efficacy of the government's kingpin strategy, which targets cartel leaders.
  • On that issue, Instinto de Vida presented a report at the OAS foreign ministers' meeting in Mexico this week. The seven most dangerous countries account for around a third of the world's homicides, with violence in some cities on a par with war zones, according to the report. Over thirty organizations from the region have gathered to propose halving Latin America's homicide rate over the next decade. They advocate focusing on the worst-hit countries - Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Honduras, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala – which need to cut homicides by 7 percent a year to halve murder rates and save up to 365,000 lives over 10 years, reports Reuters. Regardless of what country the homicides occur in, they are hyper-localized in cities, notes Robert Muggah in Animal Político. The costs -- in terms of policing efforts impacts to the economy -- are large, and could be better applied to targeted policies, he writes. (See May 12's post.)
  • The Mexican government announced an investigation into whether prominent critics and journalists were subjected to illegal electronic surveillance with government-owned software. (See yesterday's briefs.) But activists say the promise falls short of their demands. For example, the investigation will be carried out by the prosecutor general's office, which is among the government agencies that purchased the software in question, reports the New York Times.
  • The mainstream media narrative regarding Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is that he has failed to fulfill his campaign promise of a revamped, modern PRI. He promised a pro-business and contemporary approach that has been discredited by a series of corruption scandals, human rights violations and record levels of homicides. (See yesterday's briefs.) But that narrative ignored Peña Nieto's troublesome history as governor of Mexico State, where in 2006 he sent 3,500 members of the stat police to crackdown on disturbances generated by the eviction of 40 flower sellers on the street. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, and dozens of women were sexually abused by police in detention. "The question that pursues me and which I find pertinent to ask not only with regards to Mexico, but in general, is why pro-business reforms ... are interpreted by so many people as something that promises modern democratic values and respect for rule of law? Why, in contrast, was the history of a candidate who had violated human rights as well as those of security and individual dignity, especially women, not interpreted as a warning of anti-democratic values and a failure of the rule of law," asks Francisco Goldman in a pointed New York Times Español op-ed. The revelations this week that government owned software was used to illegally spy on journalists and critics of the administration confirms what many already knew to some degree, he says. And the question remains, he writes: who is the Mexican government working for?
  • Mexico's new medicinal marijuana law will not lead to dispensaries on every corner, explains the Washington Post. Rather to draft and implement regulations and public policies regulating the medicinal use pharmacological derivatives of cannabis. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • Several army generals were promoted to key posts in Venezuela, as President Nicolás Maduro reshuffled his cabinet to allow top officials to run for seats on a polemic Constituent Assembly, reports the Associated Press. Gen. Antonio Benavides, who headed the national guard, which has been accused of abuses during the crackdown on anti-government protests will lead an agency created to oversee Caracas. And Gen. Carlos Osorio, who had been serving as the armed forces' inspector general and is allegedly linked to the food black market, is taking over as Maduro's chief of staff. Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez is among the cabinet members who quit in order to run, reports Reuters.
  • OAS foreign ministers failed to even reach an agreement on creating a mediation group of friends for Venezuela, reports the Associated Press, though it might be approved at a later date. Earlier this week the ministers failed to pass a resolution criticizing the Maduro's push to rewrite the national constitution. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Lost in much of the Cuba debate, the issue of how the U.S. continues to occupy an area of Guantanamo bay for an overseas naval base is quite relevant argues Ernesto Londoño in the New York Times. "Is it legally defensible to hold on to the territory in perpetuity? Have we become squatters in paradise?" The continued U.S. presence on the island is illegal under international law, and has long been "a thorn in the Cuban psyche, a reminder of an era of American domination that is taught early and often in Cuban schools."
  • Brazil's increasingly weak government coalition relies on the PSDB partner to maintain the ruling alliance. Though the party elders maintain their support of President Michel Temer, despite increasing corruption allegations, a younger faction of party members are pushing the party to break with the government, reports the Financial Times.
  • Temer is being accused of organizing the distribution of about $6 million of public funds into Brazil’s election campaigns, reports the Associated Press. The latest in a slew of allegations of corruption comes from fundraiser Lucio Bolonha Funaro in testimony made public by Brazil’s top court late Tuesday.
  • The next environmental battle in Brazil will be proposed legislation that would end a nearly 40-year ban on foreign-owned mining companies operating on land near the roughly 16,000-kilometer (10,000-mile) border, reports Bloomberg. (See yesterday's briefs.) 
  • Workers' unions in Uruguay began a general strike yesterday demanding a higher budget for education, reports TeleSUR.
  • Thousands of Paraguayan farmers protested a proposed 15 percent tax on soy, corn and wheat exports. The measure, which will likely be voted on in the Senate this week, was proposed a leftist coalition in Congress, but is supported by President Horacio Cartes' party as part of a legislative pact, reports Reuters.
  • Peruvian Finance Minister Alfredo Thorne resigned yesterday after a vote of no-confidence by congress, in light of accusations of influence peddling, reports the Financial Times. The ouster is another hit to President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's efforts to jumpstart the economy, reports Reuters.
  • Guy Philippe - Haitian senator elect, former police commander and fugitive -- was sentenced to nine years in prison in Miami federal court yesterday for accepting bribes to protect cocaine smugglers who used the island to ship drugs to the United States, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The ELN said that it will investigate whether some of its fighters were behind the kidnapping of two Dutch journalists in Colombia, reports EFE.
  • An expedition of "ice scientists" gathered samples from a melting Bolivian glacier, and will store them for study and preservation on an Antartica base, reports the Guardian.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales joined in the celebration Wednesday of “Willka Kuti” – the Sun’s return –  marking the start of the year 5525 in Aymara culture, reports EFE.
  • Are you a former government official seeking to evade allegations of impropriety? "South Florida’s climate and waterfront condos make it a prime spot for former leaders under an investigative microscope back home," reports the Miami Herald.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Venezuelan protester shot by security forces (June 21, 2017)

A 17-year-old protester was shot dead by the national guard yesterday. The interior minister, Nestor Reverol confirmed the death of Fabian Urbina, who died Monday after security forces opened fire with handguns during clashes with demonstrators on a major highway in Caracas. On Twitter he said the cause of death was presumed to be "excessive use of force," reports the Guardian.

More than 70 people have been killed since daily protests began more than two months ago in Venezuela -- including members of the security forces and passersby -- but this is the first to have been shot dead by security forces.

Maduro fired four top military commanders yesterday, including the head of the police force, which has been accused of attacking protesters, reports AFP. He said he was also replacing the heads of the army, navy and the central strategic command body. Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez will remain in his posts. Analysts point to the vital importance of the armed forces in maintaining the government in power.

Yesterday prosecutor general Luisa Ortega Díaz, who has accused security officers of using excessive force, became the subject of investigation herself. The Supreme Court lifted her immunity from prosecution for allegedly committing "serious errors" in her role.

The step is widely viewed as an attempt to silence a prominent critical voice from within the government, reports the New York Times. Last night Ortega condemned the investigation as evidence that democracy was failing in Venezuela. "They are trying to snuff out any dissidence," she said. "It is a shame to say it, but I believe the state has dissolved."

Ortega has increasingly become a leading voice of internal criticism. Human Rights Watch notes that her legal challenges to the government "and the justice system’s reaction to them has been to create a paper trail of what is probably the heart of today’s institutional crisis in Venezuela: the absolute lack of judicial independence." (See yesterday's post.)

OAS aside: A meeting of OAS foreign ministers failed to muster enough support for a resolution condemning the Venezuelan government and calling on it to desist in efforts to rewrite the constitution. The charge in favor of that resolution was led by the U.S., along with Mexico, but the last minute abstention from several Caribbean countries left the motion short the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. Delcy Rodriguez, foreign minister of Venezuela, said yesterday that the OAS agenda had been hijacked by the United States in an "immoral" gesture, reports the Los Angles Times. Latin American leaders are increasingly angry at the regional failure to reach a consensus, reports the Financial Times, which describes how a "handful of leftist nations and Caribbean island states" thwarted the desires of large and more influential countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. (See yesterday's post.)

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Investigators claim Temer took bribes

Brazilian Federal police claim to have evidence that President Michel Temer took bribes to help businesses, again raising the possibility that he could be suspended from office for a corruption trial, reports the Associated Press.

 In report published yesterday federal police investigators said former Temer aide Rodrigo Rocha Loures directly received bribes from meatpacking giant JBS on the president’s behalf. The federal police report noted Temer has refused to answer investigators’ questions in the case.

The report was written by the Brazilian equivalent of the FBI, and made public by the Supreme Court yesterday. It examined wiretaps, testimony and other evidence from executives of the food giant JBS, who have agreed to a plea bargain with prosecutors, reports the New York Times.

If the country's prosecutor general, Rodrigo Janot, chooses to indict Temer, his decision would have to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in the lower house of Congress. Should that decision be confirmed by the Supreme Court, Temer would be suspended for six months. Analysts believe Temer has enough support to block the move in Congress, but that could change rapidly.

The report is intensifying pressure on the president as he attempts to push unpopular austerity measures through congress, notes the NYT. A Senate committee rejected a government-sponsored labor bill yesterday, suggesting reform might become harder still to pass, reports the Financial Times.

News Briefs
  • Temer paid heed to supermodel Gisele Bündchen's appeal to protect the Amazon rainforest. He responded to her Tweet yesterday, saying he'd veto a bill that would have opened up 600,000 hectares (1.5m acres) of forest to development. Conservationists and experts have been lobbying without success on the issue, reports the Guardian, but apparently Bündchen's exhortation to "protect our Mother Earth" struck a chord. Nonetheless, the pro-business government is considering other plans to reduce forest reserves and indigenous territory.
  • Reports that prominent Mexican journalists and activists were targeted by sophisticated, government-owned surveillance software has led to calls for an independent inquiry into the allegations and criminal complaints being filed. (See Wednesday's briefs.) Victims, including lawyers looking into the Ayotzinapa disappearances and prominent journalist Carmen Aristegui who has investigated corruption related to President Enrique Peña Nieto's family, say an independent group of international experts is the only way to reach the truth, reports the New York Times. The attorney general's office announced today that it is starting an investigation into the case, reports Animal Político. Worried that you might be a target? The BBC explains how the Pegasus system uses a text message to infiltrate cell phones.
  • That the government might be using the Israeli made software to spy on critics is an example of how authoritarianism continues to rule the country, for Guillermo Osorno in a New York Times op-ed. He documents the extensive dangers of reporting in Mexico, and the threats and intimidation faced by journalists covering government wrongdoing. 
  • Journalists in Mexico's Sinaloa state demanded results in the investigation into the killing of Javier Valdéz. They turned their backs to a meeting of federal security officials and carried signs demanding justice, reports Animal Político.
  • New official data shows that homicide rates are breaking records this year in Mexico, reports Animal Político. Over 2,180 homicide investigations were opened in May of this year, more than in any other month on record.
  • Medicinal marijuana is officially legal in Mexico, now the executive has 180 days to regulate how the substance will be produced and marketed, reports the Huffington Post.
  • U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced the appointment of former top State Department official and head of the United Nations’ World Food Program as a as a high-level envoy for Haiti. Josette Sheeran will be developing  a comprehensive fundraising strategy to finance the U.N.’s plan to clean up cholera in Haiti, reports the Miami Herald. The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to visit on Thursday to review how the 13-year U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is implementing withdrawal ahead of the October permanent closure of the program. Sheeran will act as Guterres’ special envoy, and will focus more broadly on supporting national efforts to reach Haiti’s 2030 sustainable development goals, as well as guide the approach to eliminate cholera in the country.
  • Just as the FARC begins its final disarmament push, a deadly mall bombing and the kidnapping of two foreign journalists remind Colombia of the difficulties it faces in finding peace, reports the AFP.
  • The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (better known by its Spanish acronym CICIG) "can be a model for other countries facing the challenge of deep-seated corruption and impunity, but donors must pay attention to ensuring that future CICIG-like bodies are politically independent, adequately funded, and assigned top priority within donors’ broader foreign policy and aid objectives," according to a new report by the Council on Foreign Relations. The success of the U.N. funded independent body in Guatemala has activists to call for similar models in other countries -- notably Honduras. "But for all its accomplishments, CICIG has not spurred widespread or lasting rule of law in Guatemala. The CICIG experience thus provides lessons for policymakers in the United States and other donor nations as they contemplate creating similar structures to fight corruption in aid recipient countries," writes Mathew Taylor.
  • A potent array of technology deployed along the U.S. Mexico border -- much brought back from Afghanistan by the Defense Department -- has allowed law officials to carry out tens of thousands of arrests. Despite Trump's ongoing defense of a border wall, "the fight against illegal immigration and drug trafficking on the United States-Mexico border has increasingly become high tech," reports the New York Times.
  • In terms of policy, Trump's announcement about Cuba didn't alter important issues -- in fact, until regulations are made in keeping with the presidential memo, nothing will change. Instead the presidential political theater impacted mood, writes Jorge I. Domínguez in a New York Times Español op-ed. In terms of negotiating, however, it's a mistake he argues, reviewing how previous concessions -- or "parallel gestures in a context of cooperation" occurred with more positive rhetoric. 
  • However, an apparently innocuous clause in Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) on Cuba could potentially upset remittances back to the island by prohibiting payments to "officials of the Government of Cuba" which the document defines extensively, write William LeoGrande and Marguerite Jímenez in the Huffington Post. "The new definition proposed by President Trump includes hundreds of senior officials in every government agency, thousands of ordinary Cubans who volunteer as leaders of their local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, and—most importantly― every employee of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR) and Ministry of the Interior (MININT)."
  • Former Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa promised to retire after handing over the reins to his successor, Lenín Moreno, last month. Instead he is actively commenting on politics, and criticizing divisions within his own party. The result is a schism in the ruling Alianza País coalition, with Morenistas consolidating in the executive branch and Correistas in the legislative, writes Soraya Constante in a New York Times Español op-ed. She compares the two leaders to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his predecessor and former boss, Álvaro Uribe. Constante points to decisions Moreno has already taken that point to a personal agenda different to that of Correa: including a technocratic cabinet, warmer relations with journalists, and a commission against corruption that could work with the U.N.
  • Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner launched a new electoral alliance yesterday, that will have her leading a list of senate candidates for the Buenos Aires province, reports the Associated Press.
  • Experts are starting to identify the remains of 123 Argentine soldiers killed in fighting Britain and buried on the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, reports AFP.
  • A landslide in a small northern town in Guatemala killed 11 people, reports the Associated Press.
  • The St. Lucia National Trust is facing budget cuts, which some link to criticisms of a scheme to build a $2.6bn resort on the island that is to be part funded by the sale of St Lucian citizenship to Asian investors, reports the Guardian. As part of the reduction in funding, the Trust has had to shutter a museum on the site of the boyhood home of the poet and playwright Derek Walcott.
  • Chilean presidential candidate Sebastian Piñera jokingly suggested at a campaign rally that all the women lie down and play dead, while the men lie down and take advantage of them. (It works in Spanish, "hacerse los vivos.") His take on gender violence played less well once it started circulating on social media, reports the BBC. It's not the first time Piñera has come under fire for sexist jokes, in 2011 he quipped that the difference between a a politician and a woman was that the former meant "No" when he said "maybe", while a woman meant "maybe" when she said "No".

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

OAS fails to reach Venezuela consensus again (June 20, 2017)

OAS foreign ministers failed to reach an agreement on a resolution criticizing the government of Venezuela, reports Reuters. The proposal put forward by Peru, Canada, the United States, Mexico and Panama and backed by twenty countries, called for the government of President Nicolas Maduro to be condemned, and singled out his unpopular plan to rewrite the constitution, reports TeleSUR. But they fell short of the two-thirds majority needed. 

An alternate resolution proposed by Caribbean countries also failed to pass, reports the Financial Times. The Caricom resolution called for an "internal" solution "based on dialogue" and rejected potential international intervention, but several countries protested the submission procedures.

The ministers met in Cancún, following a failure to reach consensus at a May meeting. The issue was postponed to a later session without a determined date.

In the meantime, protests in Caracas headed into their 80th day, and supporters and critics of chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz came to blows outside the prosecutor general's main office, reports EFE.

The Prosecutor General’s Office is documenting investigations of injuries in the protests -- and has charged security officers in 10 cases out of 67 deaths. Alleged violations of fundamental rights are a key element in more than half of the more than 1,200 investigations of injuries during the protests.

Ortega has increasingly become a leading voice of internal criticism. Human Rights Watch notes that her legal challenges to the government "and the justice system’s reaction to them has been to create a paper trail of what is probably the heart of today’s institutional crisis in Venezuela: the absolute lack of judicial independence."

News Briefs
  • Cuba's foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, vehemently rejected Trump's new policy towards the island, reports the New York Times. He called it a "grotesque spectacle" and vowed that his country "will never negotiate under pressure or under threat." Rodríguez marked that the economic pressure the U.S. hopes to exert on the government has not worked in the past. "The measures announced will not accomplish their declared objectives, to the contrary," he said. "These measures do not recognize the overwhelming majority opinion of the Cuban people that want to have a better relationship with the American people." The new policy aims to restrict influx of U.S. tourism dollars to military-owned industry, but will also impact cooperatives and private business owners, noted Rodríguez. The minister said instead the policies would create unity behind the island's communist government, reports the Associated Press. He also said that fugitives such as Assata Shakur – formerly known as Joanne Chesimard – would not be returned because the US had no "legal or moral basis" to demand their return, notes the Guardian. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Incendiary rhetoric aside, former U.S. President Barak Obama succeeded in making significant aspects of his engagement policy irreversible, notes William Leogrande on the Aula Blog. "Why such a flaccid set of sanctions from a president who stood on the stage in Little Havana and demonized the Cuban regime as brutal, criminal, depraved, oppressive, murderous, and guilty of “supporting human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation all around the globe”? Because Obama’s strategy of creating constituencies in favor of engagement worked."
  • The opening between the U.S. and Cuba brought stories about Google and Netflix disembarking on the island. In reality internet access is still difficult to come by. A Harper's piece looks at El Paquete -- dubbed the Cuban Netflix -- a hard drive subscribed to by about half the country's population, that brings magazine articles, Hollywood films, ­YouTube videos, phone apps, classified ads, and more to people's homes. It's the largest private industry on the island -- it generates at least $1.5 million a week and though illegal, is tolerated by a government that turns a blind-eye.
  • Panama's government is offering a hundred Cuban refugees, stranded en-route to the U.S., a return trip home and start-up capital to start their own business, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal that would have allowed Ecuadorean villagers and their American lawyer from trying to collect on an $8.65 billion pollution judgment issued against Chevron Corp in an Ecuadorean court, reports Reuters.
  • Jamaica's homicide rate has risen sharply this year, a likely symptom of crackdowns on gangs that have splintered illegal groups, reports InSight Crime.
  • In the midst of a reinvigorated press environment in the Trump era, Univision stands out for the importance it holds for its Spanish speaking audience, reports the New York Times. The organization has focused on debunking rumors and producing vital information for "Hispanics in the United States, citizen and noncitizen alike — a core audience that has an almost existential stake in the Trump administration’s policies." The NYT looks at how it draws on a growing pool of journalistic talent from Latin America, leaving because of threats in their home countries.
  • Two Dutch journalists were abducted in Colombia's Catacumbo region, where several armed groups -- including the ELN -- operate, reports the BBC.
  • In the wake of long, and conflictive strikes in Colombia's Chocó department and the city of Buenaventura, WOLA looks at the factors that led to the civic strikes, the outcome of the strikes, and how the U.S. government can best support efforts to address the structural issues that led to the strikes.
  • Paraguayan senator and former president, Fernando Lugo, was elected head of the country's Congress, just days before the five year anniversary of the coup that ousted him from office. Paradoxically, the same senators who voted to oust Lugo in 2012 were also the ones who elected him as head of Congress in what political analysts call a strategy to reach political stability, reports TeleSUR.
  • A new data map, Silent Forest, makes an urgent case for improved protection of the Brazilian Amazon, reports the Guardian. The project assesses the extent and impact of forest degradation – a largely man-made phenomenon that is less well-known than land clearance, but is seen by scientists as potentially more of a problem for the climate and biodiversity.
  • Brazil's intelligence chief casually outed a CIA spy in a publicly available agenda of the spymaster’s meetings on June 9. The episode shows the tension between publicity required of government and secrecy central to intelligence tasks in Brazil, reports the New York Times.
  • A different wall: Ecuador is building a wall along part of its frontier with Peru, prompting a diplomatic spat between the two countries, reports the Guardian.
  • An auditorium at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) has been occupied by a changing cast of political protesters for the past 17 years -- a situation that shows no sign of changing anytime soon, reports the New York Times. The occupation originally started with a student strike in 1999, but now seems unrelated to the actual student body of the university.
  • A police raid in Buenos Aires uncovered a trove of Nazi paraphernalia that likely belonged to high-ranking Nazis in Germany during the second world war, reports the Associated Press. Interpol agents found the stash after they became aware of a collector of historical artifacts who they say had procured some of his items illegally, reports the Washington Post.
  • The Peruvian government is experimenting with measures to limit the influx of tourists to Machu Picchu, which the UNESCO has repeatedly threatened to add to a list of endangered world heritage sites, reports the Guardian.
  • Floods earlier this year in Peru hit Lima's self-built homes hard, reports the Guardian. A long history of lack of public housing, combined with a policy of gradually giving slums basic services, means many homes are built in vulnerable locations without adequate safety, reports the Guardian.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Trump's Cuba policy: more rhetoric than substance (June 19, 2017)

U.S. President Donald Trump outlined a partial reversal of his predecessor's policy towards Cuba on Friday. The plan he announced in Miami aims at prohibiting financial transactions between U.S. citizens and companies and Cuba’s military and intelligence services, and would restrict how U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba, reports the Washington Post. However the specifics will be detailed in regulations that will be drafted by the Treasury and Commerce departments.

Trump spoke in Little Havana, the Miami center for Cuban exiles and called former President Barack Obama's deal with the Cuban government "terrible and misguided," reports the New York Times. "Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba," he said.

But though the rhetoric was harsh, the policy Trump outlined doesn't change many of the fundamentals of his predecessor's policy, the core of normalization: diplomatic relations, unlimited travel for Cuban Americans to visit family on the island, increased maximums for remittances and money that can be taken on travel, and the end of the U.S. wet-foot dry-foot immigration policy that favored Cubans. Cruises and direct flights between the United States and Cuba will be protected under an exception from the prohibition on transactions with military-controlled entities.

The new policy demonstrates a shift towards the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which sets strict conditions that must be met by Cuba before the U.S. embargo against the island can be lifted, reports the Miami Herald. While Obama's policies were aimed at doing as much as possible despite the ongoing embargo, the new announcement embraces the five decade policy that has been consistently criticized by the U.N. General Assembly.

 "Many of the gains of normalization remain intact," noted the Cuba Study Group, which is made up of business executives and professionals who support engagement. "At best, this is a partial victory for those who hoped to reverse increased bilateral ties."

The most relevant changes will prohibit individual travel by U.S. citizens to the island, notes the Wall Street Journal.

The restrictions are aimed at cutting off U.S. dollars in an attempt to pressure the Cuban government on issues of human rights and democracy, said Trump. Indeed, a restriction on U.S. citizens' spending military-controlled enterprises, like restaurants and hotels could seriously affect government revenue. But many observers say they will hit a nascent entrepreneurial class on the island much harder, reports the New York Times.

The requirement that U.S. citizens traveling to the island for cultural or educational purposes do so with a licensed tour group will significantly raise the costs of for those visitors and likely reduce a booming new industry catering to their needs. And the deep involvement of the military in the tourism industry complicates targeting money going there without affecting the Cuban economy at large, Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs told the NYT.

Cuba received a record 4 million tourists last year. Of those, more than 600,000 were U.S. visitors. Nearly 300,000 were non-Cuban American travelers, reports the WP. And that category of U.S. visitors has been on pace to double again this year. This growth was largely fueled by the Obama policy allowing U.S. citizens to travel independently -- and they favored the private sector of the island's tourist economy, unlike the Europeans and Canadians who gravitate toward government-owned resorts. "Fewer independent U.S. travelers probably would mean fewer dollars for independent Cuban businesses."

Cuba's government rejected the policy change, but reiterated "its willingness to continue the respectful dialogue and cooperation," reports the BBC.

The "hodge-podge of measures" that amounts to a partial reversal of Obama's policy will not produce advances in human rights on the island, but will provide fodder for the Cuban government to play victim of imperialism, argues Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. "My opinion: Trump’s limited reversal of Obama’s opening to Cuba is political theater with very little real impact. It will not achieve what U.S. sanctions against Cuba failed to achieve in the past five decades. And it may backfire, by shifting world attention away from the Cuban regime’s oppression of its people to what Cuba will now claim is a new “U.S. aggression” against the island."

Former Obama advisor Ben Rhodes, who negotiated the rapprochement, said the rollback is a pointless mistake in the Atlantic. The new policies "represent a step backwards. By restricting engagement with large swaths of the Cuban economy controlled by the military, Trump is simultaneously demanding that Cuba embrace capitalism while making it harder for them to do so. Cuba will be exposed to less engagement from American companies and less incentives from American revenue. U.S. businesses can only press for reforms in how Cuba structures its economy—like allowing foreign companies to hire Cubans directly— if they can actually do business in Cuba. Meanwhile, the Cuban government is not going to let go of their holdings because the U.S tells them to; they’re far more likely to turn to Russia and China. By removing America from the equation, Trump delivered a better deal for Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping."

He also noted that "there are dozens of authoritarian governments; we do not impose embargoes on China or Vietnam, Kazakhstan or Egypt. Last month, President Trump travelled to Saudi Arabia—a country ruled by a family, where people are beheaded and women can’t drive."

In fact, neither the new nor the previous U.S. policies were motivated by a desire to foment democracy in Cuba, argues Oppenheimer, rather both were the result of domestic politics. In Trump's case the true motivation is "Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee that is investigating the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, and Miami Republican congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a key member of the House appropriations committee."

Politico piece reports that Rubio and Díaz-Balart recommended Trump announce the policy on his own, before it could be undermined by government agencies in favor of engagement.

The announcement has little to do with Cuban reality, writes Carlos Manuel Álvarez in El Estornudo. Apart from a marked lack of efficacy in policies aimed at economically punishing the government, targeting military run industry is likely to be less straightforward than the blustering announcement would seem to indicate, he writes. "The Republican administration, unless it is even more inept than the world has already confirmed it is, must be aware that it has left a wide and comfortable range of maneuver to Raúl Castro ... "

On the other side of the divide, Mary Anastasia O'Grady also decries the embargo as useless, and instead recommends a truth commission that would permit Cubans to expose how their rights have been systematically violated by the government, she writes in the Wall Street Journal.

The announcement appeased nobody in the polarized Cuba policy debate -- neither hardliners nor proponents of engagement were satisfied by Friday's announcement, reports the Miami Herald separately. In Havana the speech was not followed closely, but caused anger once the details became known, according to the Washington Post. In the U.S. hardliners denounced that the new policies do little for "oppressed" Cubans, while engagement proponents predicted they would backfire in their stated intentions, notes the NYT.

Another Politico piece emphasized the symbolic nature of the announcement, and how in Cuba it hits at a hopefulness inspired by Obama's approach.

News Briefs
  • At least three people were killed and a dozen injured in a bombing at an upscale Bogotá mall on Saturday, reports the Miami Herald. The explosive device was placed in the women's bathroom of the Andino shopping center. Colombian authorities are offering a $34,000 reward for information about the bombing, reports the Miami Herald separately. President Juan Manuel Santos said authorities were working on three hypothesis, but did not elaborate further. He did suggest yesterday that enemies of the historic peace deal with the FARC could be behind the attack. Suspicion first fell on the still active National Liberation Army (ELN), but they denied involvement.
  • Peace and prosperity in both Central American and the U.S. will depend on controlling the illegal drugs flow in the region, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly told regional leaders in the second day of the  Conference on Security and Prosperity in Central America. He said his as the head of the U.S. Southern Command gave him perspective on the intense violence caused by the region's drug traffickers and street gangs. But he also acknowledged that U.S. demand is behind the business, reports the Miami Herald. At the end of the day, Mexican Interior Secretary Ángel Osorio Chong said five participating countries agreed to work "in a comprehensive fashion from a regional perspective....It is paramount that we generate joint solutions," but offered no details. Kelly also said that Northern Triangle officials brought up the issue of Temporary Protected Status granted to their citizens in the U.S. and up for renewal next year, potentially exposing tens of thousands to deportation.
  • Haitian activists in the U.S. criticize Haitian President Jovenel Moïse for being insufficiently concerned with the 58,700 Haitians in the Temporary Protected Status or TPS program, reports the Miami Herald. They want him to lobby more directly for the migrants who will lose legal permission to live and work in the U.S. as of next January. In a visit to Miami, Moïse said the U.S. government would not immediately deport TPS migrants.
  • The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum -- mostly in the U.S. -- tripled between 2015 and 2016, as the country descended further into political and economic chaos, according to a new U.N. report. About 34,200 Venezuelans sought asylum in 2016 — up from 10,200 claims the previous year. Of those asylum applicants, 18,300 sought refuge in the United States, reports the Miami Herald
  • The U.S. will not immediately eliminate protections for the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as small children. But the White House says no decision has been reached regarding the long-term fate of the program, reports the New York Times.
  • Prominent Mexican human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists have been targeted by advanced spyware, purchased by the Mexican government with the explicit agreement that it be used only to investigate criminals and terrorists, reports the New York Times. Targets of the Pegasus spyware created by an Israeli cyberarms manufacturer include lawyers involved in the Ayotzinapa investigation, an academic involved in drafting anti-corruption legislation, two of Mexico’s most influential journalists and an American representing victims of sexual abuse by the police. The company that made the software said it was intended to be used only to battle terrorists or the drug cartels and criminal groups. Instead, it has been used against outspoken government critics. Intelligence experts say illegal surveillance is standard practice. The hacking attempts were highly personalized, notes the NYT. Prominent journalist Carmen Aristegui was targeted by a spyware operator posing as the United States Embassy in Mexico, instructing her to click on a link to resolve an issue with her visa. The Mexican government denies "that any of its members engages in surveillance or communications operations against defenders of human rights, journalists, anti-corruption activists or any other person without prior judicial authorization." And the spyware leaves no fingerprints, which means it is impossible to determine exactly who is behind the hacking attempts. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that advocates of a soda tax had been hacked by the same invasive spyware. 
  • Honduran journalist Victor Funez who was running for a congressional seat was shot to death outside his home last week in the Caribbean coast city of La Ceiba, reports the Associated Press. He was better known as "El Masa" and directed the nighttime show "Panorama Nocturno" on the local channel 45 station.
  • The trial has begun for four of the eight suspects accused of murdering Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres last year. Three of them are directly linked to Desarrollos Energéticos S.A (DESA), the private company behind a hydroelectric dam Cáceres prominently fought against, reports Radio Progreso.
  • U.S Border Patrol raided a humanitarian aid camp set up to give shelter and water to migrants crossing the border in the Arizona desert, an operation activists say will endanger lives, according to the Guardian.
  • The sprawling Operation Car Wash investigation into corruption in Brazil has resulted in prison terms for politicians and business executives, but also mass layoffs in once-leading companies, reports the Washington Post. Top executives negotiated plea deals, but their employees fell victim to the companies' crumbling fortunes.
  • Meat industry tycoon Joesley Batista accused Brazilian President Michel Temer of asking for money multiple times in recent years in exchange for political favors. Temer rejects the allegations and his lawyers said they'd file a lawsuit against Batista today, reports the BBC. Batista is behind the leaked recording in which Temer appears to condone hush-money payments to a corruption witness. (See May 18's post.)
  • OAS foreign ministers gather next week in Cancún to discuss matters affecting the region. A key issue: how to move on Venezuela, reports Latin America Goes Global. But funding -- namely the U.S. attempting to get out of it -- is also going to be a central topic.
  • Venezuela needs an unprecedented solution, argues Enrique Krauze in a New York Times Español op-ed. He calls the country the Zimbabwe of Latin America: "A shameless alliance of corrupt politians and military, obedient to the dictates of Cuba, with the involvement of may in drug trafficking, has kidnapped a nation rich in petroleum wealth and attempted to appropriate it in perpetuity, no matter the human cost." He advocates an implementation of the so-called Bettancourt doctrine, which proposes a cordon sanitaire to isolate regimes that do not respect human rights. Such an approach can hardly be expected of dictatorial governments in Russia, China and Cuba he writes, nor is the U.S. an apt interlocutor, which leaves the Vatican, the European Union and regional governments to act, in his opinion.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro condemned Twitter as an expression of fascism after some pro-government accounts were suspended, reports the BBC.
  • Hundreds of members of the indigenous Warao tribe in Venezuela are migrating to Brazil, driven by lack of food, reports the Los Angeles Times. More than 12,000 Venezuelans have moved to neighboring Brazil since 2014, according to Human Rights Watch.
  • Imprisoned Argentine social activist Milagro Sala is being held in reasonably humane conditions, according to a Inter-American Commission on Human Rights committee that visited her, reports La Nación. CELS, Amnesty International and various rights groups have denounced that she is being held illegally for a year and a half. the Commission is expected to emit judgement on the case in July. Committee members noted the intense pressure Sala finds herself in, given the high number of cases brought against her and uncertainty over how they will proceed. She has been illegally detained for more than 500 days, reports Página 12. More insider baseball reporting on the questionable case against Sala, at Pagina 12.
  • Much publicized safety policies and remodelation promises for Rio de Janeiro's favelas have priced out the informal neighborhoods' poorest families, reports the BBC. In In 2010, then-Mayor Eduardo Paes pledged to upgrade and integrate every favela into the formal city by the year 2020. Since then rising rents have pushed families into squats with no sanitation, running water or security.
  • Three million people participated in São Paulo's gay pride parade, under the motto: "Whatever our beliefs, no religion is law," reports the BBC.
  • A recent crackdown on São Paulo’s Cracolândia, was portrayed by Mayor João Doria as a way of eradicating the downtown neighborhood where hundreds to thousands of crack-cocaine users and drug dealers have congregated over the past twenty years. (See May 30's briefs.) Instead the violent crackdown has scattered homeless drug users and threaten to displace poor families living in the area -- a renewal initiative that could open the door to "redevelopment," writes Patricia Rodrigues Samora in the Conversation. The piece mentions Programa de Braços Abertos (Open Arms Programme), which offered housing, meals, part-time work, social services and health care to the area’s homeless drug users.