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.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Competing interests in U.S.'s Honduras response (Dec. 14, 2017)

Honduras has been in crisis since a disputed election nearly three weeks ago -- tarnished by allegations of fraud and still without an accepted winner. Yesterday U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called on Honduran authorities to uphold the rule of law and respect for human rights following the presidential election.

Earlier this week Human Rights Watch condemned the “strong indications of election fraud” in the elections. "... the claims need to be investigated and the voter’s will respected," said America's Division director José Miguel Vivanco. "At the same time, Honduran authorities need to maintain the right to freedom of assembly and refrain from using unnecessary or disproportionate force."

But the schisms present in the crisis are not new, explains the New York Times. "The country has lived through a version of this turmoil before. Eight years ago, a leftist president was ousted by a coup in a fight over what his opponents said was a plan to overturn the constitutional ban on a second presidential term. The resistance movement that sprang up to support him has endured, and the discord that split Honduran society then still defines today’s divisions." Stability in the country is important to the United States, which seeks support in stemming drugs and migrants flowing north. "The question is whether the United States is willing to overlook a possibly fraudulent election to ensure that outcome," writes Elizabeth Malkin.

The Los Angeles Times also cites criticisms that the U.S. is prioritizing migration and drug smuggling concerns over democratic concerns. And notes that the Trump administration has been more critical of leftist governments in the region, like Bolivia and Cuba, than violations carried out by the friendly Hernández administration.

This week opposition challenger Salvador Nasralla handed over a USB drive containing 14,364 tally sheets to OAS and EU observers, proof of fraud, he said according to EFE.

And NACLA focuses on the underlying tensions expressed in the crisis, especially the refusal of security forces to repress protests. "On the surface, what’s going on in Honduras is an electoral crisis, and irregularities and widespread allegations of electoral fraud have certainly been the spark and ongoing explicit focus of the crisis. But its roots run deeper. The events of the last two weeks have brought years of contradictions and frustrations bubbling to the surface. The nationwide popular uprising against fraud is also an uprising against increasing authoritarianism and unpopular neoliberal policies. In turn, the violent response to the protests has exposed ongoing tensions within the state, in the form of discontent among security forces."

News Briefs
  • Chileans head to the polls on Sunday, in the second round of voting for their next president. Though polls throughout the year predicted an easy win for former President Sebastián Piñera. But his opponent, center left journalist Alejandro Guillier has garnered the support of presidential candidates who lost the first round, including the more radical Frente Amplio's Beatriz Sánchez, who obtained over 20 percent of the vote in November. The support ups Guillier's potential votes to a technical tie with Piñera, writes Sylvia Colombo in a New York Times Español op-ed. Piñera's narrow margin is also due to his own errors in calculation, she argues, and he is now hurt by having to appeal to more right-wing candidates' electorates. 
  • A Salvadoran court rejected the appeal of a woman sentenced to 30 years in prison for what she says was a stillbirth. Prosecutors accuse her of attempting to abort a nearly full-term pregnancy, ending in the death of the baby. The decision was criticized by human rights groups, including Amnesty International. El Salvador is one of a handful of countries in the region with a total abortion ban, but enforces the law in a stringent fashion that critics say criminalizes obstetric complications, reports the Guardian.
  • Nearly four decades after El Salvador's El Mozote massacre, the government has officially recognized that 978 people were murdered, and that most of the supposed guerrillas -- 553 -- were minors. 477 were under 12 years of age. The statistics are the result of a 2012 Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision, and recognize a total of 1,658 victims, including families of those killed, survivors and displaced, reports El Faro.
  • An Ecuadorian court sentenced the country's vice president, Jorge Glas, to six years in jail. He was found guilty of receiving bribes from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, in exchange for state contracts. Prosecutors accuse him of pocketing $13.5 million from Odebrecht through his uncle.  Glas was a close ally of former President Rafael Correa, who is now a strong opponent of his successor, Lenín Moreno. Moreno suspended Glas in August, and the vice president was put in pre-trial detention in October. For Reuters, "Glas’s downfall highlights how fallout from the massive Odebrecht corruption scandal has continued to ripple across South America."
  • Eternal Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) formalized his run for next year's election this week. The former Mexico City mayor narrowly lost to Felipe Calderon in the 2006 presidential race, and was defeated six years later by current President Enrique Peña Nieto. This time the polls favor him, but he will have an uphill battle to convince Mexican's skeptical of his sometimes radical proposals, reports the Los Angeles Times. This week AMLO floated the idea of amnesty to those involved in the drug trade who agreed to rehabilitation, which unpopular among voters. The proposal caused fury among families of drug war victims and accusations of insensitivity, reports the Guardian.
  • Femicides in Mexico increased sharply in recent years, in conjunction with the general rise in violence since a militarized offensive against drug cartels was launched about a decade ago, reports the Associated Press. A new report from Mexico’s interior department, the country’s National Women’s Institute and the UN Women agency said the annual femicide rate was 3.8 per 100,000 women in 1985 before it began a steady decline to 1.9 in 2007. From there it rose sharply to peak at 4.6 per 100,000 in 2012, tapering off in the following years and then rising again last year to 4.4.
  • Senior executives at Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox corporation are accused by U.S. prosecutors of paying millions of dollars in a bribery-for-broadcasting-rights scheme, reports the Guardian.
  • Oft posponed pension reform in Brazil must be voted on by lawmakers next week, or delayed until next year, warned President Michel Temer. He told business leaders that painful cuts in public spending might be needed if the unpopular reform doesn't pass, reports Reuters.
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will find out in January if a prison sentence for corruption is upheld, knocking him out of the running for next year's presidential election, reports AFP. Lula was sentenced in July to 9.5 years behind bars after being convicted of corruption in Brazil's huge "Car Wash" graft scandal. The court in Porto Alegre said it will rule on his appeal January 24.
  • Venezuela's opposition accepted the prestigious European Union Sakharav prize for human rights yesterday. Julio Borges, head of the opposition-led National Assembly urged the world to pay attention to next year's presidential election in Venezuela, reports the Guardian.
  • An independent U.N. human rights expert said he met with Venezuelan government officials and pleaded for the release of political detainees, reports the Associated Press.
  • Official statistics on crime in the Caribbean can be misleading, especially in the case of the most common (assault and threat) the most vulnerable victims (women and children), writes Heather Sutton in Carribean Dev Trends, reposted by InSight Crime. "This can lead policymakers to make poor decisions regarding policies and the allocation of resources," she writes, presenting an IADB report looking at victimization surveys to identify underreported crimes.
  • Bermudan lawmakers approved a measure banning same-sex marriage, just months after a supreme court ruling made them legal, reports the Associated Press. The measure allows domestic partnership instead of full-fledged marriage. The vote is a rare reversal in an international trend towards recognition of same-sex marriage, reports the New York Times.
  • Haitian women are seeking support for children they say are fathered by U.N. troops, reports Reuters.
  • Indigenous communities in Peru's Amazon are employing drones and smart phones to report rain-forest oil-spills that have been ignored for decades, reports the Guardian. Oil contamination has seeped into the entire food chain they depend on, say community leaders, and particularly affects children who suffer sometimes mortal complications.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Lat Am news briefs (Dec. 13, 2017)

  • Among the expenses that are out of reach for many Haitians is decent burial for deceased loved ones. Instead, bodies pile up until their faces melt, they are buried in common graves or simply left out in the open. A New York Times feature looks at a team of social workers who cary out the grisly work of giving these people a more dignified final resting spot. The piece traces their work to show the devastating effects of poverty in the country. "Like most Haitians, the men are intimately familiar with death in ways North Americans have not been for almost a century. They know people whose lives are cut short by violence or easily treated illnesses — dysentery, pneumonia, malnutrition, and more recently, cholera. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth add to the toll."
  • A group of Guatemalan indigenous women have launched a precedent-setting suit against a Canadian mining company they accuse of responsibility in abuses allegedly committed by security forces and mining security employees in 2007. The 11 women say they were raped repeatedly by the armed men, part of a push to force them to leave their ancestral lands near mines owned by Vancouver-based Skye Resources. In 2008, Skye was acquired by Toronto’s Hudbay Minerals, who sold the mine to a Russian company in 2011. "The lawsuits may offer a legal means of addressing a longstanding obstacle for human rights campaigners: the perceived legal disconnect between multinationals and the local subsidiaries who carry out their operations abroad," reports the Guardian.
  • Venezuelans of all political stripes have every reason to disbelieve "in civility or democracy while their nation slides into the abyss. However, dialogue and votes are still the country’s only hope, and Venezuelans cannot afford to be blinded by anger and desperation," argues Reynaldo Trombetta in a Guardian op-ed. He urges participation in upcoming elections. Instead of boycotting unfair circumstances, he urges the international community to help ensure "free and monitored presidential elections in 2018. The opposition can’t afford to get sidetracked by other demands: true democracy and freedom will only be possible after the elections lead to a regime change."
  • Migration out of Venezuela is one of the biggest in recent history, and could pose a humanitarian issue for Brazil, which is struggling to absorb the crush, according to Reuters. Social services, especially in areas bordering Venezuela, are overwhelmed and authorities are warning of a potential crisis.
  • Venezuelan authorities announced they are opening a corruption investigation into former oil minister Rafael Ramírez. Ramirez was ousted from his position as U.N. ambassador last week and left the U.S. for an undisclosed third country, reports the BBC.
  • David Smilde writes on the HIV treatment crisis in Venezuela at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. "Stock-outs of antiretroviral (ARV) therapy are the norm, undermining viral suppression and thereby exposing the patient to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Shortages of medicines and medical supplies contributed to a 75% increase in AIDS-related deaths from 2011 to 2015. This crisis is the result of a political conflict that has brought with it an economic collapse. Government corruption schemes based on foreign exchange distortions leave it without enough foreign currency to import basic goods leading to widespread shortages of food and medicines."
  • Josh Holt, a former Mormon missionary who has been held in Venezuela for almost 18 months, will stand trial on weapons charges, despite growing fears about his health, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Candidates in Mexico's presidential race are engaged in a race to simulate what they are not, argues Diego Fonseca in a New York Times Español op-ed. Populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador is making efforts to appear a moderate centrist, while former first lady Margarita Zavala, of the conservative PAN party inner circle is running as an independent. The leftist PRD and right-wing PAN have allied in an electoral front. And the ruling PRI party is combating it's reputation for corruption and abuses by fronting an independent technocrat who must now be marketed as a man of the people. Fonseca mocks the transformation of former finance minister José Antonio Meade into the rally-attending, glad-handing Pepe Meade who smiles in campaign posters.
  • Changes proposed by Mexican senators for a security bill that would legislate the military's role in internal security were characterized as merely cosmetic by organizations of civil society that continue to criticize the measure, reports Animal Político.
  • The wife of the disgraced former Veracruz governor Javier Duarte is living in the U.K. and has asked the Mexican government to return artwork, golf clubs and crystal seized by prosecutors, reports Reuters. Duarte is awaiting trial on charges of embezzlement and organized crime, in a case that public auditors said was the worst they had ever seen in Mexico.
  • The human rights situation in the Dominican Republic has deteriorated in 2017, the head of the independent National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) said this week. He said roughly 180 civilians have died this year in alleged shootouts with soldiers or police, reports EFE.
  • Salvadoran judges delayed a decision on whether to free a woman who was sentenced to 30 years in prison after she gave birth to a stillborn baby, reports Democracy Now. Teodora Vásquez has maintained her innocence, saying she called an ambulance late in her pregnancy and passed out. When she woke up her newborn was dead. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2008 for aggravated murder, reports the BBC. Human rights groups have voiced concern that the judges hearing her review are the same ones who sentenced her in 2008.
  • A Brazilian woman who took her request for an abortion to the country's Supreme Court has terminated her pregnancy in Colombia to avoid punishment at home. Rebeca Mendes petitioned the court for permission to abort -- though her case does not fit into the narrow window of permitted abortions, which include danger to mothers life and fetal inviability -- when she was six weeks pregnant. In an interview with the Associated Press, she "said her decision was not just an economic one. The single mother of two boys, ages 6 and 9, said a third child would have substantially affected her family, both financially and emotionally."
  • Rogério Avelino da Silva, alias “Rogério 157,” was arrested by Brazilian security forces last week, but "while Rio authorities have hailed Rogério’s arrest as a win in the fight against organized crime, experts told InSight Crime that his capture is unlikely to disrupt existing criminal control over Rocinha, and could lead to further violent turf wars."
  • Rio de Janeiro's Evangelical Christian mayor has made the city a petri-dish for the Brazil's culture wars. Marcelo Crivella has slashed funding for the Carnival, a gay pride parade, and a celebration of a syncretic ocean goddess -- all in the name of fiscal austerity, but advancing a religiously conservative cultural agenda according to critics. The battle between conservatives and social progressives is increasingly pitched in Brazil, and lawmakers that form part of the "Bullets, Bulls, and Bible" caucus (pro-gun, rural and Evangelical) are showing their power, reports the Washington Post.
  • Residents near the world’s fourth largest hydroelectric power plant, in Brazil, say the Belo Monte dam has made their houses prone to floods of waste water, reports the Guardian.
  • Bolivian lawmakers voted to ease the country's tight restrictions on abortion last week. The measure will allow “students, adolescents or girls” to have abortions up to the eighth week of pregnancy, reports the Associated Press.
  • Nueva Fuerabamba, a remote town in Peru’s southern Andes, was supposed to be an example of how mining companies can mitigate communities displaced by the extraction industry. "But three years after moving in, many transplants are struggling amid their suburban-style conveniences, Reuters interviews with two dozen residents showed. Many miss their old lives growing potatoes and raising livestock. Some have squandered their cash settlements. Idleness and isolation have dulled the spirits of a people whose ancestors were feared cattle rustlers."
  • A portion of Gabriel García Marquez's archive has been digitized and made freely available online by the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center. This includes  drafts and other material relating to all of García Márquez’s major books, including "One Hundred Years of Solitude," reports the New York Times.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Venezuelan officials ban opposition parties who boycotted municipal election (Dec. 12, 2017)

  • Venezuelan and U.S. officials have been trading barbs in the wake of a Maduro administration decision to ban political parties that boycotted Sunday's municipal elections, reports the BBC. The US state department said it was "an extreme measure" designed to consolidate President Nicolás Maduro's power. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza called the US statement "ridiculous". (See yesterday's post.)
  • Brazil is one of the first country's in the world to employ a pill that prevents HIV contagion as an integral part of its preventive health care policy, reports the New York Times. The drug, known as PrEP, short for pre-exposure prophylaxis, drastically reduces the risk of contracting the virus when taken daily. It will be made available at no cost to eligible Brazilians at 35 public health clinics in 22 cities in the program's initial phase. The rollout of the drug comes in the midst of an increase in the rate of HIV infected young men that has alarmed Brazilian health authorities. Advocates say the PrEP program will show the economic benefits of prevention programs.
  • Honduran chief prosecutor Oscar Chinchilla and the OAS anti-corruption mission in Honduras accused five federal lawmakers of diverting public funds to their own use, reports the Associated Press. They requested the arrest of the lawmakers, reports La Prensa Gráfica.
  • Josh Holt — the former Mormon missionary from Utah who has been detained in Venezuela for more than a year – is in delicate health said his family, urging authorities to release him, reports the Miami Herald. Holt was arrested in Caracas on June 30, 2016, on charges of hiding two automatic rifles and a hand grenade at the home he was sharing with his Venezuelan bride.
  • Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski acknowledged that he worked as a financial adviser for an irrigation project owned by the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. The admission contradicts his previous denials of links to the company, reports Reuters.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri has come under criticism for banning representatives from 26 international NGO's from attending a World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference in Buenos Aires because of their postings on social media, reports the Guardian. The government said the blacklisted activists "made explicit calls for manifestations of violence through social media, expressing the intent to generate schemes of intimidation and chaos." But a British journalist who was deported last Friday when she attempted to enter the country for the meetings, said that is not the case. The government was forced to reverse its decision in the case of several European NGO representatives, after Norwegian, Belgian and French officials pressured for their citizens to be admitted.
  • An Argentine judge's request to place former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in pre-trial detention -- and the actual imprisonment of several of her former cabinet members -- could backfire against attempts to battle corruption and impunity in the country, argues journalist Lucia He in Americas Quarterly. The move, considered excessive by many experts, has "detracted from efforts to rid the judicial system of its appearance of partisanship," she writes. She summarizes the complex case, noting that there is little evidence to sustain Judge Claudio Bonadio's allegation that the former officials are tampering with the investigation into alleged treason. And the still more questionable argument he makes that the 1994 Buenos Aires Jewish center bombing was an act of war by Iran against Argentina, justifying the charge of treason. She also raises questions about the judges background, allegations of money laundering and an extensive list of formal complaints for bad performance: he is the sitting federal judge with the most complaints against him.
  • Former Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble has angrily denied Bonadio’s accusations that he also colluded in an alleged attempt to let the supposed Iranian masterminds of the bombing off the hook.
  • For a different perspective: Mark Dubowitz and Tony Dershowitz celebrate the judge's advance in the late prosecutor Alberto Nisman's allegations against the Kirchner government in a New York Times op-ed that accepts as true several of the case's most egregious canards.
  • Free-trade in Mexico brought about "an extraordinary transformation of the country’s food system, one that has saddled" millions of citizens with diet-related illnesses, reports the New York Times. As a result of NAFTA, the Mexican food ecosystem increasingly came to resemble that of the U.S. -- "In 1980, 7 percent of Mexicans were obese, a figure that tripled to 20.3 percent by 2016, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Diabetes is now Mexico’s top killer, claiming 80,000 lives a year, the World Health Organization has reported."
  • "Deportation is like bereavement, it’s a huge loss and if there’s no help, the streets will take you," immigration advocate Claudia Portela says in a Guardian piece focused on the migrants deported to Mexico, many of whom are forced to leave behind their children and decades of work.
  • The harmful effects of Donald Trump's proposed border wall on human and diplomatic relations has been well documented. But while the proposed barrier would likely be ineffective in deterring migrants, it will definitely be deadly for butterflies and endangered animals whose territory straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, reports the Guardian.
  • "In Mexico, death is everywhere: in the cadavers of the victims of the powerful narco cartels, in the brazen way the police disappear students who protest, in the strategies corrupt politicians use to discredit journalists whose investigations damage their reputation. Death is also present in the immigrant who risks his life to cross a wall and pursue the dream of a better life. It can be seen in the care families give to their elderly who don't have health care and in the quotidian struggle of people who work in the fields in dangerous conditions. We Mexicans live with a certain acceptation of death, sometimes, we even celebrate it," writes Ilan Stavans in a New York Times Español op-ed. "Pixar's latest animated film, Coco, is a lavish portrait of the intense romance with life after death in Mexico. From my point of view, Coco is the cinematographic work that has portrayed Mexican popular culture in the most sophisticated way so far."

Monday, December 11, 2017

Venezuela's government sweeps municipal elections, largely unopposed (Dec. 11, 2017)

Venezuela's ruling party won municipal elections around the country yesterday -- a bit of a foregone conclusion as leading opposition parties boycotted the vote. Nonetheless, President Nicolás Maduro celebrated victory in more than 300 of Venezuela's 335 counties, reports the Wall Street Journal. Ruling PSUV party candidates won in 39 of the 40 of the country's major localities, reports the New York Times

Though expected, the results leave the PSUV in power in nearly all instances of government in the country: from municipalities, to governorships up through the supra-legislative National Constituent Assembly (ANC) polemically created this year to sidestep the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

The 47 percent turnout was lower than any other election in the past six years, but still higher than expected. However, in opposition bastions many demoralized voters chose to stay away, participation in some was as low as 10 percent. A selection of opposition candidates ran as independents across the country, but failed to attract much support without the backing of their party infrastructure.

Leading opposition parties called for a boycott, saying participation would only serve to legitimize Maduro's government. They made the move in the wake of October's gubernatorial elections, which they say the ruling PSUV party won through illicit maneuvering and alleged fraud in some cases. Indeed, yesterday's election was predicted to suffer many of those same irregularities, wrote Geoff Ramsey at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights on Saturday. "These include the fact that the vote was called by the Constituent Assembly, the use of state resources to support pro-government candidates, and concerns over transparency in the voting process—though the most important audits appear to be in place."

The turnout was helped however by the government's promise of social benefits for participants, reports the WSJ. Shortly before the election Maduro promised "presents" for voters in a nationally televised address, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

The Observatorio Electoral Venezolano (OEV) denounced at least 77 irregularities yesterday, including electoral violence and procedural issues. But the most frequent cases were of electoral propaganda in the form of registering participants in order to give them social benefits, reports Efecto Cocuyo.
 
The loss of key municipal seats was to be expected in a scenario in which major opposition parties boycotted the election, emphasized Luis Vicente León to Efecto Cocuyo, which compares yesterday's results to those of 2013's local elections. "It’s absurd to think that an abstaining political force can win the majority of mayorships," said León on Twitter. And opposition candidate and former political detainee Yon Goicoechea said the boycott and opposition disarray would allow the government to win without need to resort to fraud.

In a further blow to the weakened opposition coalition, Maduro has threatened to ban parties that did not participate on Sunday. "They will disappear from the political map," he said. Yesterday PSUV vice president Diosdado Cabello said the decision regarding party participation in next year's presidential elections will lie with the very pro-government ANC, reports Efecto Cocuyo

And the results are likely to push the government to move forward with next year's presidential election. Angling to take advantage of opposition disorganization, elections could be held as early as March. The move raises questions about voter choice in the elections, in which Maduro is expected to run for reelection, reports the Guardian.

Venezuela aside: the migration option that has tempted thousands of residents to leave the country includes unique challenges for senior-citizens, who must face setting up from scratch in their retirement years, reports the New York Times.

News Briefs
  • Two weeks after Honduras' questioned presidential election, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced that a partial hand recount of votes ratified the initial results -- a slim win for incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández, reports Deutsche Welle. An official winner must be declared by Dec. 26. The recount of  4,753 ballot boxes gave Hernández 50 percent of the vote, compared to 31.5 percent for opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla, reports Reuters. The new results leave Hernández 1.6 percent ahead of Nasralla, reports La Prensa Gráfica. Nonetheless, opposition leaders said the TSE results are still untrustworthy, reports El País. The TSE is now considering the approximate 150 electoral challenges it has received, reports the Associated Press. On Friday opposition parties presented a formal request to annul the much questioned election.
  • Honduran Culture and Politics reports on the technical details of an alleged system malfunction that led TSE servers to go down in the midst of a protracted vote count.
  • Thousands of Honduran protesters demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa over the weekend, calling for U.S. support in the political crisis, reports the Miami Herald. They also linked increased migration north to violence perpetrated by the Hernández administration. Many called for U.S. support against a second term for incumbent Hernández, saying their desire to stay in Honduras is countered by the government's human rights abuses and corruption. 
  • "The Honduran government is deploying dangerous and illegal tactics to silence any dissenting voices in the aftermath of one of the country’s worst political crisis in a decade, including preventing lawyers and human rights activists from visiting detained demonstrators," Amnesty International said last week. The organization called on the government to halt "use of illegitimate or excessive force against protesters by security forces, ending arbitrary detentions, and investigating all instances of human rights violations"
  • Two of Mexico's main opposition parties -- the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) -- announced an alliance ahead of next year's presidential elections, reports the Wall Street Journal. The new coalition, Por México, Al Frente, which also includes the smaller Citizen Movement party, could shakeup the elections: together they had 32 percent of voters in a recent election, tying with front-runner, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). The Frente could provide an option for voters disgusted by the ruling PRI party's extensive corruption scandals, but who don't lean towards AMLO. Some 75 percent of Mexicans want a change in government, according to a recent Reforma poll. Initial campaign promises include ending corruption, impunity, recovering peace and making the economy grow for everybody, reports Animal Político.
  • The Washington Post reports on a bill in Mexico's Senate that would enshrine the role of the military in internal law enforcement. Proponents of the Internal Security Law say the law could resolve legal problems involving the deployment of troops domestically, necessary due to ill-prepared police forces. But critics say the bill will risk militarization of the country, weaken civilian oversight and offer fewer incentives for local politicians to fix their police forces
  • Elea Valle, a resident of a remote Nicaraguan rural town, has become the symbol of the struggle against impunity in the country after two of her children were killed in an army massacre three weeks ago, reports El País. While the military said it was cracking down on criminal groups, analysts say armed groups operating in the area are politically motivated.
  • The high-profile arrest of a Rio de Janeiro drug-lord left residents of the Rocinha favela he dominated concerned about an increase in violence, reports the Guardian.
  • Latin America remains one of the most unequal regions in the world, according to new World Bank data on income inequality. The good news is that the region has made the most progress in evening out the odds since the turn of the century, lowering its Gini index for wage inequality by 6 points from 2002 to 2013, reports Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Honduran electoral commission conducting partial recount (Dec. 8, 2017)

News Briefs
  • The way of of Honduras' political crisis will be through the negotiating table, and there is speculation the two candidates disputing the election are cooking up a private deal, reports the Economist. "Mr Hernández would remain president; the Alliance would refuse to recognise his government but would not call its supporters onto the streets. In exchange, Mr Hernández would offer concessions including, perhaps, fresh elections next year or a promise to leave office after his second term."
  • The roots of the current political crisis lie in the 2009 coup against then president Manuel Zelaya, a situation the U.S. is partially responsible for fomenting, according to the Guardian. "As one of the US’s closest allies in Central America, Honduras will probably serve as a litmus test for how the US will treat other allies with similar stained reputations." The piece cites Woodrow Wilson Center's Eric Olsen who calls the country an example of "the kinds of crisis and violence that can emerge when transparency is undermined to guarantee political favour." In the same piece, WOLA's Adam Isacson points out that an unstable Honduras will foment gangs and drug trafficking, pushing more migrants towards the U.S.
  • Yesterday Honduras' Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) initiated the recount of a portion of the votes in the disputed presidential election, but not the totality requested by the opposition, reports La Prensa. The TSE will focus on the 4,753 ballot boxes whose returns came in after election night, a demand of the OAS electoral mission, reports Reuters.
  • The global homicide rate rose last year for the first time in more than a decade, with marked increases in Venezuela and Jamaica, according to the annual Small Arms Survey published yesterday. The report estimated that 385,000 people were killed in homicides across the world in 2016, an increase of 8,000 on the previous year. Of the five countries with the highest violent death rates in 2016 – Syria, El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, and Afghanistan – only two had armed conflicts last year, reports the Guardian.
  • The Venezuelan government's sketchy plan to launch a cryptocurrency is seen by Washington as a sign of increasing desperation reports the Miami Herald. The country's  inflation rate could surpass 2,000 percent by year’s end — worse than war-ravaged economies like South Sudan and Libya, notes the Miami Herald in a separate piece. Figures released by the opposition-led Congress, show consumer prices rising by 1,369 percent between January and November, reports Reuters. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
  • Venezuela's opposition can't seem to decide whether to participate in elections, reports the Guardian. Currently many have called for a boycott of Sunday's mayoral elections, citing unfair conditions. Several leaders said the elections are rigged and the government has unfairly limited candidate eligibility. But sitting out elections can backfire according to many analysts. 
  • A Brazilian clown turned politicians said he will not run for reelection because he is ashamed of fellow lawmakers, reports the Associated Press.
  • An Argentine federal judge asked the Senate to strip former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of parliamentary immunity, in order to permit her arrest in a treason criminal case. Fernández is currently a Senator, and has parliamentary immunity from detention, though not prosecution. Judge Claudio Bonadio detained several of her former government officials, including chief-of-staff Carlos Zannini and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, in a case accusing them of colluding with the Iranian government to cover up a 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center, reports the New York Times. El Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) criticized a new trend in pre-trial detention for former government functionaries. Judges have argued that the former members of government could hinder investigations because of their connections. But this kind of argument, deployed generically as it has been, violates due process, according to CELS. "If the objective parameters of procedural risk are not met, preventive prison is a disproportionate and illegal measure that violates the principals of due process and implies a violation of constitutional guarantees. If there is no due process, it is an instrumentalization of the penal process to persecute political opponents." Critics suggest that Bonadio's accusations may serve as an insurance policy for the magistrate who is under investigation over allegations of money laundering and illicit enrichment, notes the Washington Post.
  • The loss of an Argentine submarine with a 44-person crew last month highlights the sorry state of the country's armed forces, which suffered an irremediable loss of prestige after widespread human rights violations during the last dictatorship in 1976-1983. Yet, the Economist argues that Argentina cannot afford to jettison its armed forces. "Most defence experts agree that Argentina, the world’s eighth-largest country by area, needs fighter jets, ships and submarines to deter potential enemies." Rather the magazine argues for an integral reform, though it admits the costs might be more than the government can afford.
  • A far lovelier -- Costa Rica-style -- suggestion from a New York Times Español op-ed by Martín Caparrós, in which he argues that there is little reason for the military to continue existing at all -- given its lack of funding and armament, it would hardly be up to facing credible threats anyway. Rather than to join a very expensive arms race, he argues Argentines should "make virtue of necessity and declare that we don't want or need an army, transform Argentina into an unarmed -- or relatively unarmed -- country and say we are more good and reasonable and wonderful. And, perhaps, somebody may believe us. Ourselves, for example." He warns of continuing repression of indigenous protesters in Argentina's south, leading to the death of a 22-year old Mapuche two weeks ago. And links the government's blind support of security forces to old thinking that permitted the disappearance of tens of thousands of opponents of the last dictatorship. "Two tragedies cross each other: the death of a young Argentine, the death of 44 argentine sailors. There are those who want to use them to recover the place and prestige of armed forces that don't seem useful. Hopefully some will see it as an opportunity to discuss the contrary option: leaving behind armed forces without visible function, that bungle the little the do because they don't have the means nor the ends to do it. It would be -- at last -- an authentic change, a new road: an example."

Thursday, December 7, 2017

OAS says it could call for new Honduran elections (Dec. 7, 2017)

The head of Honduras' Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), David Matamorros, indicated the commission will review votes disputed by the opposition in the still unresolved presidential election from 11 days ago. Specifically the TSE agreed to review the 5,176 tally sheets that were not transmitted to the voting center on the election night -- a key demand of the opposition and the OAS -- as well as three rural departments with unusually high turnout, reports La Prensa.

On Tuesday, President Juan Orlando Hernández expressed willingness to recount all the votes, a statement applauded by regional governments, reports the Associated Press. Opponent Salvador Nasralla called for an international arbiter to oversee a total recount, saying the TSE is tainted because of its role in the process so far, reports La Prensa. Nonetheless, the two parties are not reaching an agreement on how to resolve the political crisis, reports La Prensa separately.

Yesterday the OAS, which released a critical preliminary report of the elections, said it could call for new Honduran elections if any “irregularities” undermine the credibility of results, reports Reuters. The OAS also called for an immediate return of constitutional rights, including freedom of movement. There has been a curfew in place since last week, though the government lifted it in certain departments yesterday, reports La Prensa.

The official count gives Hernández a slim majority over opponent Salvador Nasralla, but the results have been questioned by political parties and international observers. Initial results pointed to a lead for Nasralla, but the trend was reversed in the midst of a slow count and interruptions in the vote counting system. Massive protests were countered with a curfew and police repression, which has led to as many as 11 deaths. The Chamber of Commerce has estimated that $65 million in damage has been done to businesses during the unrest.

Third-place finisher Luis Zelaya of the Liberal party said tally sheets held by his party prove Nasralla's win, reports the AP.

But electoral fraud is hardly the extent of the government's wrongdoing, reports Miguel Salazar in The Nation, which recounts allegations of corruption and association with criminal organizations. Yet, though the anti-corruption wave is ushering political neophytes, he notes that their later impact -- as with Jimmy Morales in Guatemala -- is difficult to predict.