This week’s likely top stories: Bolivia holds local elections; Cuba and the U.S. to discuss human rights; Caribbean Bitcoin exchange launches; UNASUR head urges closing of U.S. military bases in the region; Chile rejects Bolivian aid for flood victims.
Bolivia’s MAS Party Loses La Paz in Local Elections: Bolivian citizens elected local government leaders on Sunday, with President Evo Morales’ party, Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism—MAS) winning most governments, according to unofficial results. MAS won four out of nine provinces (Pando, Potosí, Oruro and Cochabamba) outright, and led in two other provinces that will now advance to a second round of votes on May 3, due to a close race. However, MAS lost La Paz, as well as Santa Cruz and Tarija provinces. Félix Patzi, from the Solidaridad y Libertad party (Solidarity and Liberty) secured approximately 52 percent of the votes for the governorship of La Paz. Official results are expected later on Monday.
U.S. Confirms Human Rights Meeting with Cuba: On Friday, a U.S. government spokesperson confirmed that U.S. and Cuban officials will meet on Tuesday, March 31 in Washington, DC for a preliminary discussion on human rights. The undersecretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Tom Malinowski, will lead the U.S. delegation. Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and international law at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said that the Cuban delegation will detail the country’s current and past successes in the area of human rights. This will be the fourth round of talks since the re-establishment of ties between the two countries. U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to re-open embassies before the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11.
Caribbean Bitcoin Exchange Launched: The Caribbean Bitcoin exchange “Bitt,” which is based in Barbados, was launched on Monday. Bitt, powered by digital currency exchange software company AlphaPoint, will be operating after confirming $1.5 million in seed funding from venture capital group Avatar Capital. The exchange will allow customers to trade in 11 fiat currencies, including the U.S. dollar and the euro. CEO Gabriel Abed praised the positive impact that Bitt will have. “By facilitating trade between traditional and digital currency markets, Bitt is creating the platform for very low-cost international commerce and remittance between the people who need it most—the millions of unbanked and underbanked citizens in the Caribbean,” he said.
March 26 marked the sixth straight month that Mexicans around the world have mobilized to express their dissatisfaction and frustration with the wave of violence, impunity and corruption that has swept the country in the past decade.
According to the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, more than 23,000 Mexicans are currently registered as missing, journalists and scholars are threatened and silenced, and everyday spaces are invaded by the various manifestations of this violence. The disappearance of 43 students from the teachers’ college of Ayotzinapa—with the clear involvement of local authorities, police and members of drug cartels in Guerrero—and the deaths of six others in the same protest last September, has stoked the fire of an already actively engaged civil society.
From the Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity), which marks its fourth anniversary this month, to the #YoSoy132 movement that began in 2012, the clamor for peace, justice, truth, and accountability has only grown stronger.
The Mexican government has attempted to put an end to the protests and criticism by bringing the Ayotzinapa case to a quick conclusion and by recently replacing Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, infamous for muttering “ya me cansé” (“I’m tired”) at a press conference after the students’ disappearance—a phrase that was quickly repurposed as the slogan of a massive protest movement on social media under the hashtag #YaMeCansé.
When the Canadian House of Commons adopted a resolution back in early October 2014 to join the coalition to combat ISIS beyond its foothold in Syria and Iraq, there was a provision for a renewal of the commitment in six months. This Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a new motion to extend Canada’s role in the coalition for another year. A major modification, however, expanded operations to include airstrikes in Syria—a sovereign country torn by civil war with a leader who has committed his own atrocities.
This being an election year, debate in the House has predictably strong partisan overtones.
The Harper government, fully conscious of the majority support Canadian have expressed in recent polls for Canada’s participation in the coalition, has argued to extend the ISIS mission to avoid a greater security threat at home. The so-called lone-wolf terrorist acts in the autumn in both St.-Jean, Québec (where a Canadian soldier was killed), and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa (where a reserve soldier standing guard was also killed) only reinforced Canadian support.
Bill C-51, the proposed legislation to give increased powers to Canada’s intelligence-gathering agency (CSIS), also benefits from majority support, even as the debate rages on between those wanting stronger security measures and those fearful of the lack of civilian oversight for the protection of civil liberties. It is fair to say that the Harper government sees further gain for its electoral prospects.
March has been a tough month for the Brazilian government. In the past few weeks, millions of people have taken to the streets to protest against President Dilma Rousseff and demand her impeachment, the country’s local currency devalued to its lowest exchange rate in 12 years and state oil giant Petrobras continued to be engulfed in one of the biggest corruption scandals in the country’s history.
To top it off, national unemployment went up and Rousseff’s popularity hit an all-time low. Pollster Datafolha released figures this week showing the president’s approval rating reached 13 percent, the lowest presidential approval level since 1992.
In an effort to rebound from these negative numbers, Rousseff is schedule to announce some changes to her government roster. This comes after Minister of Education Cid Gomes resigned earlier this week.
She also presented an anti-corruption government package before Congress on Wednesday that introduced reforms such as requiring government officials to have no criminal records (known as “Ficha Limpa” or clean slate), making it illegal for unregulated slush funds to be used in the financing of electoral campaigns, and granting the judicial ministry the power to seize goods and properties of those convicted of corruption.
“Prevent and battle,” Rousseff said as she introduced her latest defensive strategy. “This is what we see as the essential strategy in order to deepen Brazil’s commitment with democracy.”
This week’s likely top stories: Opposition alarmed by President Maduro’s power of decree; U.S. and Cuba continue talks; Brazilian citizens protest corruption; Bolivia and Brazil to sign energy agreement; Cuba allows first public wi-fi center.
President Maduro Given Power to Rule by Decree: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was given the power to rule by decree on issues of defense and public security after new legislation was passed by the National Assembly on Sunday. Maduro asserted that the Enabling Law gives him the power “to defend peace and sovereignty” in the country. The legislation was passed in response to new U.S. sanctions last week on Venezuelan officials. Maduro claimed that the decree, which lasts through December 31, 2015, will help him fight the threat posed by U.S. imperialism. The measure spurred new fears among the opposition about government abuses. On Saturday, UNASUR nations called on the U.S. to retract its recent measures against Venezuela.
U.S. and Cuba to Continue Negotiations: United States Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson traveled to Havana on Sunday to begin the third round of talks between Cuba and the U.S. to discuss the re-opening of embassies in the context of renewed diplomatic relations. Jacobson will meet with Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s lead negotiator on U.S. issues. Talks began on Monday and may continue through Wednesday. The U.S. hopes to come to an agreement before the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11. Despite progress, there are still difficult issues to work through, such as Cuba’s desire to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and the U.S. request for unrestricted travel for diplomats on the island.
Mass Protests against President Rousseff in Brazil: Protests against President Dilma Rousseff erupted across Brazil on Sunday. In Rio de Janeiro, thousands of citizens participated in the demonstrations against Rousseff and the governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT). Many protesters called for the president’s impeachment, claiming that she must have been aware of the corruption in the state oil company, Petrobras. Rousseff’s popularity has plunged recently, though she denies any involvement in the scandal. The largest demonstration took place in São Paulo, with over 200,000 participants, according to polling agency Datafolha. On Monday, the government sent a package of anti-corruption laws to Congress for consideration.
Bolivia and Brazil to Sign Memorandum on Hydroelectric Project: Bolivian Hydrocarbons and Energy Minister Luis Alberto Sánchez announced on Sunday that Brazil and Bolivia will soon sign a memorandum of understanding on two hydroelectric power projects, with the goal of increasing electricity generation as well as promoting energy exchanges between the two countries. Sánchez visited Brazil last week and held discussions with Eletrobras officials and Brazilian Mines and Energy Minister Eduardo Braga. The executives are expected to finish up negotiations in Bolivia this week. The planned agreement aims to strengthen the capabilities of the Rio Madera and Cachuela Esperanza hydroelectric projects.
Cuba Allows First Public Wi-fi Center in Havana: Etecsa, Cuba’s state telecommunications agency, has authorized Cuban sculptor Kcho to provide the island’s first public wireless Internet access at his cultural center in Havana. Kcho has strong connections to the Cuban government. Kcho is paying out of his own pocket to run the public Internet service, which is expected to cost him roughly $900 a month. Approximately 5 percent of Cubans currently have Internet access due to prohibitively high costs.
El Salvador held legislative and municipal elections on March 1, 2015. Almost two weeks later, the country lacks electoral results. The debacle has signified a concerning setback for Salvadoran electoral institutions and their credibility.
Trouble started on Election Day, when the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced its electoral results transmission system had failed. Since then, the scarcity of information and reluctance to provide full access to mainstream media—something which had been done in all previous electoral events—is increasing tension between political parties, citizens, and the electoral body.
It should come as no surprise that a lack of transparency and information inevitably leads to allegations of backdoor dealings and alleged attempts to privilege some political parties over others. As time passes, tensions rise. According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s website on March 10, only about 50 percent of votes for the Central American Parliament had been counted, and the official election results for the Legislative Assembly and mayors hadn’t even started.
The current electoral impasse represents a true crisis for Salvadoran democratic institutions and the immediate future. The final results of the election will have a direct effect on the next three years of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s five-year term. Unofficial results suggest that the governing FMLN will come up short of a simple majority in the legislative branch, even when factoring in their recent alliance with the Gran Alianza Por La Unidad Nacional (Great Alliance for National Unity—GANA).
Back in February, at a conservative conference in Iowa, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush appeared on stage with other prospective Republican presidential candidates. He was the only one who received jeers from the crowd. This was somewhat surprising, as Bush has made steady gains in recent polls and on the campaign money trail. Could it be the fact that the Bush name has been on the Republican presidential ticket for six of the last nine presidential contests and people want someone new? Or he is too moderate for today’s GOP?
Just recently, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been mired in a controversy for using a private email address with a private server to conduct state business. Her adversaries alleged that it was a scheme to avoid divulging e-mails that would otherwise have been public information, in contravention of a 2009 State Department directive. Curiously, Clinton has taken to social media to indicate her willingness to make the emails on the private server available to the general public. Why not be ahead of the news curve and immediately call a press conference? She has since decided to hold a press conference. However, the damage is done.
Last Sunday, on ABC’s “This Week” program, reputed reporter Mark Helpern asserted that Clinton’s management of the controversy will do serious harm to an eventual presidential run. This was possibly an exaggeration, but indicative of a certain Clinton fatigue on the part of the media.
It is clear that both Bush and Clinton, while still officially undeclared, are the current frontrunners for their parties’ nominations in 2016. It’s fair that they would receive greater public scrutiny. In the case of Jeb Bush, it is obvious that the shadow of his brother George W. looms large, with two wars and the Great Recession in the background. As for Hillary Clinton, the notion of secrecy so often associated with the Clinton years in the White House seems to have once again surfaced.
Luisa Ortega, the Venezuelan Attorney General, declared Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López ineligible to run for parliament as a candidate for the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable—MUD) until 2017. Ortega’s announcement followed a Uníon Radio interview with Jesús “Chúo” Torrealaba, executive secretary of MUD, who had received a letter from three imprisoned opposition leaders—López, former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and former San Cristóbal Mayor Daniel Ceballos—on Tuesday night requesting consideration of López’ candidacy for the election.
“It’s not that it’s a null candidacy, rather that he cannot run,” said Ortega, alluding to an earlier court ruling against López. As mayor of the Chacao municipality of Caracas in 2005, López was banned from running for any public office, after he was accused of receiving money from the state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (Petroleum of Venezuela—PDVSA). Despite a hearing held by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that overturned the ruling in 2011, the Venezuelan Supreme Court upheld the original decision.
López has been imprisoned since February 18, 2014, accused of acts against the government, including damage to public property, public incitement and unlawful assembly. An investigation is still underway for Antonio Ledezma, the former mayor of Caracas, who has been imprisoned since last month for his connection to two young people accused of conspiracy against the government. In both the case of Ledezma as well as Ceballos, Ortega was unable to say whether the two would be eligible for the MUD elections.
Former President Alfonso Portillo returned to Guatemala on February 25, 2015 after spending just nine months of a six-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado.
In May 2014, he was convicted of conspiring to use U.S. banks to launder a $2.5 million bribe he received from the Taiwanese government in exchange for
Guatemala’s diplomatic recognition of the island in its long-standing dispute with China.
A crowd of sympathizers gathered at La Aurora airport hours before his plane was due to land in Guatemala, carrying banners with messages of support. During his administration (2000-2004), Portillo imposed price controls on basic foodstuffs, subsidized electricity tariffs for the poor, increased the minimum wage and challenged monopolies. As a result, despite his tainted past, he still enjoys considerable support among disenfranchised rural and urban Guatemalans.
“Portillo is one of the few politicians who’ve understood that putting food on the table is the standard by which a politician is judged,” explains political analyst Christians Castillo, of the the University of San Carlos’ Instituto de Problemas Nacionales (Institute of National Problems—IPNUSAC). According to Castillo, Portillo is seen as “a Robin Hood figure who steals to defend the rights of the masses.”
A poll carried out by Borge y Asociados for Contrapoder magazine in August 2014 revealed that two out of three Guatemalans would re-elect Portillo out of all of the country’s former presidents since the peace agreements were signed in 1996 (the survey was hypothetical, as the Guatemalan Constitution forbids re-election). Guatemala’s general elections are scheduled for September 13, 2015.
On February 20, a day after Venezuelan security agents smashed into the office of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and arrested him on conspiracy charges, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff referred to the mayor’s detention as a Venezuelan “internal matter.” Later, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released two bland statements in line with Rousseff’s comment, expressing concern and reaffirming Brazil’s commitment to act as a mediator.
This reaction was not dissimilar to the response of other important regional players, like Chile and México. Only Colombia’s tone was a bit harsher, perhaps because the country was mentioned in the accusations against Ledezma. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos denied his country’s involvement in the alleged conspiracy and made a plea that the rights of opposition members be respected.
But Ledezma’s rights had been violated even during his arrest. A group of armed officers stormed the mayor’s office and forcefully dragged him away without an arrest warrant. Ledezma was indicted the next day on charges of conspiracy to help plot an American-backed coup. Five days after the arrest, a police officer shot and killed a teenage boy during an anti-government protest in the city of San Cristóbal, the epicenter of nation-wide demonstrations last year that resulted in more than 40 deaths. The boy’s death spurred sporadic protests in different cities, ratcheting up tension in a country that, alongside political turmoil, is experiencing a severe economic crisis.