1. Have you investigated it, or are you just waiting for credible evidence to land in your lap?
    That question by a reporter was the highlight of a contentious exchange over Honduras at yesterday's State Department press briefing. Earlier this week, The Guardian reported that a defected Honduran soldier claimed that Berta Caceres's name appeared among the names on a hit list of social activists and protesters ordered killed by an elite military unit.

    The Guardian report is single sourced to a First Sergeant using the pseudonym Rodrigo Cruz, who makes a number of significant claims. He says he was shown a hit list by his commanding officer, who then defected because he refused to follow orders. He says he briefly saw a similar hit list fall out of the pocket of a commanding officer. He also says he saw a “torture room” and was forced to transport plastic bags with human remains and dispose of them in the Bajo Aguan region. Having defected, Cruz now worries for the safety of his family. Amid these allegations is the fact that the units that have allegedly committed these abuses receive training and funding from the United States.

    Cruz’s story has some holes in it and it is only a single source. However, the accusations made within are damning and deserve investigation, especially given how these accusations line up with the large number of activists including Caceres who have been killed or threatened in the past decade and the claims made by social movements about military abuses. Five people implicated in Caceres’s murder have been arrested, including a former military officer, but the question of whether her death was part of a wider repression strategy with government involvement remains very relevant among the social activists in the country.

    The State Department responded that, "We haven’t seen, in our view, credible evidence to back up these allegations. If we do, we’ll take it seriously.” And that led to the brilliant question of "Have you investigated it, or are you just waiting for credible evidence to land in your lap?” Unfortunately, the spokesperson answers the question by saying, "if any additional information comes to light that proves there’s credibility to these allegations, obviously, we’re going to take that very, very seriously." Which means they are waiting for it to fall into their laps.

    Investigating these allegations of specific officers and units doesn't mean that we should cut off all cooperation with Honduras or its security forces, as some activists have argued. There are reasons we should want to maintain communication, cooperation and training to help Honduras improve its security. However, we can't legally or morally train those officers who commit or order significant human rights abuses. Turning a blind eye to allegations of abuse, refusing to investigate numerous allegations by dismissing the credibility of report after report, is a foreign policy mistake that will come back to haunt us.

    Yesterday, right before this press briefing occurred, US government officials testified in Congress to defend the sanctions that have been placed on Venezuelan military officials implicated in abuses. A representative for OFAC indicated that the flexibility of the sanctions has allowed the US to remove visas and/or freeze assets due to human rights abuses and corruption. At least 60 individuals have had their visas revoked. “The resulting flexibility to respond to repression in real time is crucial, both as a symbolic deterrent and as a practical matter if circumstances require swift action,” is what a Treasury Department official testified.

    I’m supportive of the Obama administration’s policy in Venezuela, where they have actively investigated abuses to target repressive military officers for sanctions. They haven’t waited for media reports to name specific names or list specific abuses. Unlike in Honduras, US government agencies aren't waiting for credible evidence to fall into their laps. A media report that the Venezuelan military had a “hit list” of opposition activists would never be dismissed as lacking credibility at a State Department briefing.

    The US government should should be as or more interested in investigating the forces who we train and fund, to cut them off and punish them when we find abuse, as we are those of an antagonistic government. In Honduras, the US government needs what Treasury called the "flexibility to respond to repression in real time." We won’t be able to build a safer and more democratic Central America until we are as eager to investigate and punish the abuses and corruption of the Honduran military as we are the Venezuelan military.
  2. There will be an event tomorrow to announce that the Colombian government and FARC have reached a deal to end the conflict. The agreement between the two sides should be signed in the coming two months. There will be a national vote before the end of the year on the deal. The FARC will disarm and demobilize.
  3. NYT:
    A staggering 87 percent of Venezuelans say they do not have money to buy enough food, the most recent assessment of living standards by Simón Bolívar University found.

    About 72 percent of monthly wages are being spent just to buy food, according to the Center for Documentation and Social Analysis, a research group associated with the Venezuelan Teachers Federation.

    In April, it found that a family would need the equivalent of 16 minimum-wage salaries to properly feed itself.
    Plenty of other countries in this hemisphere have food security issues, but these numbers out of Venezuela are worse than I've seen elsewhere. The situation has moved from shortages of some food supplies, which was an annoyance, to a majority of the population reporting that they are skipping meals due to poor distribution or a lack of money or availability.
  4. The headlines about the most recent Datanalisis poll are about the rejection of Maduro and the rest of the PSUV government. Maduro has a 23% approval rating against a 74% disapproval rating. 63% of Venezuelans would vote in favor of a recall referendum. 95% of Venezuelans think the country is moving in the wrong direction.

    However, the numbers that should stand out are the support for Maduro's opponents.

    58% of Venezuelans have a positive view of the national assembly. That is a majority positive view of a national institution in an environment where 95% of people say things are moving in the wrong direction. That almost never happens in polling.

    Leopoldo Lopez has 55% approval, Henrique Capriles has 56% approval and Henry Ramos Allup (I can't believe I'm about to write this) has a 60% approval rating. The MUD has a 59% approval rating.

    After years of a deadlocked public full of a Ni-Ni plurality who didn't like any politicians, the MUD now has the support of a majority of the population. That isn't just a majority who dislike the Chavista government, which has happened at times in the past and is generally given as the reason for the MUD's legislative win in 2015. This is a majority of citizens who actively say they approve of Maduro's opponents and their actions in the National Assembly.

    The MUD's majority support is a very different political environment. Citizens aren't angry at all politicians. A majority supports a specific direction that they think the country's leadership should go.
  5. Brazilian Tourism Minister Henrique Alves was forced to resign after being linked to illegal campaign contributions. That is the third cabinet minister Interim President Temer has lost during his short time in office. As Brian Winter writes, Temer's cabinet decision process was based on "governability" rather than reform, but with ministers dropping, that governability model is certainly questionable.

    Testimony by the former head of Petrobras Transporte implicated Temer in similar corruption. While Temer denies the accusations, provided under plea bargain, the accusations fit the narrative that has his government at only 11% approval.

    A federal prosecutor is looking to advance the case against Senate leader Renan Calheiros. It's uncertain whether Calheiros will still be in in the Senate when it finally gets around to voting on Rousseff's impeachment.

    An ethics committee voted to remove former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha from the legislature. The vote will go to the full house next.
  6. At the OAS General Assembly in the DR, Venezuela presented a resolution that calls on the Secretary General to show "respect for the institutional system and rules." The wording of the resolution is very weak, implying Almagro has crossed the line with his actions, communications and advisors without specifically citing any examples. In fact, the resolution itself never mentions Venezuela. The only action to be taken is that the permanent council is to report to the general assembly next year whether the Secretary General has done a better job following the rules.

    However weak and vague the wording, the resolution was intended by Venezuela to get a show of support from certain countries to censure Almagro's criticisms. They won it. 19 countries votes in favor of the resolution, 12 against and two were absent and one abstained.

    Does Almagro have the 23 votes to suspend Venezuela from the OAS at the meeting next week? Almost certainly not. The Caribbean community held solid in favor of yesterday's resolution. They may or may not hold solid next week, but even if they divide, it's doubtful enough votes will move to suspend Venezuela.

    Should he hold the debate and vote anyway? I think he should and he will. The OAS under previous leaders would have avoided a divided vote leading to an embarrassing loss. I don't think Almagro cares.

    Separately, 15 countries at the OAS General Assembly signed on to a statement calling on Venezuela to follow its own constitution, condemn violence, and support the efforts of the three former presidents (Zapatero, Torrijos, Fernandez) to work towards solutions to Venezuela's crisis.

    These votes and resolution counts do make it worthwhile to watch UNASUR and Mercosur. While Venezuela maintains the votes at the OAS to avoid condemnation, largely thanks to the Caribbean, a majority of UNASUR countries (eight by my count) appear to have moved to some form of public criticism of Maduro. All four of Mercosur's countries other than Venezuela were among the 15 who signed the statement above.

    Venezuela is winning the fight at the OAS, which it has long accused of being US-controlled, while it is losing ground in South America's regional organizations where the US isn't present.
  7. Haiti Interim President Privert's term ended yesterday. He's still in office as president. While Privert's opponents say he should turn in his presidential sash to the parliament, Privert insists he will not give up the presidential sash until the parliament votes on the next course of action. A combination of Privert's allies and a divided opposition have prevented the Parliament from doing so.

    It's an unintended coup, but with Privert staying on beyond his mandate and without parliamentary authorization, it is starting to become more difficult to justify Haiti's ad-hoc government.

    Several months ago, I wrote a draft blog post calling on the OAS to invoke the Democratic Charter on Haiti. I decided against publishing it largely because I felt that invoking the Democratic Charter would be seen as a punishment and the reality is that Haiti's political system doesn't need to be punished further while it is trying to find its way back to an elected democracy. 

    However, watching events in Haiti and the broader debate over the Democratic Charter in the hemisphere, I've begun to think that Haiti is an important case for the Charter. It should have been invoked months ago and it is not too late to invoke it now. The country is no longer an elected democracy and is well outside the succession path of its constitution. Suspending Haiti from the OAS shouldn't be seen as punishing any particular actor in Haiti for this unintended break with democracy, but it should be done to demonstrate that the situation is far outside the normal bounds of democratic governance. 
  8. Venezuela President Maduro announced that there will not be a recall referendum in 2016 (WOLA, Greg Weeks). Everyone knew the government was trying to avoid a 2016 recall given all the manipulation by the CNE in the signature process. However, the recall is one of the few points of negotiation and leverage in dispute. It is a key demand by both Venezuela's MUD and OAS Secretary General Almagro. By taking the 2016 referendum off the table, Maduro is making the negotiation process significantly harder and proving Almagro correct in his criticisms of Maduro's willingness to follow the constitution.

    Maduro could have easily dangled the potential of a recall referendum for months, buying himself time in negotiations, and then ripped it away by blaming the convoluted process. Instead, he is pushing the conflict forward both internally and at the OAS by outright rejecting a key demand, in spite of its constitutional legitimacy, and leaving far fewer options. Is Maduro's announcement just a dumb move, or is there a larger strategy behind it to promote and speed up the conflict between the executive branch and legislative majority?
  9. The latest WHO recommendations include the line, "some women and their partners residing in areas with active Zika virus transmission might decide to delay pregnancy." That is a significant step for the organization.

    Back in February, I wrote that public health experts were starting to take the recommendation seriously, but were concerned about making it given the still lack of conclusive evidence. While the initial evidence that Zika leads to birth defects is compelling, health officials are usually reluctant to make recommendations before all the evidence is in. Unfortunately, in this case, the window for this recommendation is only about two years, as Zika is likely to peak in the next 12 to 18 months (if it hasn't peaked already in some areas). That means this timely recommendation appears to be the right call.

    Given that this is now an official recommendation and children's lives are at risk, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean need to take the next steps. Zika is an urgent public health crisis that should push government officials to do more to make sure women have access to information, family planning and medical care.
  10. The European Union announced that it is closing its election observation mission in Haiti in protest of the new election calendar. The justification is that Haiti's annulment of the October 2015 election results goes against their recommendations.

    There are plenty of international actors who aren't happy with how the Haiti process has worked out. The US government criticized the new election calendar yesterday as well. But there is a significant difference between the US expression of disappointment and threat that funding may not be available for the next round and the European response of simply walking away from the whole process.

    The EU's action is petty, irresponsible and unhelpful to the current situation. Haiti is facing a massive constitutional crisis and Europe has decided that it won't help if they can't get their way. In doing so, they have removed their voice from the debate and are undermining the path forward that the Haitians have chosen to restore elected democracy.
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