1. Venezuela's Supreme Court announced that the country's Congress is no longer valid. The Court, which largely serves as a rubber stamp for the executive, has granted itself legislative authority.

    The Congress has been controlled by the opposition following their victory in the legislative elections of 2015, but the opposition was never able to seat its full 2/3 majority. Nearly all of the Congressional decisions have been overturned by the court or ignored by the executive.

    That means that the opposition-controlled Congress was unconstitutionally neutered of its powers from the beginning. So given the Congress's powerlessness, why shut it down now? As part of their image-control efforts, the Maduro government wants to eliminate the existence of any branch of government that the opposition might control or use to claim legitimacy.

    It is for this same reason that the PSUV-controlled government cancelled regional elections last year, have failed to schedule municipal elections this year, and rigged the recall process to avoid that constitutional election procedure.

    The Venezuelan government has unconstitutionally shut down other branches of government that might check its power and refuses to hold constitutionally-mandated elections. It's an ongoing coup process that is spanning months and years rather than a single day event.

    Have no doubt that Venezuela is experiencing an unconstitutional and undemocratic coup. "Coup" and "Golpe" are the words we should use. The questions we must ask are about the paths to return Venezuela to a democracy.
  2. BBC:
    The Colombian government says it will overrule the result of a referendum held in the town of Cajamarca, where 98% of residents voted against a major gold mining project.

    Locals fear it will damage the environment and pollute their water sources. Mining Minister Germán Arce said the referendum was not legally binding.
    Semana also has a good analysis of the controversy over the vote.

    While on a smaller scale, the government overruling the local referendum on mining is reminiscent of the government proceeding with the FARC peace process in spite of losing the referendum last year. The Santos government is already unpopular and going against the decisions of voters is not helping. At the same time, Santos is a lame duck not running for reelection. His unpopular decisions aren't going to impact his political future.
  3. Mexico is pushing for NAFTA renegotiation to move forward more quickly. For Mexico's economy, a quick deal in which they lose a few points is better than the current uncertainty over what might happen.

    The country is also finding leverage for the negotiations. While Trump plans to attack Mexico's manufacturing sector with the (misguided) belief that it will bring jobs to the US, Mexico plans to hit the US agriculture sector, which depends on exports to Mexican markets. FT reports that Mexico is negotiation with Brazil and Argentina to offer tariff free imports of corn from those two countries, even as it threatens to levy a 194% tariff on US corn. While Mexico wouldn't usually give Brazil and Argentina such an easy trade win (both countries are very protectionist and a lower agriculture tariff is one of the few carrots Mexico can offer), Mexico needs both cheap corn and leverage to negotiate against the US. Given those two conditions, this is a smart move for Mexico to make.
  4. Cedatos poll published 21 March:
    Lenin Moreno: 46%
    Guillermo Lasso: 42%
    Null/Blank: 13%

    There are still 16% undecided. Previous poll here.

    Nearly every poll including Cedatos suggests that Moreno has gained votes and Lasso has lost votes in recent weeks. Lasso probably started the second round with an advantage, but the government's candidate is running a very solid campaign to the finish.
  5. Journalist Miroslava Breach was killed yesterday at her home in Chihuahua. She had been reporting on organized crime in the state of Chihuahua and had recently reported on the locations of mass graves used by criminal groups.

    Breach was the third journalist killed this month in Mexico. The other two were Cecilio Pineda Birto of Guerrero and Ricardo Monlui Cabrera of Veracruz.

    Organized crime thrives when journalists are killed with impunity, silencing those who would report on crime and corruption. Protecting journalists and investigating their murders is a security issue for Mexico and the hemisphere as well as part of promoting democracy. The government of President Peña Nieto needs to investigate these murders and find the killers and the intellectual authors of the crime. Other governments around the hemisphere should pressure the Mexican government to do so.
  6. Yesterday was World Water Day and I wanted to highlight this article from earlier in March about water issues affecting political instability in Latin America. The article focuses on the Andes, specifically Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. There is little doubt that water issues are directly related to the political debates and protests in those countries.

    Water also has a direct or indirect impact in much of the other violence and instability seen in Latin America. Berta Caceres's murder in Honduras was over the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Some of Venezuela's problems are both caused by and lead to poor management of the Guri reservoir, which supplies a significant portion of the country's electricity. There is some correlation between water shortages and criminal violence in Mexico, though the causation mechanisms are very complex.

    As I wrote in 2012, "nobody is going to claim that the current violence in Brazil and Mexico is caused by the long term climate change and short term drought cycle, but it aggravates an already difficult situation."

    Water shortages do not automatically equal criminal violence or political instability, but some connection among the issues certainly does exist. As climate change exacerbates water shortages in some countries, it is likely that the connected violence and political instability will also increase.
  7. Cedatos published a poll showing the second round race as Guillermo Lasso 44, Lenin Moreno 43, with 13% casting a blank or spoiled ballot. 18% of voters remain undecided.

    That is as close as it gets. The other polls in Ecuador are all over the place, with various polls showing large leads by either candidate. Based on the first round and on previous elections, I trust Cedatos to be doing a professional job. So if they say the race is a virtual tie, then it's a virtual tie.
  8. Late last week Brazilian investigators revealed that JBS and BRF, Brazil's largest meat producer and poultry exporter, were accused of bribing inspectors in order to allow poor quality or expired food into the market.

    Though corruption fatigue may be setting in for some, this isn't "just another corruption scandal" in Brazil. Most of the recent scandals in Brazil have involved briberies and illegal uncompetitive coordination around public contracting. The new scandal suggests that the bribes allowed unclean food into the supply chain for human consumption. That hits Brazil's reputation in ways that go well beyond the previous scandals.

    Brazil depends on commodity exports, largely food exports. Europe and China, both of which import significant amounts of Brazilian food, have asked Brazil for assurances about the food supply chain.

    A scandal in one part of the supply chain is bad enough, but this scandal involving some of Brazil's biggest companies will cause everyone doing business with the country to question whether the products they are importing don't meet the standards required. That is a different and in some ways more difficult reputation issue than those scandals accusing some company of bribery to win a contract.
  9. The NYT has an excellent front page article on the criminal code reforms proposed by Mexico President Peña Nieto and his allies in Congress. The proposals would undo many of the positive reforms taken by Mexico over the past decade, and instead hand greater powers to the police and military while making defendants guilty until proven innocent. If these counter-reforms pass, it is likely that arbitrary arrests will increase and even fewer investigations or prosecutions of abuses by police and military will occur. Those measures will not make Mexico more secure.
  10. Reuters:
    Brazil's top public prosecutor asked the Supreme Court to open 83 new investigations into senior politicians on Tuesday, reportedly including five ministers and leading lawmakers, in a dramatic escalation of a graft probe threatening the government.
    The list, which is not yet public, allegedly includes many of the government's top allies in the Congress. The immediate impact is on the ability of President Temer to govern. The longer term impact appears to be an entire generation of politicians implicated.

    UPDATE: Reuters has updated their story with the following:
    A top Brazilian prosecutor said more than 350 new investigations will spring from a trove of testimony by executives of construction firm Odebrecht, revealing how corruption cut across the political spectrum from the smallest cities to the highest levels of government.
    The mention of "smallest cities" also reminds me of a recent WSJ article on how the corruption probes have hit small town politics across Brazil. It isn't just a national issue.
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