1. It's not often that other news overshadows a presidential election. Still, there is an election this Sunday in Guatemala. Prensa Libre published the final Prodatos poll yesterday.

    Morales: 20.5%
    Baldizon 18.8%
    Torres 15.1%
    Rios 5.9%

    Over 30% of voters remain undecided and 17.9% of those who have decided are planning to cast a blank or null (protest) ballot. When the pollster only counted valid ballots, those numbers became Morales 25, Baldizon 23, Torres 18, Rios 7.

    Prodatos also ran hypothetical second round scenarios:
    Morales 48, Baldizon 27
    Morales 45, Torres 30
    Torres 33, Baldizon 26

    Some thoughts:
    1) This poll shows the race is too close to call. The candidate support numbers are already close, even without considering the number of undecided voters and those spoiling their ballots.

    2) That said, the one trend that appears to be true is that comedian Jimmy Morales has been gaining significant support in recent polls. That support for Morales matches the narrative that the Guatemalan people are tired of corrupt politicians and would like to give a non-politician a chance. Morales, if he makes it to the second round, will likely defeat his opponent given the trends.

    3) Sandra Torres has significant support in rural areas and it may be undercounted. Morales is winning in urban areas and will likely take over 50% just in the Guatemala City area.

    4) Baldizon's negative numbers are very high. People know he is corrupt and dislike him.
  2. I thought OPM would hold out until the end and he almost did. Late last night, Guatemala President Otto Perez Molina simply ran out of options. The judicial system swiftly rejected every one of his appeal and stay requests. The Attorney General ordered his immediate arrest and for him to be relieved of his presidential duties.

    Rather than be arrested as president and create an institutional showdown (something I had considered he might do), he submitted a letter of resignation. He is scheduled to appear in court this morning, though I imagine that there are still a few twists in this to come. The Congress will meet today to hand power to Vice President Alejandro Maldonado. To top it all off, there are elections this Sunday.

    The institutions worked. Courts and prosecutors issued their legal documents. The Congress stripped the president of his immunity. The president made his attempted legal appeals and had them rejected. Hours from having the presidency forcibly taken from him by the Attorney General, the president resigned. The Vice President will take over. In a country with a lengthy history of impunity, coups and military rule, watching the democratic institutions work as they should is certainly progress.

    Yet, even though the institutions worked, never doubt that presidential removal is a very destabilizing event, especially in a fragile democracy. This wasn't a coup, but it was an institutional showdown that will have lasting repercussions in Guatemala and might extend to some of its Central American neighbors.
  3. Guatemala's Congress stripped President Otto Perez Molina of his legal immunity yesterday. So it's a good day to remind people that this isn't about a corrupt president, it's about a corrupt system.

    Plaza Publica highlights a CICIG report that 50% of election campaign finance in Guatemala comes from infrastructure companies that hope to win government contracts.

    Meanwhile, Guatemala's election authority (the TSE) will fine Manuel Baldizon, the current leading candidate for president, US$250,000 because he has spent millions of dollars over the legal limit in the campaign. Baldizon is actively defying the ruling and has told his supporters to keep spending "to the last cent." The fine is just another campaign expense to him within a system in which he has plenty of money to spend. He has that money because his financial backers believe that the monetary benefits of winning will exceed whatever they spend.

    If the Guatemalan Congress was actually in the mood to reform things, they would fix the campaign finance system, add transparency, and give Guatemala's TSE the ability to punish campaign finance violations that goes beyond limited monetary fines. They would also restrict the ability of elected officials to direct contracts to their friends and financiers and create an auditing system to monitor and punish abuses.

    It took significant public pressure to convince the Guatemalan Congress to act against the president, but Guatemala's civil society should not let the symbolism of what is happening against OPM overshadow the need to reform the system.
  4. Colombia needed 18 votes at the OAS to convoke a meeting of foreign ministers. It fell one short. Here is the vote breakdown via El Tiempo:
    En contra de la propuesta colombiana estuvieron Venezuela, Haití, Ecuador, Bolivia y Nicaragua.

    Por su parte, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Estados Unidos, Guatemala, Guyana, Jamaica, México, Paraguay, Perú, Uruguay, Santa Lucia, Bahamas, Barbados, Canadá, Honduras y Chile votaron con Colombia en respaldo de la reunión.

    Los once que se abstuvieron fueron: Granada, Panamá, República Dominicana, San Cristóbal y Nieves, San Vicente y las Granadinas, Surinam, Trinidad y Tobago, Antigua y Barbuda, Belice, Brasil y Argentina.
    As the newspaper writes, the two most surprising votes were Haiti, because its border situation is so similar to Colombia's, and Panama, which was seen as Colombia's ally. Brazil is likely hoping to push the issue to UNASUR instead of the OAS, but that was expected.

    The author also writes that the biggest loser in this vote was the OAS itself. By voting to not hold a higher level meeting, the regional organization is limiting its own ability to involve itself in issues that should be managed at a regional level.

    Finally, though Colombia's side lost, the 17 country voting bloc that voted in favor of the meeting is a potentially powerful force. The Pacific Alliance voted as a bloc while Mercosur, UNASUR, ALBA and Caricom divided on this issue. Venezuela's diplomatic team won the battle, but the vote also signaled that the losing side is only one vote away from changing the debate.
  5. The Colombian government is responding to Venezuela's brutal deportation campaign with a bit of compassion, offering citizenship to the Venezuelan relatives of the deported Colombians so that families can be reunited. It is a smart move on the international front, but probably doesn't help Santos much domestically. Santos's political opponents are criticizing the government's weak response.

    Santos is balancing numerous variables here. First, Venezuela's role in the peace process is important and a more militant response could jeopardize his key domestic peace initiative. Second, a strong response could increase the problems for Colombians in Venezuela or increase the level of human suffering along the border. A strong response is only a smart call if it is likely to improve conditions enough to balance the costs.

    Third, Santos must be calculating that President Maduro is provoking Colombia because he wants a stronger response. It is likely the Venezuelan president would revel in an international crisis involving Colombia's military that he could use to distract from his domestic problems. While protecting Colombia's interests, Santos needs to be cautious not to give Maduro exactly what he wants.

    Colombia takes the issue to the OAS today and then to UNASUR. It will be interesting to see how the diplomatic lines are drawn at these organizations. While there are some clear alliances that would typically benefit Colombia and Venezuela, those allies may shift when talking about migration and deportation issues.
  6. About 100,000 people protested in Guatemala City yesterday to demand the resignation of President Otto Perez Molina. To have that many people join a Thursday night protest was a significant boost from the 40-60,000 that have been regularly protesting on weekends. There was also a general work stoppage that contributed to the participation. Guatemalan media praised the historic protest and foreign media is fairly sympathetic to the protesters' demands that the president be forced from office over corruption charges.

    At the same time, 100,000 is less than 1% of Guatemala's population. In terms of scale, these protests (so far) are smaller as a percentage of the population than protests we saw in Brazil 2013 or Venezuela's La Salida in 2014. They may even be smaller than the protests following Nisman's death in Argentina earlier this year. Yesterday's protest was huge for Guatemala City and country, but was relatively and numerically smaller than other protest movements that have still failed to change their country's political systems.

    Prior to yesterday's protest, the 40-60,000 protesters against OPM were the about the same number who called for Guatemala President Colom's resignation in 2009. That movement failed as well (though the CICIG helped put a stop to that protest movement, while they appear to be encouraging this one along).

    There is no magic number for how large of a protest is needed to force a government out of power. But generally (and not completely scientifically) a sustained protest of 3.5% of the national population or a one time surge of over 7% of the national population are the numbers that need to be reached. Protests in capitals are more effective and need smaller numbers than protests in provinces. Governments in capitals that are easy to logistically isolate (i.e. La Paz, Bolivia) can face pressure with far fewer numbers.

    It's not surprising that Perez Molina once again said he would not resign last night. 100,000 protesters in one night makes for an amazing picture in front of the presidential palace in Guatemala City, but it's not quite the level (either sustained or peak) needed to force him from office.
  7. WSJ:
    In a national survey, the pollster Consultores 21 found 30% of Venezuelans eating two or fewer meals a day during the second quarter of this year, up from 20% in the first quarter. Around 70% of people in the study also said they had stopped buying some basic food item because it had become unavailable or too expensive.
    Adding to the troubling poll numbers out of Venezuela recently, this one is the saddest. A survey that suggests 10% of the country have changed their eating habits in the course of three months is a sign of real trouble for the country. It means more children are going to bed hungry. The reduction in poverty made under President Chavez (and whether you credit his policies or other factors, improvements on social indicators were made), is being destroyed under the current government of President Maduro.
  8. The hemisphere has been slow and weak in its response to the Dominican Republic's treatment of its Haitian migrant population.

    It's hard to see the hemisphere responding any more quickly or definitively as Venezuelan President Maduro uses similar xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric, along with ridiculous conspiracies, to justify the closure of the border and expulsion of over 1,000 Colombians. Reports suggest the Venezuelan government is going a step further by destroying the migrants' houses so that they cannot return.

    I know many media outlets and pundits want the clickbait opportunity to compare Maduro to Trump, but that is making the mistake of comparing the actions of one president to the raving mad hypothetical statements of someone who will never win in the US. There is a real comparison to be made between the actions of Maduro and the actions of Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina.

    The Haiti-DR border crisis needs more attention and regional experts should use the situation on the Colombia-Venezuela border to highlight the ongoing problem in the Caribbean. We can't solve one problem without addressing the other.
  9. Bloomberg on the most recent IVAD poll in Venezuela:
    Support for President Nicolas Maduro has tumbled almost five percentage points since June to 22.7 percent, with only one in five respondents wanting the former bus driver and union leader to serve until the end of his term in 2019.
    That is an incredible number. Only 20% of the country thinks Maduro should finish his term, which means 80% of people either think he should go or weren't sure how to respond. That's worse than the percentage that want Dilma impeached in Brazil or Perez Molina to resign in Guatemala. The numbers even suggest that at least a small number of the respondents who support Maduro don't think he should finish his term.

    The rest of the poll is just as bad for the government. The opposition leads in the legislative elections 58% to 19% for the PSUV. 44% of the population defines themselves as "opposition" while only 22% define themselves as with the governing party and 34% as independents.
  10. All weekend I heard rumors that Guatemala President Otto Perez Molina was on the verge of resignation. I clearly wasn't the only one hearing the rumors. A new wave of resignations from cabinet ministers suggested that people wanted to get off the sinking ship.

    Late last night, Perez Molina gave a defiant speech insisting he wouldn't resign. Four potential conclusions from his decision to stay:

    1. OPM believes he can survive the turmoil. This is someone who has just weeks to go until the presidential election and months until the end of his administration. The protests, while big, aren't actually at the level of destabilization. The military, which is the other actor that could potentially force the president out, appears firmly in the former general's corner and unlikely to intervene.

    2. OPM thinks he is doing his country a favor by remaining in office. Political instability begets more political instability. By remaining in office he is avoiding setting a precedent in which future presidents may be forced from power.

    3. OPM really believes that history will absolve him, but it is more likely to do so if he remains in office and doesn't resign.

    4. OPM believes he can fight the corruption allegations better from the position of the presidency than from outside the presidency. The position gives him legal and political protections that he'll lose once he's out. He might as well use them while he can.

    It is never a good sign when a president has to insist they will remain in office. The pressure for the president to resign or be impeached remains strong.

    The bigger challenge may be what comes after Perez Molina's presidency. The same institutions that are investigating the president have made clear that the leading candidate in next month's elections, Manuel Baldizon, has just as much dirty laundry that can be prosecuted. Sandra Torres, currently second place in the polls, is the subject of numerous potential scandals. Whoever is elected will be forced to face the ongoing wave of corruption investigations from day one, including the likely prosecution of the former president. That will be a politically difficult task, on top of everything else that must be done to run the country.