1. In July 2012 I wrote about the troubling pattern of deaths in DEA operations in Honduras. As I followed the cases after that, the conflicting information uncovered by journalists out of the Ahaus shooting incident was particularly troubling.

    Five years after that shooting in a remote region of Honduras, the US government has released an IG report that criticizes the activities of DEA and State's INL. More importantly, it documents how DEA and INL actively covered up the facts of the incident and worked against efforts by the US ambassador and the Congress to investigate the shooting.

    The fact the US government is willing through the IG system to invest time and effort to investigate incidents like these is a positive mark in our favor. But it should not have taken five years for the facts to finally be acknowledged. The next time a counter-drug mission goes wrong in Latin America, the coverup that occurred in Honduras means more people will question whether the initial story given by US government officials is accurate. That is a long term blow to US credibility that will be hard to undo.
  2. A May poll by Criteria Research has the Chile presidential race at:
    Piñera 33%
    Sanchez 21%
    Guiller 19%

    After several months of former President Sebastian Piñera and Nueva Mayoria candidate Alejandro Guiller topping the polls, this is the first poll showing Beatriz Sanchez legitimately contending for second place. Second round polls have both candidates in a statistical tie with Piñera with around 40% each.

    The recent rise of Sanchez has led to a very public fight between her and Guiller. This is the first time since democracy's return that Nueva Mayoria (previously the Concertacion) has faced real national competition from the left in a presidential race.

    Separately, this poll confirms two other trends that have been seen in other polls. First, there are a high number of undecideds and a high number of people who are dissatisfied with the major political parties. That feeling of dissatisfaction is why a candidate like Sanchez can surge. Second, Piñera is a weak frontrunner candidate at the moment. The former president is only pulling a third of the vote and it isn't as if voters don't know him or are undecided about him. He's just not that popular, which means he will need to rely on a negative campaign against his opponents in order to win.

  3. Last week, Colombia President Santos had meetings throughout Washington including one at the White House where he was promised continued cooperation. He wrote a very nice op-ed asking for continued support. And then there is this:
    The implementation of Colombia peace deal remains tenuous (to be fair, many successful peace deals feel like they're on the constant verge of falling apart until they're not). Cutting funding now would undermine nearly two decades of investments the US government has made in the country. As a reminder, that investment has been relatively cheap and effective by the standards of what the US spends elsewhere. The entire total the US has spent in Colombia in two decades is less than we spent in one month in Iraq at the height of the war, and we've gotten far better security and stability results for our efforts thanks to Colombia's own willingness to invest in itself.

    The good news is that Congress has largely declared the budget request dead on arrival and there appears to be strong bipartisan support for continued funding for Colombia in Congress.
  4. On Twitter last Thursday I wrote:
    Based on what we’ve seen over the last few days, I am going to revise that. I am still at 90% that Temer doesn’t finish his term, which ends next year, but I am dropping the 30 days part of that.

    Let’s start with reasons why Temer is not likely to finish his term:

    • This scandal with JBS involves tapes of the president agreeing to bribery and videos/photos of piles of money. The evidence makes this scandal much more tangible to citizens than some of the more obscure government contracting scandals.
    • Even prior to this scandal, Temer’s approval rating was close to single digits and falling. He was also losing support for his signature reform packages in Congress. 
    • The government has already lost several coalition partners. Rumors suggest cabinet ministers want to break from the government and the president’s friends are telling him it’s time to resign. 
    • Presidents who go on TV to say, “I will not resign” do not have a great track record of remaining in office until the ends of their term. It’s a sign that things are not going well.

    The reason Temer will be able to hold on is one of sheer stubbornness. There are four institutional mechanisms for forcing the president from office: resignation, impeachment, electoral court ruling and Supreme Court investigation. (there are also non-institutional options such as military coup; let’s hope Brazil remains far away from that level of chaos).

    Most presidents who are on track to be pushed out by one of the other mechanisms choose resignation. Temer has made clear in recent days that he will not resign, daring the other institutions to push him out. He may think that in a stare-down with Congress or the courts, the other institutions will blink and avoid removing the second president in two years due to the instability it would create. It is true that all of those institutional removal processes can take months if the president chooses to fight and appeal until the bitter end.

    On the other hand, in contrast to Matthew Taylor’s excellent analysis about why Temer may be able to hold on, I do think those other institutions will act to force the president out and not let him ride out the term to the end. I think the president’s gamble that he can hold on if he just remains stubborn is wrong. The other institutions will want to show they can remain an effective check on a corrupt and harmful president, even if it means impeaching him in his final months.

    I’m hopeful that Temer’s allies and public pressure convince the president that he has taken the wrong path and that he resigns in the coming weeks. A drawn out institutional impeachment or court battle will keep Brazil in political crisis for months when it needs a leader who can enact an agenda and guide the country towards the already contentious 2018 elections.
  5. The US government announced new targeted sanctions on eight Venezuelan Supreme Court judges. The sanctions strip the judges of their US visas, freeze any property or assets that they have in the US and prevent US companies from doing business with the judges.

    These sanctions are intended to punish the Supreme Court for its decisions to strip powers from the democratically elected legislature. In that way, these sanctions are different than previous rounds of sanctions by the US that targeted human rights abusers or drug traffickers.

    Previous targeted sanctions could dodge questions about effectiveness or end goal by claiming an inherent and obvious moral reasoning. Should drug traffickers be allowed to launder money through US businesses? No. Should military officials who tortured protesters be given a US visa? No. While claiming to work towards a more democratic Venezuela, the previous sanctions also reinforced what should be some rather obvious decisions about how we treat corrupt, criminal and abuses foreign government officials.

    (The fact we should do that for all corrupt, criminal and abusive foreign government officials, not just the ones we don’t like, remains a challenge. So does the fact that it would be preferable to prosecute criminals with evidence in court, not use a non-judicial sanctions processes based on semi-classified intelligence.)

    The sanctions announced yesterday are more delicate because they don’t specify a crime (trafficking cocaine, abusing a protester) as much as try to claim that the judges deserve sanctions because they acted in an unconstitutional and undemocratic manner. I agree the judges are supporting an undemocratic and authoritarian government, but it’s a much more complicated situation when a country starts imposing sanctions based on interpretations of another country’s constitution and form of government. (“How dare these Venezuelan judges undermine democracy. Now excuse me while I fly to Saudi Arabia to visit the king.”)

    The US government is acting for the sake of acting. It is frustrating to watch the hemisphere talk but fail to do anything that pressures the Venezuelan government in a meaningful way. Freezing bank accounts, even in a unilateral way, has a greater real world effect than another strongly worded statement with no enforcement mechanism. It feels good to do something that supports the brave protesters who are trying to win back their democracy against an authoritarian and thuggish regime. I’m generally in favor of doing something over sitting back and waiting for others to act.

    But trickling out targeted sanctions is not a strategy. Venezuela’s crisis is at a critical moment and these judges are minor figures among the power players who will decide how it ends. We need a strategy and/or policy that works effectively towards an end goal.
  6. JBS executive Joesley Batista, currently under investigation for his own corruption issues, visited Brazil President Michel Temer in March. During his conversation with the president, Batistia said the company was paying former Speaker of the House Eduardo Cunha hush money to keep quiet about other corruption issues. Cunha is currently in prison for accepting bribes. President Temer approved of the hush money to Cunha, then encouraged Batista to pay another lawmaker to resolve a problem his company was having with a power plant.

    Batista secretly taped the whole conversation with the president and gave the tape to a judge as part of a plea bargain to receive a reduced sentence. O Globo reported the existence of the tapes yesterday. More coverage from Reuters, Bloomberg and the NYT.

    Temer’s administration has faced corruption challenges since the beginning. Eight members of his cabinet and a large number of his allies in Congress face corruption investigations or charges. The president has already been accused of negotiating an illegal payment to his political party from the Odebrecht construction firm in 2010.

    However, a tape of the president asking for a bribe in March of this year is different than a seven year old allegation of corruption. It’s a new low for the president to approve a bribe in 2017 after everything Brazil has gone through in the past two years. It suggests that the country’s leader has learned nothing and that the political system as a whole is not improving in spite of the investigations and prosecutions.

    Opposition politicians and even some nominal allies of the president have called for his resignation or impeachment. The president’s remaining allies in Congress insist they will push forward with pension reform and other items on his economic agenda, but this most recent allegation is likely to stall the unpopular reforms that already had dim prospects of passing. Brazilian markets have plunged on the news, with the expectation that this will bring new political instability to the country.
  7. Support for TPP-11 is growing in Asia and Latin America. The countries that made up the TPP believe they can continue forward with creating the multi-lateral trade group even though the US has withdrawn from the process. Trade ministers will talk on the sidelines of this weekend’s APEC meeting in Hanoi about reviving the TPP without the United States. The agreement will be much smaller, but it also will not have one giant economy dominating every aspect of the negotiations.

    TPP-11 would be an important way for Asian and Latin American economies to integrate with each other and increase trade to new markets. It would be a significant counter-weight to the RCEP agreement being promoted by China. RCEP negotiations are supposed to conclude this year but are being held up by several difficult final pieces including some tough negotiation positions by India.

    The new US trade representative Robert Lighthizer will also be in Vietnam to discuss trade issues. The US doesn’t want to be left behind on trade and economic integration in East Asia and must now rebuild some political trust that it lost by suddenly dropping out of the TPP agreement. Some analysts view the TPP-11 negotiations as a way for each of the TPP countries to create some leverage in their bilateral negotiations with the Trump administration.
  8. Javier Valdez founded Riodoce in 2003 and covered organized crime in Culiacan, Sinaloa. It was a dangerous job for which he won awards and the respect of local and international journalists who cover Mexico. He was shot and killed in broad daylight yesterday near his newspaper office.

    Valdez was the sixth journalist killed this year and also the highest profile. There have been no arrests in any of the cases. The government of President Peña Nieto is facing increasing pressure to do more to investigate the crimes and end the impunity, but he also faces pressure from criminals and corrupt politicians of his own party to keep the system as ineffective as it is.
  9. The April data out of China shows the country’s economic growth slowing down. Industrial output, retail sales and asset investment are all lower than last year and lower than economist expectations. Some of this slowing down is due to Chinese officials attempting to “de-leverage” their economy and avoid a bubble bursting in the future. Even with the slowdown, China’s economic growth is still expected to be well above 6% this year (it was 6.9% in Q1 and the government).

    Latin America could only dream of a scenario in which 6% economic growth was a slowdown. The IMF projects that the region will only grow at 1.1% this year. While some of the blame goes to Venezuela’s economic mess dragging down the statistics, it’s also notable that none of the region’s four largest economies (Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina) will top 3% this year.

    The last time Latin America had an economic boom, it was partially driven by Chinese demand for local products and Chinese economic growth pushing up commodity prices globally. While China is not to blame for the Western Hemisphere’s current lackluster economic growth, the data coming from China also show that Beijing won’t be coming to rescue Latin America’s economies any time soon.

  10. The Washington Post writes about indigenous groups in Latin America turning against "leftist" governments:
    As the commodity boom of the millennium's first decade began to fade, those governments have tried to maintain spending levels by taking on new debt — mostly in the form of Chinese loans — in exchange for opening up more and more land to extractive industries. That has brought them in direct conflict with indigenous groups that expected the anti-capitalist rhetoric of leaders such as Correa and Morales to give them more control over their ancestral lands, not less.
    This story has been going on for the past decade, but it's a good article catching up with the trend, which has impacted the recent election in Ecuador and the protests in Venezuela.

    That paragraph I pasted above, however, seems like a tension that will exist with almost any government in power, no matter its political ideology. As long as Latin American governments and economies are commodity focused, there will be disputes between governments and indigenous communities that live on the land where commodities are mined, extracted or produced. There are policies that can ease those tensions by providing greater voice and development aid, but it's nearly impossible to eliminate those tensions completely.