1. This graph from the NYT helps reinforce the change that I wrote about in a previous post:

    German Lopez has a great post on Vox about how his views on legalization have shifted since reporting on the opioid epidemic. He and others have come to realize that for some dangerous drugs, prohibition (though more intelligently done) may be better than legalized and regulated environment. The comparisons of the opioid crisis, which includes legal prescription drugs, to alcohol and tobacco are important for policymakers when considering their options.

    While I'm a big advocate of separating out the drugs in the discussion, there are overlaps. Opioid addition correlates with increased alcohol addiction, though the causal reasons are not yet clear. Fentanyl, cheap and powerful, is being used to cut other drugs including cocaine, surprising users and increasing overdose deaths in non-opioid drugs.

    Recently, the opioid and fentanyl discussion and media coverage have revolved around the users and victims rather than the criminal groups that produce, traffic and distribute the drugs. Previous drug crises have taught that demand side is far more important than supply side, but perhaps we're at risk of a "fighting the last war" cliche here.

    We need more data and intelligence about the profits on the illegal market and the criminal groups engaged in producing and trafficking it. Drug addiction should be treated as a health issue and users should not face prison, but if there are large groups profiting on the production and trafficking, there is an argument to take down the worst of them. The current opioid challenge is not going to be stopped on the supply side, but ignoring the supply side is also a mistake.
  2. FEC documents yesterday showed that Citgo, the US subsidiary of Venezuela's PDVSA, donated a half million dollars to Trump's inauguration. That is surprisingly generous of the Maduro government.

    Two weeks after Trump was inaugurated, two businessmen allegedly received high level meetings at the White House in which they proposed dropping sanctions on Venezuela.

    Meanwhile, Citgo has offered Russia's Rosneft a controlling stake in the company as collateral on its debt. Given the US sanctions on Rosneft, a group of bipartisan US senators has asked the Trump administration to review and potentially block any acquisition, as it has the ability to do with major foreign investments in strategically important sectors.

    Yet, we're not in worst case scenario two. There is no indication the Citgo donation has changed the administration's policy towards Venezuela. The Trump administration has placed sanctions on Venezuela's vice president, the president met with the wife of a prominent political prisoner, and the US is working with others at the OAS to find a multilateral solution. Media reports suggest Venezuela is a topic of nearly every high level discussion the US is having in the region, perhaps even to the detriment of other important issues.

    Citgo clearly hoped to obtain some sort of access or policy change with its large inaugural donation. So far, they don't appear to have been successful. The situation is worth monitoring, particularly with the ongoing economic collapse, political crisis, and potential change in ownership of Venezuelan oil assets.
  3. Paraguay President Horacio Cartes sent a letter in which he said he will not run for reelection in 2018 (BBC, FT).

    The positive spin: Cartes says he was inspired by Pope Francis and his call for peace and dialogue and hopes his decision to not run for reelection shows he is responding to the concerns of civil society. He is also setting a positive counter-example to Venezuela, where the crisis worsens.

    The cynical spin: Cartes saw the polling that showed he couldn't win in 2018 without outright fraud. Influential business groups pressured the president, potentially through his business holdings, to drop the bid in order to maintain the country's economic stability.

    Despite Cartes's letter, several members of Congress including supporters of former President Lugo continue to push for a reform that would allow former presidents to run again.
  4. In the past week, Tomas Yarrington was arrested in Italy and Javier Duarte was arrested in Guatemala. These two former governors are wanted on various corruption charges in Mexico. They are also a huge stain on the reputation of the PRI.

    President Peña Nieto took credit for the arrests and said they showed Mexico's commitment to taking on corruption. The fact the governors were both arrested by foreign authorities after having eluded Mexican justice suggested the statement was not completely genuine.

    Recent years have shown just how far the PRI will go to protect their own. Even some of the details emerging about these two governors suggest they had help from inside the government in evading justice.

    It will be important to monitor how the cases are handled from this point forward. If the governors are jailed and face real corruption trials, it could potentially help the PRI's and Peña Nieto's reputation recover. If the governors return only to avoid justice thanks to legal loopholes and political connections, it will reinforce the current negative perceptions of the president and his party.
  5. Everyone in Brazil has been waiting for an expected court ruling that would list politicians being investigated for corruption related to the Odebrecht scandal. In spite of being expected for over a month, the news yesterday still hit the country's market and political system hard.

    The investigation will include eight cabinet ministers, sixty sitting congress members including the heads of both the lower house and senate, three governors, and four ex-presidents. The names are a blow to the Temer government's current reform effort as well as some key contenders for the 2018 election.

    The Temer government's first response to the announcement of the investigations was to reassure markets that the investigations won't start for several months, meaning his cabinet can remain in place to push pension reform through the Congress. So an administration under a massive corruption investigation is planning to pass an unpopular economic reform through a Congress with the votes of other politicians facing corruption investigations.

    The markets are eager for reform in Brazil, but these reforms need some legitimacy to stick and not be overturned by a future administration. Trying to ram this through the Brazilian Congress while facing judicial investigations and public anger isn't a recipe for long-term success in the country.
  6. One key paragraph from Southcom's posture statement to the US Congress this year:
    In Colombia, the 52-year conflict has also left the country among the world’s most heavily contaminated by landmines, improvised explosive devices (IED), and unexploded ordnance (UXO), which affect 31 of Colombia's 32 departments. As part of an interagency effort, USSOUTHCOM’s Humanitarian Mine Action program provides ‘train-the-trainer’ courses to instructors at the Colombian military’s International Demining Training Center (CIDES), helping meet the Colombian government’s goal by training 41 Army Platoons and 5 Marine Platoons. In this effort we are joined by the Department of State and the twenty other countries and European Union that came together as part of the Global Demining Initiative for Colombia. Humanitarian demining will spare thousands of additional victims, facilitate land restitution and resettlement of internally displaced persons, and help lay a foundation for rural economic opportunity—all essential steps for this valued partner to consolidate lasting peace. As they work through this process, Colombia and the Colombian people are counting on our steadfast commitment, and I thank the Congress for its continued support to this important bilateral partnership. 
    I'd like to see greater advocacy for funding and support for Colombia's overall peace process, but this specific initiative definitely needs support. Good on Southcom for highlighting it.

    The suggested budget cuts by the current administration are just suggestions. It's up to Congress whether they are going to fund a large number of these programs, including support for Colombia's peace process and support for Central America's security and economic prosperity. Getting specific programs like demining supported may be easier than advocating for large blocks of money for big initiatives.

    Still, discussing large blocks of money is just as important. Just because it's a new administration with a regressive budget doesn't mean Latin Americanists should once again be afraid of the "B-word." This is a region where a few billion would go a long way towards the improvement of the entire hemisphere and therefore support the interests of the United States.
  7. This chart caught my attention:

    The 2015 rate of death from opioids in the US was over 10 per 100,000. As the article with the data reports, that is before the very recent surge of fentanyl, which has (anecdotally) increased the numbers of deaths. The article also says the rate of opioid deaths was over 30 per 100,000 in New Hampshire and over 40 per 100,000 in West Virginia.

    The article was using those statistics to show that the current drug death rate is significantly higher than previous eras of drug epidemics. That's true. But at the risk of comparing apples to oranges, I want to compare it to LatAm homicide rates.

    The rate of deaths from opioids in New Hampshire is worse than the violent death rate in Colombia, Brazil or Guatemala. The rate of opioid deaths in West Virginia is almost double the level of violent deaths in Mexico, which many media outlets refer to as a drug war.

    These numbers are potential game changers. Hyperbole from politicians aside, we've never had a drug epidemic that caused more deaths per capita in the US than it did in Latin America. Now there are several states where that is true and trends indicate the national numbers are also reaching critical levels.

    Of course, the trajectory of the drugs involved in these deaths is very different. For example, some people in West Virginia are getting addicted to legal prescription medicines made by US companies, transitioning to heroin made and trafficked by Mexican criminal groups and then dying because their drugs are laced with Chinese-sourced fentanyl. Spraying fields in Colombia and interdicting ships in the Caribbean isn't even close to part of the solution to this. It's also hard to advocate for legalization and regulation when the root of this new drug epidemic is the legal and regulated prescription market.

    The recent opioid epidemic should make everyone rethink drug policy because this drug war isn't like our previous drug wars. The numbers dead, the trajectory of addiction, the criminals involved and the source of the drugs are all different and more complicated than in previous decades. We still have a lot of lessons to learn about what went right and wrong in the drug policies of the past, but we also need to prepare for a radically different policy challenge today than the one that existed in decades past. The past lessons may or may not apply.
  8. Temer is trying to run out the clock on his own political problems. The top electoral court has postponed its ruling on the 2014 campaign while it hears new witnesses, but a verdict could come down within just a few weeks that will order Temer to leave office. Temer's allies have told the media that they plan to use the appeals process to keep the president in power through the 2018 election. The fact that "run out the clock" is one of the best case scenarios for the unpopular president is not a good sign.

    Two months ago, I wrote about Temer's embrace of his lame duck status. Brazil's president has suggested that he can pass unpopular legislation such as pension reform because he is not seeking reelection. My conclusion: "we should be cautious against praising the unelected anti-populism."

    The praise for Temer's anti-populist reforms have continued among financial analysts and the media. Bloomberg's Mac Margolis writes:
    It's also because Temer's stand-in government may be the country's last best opportunity to reverse colossal errors that have sabotaged Latin America's biggest economy and disgraced its governing establishment.
    Though Margolis suggests that Brazil's center-right should support the reforms as a way of boosting the economy, a survey by Estadao suggests 242 members of Congress plan to oppose pension reform, enough to block the bill from passing. Even though Temer isn't running for office, the members of Congress are facing the voters in 2018 and many do not want to be stuck defending votes for an unpopular economic reform. This is where the anti-populist strategy breaks down. Hoping that politicians will defy the will of voters does not create stable economic policy or political systems.
  9. Paraguay President Horacio Cartes is promoting a constitutional amendment through the Congress to allow for presidential reelection. His Colorado Party is supported by the party of former President Fernando Lugo, who would also be eligible to run again if the amendment passed. The opposition has denounced the Cartes-Lugo pact and called the Senate vote on the amendment illegal.

    On Friday, protesters broke through a police line and set fire to the Congress. During the clashes that moved around the capital, police raided the Liberal Party office and killed a 25 year old party activist.

    Cartes is now calling for "dialogue" to reduce the tensions and has asked all political parties and the church to participate. Cartes's opponents are cautious about accepting, concerned about falling into a trap that buys time for the president. Meanwhile, in spite of oppositoin from protesters and business groups, the president's supporters are still pushing for a swift passage of the amendment in the lower house of Congress.
  10. 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.
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