1. Even pre-hurricane, the economic numbers for Puerto Rico were dismal. 46% of the population lives in poverty. $70 billion in debt. Half the manufacturing sector gone in the past 12 years. Economic shrinkage in nearly every year in the past decade.

    Now the US territory faces billions of dollars in damage caused by the hurricane.

    There is an urgent humanitarian crisis. The population needs drinking water, food, medicine and some temporary power infrastructure. The US government should move quickly to help the over three million US citizens who are in need there. That crisis will continue for at least the next year, particularly as the entire agricultural sector was destroyed, reducing the amount of food available.

    The urgent crisis will be followed by years of rebuilding. It’s up to the US Congress to help Puerto Rico finance its infrastructure in a way that allows the territory to escape the debt trap that it has entered and grow its economy.
  2. Late last week, the Guatemalan Congress voted again on the question of presidential immunity and President Morales kept his immunity yet again. That means he still cannot be prosecuted for accepting illicit campaign financing.

    That’s not the whole story. While the end result was the same as earlier this month, the vote totals suggest there has been a significant shift. Two weeks ago, only 25 members of Congress voted to strip the president of his immunity. Last week, 70 did so. Another 40 members of Congress abstained from the vote, afraid to go on record. Only 42 voted to allow the president to keep his immunity, far fewer than last time.

    That movement is the result of protests by citizens as well as international attention and pressure on the Guatemalan political system.

    Morales avoided most public events over the past week. When he finally spoke publicly at an event yesterday, he called for "real investigations" into corruption, implying the current investigations are politically motivated.
  3. President Jimmy Morales told the UN this week he is committed to the anti-corruption fight. Most people abroad don't believe him and neither do the citizens of his country.

    Meanwhile back in Guatemala, three top ministers resigned from Morales's cabinet, suggesting that the president has lost the confidence of his inner team. Yesterday, tens of thousands of citizens took part in a national strike and protested against corruption, a massive demonstration of the public's anger.

    Congress certainly sees the increased public protests and political pressure. While Morales appears to have the votes to maintain his presidential immunity, the number of votes he has in support has likely been gone down in the past week. The majority of congress might be less open to protecting the president if the situation worsens.
  4. The epicenter of yesterday's earthquake in Mexico was on the Puebla-Morelos border, much closer to the capital than most earthquakes in that country. The earthquake earlier this month, as with the earthquake in 1985, took place on the fault lines off the Pacific coast and rolled into the capital several minutes later. The distance between the "typical" earthquake epicenter and the capital is the main reason earthquake alarms usually work so well in Mexico City. The earthquake yesterday was as close to a direct hit that Mexico City has experienced in the past century, meaning the force was stronger and the alarms did not have time to help everyone.

    The images coming in from Mexico City yesterday showed thousands of people organizing to dig through rubble and rescue people who were trapped. Others organized to bring supplies to the rescue sites including water and flashlights so work could continue throughout the night. There are several days of rescue work ahead.
  5. Ecuador President Lenin Moreno accused former President Correa of planting a spy camera in the presidential office. The two former allies already had a heated rivalry and the discovery of the camera is significant whether it was Correa or not.

    If it turns out Correa did have access to the camera, it means he also has the loyalty of some government insiders who are helping him undermine the current president. That would be a significant development that places the stability of Moreno's government at risk.

    If Correa wasn't behind the camera, then Ecuador needs to identify which domestic or foreign power did operate the camera there. Correa has also challenged Moreno to resign if his accusation against Correa proves untrue, meaning that proving who did operate the camera could turn into part of the controversy.
  6. After the Guatemalan Congress voted to protect President Jimmy Morales, the reaction on the street was muted. There were protests, but the protests weren't any more significant than the protests that had occurred in the weeks prior.

    The Congress then voted to undo campaign finance regulations, basically legalizing the poorly enforced prohibitions on illicit and corrupt campaign funds and allowing some corrupt politicians to leave prison. That vote appears to have opened a new floodgate of anger from the population. The protests yesterday in the capital were significantly larger and more active. The courts also ruled against the vote, stalling the new law. The Congress is reportedly now considering whether to undo the bill while the presidency has cancelled independence day events to avoid additional protests.

    In a few months, this week will probably all be remembered as, "the Guatemalan population got angry when the Congress protected the corrupt president." It's an easy narrative, but it's not completely accurate. The Guatemalan population appeared to give a collective "meh" the day after the Congressional vote to maintain presidential immunity, then exploded when the Congress took it a step further and tried to push back against other anti-corruption efforts.

    I'm sure President Morales's attempt to remove the head of the CICIG and the Congressional vote to protect President Morales has a lot to do with the anger, but it's often interesting to monitor the precise tipping point on the public's anger. In this case, corrupt politicians in Guatemala took a few days of non-protests as license to push further and managed to re-energize the movement.
  7. Practically every word in my post from 2011 about the US government designations of countries that fail their counterdrug obligations holds up today. If anything, the case is stronger now.

    There is even greater information showing that a significant portion of the Venezuelan government leadership and military is involved in some way in drug trafficking. If there is going to be a list of countries failing to counter drugs around the world, Venezuela is at the top because it actively participates in and profits from drug trafficking at an institutional level.

    Bolivia has problems with drug trafficking, but its problems are on par with much of the rest of the region. Lumping Bolivia in with Venezuela harms the credibility of the arguments against Venezuela and US statements about drug policy in general.

    However, on top of those two countries, this year’s list contains a surprise in that the Trump administration is now considering adding Colombia to the list of countries that are failing. Colombia is a major ally of the United States and has done essentially everything the US has asked regarding counterdrug policy in the past two decades other than recently ending the counterproductive aerial spraying. They’ve extradited major drug traffickers and participate in training and operations to counter and interdict drug production and trafficking. The country has also significantly reduced its levels of violence from drug traffickers as other countries around the hemisphere have seen an increase. Many analysts agree that Colombia a massive success story for US policy at less than 1% of the cost of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

    Yes, Colombia has seen a rise in coca since the peace process began. But no country has perfect counter-drug policies or success on every metric. Every country has seen significant problems in recent years including the rising US deaths from the domestic opioid crisis. If the US is going to put Colombia on this list then it might as well decertify every country from Canada to Argentina including itself.

    The good news about Colombia being threatened with this designation is that it exposes the counter-drug certification process for the fraud that it is. The process, already heavily politicized against antagonists of the US, will be discredited in DC as it hits a country like Colombia that has many allies from both parties.

    The message from this year’s statement is clear: The US counter-drug certification process has failed demonstrably to retain its credibility. It’s time to end it.
  8. The ICJ said that Venezuela’s Supreme Court had engaged in a “coup d’etat” by unconstitutionally taking the legislative authority away from the Congress. They also indicated the coup involved them acting as an arm of the executive branch instead of an independent body.

    Brazil President Temer attacked his country's judicial branch for authorizing an investigation into his corrupt activities. He implied that the judicial branch is grasping illegitimate power and undermining his authority.

    I agree with the ICJ about the undemocratic actions of Venezuela's courts and disagree with Temer about Brazil's courts. It's wrong for Venezuela's Supreme Court to undermine the legislative branch. It's great that Brazil's courts are going after the corruption of the president.

    But that starts to become an uncomfortably fine line when you juxtapose those two stories. When is it ok or not ok for one civilian branch of government to attempt to take down another? In the ongoing wave of impeachments, golpeachments, non-military auto-golpes and executive-ending corruption investigations, these institutional clashes are destabilizing. We're debating the differences between a constitutional impeachment vs a civilian coup or a valid judicial investigation vs a politicized power-grab.

    There are certainly constitutional rules, varying from country to country, for these sorts of institutional clashes. But in all cases, politics and public opinion also play as much of a role as the legal constitutional wording. The line between a positive institutional check and a negative institutional powergrab is closer than many analysts want to acknowledge.
  9. Adding to comments I wrote yesterday about Mexico's earthquake relief efforts, here is the NYT:
    The catastrophe has thrown Mexicans’ simmering distrust of their government into sharp relief as suspicions mount that aid will be diverted for political gain — or simply siphoned off by corrupt officials.
    That is a bold statement backed up with quotes from NGOs and people on the ground. It also references the corruption that allegedly occurred after hurricanes in 2013. There was a brief push to improve the transparency of disaster relief assistance at that time, but it lost momentum as politicians realized the system may actually be effective at preventing corruption. Let's hope four years and many corruption scandals later, the reform momentum can return.
  10. Under potential indictment due to an investigation into illegal campaign finance by the CICIG, President Jimmy Morales remains safe as long as he retains presidential immunity. The Congress voted on whether he would lose that immunity yesterday. For the vote to pass, two-thirds of the 152 seat body, (105 votes) were needed. Only 25 members of Guatemala's Congress voted to strip the president of his immunity.

    Morales didn't just survive the vote. He won it decisively.

    Many in Guatemala's Congress argued that the country's economy and political stability are hurt if they keep removing presidents due to corruption. There is certainly something to that argument, though it ignores the fact that top-level corruption is also very damaging to the economy and stability as well.

    The actual reason for the lopsided vote appears to be that the Guatemalan Congress protected the president in order to protect themselves. Nearly the entire political establishment has some linkage to the illicit campaign finance schemes in Guatemala. By keeping the president from going to trial, standing up for immunity for sitting politicians, and delivering a public relations blow to the CICIG, every member of Congress hopes to ride out the storm without being prosecuted themselves. In watching over 100 members of Congress vote to protect the president, Guatemala's citizens were reminded just how wrapped up the entire political system is in these corruption networks.

    For the anti-corruption wave to succeed, it's up to Guatemala's citizens to place additional pressure on the political system. That's not new. It's always been that way. The CICIG is a great tool in the anti-corruption fight, but especially in a democracy with weak institutions, citizens are the only true check on power. A big question is whether the members of Congress who voted to protect a corrupt president will be held accountable by the voters.