1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Three countries. Three models of investigating corruption of high level officials.

    Brazilian prosecutors are charging Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house of Congress, with corruption for taking a $5 million bribe. The prosecution is just the latest in Brazil's investigation into government corruption.

    With the help of the UN-backed CICIG, Guatemalan authorities have arrested former Vice President Roxana Baldetti for tax and customs fraud. Based on documents seized during recent arrests, they will likely be investigating President Perez Molina.

    Mexico comptroller Virgilio Andrade completely cleared Mexico President Peña Nieto and Finance Minister Videgaray of any wrongdoing in awarding of public contracts. Andrade was tasked by the president to investigate the issue after media reports that a major government contractor had provided the officials with houses.
  7. Let's work from the assumption that Venezuela's economy is in very bad shape with few good options. The adjustments that must be made, including the devaluation of the currency, are going to be painful in the short term. The fact that oil is at $40 per barrel and not likely to return to $90 in 2016 means the government is running out of cash. In short, under almost all circumstances, 2016 is going to be an incredibly tough year for Venezuela's economy.

    A completely dispassionate observer could suggest that the PSUV's smartest move under those conditions is some form of strategic retreat at the political level. Let the opposition take some or all of the power in the country so they own the results of 2016. Let them make the tough decisions about devaluation, gasoline subsidies and potential default on debt. Let the population turn on the MUD. Then watch as voters with short memories allow the PSUV to return triumphant.

    Of course, that is unlikely to happen because politicians rarely make those sorts of strategic retreats. Ideally, politicians truly believe that their policies are better than their opponents and want their country to succeed. Giving power to their opponents would go against that ideal vision. Cynically, politicians like power and rarely give it up without a fight. In that cynical view, politicians fear that their opponents are just as power hungry and likely plan to maintain power once they take it.

    For all the reasons above, I absolutely don't think that the grand strategy of paragraph two is the PSUV's plan at the moment. But it makes for a great conspiracy in a country that loves conspiracies and for an opposition that is questioning why the government is pressing forward with elections in spite of its likely loss. Giving the opposition a brief political win to force them into a losing governing hand would be brilliantly evil.

    What should trouble the opposition is that even if the PSUV isn't planning it (and they probably aren't), the potential that the opposition inherits a losing governing and economic situation certainly exists. At a basic level, if they control the legislature in 2016, then they will own some of the decisions that are being made during tough economic times rather than getting to place the full blame on the Chavistas. In an extreme scenario, if Maduro were to fall and the opposition were to take complete control in the coming months, they'd likely be at least 18 months away from any significant economic growth (and that's only if they get the policies correct and oil prices shift, neither of which is guaranteed).

    When economies crash, the politicians in charge take the blame. While many observers may see Venezuela as an economic disaster today, it's likely the worst is yet to come. Two competing political parties that should be treating political power as a hot potato are instead fighting hard to own as much of the power as they can control in 2016.
  8. With Cotopaxi spewing ash near the capital, Ecuador President Correa declared a state of emergency. The official declaration allows him to use government funds for emergency measures including evacuations. That's completely reasonable, something I think everyone can agree with.

    However, the state of emergency is nationwide, not just in the area around the volcano. It restricts certain constitutional rights including the right to assemble. It gives more leeway for police or military units that want to enter people's homes. It bans the media from publishing information not authorized by the government.

    That far reaching state of emergency is quite convenient for a president that is seeing growing protests against his government (LA Times, WSJ, Guardian). Indigenous organizations and labor unions have joined the traditional opposition in protesting against the Correa government, its tax policies and the president's plan to push for another reelection.

    The hemisphere should offer whatever support it can to Ecuador as it faces a potentially dangerous natural disaster from a volcano. At the same time, any attempt by the government to use the volcano as an excuse to crack down on legitimate protests should be condemned.
  9. Datanalisis released their July poll numbers late last week.

    President Maduro approval/disapproval: 24/70

    Venezuelans who think current economic situation is negative: 82%

    For the legislative election:
    PSUV: 19%
    MUD: 42%

    In a normal country with normal elections, approval and economic numbers like those would spell doom for the governing party. Venezuela isn't normal.

    The combination of the government's dirty election tricks (gerrymandering, multiple voting, disqualifying of candidates, using state funds for election mobilization, forcing state workers to vote), the opposition's penchant for shooting itself in the foot, and journalists/analysts who have been burnt predicting a government loss in the past means that everyone is a bit hesitant to look at these numbers and predict the opposition will win. For that reason, we've already seen journalists writing pre-post-mortems about why the Venezuelan opposition could lose or is even likely to lose, which would be ridiculous looking at these numbers in any other country.
  10. According to the poll numbers in Brazil, a solid majority of the country disapproves of President Rousseff and even supports her impeachment.

    At the same time, if you look at those attending yesterday's protests (perhaps 300,000 people nationally), a large component of those protesters come from an extremist fringe of the population. People who are supporting a hypothetical (and extremely unlikely) military coup. People who support Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house of Congress who most of the country knows is far more corrupt than the president. These opinions are not representative of mainstream Brazil.

    Yesterday's protesters were not the same demographics of the widespread and widely representative anti-corruption protests of June 2013. In 2013, the millions who took to the streets really did represent a large segment of Brazil's population. That doesn't appear to be true in 2015.

    So while a majority of Brazil's population tell pollsters that they support impeachment, that same majority are not the people you see in the streets calling for her ouster. That's an important distinction to keep in mind moving forward.