Americas/Western Hemisphere December 2019-

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Latin America 2013 – 19

Frustrated integration
(The Economist) Latin America’s more economically dynamic and free-trade oriented economies have generally gathered under the banner of the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc centered on the continent’s western coastline. With Ecuador on a pathway to joining and an upcoming free-trade agreement with Singapore, it is one of the few free trade blocs with expansion momentum behind it. However, beyond the possibility of a new member and ratification of the Singapore agreement, inertia seems the most likely outcome for the next 12 months at least.
Political pressures are clearly affecting the quality of policymaking in many Latin American countries. In the Pacific Alliance, major stumbling blocks are going to be in Peru and Chile. In Peru, the expected tensions between the recently elected far-left president and the opposition-led Congress look set to produce gridlock and instability. Chile, long one of the most pro-market governments in the region, is in a phase of heightened appetite for populist policies, following protests about inequality throughout 2020 and with a general election due later this year. These domestic uncertainties are likely to frustrate any efforts towards greater regional economic integration for the time being.

7 August
In Haiti, a clouded assassination probe prompts fears of political crackdowns
(WaPo) Nearly a month after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, none of the dozens of detained suspects have been taken to court. Some of the judges and clerks investigating the killing have gone into hiding, fearing for their lives and claiming they faced pressure to tamper with reports.
Now, with the plot and motives still murky, many Haitians have begun to believe the authorities are also using the investigation as cover to crack down on political foes of the administration trying to keep power after gunmen killed Moïse on July 7.
A prosecutor for Port-au-Prince has issued a series of arrest warrants against political opponents — high-profile evangelical pastors, a former justice minister and Moïse critics — who all say they had nothing to do with the assassination.

30 July
Vortex of Inequality
Bloomberg: Even before the pandemic, Latin America was already a poster child for inequality. Now it’s facing a jobs crisis that’s poised to worsen the disparities that have stoked political unrest across many nations.
In countries including Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, over 60% of the new jobs are informal — that is, typically paid in cash, without salaried contracts — a review of late 2020 showed. Without organization, workers are unable to fight for better wages or basic benefits like healthcare.
Argentine waiters, construction workers, candy-vendors and other informal workers saw a 36% pay cut, taking inflation into account, last year — nearly quadruple the losses for those with salaried jobs.
Besides leaving millions trapped in poverty, the surge in the share of precarious jobs is setting up a vicious cycle of economic and social decline:
Weaker growth→ lower tax revenue → more social spending → bigger government debt → higher inflation and interest rates → weaker growth.

28 July
Leftist rural teacher sworn in as Peru’s president
(AP) — Pedro Castillo, a leftist political novice who has promised to be a champion of his country’s poor, on Wednesday became Peru’s new president.
The rural teacher who has never held political office before was sworn in less than two weeks after he was declared the winner of the June 6 runoff election. He is Peru’s first president of peasant origin.
In a ceremony in the capital of Lima, Castillo made a commitment “for God, for my family, for my peasant sisters and brothers, teachers, patrolmen, children, youth and women, and for a new Constitution.” He then he sang the national anthem, taking off his signature hat and placing it over his heart.

24 July
Hundreds protest ouster of Guatemalan anti-graft crusader
(Reuters) – Hundreds of Guatemalans protested outside the presidential palace on Saturday against the ouster of anti-graft fighter Juan Francisco Sandoval, who fled the country overnight after being stripped of his post in a move that sparked a global outcry.
Guatemala’s Attorney General Maria Porras removed Sandoval from his post on Friday as the head of FECI, which was originally created to tackle investigations spearheaded by the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) but was ousted from the country in 2019.

21 July
Census Delays Threaten Latin America’s Vulnerable
(Bloomberg City Lab) As Covid-19 ravages Latin America, countries like Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia have postponed their census surveys. This could have crippling effects in the region for years to come, warn experts. Besides counting residents, national censuses provide data on aspects like living conditions and employment, and help inform social policies that distribute federal aid. Outdated numbers can leave neighborhoods that have grown poorer or more populous with insufficient resources.
There may also be a political dimension to the postponements, experts tell contributor Raphael Tsavkko Garcia: A new census in Bolivia — which has been delayed until 2024 — could, for instance, reveal population growth in areas that generally oppose the current socialist-led government. Census delays in many countries predate the pandemic, but further disruption threatens to accelerate “the loss of once-public knowledge.”

17 July
Key diplomats, including from Canada, support Haiti’s designated PM, snub interim leader
Statement from Core Group does not mention interim PM Claude Joseph
A key group of international diplomats on Saturday appeared to snub the man currently running Haiti by urging another politician, the designated prime minister, to form a government following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph has been leading Haiti with the backing of police and the military, despite the fact that Moïse had announced his replacement a day before being assassinated.
Joseph and his allies argue that the designated successor, Ariel Henry, was never sworn in, but he pledged to work with him and Joseph Lambert, the head of Haiti’s inactive Senate.

12 July
Thousands march in Cuba in rare mass protests amid economic crisis
US sanctions and coronavirus crisis lead to food shortages and high prices, sparking one of the biggest such demonstrations in memory
Is Cuba’s Communist Regime in Trouble?
Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel, who succeeded Raúl Castro this year as first secretary of the Communist Party, sought to depict the protests as a U.S.-sponsored attempt to destabilize Cuba. …  Díaz-Canel, the first non-Castro family member to lead Cuba in six decades, has struggled to maintain public support in the face of a mounting economic crisis. In January, the government devalued the peso as part of a monetary-reform program intended to unify Cuba’s longstanding, complicated dual-currency system. In recent months, the devaluation has contributed to skyrocketing inflation. That, in combination with rising food prices on the global market, has left many Cubans struggling to afford food and basic goods.

15 July
As Cuba erupts, Cuban-Canadians accuse the Trudeau government of turning its back
The gap between the Biden administration and the Trudeau government this week on Cuba was wider than the straits that separate Havana from Key West.
(CBC) U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States “stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights. And we call on the government of Cuba to refrain from violence in their attempt to silence the voices of the people of Cuba.”
The protests — which saw thousands of Cubans march through cities across the island — are a “clarion call for freedom,” said Biden.
When CBC News asked for one, Global Affairs Canada issued a statement through spokesperson Ciara Trudeau on the protests in Cuba. The department has not posted it with other statements on its website.

9 July
Haiti Is in Peril, and There Are No Simple Options
The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti on Wednesday will force a reluctant Biden administration to focus more carefully on its next steps concerning the troubled country.
(NYT Opinion) Haiti was never able to shake off the foreign yoke, except, one might argue, during the darkest days of the Duvalier regime. Over the years it has been at the mercy of the United States, of course, and of the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the Organization of American States and the United Nations, which deployed a peacekeeping force there from 2004 until 2017. Yet Haiti has ended up just as poor and unstable as ever, if not more so. And the country never truly recovered from a devastating earthquake in 2010.
Assassination of Haitian president becomes complex international web
“a yarn befitting a Netflix series”
(WaPo) The mysterious plot that led to the brazen assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse — apparently without significant resistance from his own guards — has taken on the dimensions of an international affair, bringing together Colombian former military commandos traversing the Dominican Republic, the two Haitian Americans from South Florida and triggering a standoff at the Embassy of Taiwan.
The tale emerging is a convoluted one, where truth or lie could be behind any corner, and the cast of self-interested suspects vast. But the armed foreign mercenaries, Florida men, and claims of being misled by enigmatic mission masterminds for the promise of coin was eerily familiar, if of far greater consequence.
In an unrelated mission last year, a murky Florida-based ex-Green Beret lured two other former American military veterans — Luke Denman and Airan Berry — into a bizarre and bungled operation to overthrow Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro by falsely telling them it had been sanctioned by the U.S. government. Like Solages and Vincent, they ended up in foreign jail. In 2019, another group of five heavily armed American mercenaries were arrested — then mysteriously released — following a murky mission in Haiti that was never fully clarified.

4 June
Protests in Colombia, Elections in Peru, and Other Chaos in the Andes
Hopes for a sustained democratic rebirth in the seven Andean nations have waned, again.
By Jon Lee Anderson
(The New Yorker) In the eight years since the death of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, at the age of fifty-eight, his vaunted “Bolivarian” revolution to unify the Andean nations of South America has gone the way of most fever dreams. The region remains in ferment, beset by varying degrees of social, economic, and political chaos.
Venezuela and Colombia ended their military dictatorships in the late nineteen-fifties, but Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru did not experience democratic restoration until the late seventies and early eighties, and Chile was the last to see off a dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in 1990.
Now hopes for a sustained democratic rebirth have waned, again, in the face of rampant official corruption and unresolved social inequities. Populism, authoritarianism, and military participation in politics remain in vogue. (The syndrome also holds in non-Andean neighbors, notably Brazil, as well as in the Central American nations of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala.)
During the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has made the situation much worse. Latin America accounts for less than nine per cent of the world’s population but nearly a third of the global pandemic death toll, which can be explained, in part, by the bungling or negligence of a number of governments. In most countries, the vaccination rollout has been abysmal, and without major outside assistance the pandemic will persist long after it has been contained elsewhere.
Unattended social, political, and economic maladies sparked social unrest in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia before the pandemic. Now, entirely predictably, the unrest has returned—most seriously, so far, in Colombia.

12 May
Colombia Is in Turmoil. Biden Must Push It Toward Dialogue.
The protest started on April 28 over an unpopular tax overhaul. Led by labor unionists, students, small-scale farmers and advocates for the rights of women, Afro-Colombians, Indigenous communities and L.G.B.T. people, marchers are now voicing many other grievances over stark economic inequality, the government’s failure to carry out a 2016 peace accord with the country’s largest guerrilla group and violence against social justice activists. They’re also denouncing the response of security forces to the protests, which has been brutal, disproportionate and indiscriminate.
Colombia can’t afford to see the clashes on its streets escalate, and Washington needs to help the country find a way out of the turmoil. Demands need to be channeled into real dialogue between the protesters and the government. Dialogue has to be the priority before there’s more death, before the possibility of resolving differences peacefully is extinguished.

6 May
Colombia enters second week of violent unrest as police crack down on protests
(The Guardian) As many as 37 people have died and at least 89 reported missing since protests began on 28 April
Colombia has entered its second week of violent unrest as riot police continued a brutal crackdown on nationwide protests against poverty and inequality exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Demonstrations began over an unpopular tax reform but have since grown into outburst of rage over poverty, human rights abuses and the authorities’ heavy-handed response to protests.
‘No food and no fuel’
President Iván Duque, whose three years in office have been marked by nationwide protests, has been powerless to quell the unrest despite ordering the militarization of major cities and withdrawing his tax plan. His government has attempted to frame the protests as the work of “terrorists” from dissident rebel groups.

29 April
After a Year of Loss, South America Suffers Worst Death Tolls Yet
As vaccinations mount in some of the world’s wealthiest countries and people cautiously envision life after the pandemic, the crisis in Latin America — and in South America in particular — is taking an alarming turn for the worse, potentially threatening the progress made well beyond its borders.
Last week, Latin America accounted for 35 percent of all coronavirus deaths in the world, despite having just 8 percent of the global population, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
Latin America was already one of the world’s hardest hit regions in 2020, with bodies sometimes abandoned on sidewalks and new burial grounds cut into thick forest. Yet even after a year of incalculable loss, it is still one of the most troubling global hot spots, with a recent surge in many countries that is even more deadly than before.

Cuba After the Castros
Sixty years after the Bay of Pigs, the Castro brothers are gone from the main stage, and Cuba is a threadbare place facing an uncertain future.

16 April
Cuba’s Raul Castro steps down, ending the era of his famous clan at the country’s helm
(CNN) When Raul Castro announced three years ago that he would step down in 2021 as head of Cuba’s all-powerful communist party, he surely envisioned the island on firmer economic footing and the transition to a new generation of leadership nearly complete.
Things have not worked out exactly according to Castro’s plan.
As Castro announced he was stepping down on Friday, his country is deep in crisis. The tourism-dependent island has been battered by the pandemic; the economy shrunk at least 11% in 2020 according to government estimates. Cubans each day spend hours in long lines to find increasingly scarce food, medicine and other necessities.
While Cuban officials have made an all-out effort to thwart the spread of the coronavirus, cases are at an all-time high on the island. It will likely take many more months to know if Cuba’s ambitious, “Hail Mary” plan to develop the island’s own homegrown vaccines will prove successful.

12 April
Far-left candidate leads Peru into run-off presidential polls
Leftist Castillo in lead with 16 percent of the vote after surprise comeback as Peru deals with economic, COVID crises. Conservative Keiko Fujimori was in fourth place also with 12.9 percent but was gaining ground as votes were counted. The fast count predicted she would come second in The election that voters don’t want anyone to win

10 February
President Biden Should Not Underestimate Challenges in Latin America
The new administration will have trouble finding partners to defend democracy in the region.
(NYT) President Biden’s rapid turn toward a more humane immigration policy sends a powerful message, and he has promised an approach driven by national (not personal) interests and values, with a renewed commitment to democracy, human rights and anti-corruption. He has also assigned urgency to combating climate change.
The harsh realities facing Latin America could thwart the new team’s goals and aspirations in a region racked by pervasive violence and appalling inequalities.
Latin America’s downward spiral, which began in 2013, has vaporized economic and social gains made over the preceding decade. Both left- and right-leaning governments have failed to deliver: The middle class has shrunk while extreme poverty and joblessness have surged, triggering social discontent and upheaval.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed institutional weakness, entrenched political and corporate corruption, and systemic failures in health, education and other public services. Latin America’s economies will likely not recover their pre-pandemic per capita gross domestic product until 2025, according to the International Monetary Fund. Many economists predict the region could face another lost decade, similar to or worse than the debt crises of the 1980s. Most worrying, the region has never been more fragmented and leaderless. Countries are moving in different directions, and cooperation among them is notably weak.

2020

1-3 December
Democracy is under siege in both the United States and Peru
(The Conversation) A recent report by the group Varieties of Democracy has revealed that currently there are more non-democratic than democratic countries, and a majority of the world’s population lives under a non-democratic regime. … Latin America has also regressed to worse non-democratic levels than were seen in the early 1990s. The decline of democracy around the globe is evident.
There are two recent high-profile examples of democracy in decline in the Americas: Peru and the United States.
But little to no attention has been paid to the situation in either Peru or the U.S. by the Organization of American States (OAS) which, under the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter, is supposed to ensure that democracy is upheld in the Americas.
Peru’s democracy faces greatest trial since Fujimori dictatorship after two presidents are ousted in one week
Peru’s new interim president took office on Nov. 17 under unenviable circumstances.
Francisco Sagasti became the South American country’s third president in a week after President Martin Vizcarra was impeached for “moral incapacity” in what many Peruvians saw as a coup by Congress. Then Vizcarra’s successor, congressional president Manuel Merino, was quickly forced to resign after furious public protest.
New president Sagasti must now steer a shaken nation not just toward elections, scheduled for April 2021, but also toward renewed faith in democracy.

27 July
United Tesla Company: Widespread Condemnation of Elon Musk’s Bolivia Coup
(Mintpress) The coup d’état in Bolivia – It’s all about the country’s rich Lithium deposits!
Musk’s company, Tesla, relies on lithium batteries for its electric vehicles. Bolivia is right in the center of the Lithium Triangle” — a region high in the Andes mountain range where over half of the world’s known deposits of the metal lie. With the world beginning to transition away from fossil fuels, the need for energy storage devices is expected to grow exponentially. Morales, a resource nationalist, had for a long time seen lithium as the way forward to industrialize and improve the country’s economy, hoping to keep the technology and profits from battery generation inside Bolivia. Musk’s plans to open a car plant in Brazil and use cheap Bolivian lithium had hit a snag with the defiant president refusing to give him a sweetheart deal. Morales’ successor, the military-backed Jeanine Añez, immediately began privatizing the country’s key resources, and there is widespread speculation that such a deal is imminent after Añez’s running mate in the now-suspended 2020 elections asked Musk to build a factory inside the country.”
The former president, who was forced to flee to Argentina or face a lifetime in prison, said that Musk’s words were “more proof that the coup was due to Bolivian lithium; and two massacres as a balance. We will always defend our resources!”

26 July
The sisters regrowing forests helped by their dogs (video)
Francisca and Constanza Torres and their three dogs, are planting seeds in areas of Chile devastated by wildfires. The project, which uses dog backpacks, is done in their own time and has already gained international recognition.

22 July
Earliest evidence for humans in the Americas
(BBC) Humans settled in the Americas much earlier than previously thought, according to new finds from Mexico. They suggest people were living there 33,000 years ago, twice the widely accepted age for the earliest settlement of the Americas.
The results are based on work at Chiquihuite Cave, a high-altitude rock shelter in central Mexico.
Archaeologists found nearly 2,000 stone tools, suggesting the cave was used by people for at least 20,000 years.
During the second half of the 20th Century, a consensus emerged among North American archaeologists that the Clovis people had been the first to reach the Americas, about 11,500 years ago. … But in the 1970s, this orthodoxy started to be challenged. In the 1980s, solid evidence for a 14,500-year-old human presence at Monte Verde, Chile, emerged.
And since the 2000s, other pre-Clovis sites have become widely accepted – including the 15,500-year-old Buttermilk Creek Complex in central Texas.

9 July
In Peru, President Martín Vizcarra calls for general elections for April 2021
(LABS) Vizcarra became president in March 2018, after having been vice president of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who resigned. He will not run for election

4 July
Latin America sees half of all new Covid-19 infections as health systems flounder
(CNN) At the end of April, video emerged from the main hospital in the Brazilian city of Manaus of bodies lined up in corridors, the victims of a sudden surge in the coronavirus. At the same time, the city began digging mass graves for hundreds of people who’d not even had the chance of treatment.
Since then, similar scenes have played out across Latin America, which has seen an explosive spread of the coronavirus. In Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, coffins were fashioned from cardboard boxes as bodies were left uncollected. In the Chilean capital Santiago, public hospitals were overwhelmed as lockdown was eased too soon.
In the last week of June, coronavirus deaths averaged more than 2,000 a day in Latin America and the Caribbean — half of all recorded deaths worldwide, according to a CNN tally of WHO data. Most forecasts suggest the picture will get much grimmer — with nearly 440,000 deaths expected across the region by October, according to the University of Washington.

23 May
The right to education of Venezuelan migrant and refugee children and adolescents: multidimensional risks and exacerbation of vulnerabilities during the pandemic
(UNESCO) The situation of Venezuelan refugee and migrant families that were in a fragile situation before the pandemic is now aggravated by their loss of employment, difficulties in accessing emergency services and benefits, and lack of access to healthcare systems.
As they no longer have the livelihoods to stay in their host countries or have been unable to access emergency responses due to the States’ pressure and redefinition of priorities, many Venezuelans have decided to return to Venezuela. Throughout different cities in the region, many Venezuelan families are awaiting humanitarian assistance that will provide them with options to return, exposing themselves to risks of infection due to irregular movements between countries and across borders.
In educational matters, 100% of the Venezuelan children and adolescents who were enrolled in their host countries are currently out of school and without a certain return. The interruption of learning has also spread among children and adolescents who had already had their studies interrupted when they started their displacement. There are also those who, despite being enrolled in educational centers in their host countries, due to confinement have not been able to begin their school year, losing contact with their educational communities.

18 February
Fringe religious party gains power in crisis-stricken Peru
(The Conversation) Peru’s Jan. 26 special election was exceptional.
Not only did voters elected 130 new legislators, replacing their entire Congress; they also brought into the fold a messianic religious group called the Israelites of the New Universal Pact.
After 40 years of failing to qualify for a national election, the political party of the Israelites – called the Agricultural People’s Front of Peru, or Frepap – won 15 congressional seats. In a fragmented Congress with nine parties, that makes the Israelites the third-largest legislative bloc.
The line between religion and politics has long been blurry in Peru. Both its mainstream parties – Acción Popular, the first-place vote-winners; and Alianza para el Progreso, with the second-most seats– have historical ties to Christian Democracy, a Catholic movement that gained popularity in 1950s Latin America with its centrist approach to economic development and conservative social values at a time of divisive Cold War rhetoric.

27 January
Peru election: Crushing blow for president’s opponents Popular Force
The party dominated Congress before the body was dissolved by President Martín Vizcarra in September.
Mr Vizcarra took the drastic step arguing that lawmakers were obstructing his anti-corruption agenda.
No party won an overall majority but centrist parties have made gains, which could ease the passage of reforms.

23 January
Bloomberg Business:
Scorned friend | The U.S. has long leaned on Colombia, its staunchest ally in Latin America, as a bulwark against China’s effort to boost its influence on the continent by flooding it with cash. But since Trump attacked President Ivan Duque for his failure to curb cocaine trafficking last March, Chinese companies have closed deals worth billions of dollars, exceeding the total investment from the previous 15 years.
On a roll | Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra has enjoyed high approval ratings since dissolving the legislature and calling early elections to break a stalemate with the opposition-controlled congress last year. If Sunday’s voting for its replacement turns out as polls suggest, he’ll get a new parliament more willing to push ahead with his agenda of political and judicial reform

2019

30 December
Latin America’s tumultuous year turns expectations on their head
2020 could bring another year of turmoil for Latin America after the dramatic events of 2019 from the Caribbean to Chile
by Tom Phillips, Latin America correspondent
(The Guardian) The final year of the decade was only 23 days old when the turmoil began with an explosion of dissent on the streets of Venezuela that most observers felt sure would displace its authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro.
Mass protests, frantic predictions of Maduro’s imminent downfall, and a botched military uprising followed before Juan Guaidó’s campaign to topple Hugo Chávez’s heir fizzled and an uneasy calm returned.
But elsewhere the action was only just beginning, as a wave of protests and violence swept Puerto Rico, Haiti, Ecuador and Bolivia – where President Evo Morales was forced from office amid a bloody military crackdown – leaving some wondering if a Latin American Spring had arrived.
In Peru the president dissolved congress; in Argentina Cristina Fernández de Kirchner staged a dramatic political comeback; and in Colombia hundreds of thousands flooded the streets in opposition to the rightwing president, Iván Duque.
Even Chile, supposedly a haven of Latin American stability and affluence, was sucked into the mayhem as a hike in subway fares triggered its worst unrest in decades, leaving a trail of destruction and President Sebastián Piñera’s future in doubt.
As the year draws to a close, minds are turning to what comes next.
In a new report the Economist Intelligence Unit warned of a high risk of “protest contagion”, noting how Colombia’s protests were inspired by rebellions in neighbouring countries.
“There is a strong chance that 2020 will be another volatile year for Latin America,” the report said, predicting particularly choppy waters in Lenín Moreno’s Ecuador.
[Ivan Briscoe, the International Crisis Group’s Latin America chief] saw three likely 2020 flash points: Venezuela, as it fell deeper into political and humanitarian ruin; Brazil and Argentina, as a diplomatic spat intensified between their ideologically opposed leaders; and Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is struggling to control a historic murder crisis claiming almost 100 lives a day.
Observers are split on whether Latin America’s biggest economy runs the risk of unrest, with former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva recently urging followers to “follow Chile’s example” and rebel against the far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro.

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