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LatinNews Daily - 14 June 2016

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Main Briefing

Development: On 13 June Venezuela’s ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) formally challenged at the supreme court (TSJ) the political opposition’s efforts to initiate a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro.

Significance: The PSUV has asked the TSJ to examine the process because the national electoral council (CNE) said it found over 600,000 fraudulent signatures among the 1.8m submitted on 2 May by the opposition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) in petition of a referendum. On this basis, the PSUV argues that the MUD may have violated the constitutional rights of Venezuelan citizens. The PSUV’s motives are transparent – it wants to delay the referendum past the date at which a vote in favour of a presidential recall would trigger fresh elections. If the referendum is held any time after 10 January 2017, the vice-president would instead replace the president for the final two years of the six-year term, with no new elections required.

  • Legal analysts suggest that the TSJ, stuffed with government-appointees, could opt to suspend the signature verification process altogether, on the basis of fraud, obliging the MUD to start over from scratch.  Alternatively, the TSJ might seek to delay the next stage of the process, requiring the collection of 3.8m signatures (20% of the electorate), which once validated would then require the CNE to stage the referendum.
  • The CNE also said on 10 June that there were 1.97m signatures on the list submitted by the MUD, above the 1.8m the MUD claimed it collected. In order to petition for a recall referendum, the signatures of 1% of the registered electorate are required – amounting to just over 197,000.  Having declared valid 1.3m signatures, the CNE now requires all those people to present themselves to verify their identities by way of electronic fingerprint. This process is due to commence on 20 June for a five-day period, with fingerprint scanners of the type used in Venezuelan elections to be dispatched to designated verification centres nationwide. It appears - albeit it has not been entirely clear on this point - that the CNE wants to verify all 1.3m, which could amount to a further delaying tactic.
  • President Maduro and other senior government officials pre-empted the CNE’s labours by reiterating over the weekend (11-12 June) that a recall referendum would only take place in 2017, and only if the MUD met all the (constantly shifting) criteria. This kind of rhetoric appears to belie any notion of the separation of powers. Increasingly, the nominally independent CNE looks subservient to the Maduro executive, which secures legal cover for its every move from the pliant TSJ. In the face of these kinds of obstacles, it  is difficult to anticipate a recall referendum any time soon.
  • In this context, international efforts to mediate a solution to Venezuela’s internal crisis may focus on a mutually-agreeable transition government from 2017 that would steer the county through to the scheduled general election in late 2018, with a new administration – potentially opposition-led – taking office on 10 January 2019. Yesterday the Organization of American States (OAS) began its 46th General Assembly of foreign ambassadors in the Dominican Republic, with the Venezuelan crisis glaringly absent from the officially agreed agenda. Yet the General Assembly comes just weeks after the OAS secretary general, Luis Almagro, controversially moved to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela, on the grounds that the institutions of democracy in the country were at risk. This is scheduled to be voted upon by the OAS’s plenary in Washington DC on 23 June- requiring only a majority vote of 18 votes to trigger ‘diplomatic measures’ in support of Venezuela’s democratic institutions.
  • Meanwhile Venezuela’s opposition leader, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the most high-profile advocate of a recall referendum against Maduro, yesterday met Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes and Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri to ask that they back the calls in international forums like the OAS and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) that constitutional democracy be respected in Venezuela. To some criticism, the Macri government, which has been very critical of the Maduro administration, unexpectedly said that it might not vote in support of Almagro’s call to invoke the Democratic Charter, arguing that to isolate Venezuela in that way would be counterproductive.  It has been alleged that the Macri government’s apparent U-turn was part of efforts to secure support for Argentina’s proposed candidate to become the next United Nations secretary general - Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra. Argentina received some criticism for what looked like cynical bargaining. Capriles met Macri in Buenos Aires after a short meeting in Asunción with Cartes, a fierce critic of the Maduro government.

Looking Ahead: Street violence continues in Venezuela, with a tally of three civilian deaths in the past week amid lootings and food protests in several parts of the country. All three victims appear to have been shot by police, although state prosecutors are continuing to investigate. The Maduro government yesterday announced that electricity rationing would be eased and restrictions on public sector working hours reduced.

Andean

Development: On 13 June Colombia’s constitutional court (CC) struck down a series of resolutions approved by the national government which created ‘strategic mining development areas’ in 20 of the country’s 32 departments.

Significance: The final ruling is a heavy blow to the efforts by the government led by President Juan Manuel Santos to continue to promote the development of Colombia’s increasingly significant mining sector, which in recent years has become one of the main drivers of the domestic economy. The Santos government decided to make the development of the sector one of its main priorities as a way to encourage the development of the country’s economically depressed regions and to generate more wealth and employment in support of the peace process that it has been advancing with the country’s leftist guerrillas. However, its plans are objected to by local communities and environmental groups, all of which are concerned about the dangers associated with the rapid expansion of industrial mining activity in the country.

  • The ‘strategic mining development areas’ initiative sought to promote mining activity by actively identifying potentially rich mineral areas across the country and designating them as apt for exploitation and the awarding of mining concessions. The initiative, which affects around 20% of Colombia’s national territory, was approved by the national congress in 2011. But local environmental groups led by NGO Tierra Digna warned that the measure could lead to the unchecked spread of mining activity at the expense of Colombia’s rich natural environment.
  • Tierra Digna joined forces with 15 rural and indigenous communities from the remote north-western department of Chocó to present a formal complaint against the initiative before the courts. They argued that the national government had failed to appropriately consult local communities of its plans to designate areas located in their territories as being apt for mining exploitation, in violation of the right to prior consultation of local communities enshrined in Colombia’s 1991 constitution.
  • Yesterday the CC made public a ruling it issued in December last year, in which it sided with Tierra Digna. The CC ruled that the government had not satisfied the necessary prior consultation procedures; and that the initiative could also potentially violate communities’ rights to access to water, a clean natural environment and even damage their cultural heritage. The CC ordered the suspension of any mining concessions awarded under the initiative until the government “exhausts the prior consultation process and obtains the free consent…of the communities”.

Looking Ahead: The ruling was hailed by the national ombudsman office, which said that it reaffirmed communities’ rights to prior consultation. But it has been criticised by the Asociación Colombiana de Minería (ACM) private mining sector lobby. ACM president Santiago Angel Urdinola complained that the ruling “changes the rules of the game” and would inevitably affect mining investments, remarks that the Santos government would not be happy to hear.

Brazil

Development: On 13 June Teori Zavaskci, a judge in Brazil’s supreme court (STF), sent the investigation into former president Lula da Silva (2003-2011) back to Sérgio Moro, the lead investigative judge in ‘Operation Car Wash’, the investigation into corruption at the state-run oil firm Petrobras.

Significance: The move is likely to accelerate the legal proceedings against Lula, who is accused of receiving an upgrade to a luxury apartment and other benefits from construction companies involved in the Petrobras corruption scheme. If found guilty, not only might the former president face jail time, but he would also be ineligible to run for office for eight years under Brazil’s ‘clean-slate law’. Despite the allegations against him, and the troubles of his party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), Lula remains one of Brazil’s most popular politicians and would potentially be a formidable candidate in 2018.

  • Lula’s case was sent to the STF after Moro released secret tape recordings of a meeting between Lula and the suspended president, Dilma Rousseff, in which the latter said that she would send Lula the documents related to his swearing in as cabinet chief “in case of necessity”. Opposition activists immediately accused the government of appointing Lula to the cabinet in order to ensure that he benefited from the “privileged forum” of the STF. Sitting government officials can only be tried by Brazil’s highest court, which has a massive backlog of cases.
  • As a result of Moro’s leak, Lula’s ministerial appointment was blocked by another STF judge, Gilmar Mendes. But Zavascki has now ruled that the secretly taped recording is inadmissible as evidence, because it was recorded hours after the judicial warrant permitting the measure had expired. As Lula is not currently a sitting government official, he is not eligible to be judged by the STF; as such the case returns to Moro, who requested the “coercive detention” of Lula back in March.

Looking Ahead: So far the only elected politician to face trial by the STF over Operation Car Wash is Eduardo Cunha, the suspended speaker of the federal chamber of deputies. Later today (14 May) a congressional ethics committee is due to vote on whether to strip Cunha of his parliamentary mandate.

Central America & Caribbean

Development: On 13 June Haiti's interim government led by President Jocelerme Privert imposed an overnight national curfew from 10:00pm to 5:00am.

Significance: The office of interim Prime Minister Enex Jean-Charles said that the curfew, which lasted until today (14 June), was necessary to deter acts “against life and property”, particularly in Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. The move reflects the growing security concerns as legislators were yesterday due to vote on whether to extend Privert’s 120-day mandate, which began on 14 February and is due to end today. With legislators unable to reach a decision fears of unrest became rife. This fear stems from calls to protest made by Parti Haïtien Têt Kalé (PHTK), the party of former president Michel Martelly (2011-2016), and its allies like Konvansyon inite demokratik (Kid), the party of Martelly’s former prime minister Evans Paul (2015-2016), which recently launched a new alliance, Entente Démocratique, against the interim government. Martelly’s presidential term ended on the constitutional deadline of 7 February in the absence of an elected successor following the cancellation of the scheduled 24 January presidential run-off election between the PHTK’s Jovenel Moïse and Jude Célestin of the opposition Ligue Alternative Pour le Progrés et l’Emancipation Haïtienne (Lapeh) party, amid fraud allegations. As well as calling for Privert to leave office, the Entente Démocratique also objects to the recent decision by the provisional electoral council (CEP), announced last week, to annul the first round presidential electoral results and call for fresh elections for 9 October.

  • Also indicative of security fears, on 10 June the US State Department revised a travel alert warning in light of the CEP’s announcement of a new election calendar. The new travel alert, which expires on 15 February 2017, notes that “Haiti’s unfinished presidential electoral process has made the political and security environment more uncertain, with possible demonstrations causing disruption to traffic and access to key locations in Port-au-Prince”.
  • The Entente Démocratique, which is headed up by Paul, received a boost on 8 June when the European Union (EU) criticised the report released the previous month by the local five-member verification commission (Cieve) tasked with looking into last year’s first round presidential elections. The Cieve had recommended the annulment of that vote due to irregularities, providing the basis for the CEP’s decision to call for the staging of fresh elections. With the US government having also challenged this decision, the EU, which has responded by recalling its electoral observer mission, has said that “despite a certain number of flaws and irregularities that were observed”, the first round presidential elections “were not, however, of the nature to alter the results”.

Looking Ahead: Haitian legislators are due to resume discussions regarding Privert’s mandate today.

Mexico

Development: On 13 June teachers blocked roads in the states of Oaxaca, Tabasco, and Chiapas as well as the Ciudad de México (CDMX) to protest against the arrest of Rubén Núñez, the secretary general of the militant ‘Sección 22’ branch of Mexico’s combative teachers’ union Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE).

Significance: The CNTE is determined to show that it is not going to be cowed into submission by the federal government in the wake of the arrest of Núñez on 12 June, as well as several other senior CNTE leaders in the weeks beforehand, and that it remains a force to be reckoned with. In Oaxaca teachers erected 23 roadblocks, including to the international airport in the eponymous state capital. Some 500 teachers gathered outside the Instituto Estatal de Educación Pública de Oaxaca (Ieepo) and the chamber of deputies of the state congress to demand the release of Núñez and 12 other “political prisoners” from the CNTE detained by the federal government on suspicion of embezzlement or financial irregularities. They also denounced “state terrorism” by the state and federal police in Oaxaca, who broke up some of the roadblocks and took back vehicles (belonging to transnational companies and the state and federal government) seized by the protesters.

  • While the protests were concentrated in Oaxaca, they also took place in Tabasco and neighbouring Chiapas where 18,000 schools remain closed, many for over a month now, leaving 3.2m schoolchildren without classes. Teachers from ‘Sección 7’ and ‘Sección 40’ of the CNTE in Chiapas also blocked entrance and exit points for vehicular traffic to the state capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, to demand the release of Núñez and the other CNTE leaders.

  • The twice former presidential candidate and leader of the radical leftist Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) party, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, denounced the “arbitrary and dictatorial nature” of the arrest of Núñez. López Obrador has seized on the teacher dispute to underpin a fresh presidential bid in 2018. He promised that Morena would “support the teachers’ struggle under any circumstance”.

Looking Ahead: Tomorrow (15 June), 10,000 teachers from Chiapas will begin a march to CDMX to appeal to the federal government to open a new negotiation table on the education reform.

Southern Cone

Development: On 13 June Chile’s Carabineros police evicted student protesters from three Santiago schools, Internado Nacional Barros Arana (Inba), Liceo Javiera Carrera de Niñas, and Liceo de Aplicación, and they arrested 19 people following acts of vandalism which caused damage worth some Cl$400m (US$588,652).

Significance: Santiago Mayor Carolina Tohá said that the damage done to Inba, one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious schools, exceeded “everything imaginable” and the occupations are the latest show of unrest in recent weeks by the students frustrated with the failure by the Nueva Mayoría coalition government led by President Michelle Bachelet to make good on its pledge to provide universal free education. The occupations take place as the Bachelet executive, which is struggling to fulfil its campaign pledge in the face of the continued domestic economic slowdown, is preparing to submit a new education reform bill to the national congress.

  • The damage caused by the students has also exposed tensions between local authorities – yesterday the education director of the municipality of Santiago, Mónica Espina, resigned citing frustration with the Carabineros’ slow response, complaining that some 20 requests had been sent for police intervention before these intervened yesterday. Rodney Weber, the head of the Carabineros’ Santiago Oeste zone, rejected criticisms regarding the delayed response, insisting that he had only received a directive from the municipality last week and these actions “require preparations”.
  • The unrest comes three days after Education Minister Adriana Delpiano met representatives from Chile’s main students’ organisation, Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile (Confech), to discuss the new education bill. Confech expressed disappointment with the results of the meeting, accusing Delpiano of failing to provide specific details. Prior to the meeting, Delpiano had said that universal free education would depend on economic growth and that it would be up to the next government to see “where the resources will come from” – an argument rejected by Confech spokesperson, Gabriel Iturra, who told reporters that Chile is a “wealthy country…the problem lies in the distribution of the wealth”.
  • On 6 June Chile’s central bank (BCCH) released its latest quarterly monetary policy report (IPoM), in which it cuts its GDP growth projection for 2016 to 1.25%-2.0%, from a previous view of 1.25%-2.25%. BCCH left its forecast for 2017 economic growth unchanged at 2.0%-3.0%.

Looking Ahead: The unrest is set to continue. Yesterday the secondary students’ associations, Coordinadora Nacional Estudiantes Secundarios (Cones) and Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios (Aces), announced plans to stage protests tomorrow (15 June). Following Confech’s meeting with Delpiano, spokesperson Marta Matamala called on students to continue mobilising until the education ministry provides more information about the new proposed reform.