LatinNews Daily - 09 June 2022

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Main Briefing

On 8 June, Colombia’s Defence Minister Diego Molano Aponte announced that Wilfredo Vásquez Castrillón (‘Pirry’), a member of the national leadership of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and the leader of its Darío Ramírez Castro front, had been killed in a military operation in Bolívar department.

Analysis:

Pirry’s killing marks another high-profile victory against guerrilla groups for President Iván Duque’s outgoing administration. It follows the military’s killing of two leading ELN commanders in the western department of Chocó last September, and a string of casualties in the upper ranks of dissident factions of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc), which appear to have been the result of fighting between rival guerrilla groups. However, history has shown that both the ELN and the Farc dissidents are highly resilient to the killing or capture of their commanders, and there is a growing consensus in Colombia that the next government will need to resume abandoned peace negotiations with the ELN.

  • Molano said that Pirry had been killed in an army operation in Morales municipality, in the northern department of Bolívar, on 4 June. Molano added that two other guerrillas were killed in the operation, and that six others were captured, including Violeta Arango Ramírez, who was wanted in relation to a bomb attack at a Bogotá shopping centre in 2017 that left three people dead and 10 wounded.
  • Molano said that Pirry’s death marked the end of a “36-year criminal history” in which he was accused of carrying out terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and attacks on Colombia’s oil and energy infrastructure. He described Pirry as the ELN’s leader in northern Colombia.
  • Presenting a tally of the outgoing Duque administration’s actions against the ELN, Molano said that since 2018 the government had overseen the capture of 2,247 members of the guerrilla group and the killing of a further 120. He said that another 1,005 ELN guerrillas had demobilised and were in the process of reintegrating into society.
  • The two candidates facing off against each other in the 19 June second round of the presidential elections – Gustavo Petro of the left-wing Pacto Histórico coalition, and the populist Rodolfo Hernández, of the Liga de Gobernantes Anticorrupción – have both said that they would support negotiations for a peace agreement with the ELN. In 2019 Duque abandoned negotiations with the ELN that were launched by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018), following an ELN bombing in Bogotá that killed 21 police cadets.
  • A potential agreement with the ELN carries personal weight for Hernández, who has blamed the guerrilla group for the kidnapping and suspected murder of his daughter, Juliana Hernández, in 2004. Hernández has said that he refused to pay his daughter’s ransom as it would put his family at further risk. However, the ELN yesterday released a statement denying kidnapping Hernández’s daughter, and suggesting that the ransom had been demanded by criminals pretending to be the ELN.
  • Petro has long supported ceasefire negotiations with the ELN, portraying these as an integral part of his plans to bolster security in rural Colombia by also strengthening the 2016 peace agreement with the Farc.

Looking Ahead: Pirry’s death allows President Duque, who leaves office on 7 August, to claim credit for what may be his government’s final major blow against the ELN. However, the ELN has proved resilient to the killing of key commanders in the past. For example, the killing of the ELN’s leader and second-in-command in Chocó in September 2021 appears to have had little long-term impact on the group’s strength along the Pacific coast.

Andean

* Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has travelled to Turkey where he met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the two gave a press conference reaffirming bilateral ties. Ahead of the press conference, the two signed various deals relating to both countries’ financial, tourism and agricultural sectors. President Maduro underlined that investors from Turkey would be welcomed and should look no further than Venezuela when assessing where to invest in Latin America and the Caribbean. He added that Turkish businesses would be given all the “legal guarantees” to ensure smooth operations, allowing Venezuela to become an entry point into Latin America and the Caribbean for Turkey’s most important exports. In 2021 bilateral trade between the two countries totaled US$850m, a significant leap from US$150m in 2019 according to official figures from the Turkish government. President Erdogan tweeted that the objective for the future is for bilateral trade to reach US$3bn. 

Brazil

On 8 June, the leaders of Brazil’s two most-established centrist parties, Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB) and Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (MDB,) agreed in principle to launch MDB senator Simone Tebet as their presidential candidate, making her the standard bearer of what is left of the ‘Third Way’.

Analysis:

Polls show the October election is a two-horse race between the rightwing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011). So, nobody else really matters much. Except that the more candidates there are, especially to the left of centre, the less likely Lula is to win outright in the first round. Tebet’s candidacy is also significant because she is only one of two women with any kind of support among 13 presidential candidates.

  • Yesterday the PSDB head Bruno Araújo agreed with the MDB leadership on Tebet after sorting out impasses on alliances in several states. PSDB senator Tasso Jereissati is seen as Tebet’s possible running mate.
  • This election will mark the first time in its history that the PSDB, which has been plagued by infighting and high-profile intrigues, will not field its own presidential candidate.
  • One by one, potential candidates that could have blazed the trail of a third way fell by the wayside. Bolsonaro’s former justice minister Sergio Moro (2019-2020) was the first to drop out, in late March. Then on 23 May former governor of São Paulo and centre-right businessman João Doria gave up.
  • A PoderData opinion poll taken 5-7 June showed support for Lula and Bolsonaro virtually unchanged from two weeks earlier at 43% and 35%, respectively. In a possible run-off vote between the two alone, Lula would win 50%-40%. A Datafolha opinion poll in May gave Lula a lead of over 20 percentage points.
  • Moro suffered another setback this week when the top electoral court (TSE) denied him the right to run for office in São Paulo. The former judge, who was instrumental in putting Lula behind bars in a corruption conviction that has since been overturned, has seen his political ambitions repeatedly frustrated and is now looking for a public office to bid for in his home state, Rio Grande do Sul.

Looking Ahead: Lula has governed with the MDB before and Tebet’s performance in the first round will help determine the price she and her party can charge for her endorsement of Lula in the second round.

* Brazil’s national statistics institute (Ibge) has updated its forecast for the 2022 harvest of grains, cereals, legumes, and oilseeds, predicting a record harvest of 263.0m tonnes – up 0.6% on Ibge’s last harvest forecast in May. The predicted year-on-year increase is driven by a surge in corn cultivation, which is forecast to rise by 27.6% this year, compensating for predicted reductions in the cultivation of soybean (-12.1%) and rice (-8.4%).

Central America & Caribbean

On 8 June Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel accused the US of stimulating irregular migration through its policy on Cuba and the “economic war” waged on the island.

Analysis:

President Díaz-Canel’s familiar anti-US rhetoric coincided with an address to the Summit of the Americas (SoA), which the US is hosting from 6-10 June, by US President Joe Biden. The US government’s decision to exclude Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from SoA, which led other regional leaders such as Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador not to attend, has overshadowed the event, which was intended to underline US re-engagement with the region and in which migration is expected to be a key topic.

  • Cuban migration to the US has surged in recent months. This recently prompted the first bilateral migration talks since 2018 and was widely believed to be behind the US’s decision announced last month to ease restrictions on travel and remittances.
  • Biden said yesterday that a Summit declaration on migration would be issued tomorrow (10 June) which he described as a “ground-breaking, integrated new approach to managing migration and sharing responsibility,” although he provided few specifics.
  • As part of efforts to counter China’s growing clout in the region – a clear objective for the US – President Biden yesterday unveiled a new economic plan, entitled the “Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity”. With the details yet to be fleshed out, key areas of focus are: reinvigorating regional economic institutions and mobilising investment; creating resilient supply chains; broadening participation in the formal economy; creating clean energy jobs and advancing decarbonisation and biodiversity protection; and ensuring sustainable and inclusive trade.
  • Other initiatives that the US administration has announced in relation to the Summit include US$331m in new funding for food security and humanitarian assistance in the Americas; a programme to train 500,000 health workers in the Americas over the next five years; and a new Caribbean climate partnership that will help Caribbean countries access low-carbon energy sources.

Looking Ahead: One test for President Biden in relation to getting regional leaders onside is likely to come today (9 June) when he is expected to meet Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro for a bilateral meeting. Bolsonaro publicly supported former US president Donald Trump (2017-2021) in the 2020 US elections and he and Biden disagree on protection of the Amazon among a range of other issues.

* El Salvador’s central bank (BCR) has released new figures which show the country’s monthly inflation was 0.91% in May, bringing the year-on-year rate to 7.48%, the highest rate of the last 12 months. Up from 0.50% monthly inflation in April, when year-on-year inflation was 6.55%, the May 2022 figure compares with monthly inflation of 0.03% in May 2021 and year-on-year inflation of 2.59%. Back in March President Nayib Bukele announced 11 measures aimed at reducing the impact of the increase in energy prices stemming from the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Mexico

On 8 June Mexico’s Instituto Federal de Defensoría Pública (IFDP), a government-funded legal aid agency, reported that a woman was released from Santa Martha Acatitla prison in Mexico City (CDMX), the first such case following a visit to the facility last month by Arturo Zaldívar, the president of Mexico’s supreme court (SCJN), which uncovered widespread violations of women's rights.

Analysis:

Without naming the woman in question, the IFDP said she had been in prison for 16 years on minor charges and, despite a court order requiring her release 18 months ago, had remained unjustly incarcerated, mainly because she had been denied an “adequate legal defence”. The IFDP had been able to secure her release and return to her family, noting that she was the main source of household income, responsible for looking after a daughter and granddaughter.

  • The case has been taken as an example of how Mexican women can be ‘forgotten’ in a bureaucratic and inhumane prison system. Their plight was highlighted after Zaldívar met 220 women prisoners on a visit to Santa Martha Acatitla jail on 11 May.
  • On 18 May he ordered a series of measures to protect the rights of female prisoners. One was to secure “immediate, effective and quality legal advice” for detainees through the IFDP.
  • Zaldívar was reportedly shocked by the large number of women prisoners in ‘preventive detention’. In many cases these women had spent two or more years in jail before their trial had even commenced. Some women had been in pre-trial detention on minor, and sometimes allegedly fabricated charges, for up to seven or eight years.
  • Zaldívar said their situation was “alarming” and justified calls for a wider review of the preventive detention system. He called for the criminal justice system to be more sensitive, and for officials to understand that behind paperwork and case numbers there are real life stories.
  • IFDP said the released woman had like many others been “forgotten and abandoned” in the system, noting that it had discovered 25 cases of imprisoned women where all legal paperwork has been lost.

Looking Ahead: It is not clear whether the SCJN and other institutions are willing and able to implement major reforms. Zaldívar has however proposed a number of short-term measures, including obligatory case reviews after two years of preventive detention, and efforts to fast track requests for prisoner releases.

* The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has lowered its growth forecast for Mexico for 2022 and 2023 to 1.9% and 2.1% respectively, down from 2.3% and 2.6% in its previous (February) forecast. According to its report, “consumption will be supported by the gradual improvement in the labour market, remittances, and the increasing share of the population vaccinated” against the coronavirus (Covid-19). The OECD expects that exports will continue to benefit from deep integration in global value chains and a gradual recovery in tourism. Planned public infrastructure projects will benefit investment. The OECD predicts that inflation will stand at 6.9% in 2022 and edge down to 4.4% in 2023.

Southern Cone

On 8 June Chile’s state-owned mining firm Codelco confirmed that it had voluntarily shut down its Ventanas smelter and refinery in Valparaíso province.

Analysis:

The announcement follows the decision by Chile’s environmental regulator (SMA) to order provisional measures for Codelco and AES Andes, a firm which owns a power plant in Ventanas, on 7 June after over 100 residents in Quintero and Puchuncaví municipalities, including many schoolchildren, were hospitalised, suffering headaches, fainting, and vomiting. This has been attributed to air pollution amid reports of high levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the atmosphere. With a copper smelter, coal-fired generators, cement and chemical plants, the Quintero-Puchuncaví industrial hub has for years been notorious for high levels of pollution, causing it to be dubbed ‘Chile’s Chernobyl’.

  • As well as requesting temporary shutdowns of industrial activity, the authorities have also ordered an investigation and closed schools.
  • An estimated 50,000 people live close to the industrial plants.
  • In August-September 2018, a peak in air pollution in the area affected over 1,700 residents, most of whom were schoolchildren, triggering industrial shutdowns and the suspension of classes. In 2019 the government announced a five-year plan to reduce air pollution in the area by 91%.
  • AES Andes said it was not responsible for the surge in emissions but would follow any recommendations made by the SMA. Codelco said it was also following government recommendations, installing a new temperature sensor and improving ventilation.
  • However, the mayor of Puchuncaví, Marco Morales, accused local firms of lying about the real level of their emissions. The Valparaíso public prosecutor’s office said it would open an investigation into the incident.
  • The case has provoked responses from the national legislature. Senator Francisco Chahuán from right-wing opposition party Renovación Nacional (RN), said he would file a request for an injunction and a criminal complaint against Codelco, forcing it to keep the smelter closed until all health protocols had been completed.
  • In the lower house the left-wing Partido por la Democracia (PPD) said it would demand a review of the environmental operating licenses held by companies operating in the industrial hub.

Looking Ahead: The new government led by President Gabriel Boric promised action to protect the environment during last year’s election campaign, suggesting it will now come under pressure to order a more rigorous clean-up at Quintero-Puchuncaví.

* Chile’s national statistics institute (INE) has announced that monthly inflation in May was 1.2%, driven by higher food and transportation prices, bringing the year-on-year rate to 11.5%. The monthly figure is down from 1.4% in April, but the year-on-year rate is up from 10.5%. The latest figures come the day after Chile’s central bank (BCCh) raised the country’s benchmark interest rate from 8.25% to 9.0% in response to mounting inflation. Chile closed 2021 with annual inflation of 7.2% in December, its highest level in 14 years and significantly above the BCCh’s target range of 2-4% for 2021.

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