#hotLatinAmericatakes from a busy weekend

It was a busy weekend in Latin America and I have a few quick takes on some of the biggest things that happened.

  1. Last week, as poll after poll showed Daniel Scioli, the presidential candidate for Argentina’s ruling Frente para la Victoria (FPV, Victory Front) coalition within striking distance of winning the 40 percent plus a ten percent margin of victory necessary for a first round victory, I wondered on Twitter what structural factors would be required for a Peronist candidate to not be favored in a nationwide election. Essentially, if 30 percent inflation, rising unemployment and poverty and stagnant growth weren’t enough to prevent the FPV from coasting to victory, what would be? To some degree, Sunday’s results, with Scioli winning less than 37 percent of the vote with only a 2.5 percent margin over his closest competitor, Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri of the center-right PRO party, indicated that the built-in pro-Peronist margin isn’t nearly as significant as the polls seemed to indicated.

    Of course, all of this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Scioli is still very likely to win, for reasons both above board and not. For one, the Peronist advantage is still significant, and third place finisher, dissident Peronist Sergio Massa’s 22 percent of the electorate is likely to break more than 50 percent toward Scioli, meaning Marcri would need to dominate the swing voters from the other first round candidates to overcome that margin. Additionally, Scioli, who is the outgoing governor, will probably improve his position in the massive province of Buenos Aires in the second round. In the first round, he was probably pulled down a bit by the FPV candidate for governor, Aníbal Fernández, who is among the most unpopular politicians in the country. Fernández lost to PRO candidate María Eugenia Vidal, taking the governorship out of Peronist hands for the first time in 30 years. Without Fernández’s toxic brand on the ballot, Scioli will improve his position at least slightly, pushing his margin even closer to 50 percent. Beyond that, Scioli will benefit from Cristina Kirchner’s willingness to use the full resources of the state to push his candidacy. If she was willing to use a cadena nacional to transparently campaign for her sister-in-law’s gubernatorial campaign in Santa Cruz, there is little reason to imagine that Scioli won’t benefit from a similar treatment.

  2. In Venezuela, Franklin Nieves, one of the prosecutors who led the trial against Leopoldo López that culiminated in a nearly 14 year prison sentence, has fled Venezuela and, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, denounced the entire proceeding as a sham trial, claiming he was pressured by his superiors. To anyone even vaguely aware of the case, this was obvious from the start. López was convicted of using subliminal messages to incite his followers to commit acts of violence during nationwide protests in February, 2014. Beyond the laughably ridiculous charges, López was not allowed to present evidence in his favor or even call witnesses. Moreover, one of the key prosecution witnesses, a linguist who was supposed to “prove” how his speech calling for peaceful protest actually was inciting violence, testified that was not the case.

    The upshot of this is that it casts into further relief what most anyone paying attention to Venezuela already knew; the Venezuelan judiciary is subservient to the executive and Leopoldo López is a political prisoner convicted in a show trial. That said, it is unlikely to change anything on the ground in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government has already branded Nieves as under the influence of “foreign factors” and it’s unlikely anyone who didn’t already know the López trial was a sham suddenly cares about that more than the economic crisis currently afflicting the country. The more likely effect of this is that it will continue to erode Venezuela’s support abroad. Every time someone from within the government flees the country and confirms the worst things about what’s going on, it becomes harder for Venezuela’s democratic enablers like Brazil to continue backing them and covering for them in organizations like the OAS and Unasur.

  3. For their story on Guatemala’s presidential runoff on Sunday, The Washington Post has a suitably click-baity headline: “The ‘Donald Trump of Guatemala’ was just elected president”. This isn’t the worst thing you’ll see on Latin America in a US newspaper, but it’s incredibly facile. Jimmy Morales shares some superficial similarities to Trump; a celebrity-cum-politician who has never been elected to office and represents an anti-establishment option. However, while Trump has run on a platform that focus on white resentment politics (anti-immigrant, pro-welfare state for the “right” people, nationalist economic policy), Morales’s appeal comes from his anti-corruption platform and an appeal among Guatemala’s indigenous majority. He certainly has his red flags, especially since the party he represents is closely linked with military officers who fought in Guatemala’s long and bloody civil war, which is considered by many experts to have been a genocide. What he is not is a Donald Trump-like figure and it’s annoying that they’d misrepresent him so badly simply for the “Donald Trump” clicks.

They’re not rallying around the flag, they’re just standing in line

On Monday, in a bit of a surprise, Barack Obama signed an executive order that labelled Venezuela a an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” as a legal condition for imposing sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials. Predictably, the Venezuelan government freaked out, calling the actions a grave attack on Venezuela and its sovereignty. Less predictably, many US media outlets ran the story from the perspective that this would provide a boost to president Nicolás Maduro.

A lot of this argument rests on the idea that Venezuelans are likely both to believe that this is an attack on Venezuela and not just officials accused of corruption and human rights abuses and to care. I’m not convinced of either of these things. For one, Maduro has spent most of his presidency, and in particular the last several months, blaming the US for just about everything. In fact, it was not even a month ago that his government “foiled” a US-backed coup, evidence for which he has announced was forthcoming on multiple, fruitless occasions. Maduro has blamed the US so consistently and baselessly for so long, that it’s unlikely that anyone that didn’t already believe him suddenly does just because seven bureaucrats who are either unknown or unloved lost their US visas.

Another argument is that this has strengthened his position by giving him a pretext to request a Ley Habilitante Antiimperialista, which would give him the power to rule by decree for six months. But this sounds like a bigger deal than it really is. Venezuela’s institutions have been hollowed out so much by this point that there are virtually no real checks on the president’s authority to act. More than anything, this is a vestigial impulse to provide a modicum of democratic cover to the government’s authoritarianism. In a country where the president brags on television about his personal role in bringing charges against an opponent and where multiple members of the National Assembly have been summarily stripped of their seats, any Ley Habilitante is just a formality that simply takes the rubber-stamp congress out of the process.

Finally, there is some speculation that this might make other Latin American governments less likely to speak up. This is probably true. However, no major country in Latin America was ever likely to say anything anyway. So, in reality, the choice was between the US acting against Venezuela’s human rights abusers and Latin American countries feeling relieved they had an excuse to not say anything and the US not doing anything, and Latin America countries still finding a reason to not say anything. The strongest reaction in Latin America “against” Venezuela in the past year was Brazil’s foreign ministry, “expressing concern” at the actions of both sides after a Venezuelan police officer shot a 14 year old student in the head and killed him during a protest. That says a lot.

If anything, this move might fire up Maduro’s base. The average Venezuelan, it seems, will probably be making jokes about this while they stand in line hoping to be able to buy toilet paper and milk.

Evo, Rafa and the SIDH

An interesting piece from Ecuador about joint declarations from Evo Morales and Rafael Correa about attempts to reform the Inter-American Human Rights System. A couple of quick thoughts:

  1. Anytime leaders who count among the dozen who back Bashar Assad in Syria talk about the need to reform the SIDH (Sistema Interamericana de Derechos Humanos), I get suspicious. That said, they do make a very good point about the hypocrisy of Inter-America Commission on Human Rights being based out of Washington, DC when the United States hasn’t ratified the treaty.
  2. Until a Latin American leader explains how forcing Kelpers (people who live in the Falklands) to become part of Argentina against their will isn’t tantamount to colonizing the islands, I will remain firmly on the side of the Kelpers’ right to self-determination over Argentina’s territorial claims.
  3. In the piece, Correa and Morales are reported as mentioning three separate regional organizations through which they want to advance their reforms. I think this is symptomatic of a disease that runs throughout the region’s governments of creating lots of different organizations (or ministries or commissions) that all do roughly the same thing. I have difficulty imagining how spreading out the functions of human rights protection across the OAS, Unasur, ALBA and CECLAC (Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños) will be more effective than centralizing them into one or two of those organizations… unless the whole point is to dilute the power of human rights enforcement in the region.