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Ecuador's President Rafael Correa gestures at the end of a meeting with the foreign press at the government palace in Quito, Ecuador, Jan. 2014. Correa has been in power since 2007. (Dolores Ochoa/AP)

Does Ecuador's leader aspire to a perpetual presidency?

By Tim RogersGuest blogger / 04.11.14

• A version of this post ran on the author's Nicaragua Dispatch blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, fresh into his third consecutive term in the presidency, appears to be coming down with a chronic case of “reelection fever” — something that affects a growing number of Latin American leaders.

Speaking to a group at the Harvard Kennedy School on Wednesday evening, the Ecuadorian leader said he’s mustering his strength to fight off the temptation of a never-ending presidency, but symptomatic sniffles suggest his defenses are weakening.

“In 2017, I want to retire from the presidency and from politics, but it’s not always possible to do what [you] want,” he said coyly. In Ecuador, Correa explained, “the people” are in power. And “the people” love him. With an 80 percent approval rating, the people might press Correa to run for a fourth term in office.

Ecuador’s constitution prevents Correa from seeking reelection in 2017, but rarely is the law a barrier to personal ambition in weak institutional democracies — especially in Latin America.

“Circumstances change,” Correa said with a winsome smile. “We are a sovereign nation, not a colony.”

A cooling toward presidents-for-life 

Reelection in Latin America has been associated with the most abusive dictatorships of the 20th century. When democracy finally took root in the second half of the last century, most countries scrubbed reelection from their constitutions to prevent a repeat of the past.

Today, 16 Latin American countries allow some type of reelection, while only five — El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Paraguay — ban election altogether. In most cases reelection is limited to non-consecutive terms or two consecutive terms, while Ecuador allows the president to run for three consecutive terms. In 1990, the Dominican Republic was the only democracy in the region that still allowed presidential reelection, according to Latin America expert Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University.

But the nouveau authoritarian regimes of Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Carlos Menem in Argentina changed their countries’ constitutions to allow for reelection in the mid 1990s, starting a new wave of reforms. They were followed by Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil and Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, who won reelection in 2004 but was blocked from seeking a third term by a 2010 constitutional court ruling.

Only Nicaragua and Venezuela allow unlimited reelection, creating the possibility of president-for-life.

And only in Nicaragua has reelection fever metastasized to the point where even the most corrupt and inept public officials are reelected on all levels of government, denying the country any semblance of democratic accountability or institutional credibility. The Sandinista-dominated congress this week reelected almost all of the 50-plus de facto magistrates, prosecutors, judges and lesser apparatchiks, while thoughtfully replacing those who died in the office — the fastest way out.

The ALBA brand of indefinite reelection institutionalized by Nicaragua and Venezuela — a model for perpetual power pondered by allies Ecuador and Bolivia — is unprecedented in democratic Latin America, Levitsky says.

“Only under the dictatorships of the past — the days of Porfirio Diaz in Mexico, and the Somozas in Nicaragua — were presidents reelected for life,” Levitsky told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “Under democracy the demand in Latin America has always been to oppose indefinite reelection, because of the dictatorships of the past.”

That’s why other Latin American countries have been more careful about implementing reelection, and respectful of established term limits.

“When Brazil’s Lula finished his second term in 2010, he had an 80 percent approval rating. But when he was asked about the possibility of seeking a third term, he said no because that would be bad for democratic institutions,” Levitsky says. “That’s a sign of how far Brazil’s democracy has come.”

Overall, the jury is still out about whether reelection in Latin America will strengthen governability or undermine democratic institutions, Levitsky says. But if anything is to be learned from the past it’s that unlimited reelection is a bad idea in countries with inchoate institutions, a one-party rule, and a questionable commitment to democracy.

“In Nicaragua, Venezuela and Ecuador, reelection is associated with the same problems of 100 years ago,” Levitsky says.

A doctor examines a young patient at a health center in the city of Jiquitaia in the state of Bahia in northeastern Brazil in this Nov. 2013 file photo. (Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters)

Trading wellness tips, Brazil's community workers plug primary health gaps

By Staff writer / 04.10.14

Marcia Cristina Bonfante and Adriana Siqueira Lima live in the same neighborhood in western São Paulo and have daughters around the same age. But when Ms. Bonfante drops by her neighbor's house, it's more than a simple social call. As a community health worker, Bonfante makes hundreds of such calls every month.

Bonfante and four other government-paid community workers service over 2,000 families in their neighborhood of Coahab Raposo Tavares. They inquire about the family, recent health concerns, and share tips on hazards such as stagnant water that might attract dengue-spreading mosquitoes.

Today Bonfante asks Ms. Lima about her recently broken toe and checks if anyone in the home has had a cough for more than three weeks – a possible sign of tuberculosis, which has been on the rise in the area. 

Last summer when protests against poor public services spread across Brazilian cities, one recurring complaint was over access to quality health care. Such complaints weren't new – in 2011, almost 78 percent of Brazilians reported dissatisfaction with public hospitals, according to a Latinobarómetro poll – but watching the government spend billions of dollars on World Cup-related projects, rather than healthcare, stirred popular frustration. 

Brazil’s 1988 constitution guarantees universal health care. And the country has made progress on public health indicators, cutting the prevalence of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, offering universal access to treatment, and reducing infant mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2011. (The mortality rate for children under 5 is now 15.6 per thousand.) But access to quality care is quite limited, with significant variation not only among regions but also often among different neighborhoods of the same city.

According to a 2002 study by the National Institute of Health, the poorest Brazilians have “less access to health insurance, greater need for medical care, and lower consumption of such services.” In 2013, the United Nations found that the richest 20 percent of Brazil’s population are twice as likely to receive prenatal care as the poorest 20 percent of the country.

Income inequality and health

“Income inequality is a core characteristic of Brazil,” says Alexandre Chiavegatto Filho, assistant professor at the University of São Paulo who studies the intersection of income inequality and health. When inequality in a neighborhood or city is high, there are also higher rates of mortality.

The community health worker model was first launched in the late 1980s in northeastern Brazil. It reached Bonfante's neighborhood in 2002, which is when she joined up. The program, which consists of multiple teams made up of one doctor, nurse, and nurse assistant, along with about five community health workers, expanded across the country when it was shown to decrease infant and maternal mortality rates in participating communities.

The idea is for patients and doctors to connect more regularly than via sporadic visits to ​a clinic. It focuses on preventative care and creates a link to basic health services for Brazilians who are far removed ​or financially excluded ​from care.

Lima lives more than 40 minutes by foot from the closest primary care provider, the UBS Jardin Boa Vista. The clinic opened in 1996 and has roughly 100 people on staff, including medical professionals. It is the only public clinic serving a densely populated area of nearly 20,000 people.

“Before the [community] health program, primary care meant clinical consultations,” says Dr. Janos Valery Gyuricza, who works at the Boa Vista clinic. Now that community workers check in with patients in their homes, “we can​ see social issues as health [issues]​.”

Cross-town trek

But there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Lima broke her toe two months ago – on a Sunday. The Boa Vista clinic was closed, which meant a long cross-town multiple-bus trip to find an emergency room. 

Non-emergency treatment can also be tricky. If Lima wants a mammogram this year, she could wait more than four months to get an appointment, Bonfante says. ​And despite Bonfante’s 12 years working as a ​paid ​community health liaison, she has never gone through a training program or received formal medical instruction.

As Bonfante walks out of the squeaky gate of Lima’s apartment complex, a young woman stops her on the street to ask how she can schedule a prenatal checkup. This is what Bonfante does best: consult and guide those in need of health services.   

Unfortunately, this woman doesn’t live within the Boa Vista clinic's​ neighborhood limits, Bonfante says. The expectant mother will have to find another place to go.

Whitney Eulich reported from Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP)

A police officer gestures for vehicles to stop as security forces are deployed in Escuintla, Guatemala, March 11, 2014. (Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters)

Report puts Guatemala national police under the microscope

By Patrick CorcoranInSight Crime / 04.03.14

Patrick Corcoran contributes to InSight Crime, which researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Opinions are the author's own.

A new report from a US researcher examines the performance of Guatemala's national police force, finding that despite a years-long boost in budgetary resources, the body is underperforming amid an enduring wave of violence.

The report, titled "How are police doing in combating crime? An exploratory study of efficiency analysis of the Policia Nacional Civil in Guatemala," was written by Erik Alda, a PhD candidate in the Department of Justice, Law, and Society at American University.

The issue of how Guatemala's National Police (PNC) are performing is of vital importance, for interrelated reasons including: the lingering legacy of widespread state-sanctioned violence during the country's civil war, years of increasing bloodshed stemming from organized crime, and the incursion of Mexican gangs such as the Zetas. Against such a catalog of challenges, Guatemala will be unable to move forward without improving its police capacity.

Mr. Alda reports at the beginning of his study that if spending is any measure, this capacity should have vastly improved since the force was created in 1997. He states: "[T]he Guatemalan government has invested more than 20 billion Quetzales [$2.5 billion] since 2000 to maintain and strengthen the PNC, an average increase of 15 percent annually."

However, for most of this period, homicide rates increased essentially in tandem with budget allocations for the PNC. Despite two years of decline, the murder rate in 2011 (the most current year measured in Alda's study) was 57 percent higher than in 2000. The reasons for this discrepancy are the focus of the report.

InSight Crime Analysis

One problem the report flags is that despite the increased spending, the PNC is still too small relative to the size of the population. The UN recommends that a country employ at least 222 police officers for every 100,000 residents. According to the report, he PNC currently boasts manpower of 14,000 officers, which gives it 162 police per 100,000 residents, one of the region's lowest police to civilian ratios. (Other sources indicate that the PNC actually has 30,000 officers in service, which would give it 194 police per 100,000 residents.)

Regardless of these numerical deficiencies, though, the police in service are not performing up to par. Alda employs a series of data envelopment analysis tests to measure the PNC's results in Guatemala's 22 departments. Such tests attach a numerical score to a series of inputs and outputs that serve as proxies for police performance, from the homicide clearance rate to the number of police cars. Alda found a sufficient performance from the PNC in only four of Guatemala's 22 provinces. In the remaining 18, Alda deemed the PNC's results insufficient.

The report flags a number of reasons for these poor scores. One is that increased investment in the PNC was not done in a well-planned, targeted manner, nor was it coupled with cost reductions in other areas. As a result, much of the increased spending did little to improve results in the PNC or contribute to a safer Guatemala.

The report settles on three major factors limiting the PNC: the lack of operational capacity, especially with regard to carrying investigations to their conclusion; the quantity of PNC resources not allocated to activities directly aimed at lowering crime rates; and the variety of external factors complicating the environment in which the PNC operates, such as the broader population's level of education, unemployment, inequality, and other socioeconomic barriers. Alda also notes the lack of continuity in the PNC leadership and the agency that houses it, the Interior Ministry, as a further factor limiting police development.

Like other recent studies of government anti-crime programs in other countries, this report shows that massive spending increases may be necessary, but they alone are not sufficient to increase institutional capacity, much less improve conditions in violence-riddled regions and cities.

Latin America-watchers in the US typically call for more attention to security from the US government, which often translates into more security aid. This was essentially the pattern with the Merida Initiative and Plan Colombia. However, while a couple years of US aid could perhaps deliver some marginal improvement in the PNC's investigative capacity, the barriers to a more effective national police force are largely unresponsive to cash.[...]

Furthermore, US aid often tends to be concentrated in areas where it can deliver a significant result in a short time with minimum manpower committed. This was the dynamic behind the focus on helicopters in the original incarnation of the Merida Initiative, despite the fact that helicopters did little to address the causes of violence in Mexico.

As in much of Latin America, the factors driving insecurity in Guatemala are firmly entrenched. There is no shortcut to political stability and continuity among top policymakers. The socioeconomic factors complicating police operations are not going away anytime soon. Recent improvements in the Guatemalan crime rate are encouraging, but the task remains daunting.

Policemen patrol during an operation to install a Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) in the Vila Kennedy favela, in Rio de Janeiro, March 13, 2014. (Felipe Dana/AP)

Peace in Brazil's favelas? 5 challenges facing police units

By Rachel GlickhouseGuest blogger / 04.02.14

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

As troops stormed Rio's Maré favela on Sunday to prepare to install a permanent police presence as a part of the city's security strategy, the so-called pacification program is coming under increasing scrutiny.

The program, which began in 2008, installs permanent police stations in the city's favelas in a bid to impose a state presence where there previously had been none. Around 174 communities have been "pacified" so far.

But recently, the cracks have begun to show more clearly and the illusion of peace has frayed. [So far] in 2014, four military police have been killed in pacified favelas. And last week, three pacification police officers were shot in several pacified communities, with attacks in three different favelas. One pacification station was destroyed. Reports of shoot-outs in Rocinha, Complexo de Alemão, and Pavão-Pavãozinho favelas have once again become more common.

The Rio government has made this out to be a black and white issue involving the city's drug traffickers. Governor Sérgio Cabral said the recent attacks were an attempt by traffickers to "weaken the victorious policy of pacification that has retaken territories historically occupied by criminals to control public power." Rio Security Secretary José Beltrame commented that one of the trafficking groups, the Red Command, "is finding itself trapped, with much less territory than it had eight years ago. Of course it's going to react."

But the truth is more complex.

I've compiled some of the issues that are at play in the city's pacification strategy, including long-term challenges.

1. The branding of the strategy reveals exactly what's missing from it.

The strategy is called pacification, and the permanent police stations are called police pacification units, or UPPs. While there's an element of peace in this concept, it has to do with power and violence, and not with development or the vast majority of people living in the favelas. Inclusion is an afterthought.

Pacification was also designed leading up to the city's mega-events, and given the city's bad rep, it was an appealing sell to the international media. In its own way, the branding of the pacification strategy speaks to a [Mad Men's) Don Draper philosophy: if you don't like what's being said, change the conversation.

2. Pacification has so far failed to integrate communities into the city, because the focus has been on eliminating people rather than empowering them.

So far, the pacification strategy has sought to bring areas of the city under state control. The focus has been to establish a police presence and in theory, chase out, capture, or kill drug traffickers. While at the beginning, there were promises of social services and social programs through UPP Social, these promises have largely failed to materialize. Many pacified favelas have yet to get connected to the city's sanitation system, or even the water system, or to see any new schools or hospitals built.

One reason behind this has to do with bureaucracy and the number of state agencies involved; the other is that the government has preferred flashy infrastructure projects with questionable impact, including cable cars in Alemão and Rocinha. The one in Rocinha, which has yet to be built, is estimated at R$1.6 billion (about $705 million), while the community still has no sanitation and sewage flows openly through the community's streets. It's easier to cut a ribbon on a cable car than a collection of underground pipes.

3. While the public sector has failed to treat favela residents as citizens, the private sector has stepped in to treat them like consumers.

One of the biggest misconceptions about favelas is that they are groups of precarious, ramshackle shanties for the city's poorest. In some cases, that's true, but favelas are also huge communities of permanent homes for the city's growing new middle class. Data Popular, which studies this group of consumers, estimates that 65 percent of Brazil's favela residents belong to the new middle class.

Even though residents are improving their quality of life through better education, higher salaries, and access to consumer goods, the government hasn't done its part to provide the services that citizens require, such as health and education. Members of these communities are among those Brazilians who became consumers, but not citizens in the country's social transformation, as Brazilian philosopher Vladimir Safatle once said.

Meanwhile, the private sector has taken notice. When police first arrive to occupy a favela, businesses notoriously follow the next day, including satellite and cable TV providers. Electronics stores, banks, and other businesses have followed. Last year, plans were announced to build the first favela mall, in the Complexo de Alemão.

4. Pacification hasn't been a silver bullet to prevent violence.

In pacified favelas, homicides are down, but disappearances are up. The murder rate overall has been declining in both Rio state and city, as well as in pacified favelas. But these same communities have also seen a spike in disappearances as efforts are made to hide homicides.

And while some would like to attribute the pacification strategy to the state's decline in homicides, the truth is that the Rio murder rate has generally been falling since the mid-90s. Meanwhile, in the short term, homicides have been going up, as the state's latest numbers for January 2014 show. Citywide, violent crimes have been on the uptick in the past year.

5. The actors haven't changed.

This, I think, is the most important factor. Pacification hasn't replaced the actors responsible for perpetuating this decades-old conflict; it's simply made for faster turnover and more regular contact.

Some recent examples show exactly how that's possible.

Today, federal police arrested five military police stationed in Rocinha's pacification unit. They stand accused of providing intel to the favela's drug traffickers, giving details about ongoing investigations and upcoming operations. Considering that police have traditionally been one of the providers of weapons in favelas, it's not unimaginable that this case of police working with traffickers even after pacification is an isolated incident. Meanwhile, the preliminary investigation into the recent attack on Alemão is looking at an alliance of drug traffickers and community leaders who want to retake control of the favela. 

One of the most controversial aspects of pacification is whether it has really managed to rid favelas of drug traffickers, and the short answer is that it hasn't. While in some cases traffickers have become less visible, they're very much still there. In November, over a year after it was pacified, Rocinha was still moving up to R$10 million (about $4 million) worth of drugs every month.

And all this doesn't even bring into account the city's militias, which have prospered in areas that remain unpacified.

The big question is how to change the actors. But for that, too, there's no silver bullet solution.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog Riogringa.com

Venezuela's opposition leader Maria Corina Machado reacts after inhaling tear gas, April 1, 2014. Venezuelan troops dispersed opposition demonstrators with tear gas on Tuesday and blocked Ms. Corina Machado, recently stripped of her seat in the National Assembly, from reaching the legislature. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Venezuela legislator stripped of congressional seat. What's next for the opposition?

By Hugo Pérez HernáizWOLA / 04.01.14

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz contributes to WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own

 On March 19, Carlos Ocariz, mayor of Caracas’ Sucre Municipality, launched an association of 76 opposition mayors called “Association of Mayors for Venezuela.” The group includes other prominent national and regional opposition figures such as Gerardo Blyde, Mayor of Baruta; Alfredo Barrios, Mayor of Irribaren; David Smolansky, Mayor of El Hatillo; and Antonio Ledezma, Mayor of Metropolitan Caracas.

According to the coalition of opposition parties Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) press release, the new association seems to have specific aims related to the current political juncture: “citizen security, violations of human rights, and criminalization of protests.” However, the fact that the announcement was made by Mr. Ocariz could be significant for future leadership struggles within the opposition. Ocariz belongs to Primero Justicia, the political party headed by Henrique Capriles, the 2012 and 2013 opposition presidential candidate. Through grassroots community work in the poor barrios of Sucre, Ocariz has successfully countered the image of middle class lawyers so often attached to his party. Ocariz has remained a popular local leader and has not yet made the jump to national politics. Becoming the spokesperson of this new mayors’ association could provide him with a platform for national leadership.

This is in part because opposition mayors have gained increasing prominence in the last two months, largely as a result of the national government’s response to the ongoing protests. In March, Venezuela’s highest court, the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ), ordered several opposition mayors to prevent the “placement of obstacles in public streets,” in their municipalities. The order was aimed against the guarimbas (barricades) used in protests, but it put the mayors in the difficult position of possibly having to repress their own constituencies. Subsequently, on March 19, Vicencio Scarano, the Mayor of San Diego, in Carabobo State, was sentenced to 10 months and 15 days in prison for failing to obey the orders of the TSJ.

On March 25, the Mayor of San Cristobal, in Táchira state, Daniel Ceballos, was also sentenced to a prison term of 12 months by the TSJ. The Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) diligently informed the public on March 20 that it had received the notification of “absolute absence” of the Mayor of San Diego and that new elections would be called for the post. On March 26, President Nicolás Maduro announced that the government has already decided on two candidates to run for the posts of San Diego and San Cristobal. These actions by the government have put a nationwide focus on mayors who otherwise would likely have remained local political figures.

Other opposition leaders have also received much attention in recent weeks. On March 24, the President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello announced that Assembly member Maria Corina Machado would be stripped of her assembly post because of her failed attempt to address the Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Washington. Panama had ceded its seat in the OAS to Machado but Venezuela managed to block her intervention. The acceptance by Machado to sit for Panama at the OAS would contravene, according to Mr. Cabello, articles 191 and 197 of the Constitution that state that Assembly representatives cannot accept posts from foreign countries. Cabello asked that she be also put under investigation for “treason to the fatherland” by siding with a “hostile country” (Panama). On Monday March 31 Venezuela’s Supreme Court (TSJ) upheld that Machado be stripped of her seat at the National Assembly, which means that Machado has lost her parliamentary immunity and could be arrested under the same charges of inciting the protests as Leopoldo López.

The episode has placed Ms. Machado as the leader of the most confrontational opposition sector, demanding La Salida. The other leader of La Salida, Leopoldo Lopez, is still in jail and mostly out of the public spotlight, although he recently managed to answer a written interview to CNN En Español. Machado, however, belongs to an old aristocratic family, and it seems unlikely that her leadership can go beyond the traditional opposition support groups.

Mr. Capriles’ leadership of the opposition has been put into question since the opposition’s poor showing in the December 2013 elections. Since the protests erupted in February, he has tried to find a middle course, asking for peaceful demonstrations and dialogue with the government. The violence of the protests and the heavy-handed crackdowns by the government has seemingly left him out of place in a radicalized context. Recently, he has tried to strike a more confrontational tone by threatening to take the Miranda barrios out to the streets if the government denies him the state’s share of the national budget. He also made a strong warning about the cases of the Mayors of San Diego and San Cristobal.

Last week the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), after a two day visit of its delegation to Venezuela, published a statement recognizing the willingness to dialogue by all parties. UNASUR recommended the participation of a “witness of good faith to facilitate the dialogue between the parties.” It is still not clear if UNASUR itself could be that witness of good faith. On March 28 the Vatican made public its willingness to act as witness for the dialogues. In his meeting with the UNASUR delegation, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo stated that the opposition would be willing to go to a dialogue with the government mediated by a witness of good faith, but also mentioned that they would not attend without the setting of a clear agenda. If future talks are convened with the presence of a witness of good faith – be it UNASUR, the Vatican, or a different organization – leadership within the opposition could become further divided between those who decide to attend those talks and those who don’t.

Water flows in a usually dry riverbed of Mexico's Colorado River March 26, 2014, in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico. (Gregory Bull/AP)

An unusual sight: Water flows in Mexico's Colorado River

By Tim JohnsonMcClatchy / 04.01.14

The Mexicans living along the dry bed of the Colorado River near its delta on the Sea of Cortez are seeing something unusual: agua.

A release of water from a dam at the US-Mexico border means that water is flowing again toward the parched delta of the shared river on Mexico's Sea of Cortez, and it is bringing joy. Water hasn't reached the delta in many years.

The goal of the release of 100,000 acre-feet of water is to restore the Colorado River's flow in Mexico and restore wetlands along the shores of the dry riverbed. Some 300,000 migrating birds once called the delta home.

In building the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams more than half a century ago, the United States started blocking and diverting the Colorado River, eventually siphoning it dry before it could reach its delta. Some 70 percent of its waters go to cropland along its US course. And it slakes the thirst of 30 million people in seven US states and parts of northwest Mexico.

The release of the water this week came when authorities opened the gates on the Morelos Dam, which sits between Yuma, Ariz., and Los Algodones, Mexico.

Authorities are releasing the water in pulses to simulate spring floods from snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains. Some 130 million cubic meters of water will be released over 57 days through May 18, the Secretariat of Foreign Relations said Friday.

The water for the pulse isn't coming at the expense of US consumers and farmers.

It's water from Lake Mead that Mexico banked there as part of its own allotment. According to this Outside Magazine online article, the water being restored to Mexico is less than 1 percent of the river's average annual flow.

"Today we're seeing the first result of our two nations spirit of cooperation dealing with one of the most challenging aspects of Colorado watershed management," US Consul General Andrew Erickson said in a speech at the Morelos Dam last week. Mr. Erickson runs the US consulate in Tijuana.

The pulse hit its peak Thursday but is expected to continue at a slower rate for the next eight weeks.

Is Brazil 'shedding its skin'?

By Julia MichaelsGuest blogger / 03.31.14

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

“How do we dialogue with a cynic?” two young people asked during a Rio de Encontros gathering this past week, at the Casa do Saber. Others, also university students who live in favelas, echoed the question.

Luiz Eduardo Soares, anthropologist, activist, public safety specialist, and state public safety coordinator from 1999 to 2000, was the speaker. The title of the gathering, “How to make dialogue in the city feasible?” assumed such dialogue was possible in the first place.

But the young people in attendance had doubts. Cínico, cynic, is the word they use to describe those who maintain the traditional power structure in Rio. The kids are rappers, journalists, human rights activists, artists, community organizers. Many are critical of pacification.

One asked Mr. Soares, a student himself during the military dictatorship, if we’re living in a dictatorship now (Soares said no).

Harking back to the punishments of slavery

“Why are people taking justice into their own hands?” asked one audience member, referring to the emblematic case of a group of justiceiros who last month stripped and chained a robbery suspect to a post, using a bike lock. Soares believes that beyond the knee-jerk response of cariocas [people from Rio] who feel neglected by their public safety and justice systems, something else may be going on. He says that on another, more symbolic level, the traditional middle class could be responding to what they see as the encroachment of those emerging from poverty.

“The rolezinhos (social media-coordinated occupations of shopping malls, often by lower-class youth) are evidence of a redefined geopolitics of society,” he explained. “Lynching is a reaction to this. [The] poor and blacks are starting to inhabit new spaces.”

It’s impossible to prove this theory, just as it’s impossible to prove that street protest violence is a reaction to decades of top-down violence in Brazilian society, Sores noted. To many observers on the left, these ideas are intuitively correct. Whether or not they truly are, living with such phenomena is not a tenable national proposition. And so we must move to strengthen our institutions and values, rather than rely on ad-hoc violence or justice to make a point or solve a problem.

One aspect of daily life here that needs no proving is a pervasive top-down attitude. Soares, a proponent of a constitutional amendment to de-militarize the Brazilian police, said that this attitude is largely to blame for the difficulties that pacification now faces in Rio. Police, he explained, need to help manage public safety, not simply follow orders from above. “Professional pride is the the biggest obstacle to police corruption,” he added.

Speaking up and out

How to engage? Is it worth even trying? Is Rio spinning its wheels, putting on a show? Huge questions for all of us, but particularly for those starting out in life. Disillusioned middle- and upper-class cariocas can always take their skills and dreams elsewhere, but what about the kids in the public university quota system, kids on ProUni scholarships at private universities, kids whose parents never dreamed of higher education?

Brazil’s biggest issues arise from inequality and the uneven application of democratic values. Over centuries, weak institutions with spotty access led to the creation of a parallel authoritarian system of networks of favors and payoffs, of justice and retribution, of lawmaking and information flows.

“It’s depressing, to keep on making the same old errors,” noted Soares. But then he went on to point out that, twenty or thirty years ago, “this auditorium would be unlikely.”

On the one hand, he said, many people blame an unspecified eles, “them,” for all that’s wrong. “This speaks of impotence, there’s no ‘we.’ It’s about a corrosive individualism, victimization. People say, ‘Damn ‘em, I’m just gonna look out for number one’.”

On the other hand, last winter’s street protests didn’t follow the traditional pattern of preparatory meetings to determine demands and activities, then a march with protestors behind a single banner. “Each person made his own sign, with his own message. We’re weaving the ‘we,’ it’s a moment of collective reinvention.” Soares added that Rio’s collectives, such as Norte Comum, are key to the process.

In a sense then, the answer to the young people’s question is to simply keep on making art, communicating, organizing. Soares says even cynics have their weak moments: ”No one is a rock”. Yet, in the midst of growing urban violence and misunderstandings, the personal investment involved is arguable.

What remains to be seen, with a mounting dose of patience, is if Soares is correct when he says Brazil is “shedding its skin.”

– Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a meeting with a South American delegation of foreign ministers at the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. (Fernando Llano/AP)

Venezuela: Can protests end when 'chucky dolls' face off against a 'dictatorial regime'? (+video)

By Catalina Lobo-GuerreroContributor / 03.25.14

A month and a half after antigovernment protests broke out across Venezuela, the conflict is still seething. With at least three more reported killed at demonstrations over the weekend, neither government opponents nor supporters have signaled they're ready to stand down.

In fact, the stakes may be rising. The head of Venezuela's congress said this week that opposition leader and congresswoman Maria Corina Machado had been stripped of her seat and parliamentary immunity and could now be tried for supporting the protests. Roadblocks are being built and maintained, and antigovernment marches swarm the streets in neighborhoods across the nation.

From diplomatic intervention to a third-party negotiator to peace talks, observers say an exit strategy is needed for those involved in the heightening political standoff.

“If the government and opposition can’t reach some sort of truce, the situation will get worse – for both parties,” says Carlos Romero, a political analyst in Venezuela.

So what are Venezuela’s options?

Both sides have insisted on dialogue as the only way to solve the current crisis, which has left at least 34 dead over the course of 41 days. But polarizing language has pocked the calls for peace, enhancing already sky-high levels of distrust between both the government and the opposition.

“Dialogue? Peace? It’s all a trick to buy [President Nicolás] Maduro more time,” says Lucía Anderson, a protester at a rally against the government Saturday. Ms. Anderson, like other opposition demonstrators, sees taking to the streets and pressuring President Maduro as the only way out from the country's troubles – from soaring inflation to shortages of many staple goods and high crime.

The distrust that exists between opposition supporters and the Chavista government dates back more than a decade. In 2002, a coalition of politicians, businessmen, and some members of the military attempted to overthrow then-President Hugo Chávez. When protests first ignited last month, many pointed to the opposition movement as a renewed attempt to remove a democratically elected president from office.

Some say the president, because of his position, should be the one to resolve the present unrest. But Maduro’s National Peace Conference last month took place without the participation of opposition leadership, who claimed the government was looking for a monologue, not a dialogue. A "Truth Commission," created by the National Assembly last week to investigate violence linked to the protests, has also been rejected by the opposition. They say sitting on the committee would show implicit support of alleged acts of government repression.

Rhetoric used to describe opposing sides of the conflict hasn't helped. Maduro has called his adversaries vampires, fascists, terrorists, assassins, and “Chuckys,” the 1990s-era horror-movie icon.

Even government supporters like supermarket supplier Eleazar Carreño say the president’s word choice has exacerbated the crisis. “Maduro is very offensive. That’s not helping at all,” says Mr. Carreño at the Plaza Altamira, the opposition’s stronghold in Caracas, last week. He and other government supporters were there to support the National Guard in clearing the rallying site.

But the opposition is guilty of implementing polarizing language as well, referring to the democratically elected government as a dictatorial and totalitarian regime.

“The excessive use of these labels are preventing a deeper [conversation] and a more profound discussion of the situation,” says Maryclen Stelling, a Venezuelan sociologist and political analyst who heads the Romulo Gallegos Center for Latin American Studies in Caracas.

Looking for a mediator

Both camps have called for a mediator. Pope Francis has expressed his concern, but the government has been reluctant to accept the church as a mediator. The administration argues that in past political crises, including the 2002 coup attempt, members of the church sided with the opposition. A Wikileaks cable from 2005 shows that Merida, Venezuela’s Archbishop Baltazar Porras, an open critic of the government, asked the US government to take a stronger stance against President Chávez. 

Diplomatic intervention hasn't gone over well, either: Maduro cut off ties with Panama after its leader called for a meeting on the crisis at the Washington-based Organization of American States. The president insists that if any multilateral organization gets involved in Venezuela, it should be UNASUR, a bloc of South American nations. UNASUR ambassadors will meet in Caracas this week, a move the opposition's Mr. Capriles doesn't support.

What little pressure has been put on Venezuela up until this point may be helping, however. On Sunday, Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega said her office was looking into 60 cases of possible human rights violations by government troops. 

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated the opposition's position on UNASUR's gathering in Caracas this week.

Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo (middle) appears before Judge Robert Patterson (r.) in court in New York in this March 18, 2014 court sketch. (Jane Rosenberg/Reuters)

Former Guatemalan leader pleads guilty to taking Taiwanese bribes

By Mike AllisonGuest blogger / 03.24.14

Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo admitted in a New York City courtroom that he accepted $2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan in exchange for his country's continued recognition of the island in its ongoing dispute with China. He'll receive somewhere between four and six years in prison for this.

President Otto Perez Molina claims that these "open secret[s]" are a thing of the past and that relations with Taiwan and donations from them are more transparent. We shall see. While they did happen fourteen years ago, it is not clear when the bribes stopped – President Berger? President Colom? I can't say that former President Portillo's guilty plea is making former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores feel comfortable right now.

It's bad for democracy and for the people of Guatemala and El Salvador that their leaders have taken bribes from Taiwan in return for continued diplomatic recognition. On the other hand, if that's all that they are being accused of, I guess it feels like a bit of a letdown. What ... I am more concerned with now is an investigation into the Guatemalan judicial process that found Portillo not guilty. What, if any, shady transactions went on to ensure his release?
 
In other criminal extradition news, [suspected Guatemalan drug trafficker] Waldemar Lorenzana has now joined Portillo in the United States. Mr. Lorenzana was arrested in Guatemala in 2011 and his extradition to the US was approved in 2012. Lorenzana allegedly was involved in drug trafficking along the border with El Salvador and Honduras. He also has ties to the Sinaloa Cartel.
 
 Steven Dudley explains why Lorenzana is known as the "Patriarch."

Bolivarian National Guards patrol Plaza Altamira in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 17, 2014. Security forces on Monday took control of the plaza that has been at the heart of antigovernment protests that have shaken Venezuela for a month. (Esteban Felix/AP)

Why Venezuela's protests show Maduro is no Hugo Chávez

By David SmildeWOLA / 03.18.14

 David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The views expressed are the author's own.

In the early morning hours [Monday], the National Guard occupied the Plaza Altamira and other parts of the Chacao Municipality (watch state television coverage here). This followed President Nicolás Maduro’s ultimatum on Saturday for protestors to leave the plaza.

It is interesting to think how different this is from Hugo Chávez’s approach to the same plaza 11-12 years ago. Starting in late 2002 it was declared a “liberated zone” by dissenting military officers and served as the center of the opposition movement for months on end. [The political opposition] had monuments, a stage, and even held daily mass there.

People close to the Chávez government tell that when cabinet members suggested he remove the protesters by force he responded that they would instead let them “cook in their own sauce.” The story might be apocryphal, but former President Chávez in fact did not seek to dislodge the occupation and simply let it burn out.

However, Venezuela has been experiencing a progressive criminalization of protest over the past year, and during the past month has denied permits and repressed protests in a way it rarely did a decade ago (see, for example, human rights group Provea’s relatively positive assessment of the government’s respect for the right to protest in 2004, the first time “guarimba” tactics were used).

As the government struggles to keep the Chavista project on track – not only because of President Maduro’s lack of charisma, but because of the inherent flaws of the economic and political model it inherited – it seems to be more willing to address protest with force.

Incredibly, the Maduro government tends to frame its actions in terms of pacification. When Maduro gave his ultimatum to protesters on Saturday he did so to the tune of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance. One government official said the occupation of Chacao would allow it to be declared a “territory of peace.” The National Guard officer heading up the operation said it amounted to “a call for humanistic dialogue.”

–  David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. 

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