The political fallout in Brazil of the ongoing ‘Car Wash’ investigations into corruption deepened, with the publication of a conversation in which President Michel Temer allegedly colluded with an accused businessman to defend the former Speaker of the Parliament, now in prison. A leading Senator of the main opposition Social Democratic party and potential presidential candidate, Mr Aecio Neves, was similarly exposed and is being tried by the Supreme Court. All this happened as former President Lula defended himself in court over allegations of bribery. Lula is a leading candidate in the 2018 elections in the deeply divided country.
On 9 June, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal provided President Temer temporary relief by clearing him and former President Dilma Rousseff of charges they had received illegal campaign contributions for the 2014 election. The 4-3 vote was made possible by the presiding judge, who claimed any sentencing would lead to instability.
On 13 June, Panama broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favour of the People’s Republic of China, during a visit of Vice President Isabel de Saint Malo to Beijing. Panama was one of the important countries of 11 in Latin America and the Caribbean (and 20 worldwide) to maintain relations with Taiwan. China has ended an informal truce with Taiwan (since 2008) not to woo countries recognising the latter, after the election of President Tsai Ing Wen, who visited Panama earlier this year.
A private Chinese businessman signed an agreement with nearby Nicaragua in 2015 to construct a canal through its territory that would rival the Panama Canal. The $50 billion cost and environmental issues had slowed it down and the latest development has rendered it moot. China recently began the construction of a container port with natural gas facilities in Panama and is the second most important customer of the Panama Canal. Chinese conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa enjoys port concessions since 1999. Panama’s acceptance of the ‘one China principle’ could encourage others in the region to switch from Taiwan, whose leverage cannot match that of PRC. This poses an ever growing challenge to US influence in the region.
The crisis in Venezuela deepened, with President Nicolas Maduro announcing in May he will convene a National Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. The pliant National Electoral Council announced that elections for 540 seats to this assembly will be held in July. Separately the Council also announced it would hold elections for regional assemblies and governors in December, a year behind schedule. Protests continued unabated with deaths, injuries and arrests mounting.
On 31 May, the 29th Consultative Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the OAS considered two resolutions. One proposed by CARICOM (The Caribbean Community) and supported by Venezuela’s allies Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, and El Salvador, urged the OAS to refrain from interventionist actions in Venezuela. The other, proposed by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, and Uruguay condemned the proposed Constituent Assembly which would undermine Venezuelan democratic institutions. Neither got sufficient votes, but they revealed the divide between the supporters (most Caribbean countries receive discounted oil from Venezuela) and opponents of the Maduro regime. The same divide prevented passing of a resolution of the OAS Foreign Ministers on 21 June in Cancun, Mexico which failed by 3 votes to get the 23 necessary (two-thirds) to urge Venezuela to desist from convening a Constituent Assembly.
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos was an early visitor to the United States in May. His meetings with President Trump were cordial and inter alia resulted in the US administration maintaining the figure of $450 million military and civilian aid under Peace Colombia, the new avatar of Plan Colombia that since 2000 had provided $10 billion to fight the guerillas, narco traffic, etc. The peace process with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerillas, signed in October 2016, has progressed slowly and sceptics claim the government does not have the political nor administrative heft to see its commitments through. FARC members have laid down their arms, as certified by the UN monitoring mission in Colombia. Dissident elements and the ELN, the smaller guerilla group that is negotiating a similar peace deal, have however been making trouble. Also on the agenda were the situation in Venezuela – US levied sanctions on several officials of the Venezuelan government in May - and the alarming rise in cultivation of coca leaf, from 42000 hectares in 2012 to 188,000 hectares in 2016, according to the State Department.
July 7, 2017