Brazil’s political crisis deepened with an appeals court confirming former President Mr. Lula da Silva’s conviction, decreed in July last year, increasing the prison term from 9 to 12 years. The charges were that Lula accepted a property during his presidency from engineering company OAS, in exchange for helping that firm secure contracts with state oil company Petrobras. Seventy two-year old Lula condemned the decision and said this strengthened his resolve to run for president in October. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal will decide whether he is eligible. Lula currently leads the polls for the elections and has accepted the nomination of his Worker’s Party.
The Venezuelan political crisis deepened in early February after the breakdown of talks between the government and opposition held in the Dominican Republic, under the auspices of former Spanish President Jose Luis Zapatero. After the suspension, President Maduro announced they will hold early elections on 22 April. The main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), said on Wednesday that it will not participate in the April 22 presidential election unless the government makes substantial changes to the process.
Maduro’s decision drew mostly adverse reaction internationally. Peru, which will host the Summit of the Americas – a hemispheric event held every 3-4 years – in April 2018, withdrew its invitation to Maduro. Peru was backed by foreign ministers of the Lima Group, twelve mostly conservative governments in the region advocating the restoration of democracy in Venezuela. Comprising Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Colombia, Peru, Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala and Canada, the Lima Group was formed in 2017 after the refusal of the Caribbean bloc and allies to condemn Venezuela in the OAS. The group also called for a humanitarian corridor for Venezuela’s suffering residents. According to the United Nations 5,000 Venezuelans have fled to Curacao, 20,000 to Aruba, 30,000 to Brazil, 40,000 to Trinidad and Tobago, and more than 600,000 to Colombia. Colombia has begun to monitor and regularize the stay of as many as possible, to weed out criminal elements and victims of narcotraffickers who use them as mules to transport cocaine, or even grow coca.
US Secretary of State, Mr. Rex Tillerson prefaced his tour of Latin America in February with a speech at the University of Texas, where he outlined US priorities and preoccupations. To a question on the Monroe Doctrine (of former US President James Monroe in 1823 opposing European colonisation of the Americas), Tillerson said: ‘I think it clearly has been a success…I think it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written.’ This was in sharp contrast to his predecessor John Kerry, who in 2013 declared the doctrine dead. Though Tillerson referred to the values and ideals of the US and the hemisphere in general, his remarks on Venezuela, the expanding presence and influence of China and Russia (‘new imperial powers’), made it clear he was targeting external powers and regimes that were not in line with US priorities and interests. Tillerson also sought a balance in his assessment. In contrast to Trump’s attitude towards NAFTA, he underscored the $14 billion U.S. trade surplus with the region. He openly admitted the United States’ role ‘as the major market for illicit drug consumption,’ calling for ‘shared approaches’ to addressing transnational crime. His tour covered Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica - countries aligned with US interests and broadly supportive of its policy towards Venezuela.
China’s Foreign Mr. Minister Wang Yi participated in the second ministerial meeting of the China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Forum, on 21-22 January in Santiago, Chile. The first meeting was in China in 2015. At the event, China proposed that LAC become a part of China’s OBOR initiative. Since 2013, President Xi Jinping has paid three visits to Latin America. China has strategic partnerships with Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile and Ecuador. China-LAC bilateral trade reaching $233.76 billion in the first eleven months of 2017, an 18.3-percent year-on-year increase according to Chinese statistics. The economic relationship has gone beyond trade to include investment and China’s involvement in massive and strategic infrastructure projects all over the region. This has softened China’s image and enabled it to improve its political reputation as a responsible great power. One result has been that the number of countries recognizing Taiwan in LAC has dwindled to 11. Chile was the first to recognize the PRC in 1970, Panama was the latest in June 2017.
Ecuador’s politics took an interesting turn after a failed attempt by former President Rafael Correa to expel his successor, President Lionel Moreno, a paraplegic, and his supporters from the ruling party Alianza País. On January 15, Ecuador’s constitutional court recognized Moreno’s continuing control of the party, prompting Correa to walk out with 28 of the 74 assembly members, leaving the ruling party with a minority in the national assembly. Correa’s supporters formed a new party “Revolución Ciudadano” (Citizen Revolution). Moreno has been criticized by Correa for selling out the revolution the former presided over during his tenure (2007-2016). Moreno’s government has moved towards the centre, seeking consultations with the opposition to maintain support in the assembly. His popularity, at 75 percent, is the highest in Latin America.
The founder of Wikileaks, Mr. Julian Assange who has taken asylum in the Ecuador embassy in London, was granted Ecuadorean citizenship in December (announced in January). Ecuador’s attempt to give him diplomatic status was rejected by the UK government. On 4 February Moreno gained another victory when voters overwhelmingly approved 7 questions in a national referendum, including repeal of capital gains tax, oil drilling and mining in large parts of the Ecuadorean Amazon and in urban areas; banning of corrupt officials and of indefinite re-election (which bars former President Correa, Moreno’s principal adversary from seeking re-election); and reform of social institutions.
National Colombian daily ‘El Tiempo’ published a report based on allegations and intelligence from government officials, including the Attorney General of Colombia, that Mexican drug cartels - especially Sinaloa – have over 100 operatives based in Colombia to oversee operations of cultivation of coca leaf (over 150,000 hectares), production of precursor chemicals, production and distribution of 99 percent pure cocaine, and money laundering activities. The presence of the Mexican cartels fills the vacuum created by the demobilized FARC and other Colombian drug cartels and is a preoccupation for the Mexican and US governments as well. The ceasefire between the armed forces and the ELN guerilla group ended in January with resumption of hostilities after President Juan Manuel Santos announced the guerillas had attacked the army and blown up an oil pipeline.
March 6, 2018