Europe/Americas update: January 26-27 2019

EUROPE

BELGIUM

An estimated 70,000 protested in Brussels on Sunday in support of stronger action on climate change. The demonstrators directed their ire at both the Belgian government and the European Union, and with the country heading into both national and European parliamentary elections later this year it would seem that climate action is definitely going to be part of the agenda.

FRANCE

The “Yellow Vest” protests returned on Saturday for the 11th week in a row, suggesting that President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to talk unhappy French citizens into a coma isn’t going as well as he’d hoped. Some 69,000 are believed to have turned out, down from 84,000 the previous week but still enough to indicate that the movement is continuing. There were sporadic clashes between protesters and police, and that led on Sunday to a so-called “red scarves” counter-protest in Paris against the violence that’s attended the Yellow Vest actions. It’s also led to some internal police investigations, including into an incident on Saturday in which a protester suffered a serious eye injury.

UNITED KINGDOM

One of the rallying cries of the hardline Brexit crowd has been that a “no deal” Brexit couldn’t possibly be as cataclysmic as some have made it out to be, since the worst that could happen would be that the UK’s trading relationship with the EU would be governed by World Trade Organization rules. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, it would appear there are at least two reasons why that can’t happen:

Firstly, the UK must produce its own schedule covering both services and each of the 5,000-plus product lines covered in the WTO agreement and get it agreed by all the 163 WTO states in the 32 remaining parliamentary sitting days until 29 March 2019. A number of states have already raised objections to the UK’s draft schedule: 20 over goods and three over services.

To make it more complicated, there are no “default terms” Britain can crash out on, Howard said, while at the same time, the UK has been blocked by WTO members from simply relying on the EU’s “schedule” – its existing tariffs and tariff-free trade quotas.

The second hurdle is the sheer volume of domestic legislation that would need to be passed before being able to trade under WTO rules: there are nine statutes and 600 statutory instruments that would need to be adopted.

The government cannot simply cut and paste the 120,000 EU statutes into UK law and then make changes to them gradually, Howard said. “The UK will need to set up new enforcement bodies and transfer new powers to regulators to create our own domestic regimes,” she said.

To make a long story short, the UK is probably looking at years before it can apply WTO rules to its trade relations with the EU. And in the meantime…well, good luck with that. So Theresa May will continue to try to get a concession out of the EU on the so-called Irish backstop, one that can get her whole Brexit arrangement past parliament. Brussels does not appear to be of a mind to just give it to her–European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is telling her that the only alternative is for the entire UK to commit to remaining in the EU customs union, maybe indefinitely, which is anathema to pro-Brexit hardliners.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

It’s now been four days since Venezuelan National Assembly president Juan Guaidó declared himself the lawful president of Venezuela, and it would appear that the international community (the part that’s supporting Guaidó) has decided on a new tactic to oust the actually lawful president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro. When you were a kid, did you and your friends ever play a trick on one of your buddies where you all pretended like he or she didn’t exist? That you couldn’t see or hear him/her? That’s apparently what we’re going to do to Maduro. Over the weekend, the Israeli and Australian governments both joined the US and several Latin American countries in recognizing Guaidó, while several European governments, which other than the UK have been calling for new Venezuelan elections but holding off on outright picking sides, gave Maduro eight days to call those new elections before they all recognize Guaidó as well. Maduro rejected that demand. The US, meanwhile, announced that it will now recognize Guadió appointee Carlos Alfredo Vecchio as Venezuela’s main diplomatic representative in the US.

Guaidó felt comfortable enough to start giving interviews to English media outlets over the weekend. The young opposition leader, who seems pretty sanguine for a guy whose two biggest international boosters are a Brazilian fascist and an American fascist sympathizer, told the Guardian that he plans to keep Venezuela twirling towards freedom:

Guaidó said a combination of international backing, opposition unity and a reinvigorated grassroots support meant Venezuela now had a unique chance “to leave the chaos behind”.

“Frustration has turned to hope. People are daring to dream again … we have awoken from a nightmare to have new dreams, to dream of the future, to dream of our country, [to dream] not of what we were, but of what we can become,” said the 35-year-old politician.

In what would seem to be slightly contradictory remarks, Guaidó told the Washington Post that he’s negotiating with the Venezuelan military about coming over to his side and ousting Maduro:

Guaidó told The Post that talks with the military were proceeding behind the scenes. He also hailed a move on Saturday by Maduro’s former military attaché in Washington to switch allegiance to Guaidó.

“We have been in talks with government officials, civilian and military men,” Guaidó said. “This is a very delicate subject involving personal security. We are meeting with them, but discreetly.”

Antonio Rivero, a Venezuelan general in exile in Miami, said he has spoken with high, middle and lower military officials who find fault with Maduro but remain fearful of a full break.

“Many soldiers are desperate,” Rivero said. “The armed forces are broken already.”

Although this is sort of the dictionary definition of a military coup, and the US is undeniably involved, Senator Marco Rubio got to go on CNN on Sunday and deny that the US would ever involve itself in a military coup in Venezuela. Cool.

It remains the case that turning the Venezuelan military is Guaidó’s surest path to actually removing Maduro from office. Colonel José Luis Silva, Venezuela’s military attaché in Washington, defected (I guess that’s the right word for it) to Guaidó on Saturday, highlighting that there is some sympathy toward Guaidó within the military. And the National Assembly is preparing to offer blanket amnesty to any military members who turn on Maduro, which could be enticing to those who believe Maduro’s ouster is inevitable. But Maduro himself put on a show of force on Sunday, holding a military parade and demonstration at Venezuela’s Fort Paramacay. The message was clearly “these guys are still on my side.” Maybe, I guess. We’ll find out one way or the other.

Saturday’s UN Security Council meeting over Venezuela predictably devolved into an argument between the US and Russia, with Mike Pompeo demanding an end to Maduro’s “illegitimate mafia state” and the Russians decrying the “shameless and aggressive actions of the United States and their allies to oust a legitimately elected president of Venezuela.” The Russians are denying reports that they sent mercenaries to Venezuela to protect Maduro, though “sent” is probably doing a lot of work there. The Kremlin probably didn’t “send” mercenaries to Syria, either, but Russia’s main private military contractor, Wagner, pitched in anyway, I guess just to be a good corporate citizen. The US, meanwhile, is warning Maduro against threatening US diplomats in Venezuela, which Maduro isn’t doing–on Saturday he reversed an earlier demand that US diplomats leave the country while the two countries hold talks about setting up interest sections in lieu of full embassies. Maduro’s government says it wants to talk with the Trump administration, though that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

HONDURAS

Marking the one year anniversary of the start of his second term, thousands of Hondurans protested on Sunday against President Juan Orlando Hernández. Honduran opposition leaders have long alleged that Hernández rigged the 2017 election, one in which he wouldn’t have been allowed to run in the first place had the country’s Supreme Court not overturned a constitutional provision against reelection. Since Hernández is a right winger I’m sure you won’t here any questions about his legitimacy from anybody in official Washington.

GUATEMALA

Speaking of right-wing Latin American leaders doing bad things to virtually no comment from the Trump administration, take Guatamala. President Jimmy Morales is still trying to get rid of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) because it started investigating his own corruption, and now he’s going after judges who have ruled against him in that effort:

The three targeted judges have repeatedly ruled in favor of CICIG and issued other decisions defending the country’s institutions. On Jan. 17, a five-member congressional committee was created to analyze the potential impeachment of the judges. Then, on Jan. 22, the process was suspended by the Constitutional Court, prolonging the uncertainty as to the judges’ fates. Independent decisions by chief judges reflect painstaking efforts by civil society to develop an autonomous judiciary. Whether or not they are ultimately impeached, the ongoing targeting of jurists who defend the independence of the courts sends an ominous signal to others who might rule against powerful interests.

These developments constitute what observers are calling a “slow-motion coup,” threatening the country’s legal institutions and weakening efforts against corruption and impunity. These enduring conditions fuel the socioeconomic inequality and exclusion that spurred the country’s armed conflict and continue to immiserate Guatemalans. Nearly 60 percent of Guatemalans live below the poverty line, and long-standing discrimination against the country’s Mayan majority facilitates deprivation and repression. Unchecked corruption drains state coffers, leaving few resources to invest in ameliorating these conditions. Thousands of desperate Guatemalans feel migration is their only option.

As Elizabeth Oglesby, an associate professor of Latin American studies at the University of Arizona, argues, “no solution [to the migrant crisis] is possible as long as the Central American states remain captured by clandestine criminal networks. Central Americans are fleeing violence perpetrated by those criminal networks, and corruption siphons off resources that could be used for social development to mitigate migration.” The administration’s removal of CICIG and retribution against judges is an attack on Guatemala’s independent judiciary and rule of law, the impacts of which will be felt far beyond the country’s borders.

MEXICO

The death toll in the January 18 gasoline pipeline explosion in Mexico’s Hidalgo state is now up to 114, with 33 people still in the hospital with injuries.

UNITED STATES

Finally, even as it does nothing to challenge the political violence and corruption that help to cause Central American migrants to come north looking for a better and safer live, the Trump administration has no problem leaving those migrants stranded in a place where they’re increasingly likely to be killed:

This week, the Trump administration pushed ahead with its plan to return asylum seekers to Mexico while their cases are considered, moving the first group through San Diego’s San Ysidro crossing late on Friday.

Meanwhile, far to the south, thousands of Central Americans are waiting at Mexico’s southern frontier for humanitarian visas. Several hundred have already hopped the border, and are following the route of previous migrant caravans north towards Tijuana.

What neither group may be aware of, however, is that the city they are heading for is – once again – Mexico’s murder capital.

Last year the country broke its own homicide record, with prosecutors opening 28,816 murder cases, 15% more than the previous year. And the city with most killings was Tijuana.

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