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Analysis Beyond the Echo Chamber

The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media. For more information, sign up for our Latin America News Roundup or visit the archives.

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In 2015, the Obama administration announced that Venezuela had thrown the United States into a “national emergency” because Venezuela constituted “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” On August 25, the Trump administration cited this ongoing emergency to justify financial sanctions against Venezuela that are likely to deepen the economic crisis there and generate greater human suffering.

How does a country with a fraction of the US’s military budget and a government with no history of international aggression cause a national emergency in the most powerful state in the world? Sure, the short answer is always “politics.” But in this case, there’s a forty-year history of presidential overreach and unaccountability that calls for a closer look.

In 1976, the House and Senate, with Democratic supermajorities in both, were looking to curb executive power in the wake of the Vietnam War. On trial was the concept of the “national emergency,” a term derived from an amendment to the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA). This World War I law gave the president authority to impose unilateral sanctions and restrict trade with warring enemy countries. Initially, it said nothing about national emergencies. But in 1933, President Roosevelt amended Trading with the Enemy to include executive authority over “any transactions in foreign exchange, transfers of credit between or payments by banking institutions as defined by the President” during a time of national emergency. Roosevelt declared the first of the US’s newly defined national emergencies, and promptly froze a majority of bank assets to prevent bank runs during the heart of the Great Depression.

As Puerto Rico’s debt saga plays out in court, its Financial Oversight and Management Board continues to push for further austerity measures that directly impact the people of Puerto Rico. In an effort to comply with the demands of the board, the Puerto Rican government cut Christmas bonuses for all its employees. For the board these cuts were not sufficient, and in a letter sent last week to the governor, they are now mandating furloughs for government employees.

In March 2017, the Financial Oversight and Management Board, created through US Congress’ Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), certified a 10-year fiscal plan for Puerto Rico that called for severe spending cuts along with tax increases. However, all the proposed measures under the plan’s best case scenario only put aside $7.9 billion for debt repayment over 10 years, while the island’s current debt burden is estimated at over $73 billion.

This fiscal plan projects negative real growth until at least 2024, without taking into account the further negative impact the austerity measures would have on growth.  Furthermore, the plan does not address many of the underlying issues that caused Puerto Rico’s economic decline. The plan sentences Puerto Rico to yet another lost decade, and despite its rejection by creditors that triggered a bankruptcy-like procedure, the board is continuing to push for the plan’s implementation.

The June 4 governor’s election in the State of Mexico (or Edomex), the most populous state in Mexico, came close to ending the Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s (PRI) nearly nine-decade-long control over the state.

Throughout the campaign and its aftermath, PRI’s illegal election interference, or what the New York Times called “business as usual in the State of Mexico,” 1 was widely documented by independent observers. Even as PRI-controlled election monitors proclaimed their candidate the victor with a slim plurality, evidence of extensive irregularities undermined the results’ legitimacy. The absence of a clear mandate produced a scandal and strengthened the prospects of the leading opposition party ahead of the 2018 presidential elections.

It wasn’t the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), the right-wing party that had interrupted the PRI’s grip on the presidency with the elections of Vicente Fox in 2000 and Felipe Calderón in 2006, that threatened PRI’s stranglehold on the state. Rather, a new political force, the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena), emerged as the most credible challenger to the PRI.

In an article about Ecuador’s presidential transition that appeared in Bloomberg View, Mac Margolis claims that “Moreno takes over as Ecuador heads into its second year of recession.” However, this is not true.

Looking at quarterly GDP data for Ecuador, we see a different picture.

merling ecuador gdp 2017 07

In a high-level meeting Friday, the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador will discuss the region’s security with American and Mexican officials. Innocuous enough, you may think. But part of the meeting will be held on a US military base in Miami, Florida ― the headquarters of the US Southern Command, the Pentagon’s regional subsidiary that oversees American military operations throughout Central and South America as well as the Caribbean.  Under President Donald Trump, the militarization of US foreign policy is about to stretch more deeply into Central America.

Central America policymaking, hardly an open book to begin with, is set to become more secretive.  With the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America just days away, there is no official agenda of speakers or publicly listed events and no involvement of civil society organizations, and even press access is extremely limited. What we do know is US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be there, as will Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and of course, General John F. Kelly, the director of Homeland Security and the previous head of SOUTHCOM.

On Thursday, high-level government officials will be joined by a coterie of elite Central American businessmen, invited to the conference by its hosts, the US and Mexico. Trump’s budget envisions a massive cut in US economic assistance to Central America, and officials will apparently be asking the country’s most rapacious and corrupt economic actors to fill the void.

“We must secure the nation. We must protect our people,” Secretary of State Tillerson told his staff last month in a discussion around the US’ new “America First” foreign policy. “And we can only do that with economic prosperity. So it’s foreign policy projected with a strong ability to enforce the protection of our freedoms with a strong military.” By linking economic success with military operations, Tillerson telegraphed which way the foreign aid dollars will be blowing.

While much has been made of the reduction in the budgets of the State Department and USAID, don’t expect the US to simply retreat. Rather, expect the US military to deepen its involvement in the region. There may be no new official policy announcements, but the shift appears inevitable.

The turf battle between the State Department and the Pentagon over control of foreign assistance ― and more specifically “security cooperation” ― goes back to the Obama administration. Throughout 2016, diplomats fought generals over control of the billions of dollars of US security assistance allocated each year. Surprising few, the Pentagon came out on top and with Trump’s election has been bolstered further.

There are currently more than 80 unique authorizations that allow the Pentagon ― with minimal consultation with the State Department ― to deliver security assistance to foreign nations’ military, police, and paramilitary forces. With development assistance slashed, US diplomacy in the region will more often appear in uniform.

In 2016, the Pentagon distributed nearly $60 million in counterdrug assistance to Central America. Compared to the at least marginally transparent State Department budget, the labyrinthine nature of the Pentagon budget makes it next to impossible to determine precisely how much is spent in Central America ― let alone what it may look like next year. But with Secretary Kelly, the former SOUTHCOM commander, in charge, it appears that an increased Pentagon focus on Latin America is likely.

Lenin Moreno of the governing Alianza Pais party has been declared the winner of yesterday’s presidential election in Ecuador. With more than 99 percent of the votes counted, Moreno secured 51.1 percent of valid votes compared to his competitor, banker Guillermo Lasso, who received 48.9 percent.

Soon after polls closed yesterday Lasso declared his victory, and began the celebrations, based on the results of an exit poll. Hours later, as official results began to show a different result, angry Lasso supporters took to the streets alleging fraud. Exit polls, which are often wrong by much more than the margin of this election, are a non-credible basis for challenging an electoral result, but those weren’t the only numbers that raised the ire of Ecuador’s opposition last night.

As official results from Ecuador’s electoral council were being posted online, the NGO Participacion Ciudadana (PC) held a press conference and announced that their “quick count” showed a “technical tie” between the two candidates. The difference was just 0.6 percentage points, the NGO said, and it refused to disclose who was in the lead. The statement added fuel to the fire and emboldened those eager to discredit the official results.

English-language media has been quick to cite the “technical tie” finding, but few seem to have tried to understand it. The Miami Herald, Washington Post, Associated Press and others all cited the “respected” NGO and its determination of a “technical tie” in their coverage of the election results, for example. So, what did PC actually find and what was it based on?

As they have in prior elections, PC conducted a “quick count” based on hard copies of voting records at thousands of locations across the country. In its press release last night, PC noted that some 2,000 volunteers helped with the count. By its very nature the quick count is an estimate, and as PC itself noted in its press release, the findings are not official. PC “will await the official results” the press release stated, though few heeded the advice. And when PC was making its “technical tie” announcement, the official results were already pretty far along, and showed Moreno up by about two percentage points. In this context the PC announcement only served to cause greater confusion.

Though PC didn’t disclose any information on its actual quick count results last night, today PC representatives clarified that the quick count showed Moreno with 50.8 percent of the vote and Lasso with 49.2 percent. Rather than casting doubt on the official results, the quick count seems to confirm it.

So if the quick count showed a 1.6 percentage point victory for Moreno, why did PC say it was just 0.6 percentage points and refuse to disclose who was in the lead? The quick count, like any estimation, comes with a margin of error. In this case PC reported it as +/- one percentage point. The PC quick count provides an upper and lower bound of support for each candidate and given the margin of error, it was possible that Lasso could emerge ahead of Moreno. But by saying the difference was just 0.6, and refusing to disclose who was leading, PC appears to have misrepresented its own findings, artificially making the result look closer than it was.

A PC representative said today that given the margin of error, the decision to not disclose who was in the lead or the actual results of the quick count was in order to not generate confusion. But PC’s actions did exactly the opposite.   If they had simply said that a quick count, based on 2,000 voting records, showed Moreno up by 1.6 percentage points, but that Lasso was within the margin of error, observers and voters could contrast that with the official results and reach an educated opinion: that PC’s quick count was completely in line with the official results.

Last week, I went through public documentation that indicates Ecuadorian presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso, despite “retiring” from banking in 2012, continues to be the largest shareholder in Banco Guayaquil. There is also public documentation not to mention Lasso’s own admission that he and his family are owners of a bank in Panama, Banisi. In 2014, Ecuador passed new regulations preventing banks from having subsidiaries in tax havens, potentially putting Lasso and his family in violation of the law.

Lasso has not addressed the allegations in depth, but has acknowledged that his family owns the Panamanian bank while also declaring that all his assets are public and in Ecuador. Moving past the obvious contradictory nature of such statements (if you own a bank in Panama, it’s pretty clear that not all your assets are in Ecuador), new revelations this week from Cynthia Garcia of Argentina’s Página/12 indicate that Lasso and his associates likely have significant offshore holdings in addition to those located in the Panamanian bank, particularly in the state of Florida ― known for its lax corporate oversight and as an ideal spot for foreigners to park their dollars. Prompted by Garcia’s reporting, I again looked into the public record to see what was there.

In 2009, according to the Florida Division of Corporations, Guillermo E. Lasso the candidate’s son registered an LLC in Florida called Nora Investment US. From June 2009 to December 2010, the holding company purchased 59 properties, which it still owns today, in Florida’s Broward County according to publicly available records. The purchases, mostly condos, totaled $5.7 million.

But this was just the beginning. In 2011, two new directors were added to Nora Investment US: Miguel Macias and Euvenia Touriz. Both were previously officials at Banco Guayaquil, and both are currently listed as directors at the Banisi bank in Panama that is owned by Lasso. From 2011 to 2013, Lasso (the candidate’s son), Macias, and Touriz registered 10 LLCs in Florida in which they are all listed as directors. The additional LLCs were also used to purchase properties in Florida.

In August 2014, following Ecuador’s implementation of new regulations concerning offshore assets, Lasso’s son’s name was systematically removed as a director from all 10 companies, the public records show. But Macias and Touriz continued to open additional holding companies. It is important to note that while LLCs list directors, the so-called beneficial owner or true owner is concealed.

The proliferation of new holding companies continued, however. There are currently 28 different holding companies registered in Florida that list Macias and Touriz as directors as a simple search here shows. Far from just past practice, the public record shows the two Lasso associates registering a new company as recently as January 2017 ― just a few months ago and in the height of the presidential campaign.

Together, the 28 holding companies are owners of Florida properties with an assessed market value of $31.2 million  likely an undervaluation. With the exception of two million dollar commercial properties each purchased in April 2016, there is no public record of any mortgages being taken out by the holding companies, indicating that the purchases were likely made with cash.

Guillermo Lasso, the opposition presidential candidate in Ecuador’s upcoming runoff election, resigned as executive vice president of one of Ecuador’s largest banks, Banco Guayaquil, in 2012. In the current campaign, much of the international media has referred to Lasso as an “ex-banker” or “former banker.” But an investigation into Lasso’s offshore holdings and trusts, by Cynthia Garcia of Argentina’s Página/12, reveals a complex web of holding companies that obscure Lasso’s financial positions and indicates that Lasso may even be breaking Ecuadorian law with his ownership stake in a bank in the tax haven of Panama.

In 2013, according to public records from Ecuador’s Superintendency of Corporations, five Delaware-registered companies, bearing the names of cities across the world, transferred their shares in Banco Guayaquil’s parent company, Corporación MultiBG, to five trusts. Each trust just happens to bear the initials of family members and associates of Lasso. One contains Lasso’s initials — GLM — for Guillermo Lasso Mendoza (Fideicomiso Mercantil de Administración GLM). It appears that Lasso has maintained a significant stake in Banco Guayaquil through this trust.

Ownership records from Ecuador’s Superintendency of Companies show that GLM trust is currently the largest shareholder in Corporación MultiBG, with a 39.5 percent stake. Together, the five trusts related to Lasso control 77.5 percent of the shares of MultiBG.

After a year of zero growth over 2014, Brazil’s economy shrank nearly 6 percent in 2015, and another 3 percent over the first three quarters of 2016. Gross Domestic Product in the third quarter was only 0.7 percent greater than in the same period of 2010. Yet over those six years, the working-age population grew about 8 percent.

Domestic demand has collapsed. From its peak at the start of 2014, Brazilian demand for real goods and services has fallen nearly 11 percent, subtracting 4 percentage points annualized from real GDP growth.

For more, check out the latest Latin America Data Byte.

We have published a response to Vanderbilt University's Latin America Public Opinion Project, related to their report on USAID-funded anticrime and violence prevention programs in Central America.

We are responding to LAPOP's critique of our report, “Have US-Funded CARSI Programs Reduced Crime and Violence in Central America?” that we released in September 2016. Our September report was an examination of the only publicly accessible impact assessment of USAID-funded anticrime and community-based violence prevention programs carried out under the umbrella of the US State Department’s Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). LAPOP took issue with our illustration of certain methodological flaws in LAPOP’s study, as well as with the manner in which we presented our conclusions. LAPOP’s criticisms appear to be largely based on misunderstanding and misinterpretation of our arguments and fail to address our main findings. The problems with the LAPOP study that we identified still stand, as does the validity of our conclusion: LAPOP’s study cannot support the conclusion that intervention caused the areas subject to treatment in the CARSI programs to improve relative to those areas where no intervention took place.

You can find our response paper, just published, here.

The clearest winner in Chile’s 2016 municipal elections was abstention, and that is bad news for all parties, left and right.

Municipal elections in Chile are often used as an indicator to measure how well traditional parties will fare in the following years’ parliamentary and presidential elections. During the latest elections ― held on October 23 ― Chileans voted for their alcaldes (mayors) and concejales (council members), varying between six, eight, or ten total local representatives, depending on the size of the population within the municipality.

The high rate of abstention in these elections isn’t surprising given the national polling data showing a steady decline in public confidence in government institutions and parties over the past two decades. According to the latest Servel figures, the 2016 municipal elections reached a 65 percent abstention level — a new historic high. The 35 percent participation rate for 2016’s municipal election is down from 43.2 percent in 2012.

In 2011, modifications to Chile’s electoral system instituted automatic voter inscription and the voluntary vote, following nearly a century ofobligatory voting. Taking these high abstention figures as simply a sign of voter apathy would be a mistake. Similarly, making an argument for a return to compulsory voting in order to increase participation also misses the point. At the center of the problem of abstention is the perceived failure of both the right and the left to implement reforms to create a more inclusive democracy and an equitable development model.

I traveled to Honduras recently to better understand how funding for the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and for the Alliance for Prosperity Plan (APP) is being spent and accounted for by its implementers. Nearly half of the $750 million that the US government is channeling to the APP in fiscal year 2016 is specifically allocated to CARSI. These are historic levels of funding to the region, unparalleled since the early 1990s when the US was involved in Central America’s internal armed conflicts. Numerous reports indicate that military and police-perpetrated human rights abuses have increased since the creation of CARSI and there is no real evidence that CARSI has yielded minimal, if any, results.

In fact, very little is known about the efficacy or impact of these programs at all, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent. On September 7, I co-authored a report published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) that shows that the only publicly available impact assessment study of a CARSI program, published in 2014 by Vanderbilt University’s Latin America Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), doesn’t conclusively demonstrate, as the study claims, that the CARSI program has had positive results  (LAPOP has published a critique of this report, and CEPR staff are now preparing a response to this critique).

The specific CARSI program that the LAPOP study assesses is a community-based violence and crime prevention program that is implemented by the US Agency for International Aid (USAID) and its partners in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. In late 2014 a USAID official told Congress that “We have evidence that these kinds of programs are working, and evidence is crucial so we can build on what really works.” Since there is no hard evidence that the CARSI/USAID program is working  in the LAPOP study or elsewhere  I decided to have a closer look at the program on the ground in Honduras, a country I have worked in for over a decade, and see for myself.

In 2009, shortly after the coup d’état, the effects of which continue to be felt throughout Honduras, the country’s director of counternarcotics, retired General Julián Arístides González, was assassinated by unknown assailants. Then in 2011, a hit squad gunned down Aflredo Landaverde, another senior antidrug official. Despite much evidence of criminal activity by the Honduran police — including involvement in police brutality, extortion, rape, and sex trafficking and prostitution rings — investigative commissions made little headway. In fact, the Honduran government dismissed all advice from an independent police investigation commission created in 2012, before it was dissolved by the ruling National Party in 2014.

In August 2013, when current president Juan Orlando Hernández was president of Congress, he oversaw the creation of the Public Order Military Police (Policía Militar de Orden Público), a new branch of the Honduran Armed Forces. Since then, corruption scandals and allegations of abuses targeting civilians have continued unabated. The response from the government has been to further militarize law enforcement. In April 2016, news broke that high-level officials in the National Police had been involved in the assassinations of these antidrug officials and that evidence compiled in an internal report had passed through the hands of numerous police and Security Ministry officials without action.

These revelations came on the heels of massive public outcry over corruption scandals in other Honduran institutions, and the Honduran government was quick to create a new police reform commission. But there are reasons to suspect that the commission is really window-dressing aimed at ensuring continued international support.

As was reported following the assassination of prominent Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres in March, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton erased all references to the 2009 coup in Honduras in the paperback edition of her memoirs, “Hard Choices.” Her three-page account of the coup in the original hardcover edition, where she admitted to having sanctioned it, was one of several lengthy sections cut from the paperback, published in April 2015 shortly after she had launched her presidential campaign.

A short, inconspicuous statement on the copyright page is the only indication that “a limited number of sections” — amounting to roughly 96 pages — had been cut “to accommodate a shorter length for this edition.” Many of the abridgements consist of narrative and description and are largely trivial, but there are a number of sections that were deleted from the original that also deserve attention.

After many weeks of fits and starts, the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Hondurasknown by its Spanish initials MACCIH — slowly began to sputter into motion late last month, with an initial series of meetings between MACCIH personnel and members of Honduras’ judicial institutions. On April 28, the Coalition Against Impunity made up of many of Honduras’ leading human rights and anti-impunity advocacy groups released a statement [here in English] lamenting MACCIH’s limited powers and noting that the only way for the mission to “generate some degree of credibility and lay the foundations for its legitimacy, is by producing immediate results with regards to the cases of corruption that have had the most impact on citizens, such as that of the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS) in which the governing party is involved.”

As Americas Blog readers are well aware, a major corruption scandal involving the ruling National Party and the IHSS which administers a state healthcare fund led to massive protests against the Honduran government from May to September of 2015As I described in a New York Times op-ed back in February, protesters called for the creation of a United Nations-backed commission modeled on Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. Instead, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States (OAS) came up with MACCIH, a body that lacks the far-reaching mandate and autonomy of the Guatemalan commission.

Despite the objections of the Coalition Against Impunity and the “indignados” protest movement, the Honduran government and the OAS went ahead and signed an agreement creating MACCIH on January 19 of this year. Various hurdles including opposition from the National Party in the Honduran congress delayed implementation of the agreement for several months. When MACCIH finally began to show signs of life in early April, it very quickly careened off in a strange and inauspicious direction.

With Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff facing a likely impeachment, Vice President Michel Temer has been in the spotlight as the likely successor. Last week Temer sat down for an interview with The Financial Times, categorically rejecting the idea that what is happening in Brazil is a coup. “There is no coup whatsoever happening here in Brazil,” Temer stated. He then points to public opinion being against Dilma as proof that it is not a coup. The Financial Times continues:

He said political and popular support for impeachment was also overwhelming, with 367 members of the 513-seat lower house of congress voting for the motion, well over the two-thirds, or 342 votes, required for it to pass, and polls showing 60 to 70 per cent of Brazilians were in favour of Ms Rousseff’s constitutional removal.

“Therefore, I ask, when she accuses me of being a conspirator or a coup-monger — do I really have the capacity to influence 367 deputies [congressmen] and 70 per cent of the Brazilian population? It’s entirely without foundation this claim.”

As long as the people support it! (I wonder how many in the U.S. would support the removal of congress, what with its current approval rating of 17 percent?)

Of course, Temer, unlike Dilma Rousseff, has actually been accused of corruption. A Supreme Court judge has recommended he also face impeachment trials for the same accounting tricks that Dilma is currently defending herself against. 

Since Temer seems to really care what the Brazilian people think, maybe he should check out the results of the latest poll from IBOPE. The AP reports:

A new poll Monday showed people overwhelmingly favored the hypothetical resignation of both Rousseff and Temer, followed by new presidential elections. Just over 60 percent of respondents said that scenario would be the best way out of the crisis, although no such solution is stipulated under Brazil's constitution. Twenty-five percent of respondents said they would prefer to see Rousseff continue her mandate, while just 8 percent of respondents said Rousseff's impeachment, followed by her substitution by Temer, would be their preferred solution.

As unpopular as Dilma may be, Temer appears even less popular. More people would prefer she continue her mandate than be replaced by Temer. Of course, the clear majority prefer new elections.

With limited access to chemical and mechanical inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and farm machinery, Cuban farmers have pioneered innovations in sustainable agriculture out of necessity since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Although most continue to employ conventional agricultural methods, and Cuba continues to import more than half of its food, around a quarter of the country’s farmers have nonetheless succeeded in supplying some 65 percent of national agricultural output using agroecological practices. These achievements, however, could come under threat with the expected resumption of U.S.-Cuban trade relations.

Having lost the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc trade partners, Cuba suffered an 80 percent reduction in foreign trade between 1989 and 1991, leaving it fully exposed to the U.S. trade embargo. Its agricultural sector was hit particularly hard given its heavy dependence on agrochemicals. Chemical fertilizer use per hectare, which had been roughly double that of the U.S. in 1989, fell by almost 90 percent in the following decade, while herbicide and pesticide use dropped by a similar amount.

TIME magazine has sunk to new lows, soliciting a billionaire Republican donor, Paul Singer, to write its blurb for recently elected Argentine president Mauricio Macri’s entry in the 2016 edition of “100 Leaders.” It’s not ridiculous because he’s either a billionaire or a Republican though, it’s that for the better part of the last decade the man has funded a multi-million dollar campaign against the previous Argentine government. Oh, and he stands to make a pretty penny from the decisions of the new president too.

First, the backstory. In 2001, Argentina had the largest ever sovereign debt default in history, some $100 billion that the country, in the midst of a disastrous recession, simply could not continue to service. Over the following years, Argentina negotiated and reached a settlement with 93 percent of its bondholders. They agreed to take a significant haircut on their holdings and were given new bonds that were linked to the country’s economic growth. Since Argentina did quite well after its default (more on that here), the bondholders recouped their investment and a tidy profit as well.

But that wasn’t enough for everyone. A group of vulture funds, many of whom bought the distressed debt on the secondary market for cents on the dollar, took Argentina to court in New York demanding full repayment. The previous Argentine government refused to comply with court orders demanding billions be paid to these vulture funds, including Singer’s. The Argentine legislature also passed laws preventing the government from dealing with the vultures.

From Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson to FIFA ethics lawyer Juan Pedro Damiani, the Panama Papers have already claimed their first few casualties despite having only been public knowledge for five days. In Peru, the revelations add yet another twist to an already tumultuous presidential election scheduled for this Sunday that has seen two candidates disqualified from running. Four of the remaining candidates now find themselves implicated in the same global financial scandal, including frontrunner Keiko Fujimori and her rival Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who is tied with Verónika Mendoza for second place.

The Peruvian elections were first thrown into turmoil on March 4, a month before the leak, when the country’s electoral board disqualified both Julio Guzmán and César Acuña from the elections. Guzmán, an economist from the liberal party Todos por el Perú (All for Peru), had been regarded as Fujimori’s main challenger at the time, polling between 16 and 18 percent compared to Fujimori’s roughly 30 percent. Acuña, on the other hand, was a marginal candidate with single-digit support. The electoral board voted to exclude Guzmán on a technicality, as his party had completed their paperwork incorrectly, as well as Acuña for illegally purchasing support. But the board then courted more controversy three weeks later, when it allowed Fujimori to continue running despite similar accusations of vote-buying against her.

With Guzmán out of the running, the race for second place is now a dead heat between former Prime Minister Kuczynski and left-wing lawmaker Mendoza, whose support has surged dramatically in recent weeks partly by picking up vast numbers of undecided voters, who still make up an estimated 40 percent of the electorate. Kuczynski is widely supported by the elites, with an agenda focused on promoting private investment by lowering taxes and cutting bureaucratic red tape, while Mendoza has opposed these policies in favor of increasing public spending to promote growth and to diversify the Peruvian economy away from its dependence on mining and other extractive industries. One of the two candidates is likely to face Fujimori in a runoff election in June.

The recent murder of environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres has brought attention to the extreme danger faced by human rights defenders in Honduras. Less than two weeks after Berta’s murder, Nelson García, another activist with the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was murdered following the eviction of Lenca communities from their land by state security forces. In the past few years, COPINH members have been killed by state forces, as in the case of Tomás García in 2013, and have faced intimidation, harassment and continual criminalization by the government (including the arrest in 2013 of Berta Cáceres along with two other COPINH leaders on trumped-up charges).

Within a context of increasing persecution and intimidation against Honduran social activists, COPINH’s experience is not unique. Activists across Honduras — whether they are from environmental, labor, indigenous or LGBT rights organizations — have faced intense repression and violence. These acts of violence almost never result in prosecutions, and rather than protect activists, Honduran security forces are frequently suspected of criminal complicity in the attacks.  

“Berta Cáceres, my mother, is not dead. She multiplied. So it is our job, everyone whose lives she touched in some way, to continue multiplying her. From now on, we are committed to carrying on this work.” -Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, indigenous activist and daughter of Berta Cáceres

Berta Cáceres, co-founder of the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and recipient of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, was killed by gunmen in her home on March 3rd. Less than two weeks later, one of Cáceres’ colleagues, a COPINH member named Nelson García, was also assassinated following the violent eviction of a Lenca community at Rio Chiquito.

On Wednesday, March 23, Cáceres’ daughter and a COPINH activist were joined by experts on international law and megaprojects to brief U.S. congressional staff and the general public on the events surrounding Cáceres’ assassination and the efforts of Cáceres’ family members and COPINH to seek justice. The congressional briefing, “The Assassination of Berta Cáceres and Ongoing Killings and Attacks Targeting Social Activists in Honduras” was hosted by Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and moderated by Timi Gerson, Director of Advocacy with American Jewish World Service.