Wednesday, March 14: Latin America Daily Briefing

What Tillerson’s Stunning Tuesday Firing Means for Latin America, Brazil's Henrique Meirelles says time looks ripe for a presidential bid, and more.




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Tillerson’s Sudden Tuesday Firing and What it Means for Latin America

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s firing surprised just about everyone Tuesday. It was no secret that Trump had considered the move for some time, but that he’d do it on Twitter while the Secretary was in Africa came as a surprise. Critics had suggested Tillerson was a blemish on the Trump administration due to his unpopularity inside the State Department. Things went as far as United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, choosing not to hang his official portrait during his entire tenure at State.

Those on the left were quick to draw on conspiracies to explain Tillerson’s ouster, due to his harsh criticism for Russia only hours before his firing. But as Mollie Hemingway writes for TheFederalist, “The idea that Trump fired Tillerson over Russia is also a complete narrative flip from where the media were when he was nominated.” Instead, as Daniel W. Drezner of the Washing Post argues, his firing was due to him being “the most incompetent Secretary of State in modern history”.

America hawkish again?

Among Tillerson’s failings, Drezner focuses on his lack of credibility, his triggering of a Foreign Service personnel mass exodus, and frequent missteps abroad that led to unintended insults in state visits. USA Today says “Rex Tillerson wasn’t impressive in his thinking about how to reform the State Department” and Politico quoted State Department employees reactions as generally “good riddance”. The staff at State is hopeful with Mike Pompeo’s arrival, according to Politico, and generally “want him to trust us”; something they said Tillerson couldn’t do.

His weakest quality, in President Trump’s view, might have been his dovishness. As Drezner implies, the President wanted someone who was ready to tackle issues with Iran, Venezuela, and others more aggressively. “Pompeo is far more hawkish than Tillerson”, says Drezner, and Politico’s Nahal Toosi agrees, “Pompeo has a hawkish reputation”.

What the move means for Latin America

But the move leaves Latin America in an awkward position. Tillerson spent the month of February touring the region to talk about the Venezuela crisis but now “ Latin American officials feel they wasted their time talking to him”, says Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. With Tom Shannon leaving soon, many leaders in the region are left without a familiar face to talk to. Latin America now feels “this is a different United States from the one they have been dealing with for decades”.

Among the likely changes in foreign policy could be increased pressure on Venezuela. Tillerson’s firing “could also be the catalyst for additional sanctions”, said Helima Croft – head of global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets – to S&P Global’s Trump “seems to have shifted on getting tougher on Venezuela in the coming weeks”, said Joe McMonigle, an analyst with Hedgeye Capital, to Platts. But Amy Myers Jaffe, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, warned, “you lose a certain amount of momentum when you have to go back to those same leaders with a different team”.

But Franco Ordonez, writing for McClatchy, says “it was [Pompeo’s] agency’s intelligence informing White House action on the president’s biggest Latin America play so far — sanctions against Venezuela.” His appointment should mean “tougher times” for Maduro, he says. The Washington Post’s Amanda Erickson agrees, saying that Pompeo’s previous testimony points to a tougher stance on the country in crisis.

Video:  Mike Pompeo talking with Chris Wallace about Venezuela


U.S. sanctions and worries of a coup erode Maduro’s control of Venezuelan military

Antonio Maria Delgado, March 13 | Miami Herald

Delgado writes a stunning account of internal attempts at insurrection that have long been underreported. The façade of strength that Maduro maintains is little more than just that, a mask for the outside world. Inside the military, U.S.sanctions and pressure appear to be having the desired effect. “The sense that something is brewing is clearly worrying the top leadership in the Maduro regime”, he says.

On Tuesday, Venezuelan authorities put their anxieties on full display.

First, authorities reportedly arrested Chavez’s ex-spy chief, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, who had been trying to mount a potential challenge to Maduro in the upcoming fraudulent elections. This only a week after the regime jailed 9 army officers for treason and rebellion.

Then, they sent a letter sent to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. In it, they berated US Charge D’Affaires Todd Robinson for “repeated interventionist statements against the sovereignty, stability and peace of the Venezuelan people and government.”

And finally, they pleaded with the U.N. to send observers to their presidential “elections”, to lend some legitimacy to (and probably buy some time for) the upcoming poll.


Does Mexico’s Slowing Economy Bode Well For Populist ‘Amlo’ Obrador?

Kenneth Rapoza , March 13 | Forbes

Rapoza gives readers a summary of current economic conditions in the country and how they could both help or hinder the radical-leftist candidate win the presidential elections on July 1st. Among the main predictors that, he says, will determine if he wins or not is if cartel crime can be lessened leading up to election day. Given Mexico police’s abysmal record, the recent port bombings in Playa del Carmen, and rampant corruption at the federal level, I personally would give the “protest candidate” very good odds.

The country does have some reassuring news, namely outside optimism on its economic prospects. Google announced it’s investing in bringing high-speed wifi to the country, Amazon said it would launch its first-ever debit card there, and Major League Soccer said it would partner with Mexico’s Liga MX. The companies are clearly displaying some confidence that either AMLO will not win or the country will be able to ride out his radical presidency.


Brazil’s Henrique Meirelles says time looks ripe for a presidential bid

Reuters, March 13 | 2 min read

There are a good number of important headlines for Brazil from Wednesday, but the Finance Minister’s decision to run for president might be the most impactful. Even though he’d said to be polling at around 1%, he’d be one of the stronger candidates for Brazil’s conservatives. The only comparable alternative would be outside of the ruling MDB party in power, with Jair Bolsonaro, a socially-conservative candidate, and former officer. Merielles believes he could benefit from a change in public opinion, which is increasingly giving the current administration credit for the current economic stability. That’s not to say the road ahead will be easy for him. He’s currently far behind polling for more left-leaning candidates and will suffer whatever consequences there might be for the way President Temer handles growing strikes and even attempts to have him arrested and charged with corruption. Still, the ruling MDB party would be a competitive platform for him, they’re polling at around 7% as a party versus the socialist party’s 19%.


Argentine envoy in Washington to negotiate exemption of higher metal tariffs

The country’s Commerce Secretary, Miguel Braun, was in Washington Tuesday to try and wrangle exemptions for Argentina from President Trump. The crux of his argument was that, as it was, Argentina exported so little aluminum to the country it shouldn’t be a national security threat and, therefore, should be exempt from the tariffs. The country is responsible for less than 1% of all steel imports and less than 3% of all aluminum imports in the United States.

The last thing Argentina needs now is a trade war. Accumulating debt, union protests over pay cuts, and a drought threaten to undercut something a rally going on in foreign investment. Company, after company, after company has either acquired , invested, or planned on doing both in Argentinian in recent months.


As Colombia tightens its border, more Venezuelan migrants brave clandestine routes

Bran Ebus, March 13 | IRN

Bran writes that Venezuelans are increasingly braving the over 300 clandestine routes into Colombia in the midst of an immigration crackdown by President Santos. Complicating the crossings, he says, are trochas, or gang-controlled crossings, that often kill refugees if they fail to meet their required crossing price. It’s a harrowing piece, but timely and detailed.

The crisis could not come at a more inconvenient time for Colombia. The supply of fighters that these helpless refugees give to the ELN threaten Santo’s ability to make an enticing peace deal to the rebel group. Moreover, as the country celebrates the peaceful defeat of the FARC ex-rebels at the polls, the troubles at the border threaten to upend a carefully crafted narrative of stability for Santos. The uncertainty of a potential leftist Gustavo Petro government has already troubled markets, but combined with a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude at the border the Venezuela issue threatens to undo overdue gains in the stability of the Colombian Peso.


Cuba gets lowest voter turnout in socialist history as Raul Castro prepares to retire

“…according to preliminary returns from Sunday’s elections on the island that showed a record 17.1 percent of the voters did not participate,” says the Associated Press, adding it was the “lowest voter turnout since the communist government implemented the electoral system in 1976.”

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