This week, a resurgence in protests is expected in Chile, while in Mexico, COVID-19 is likely to add to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s worries. In Brazil, budget wrangles go on. Judicial reforms could be unveiled in Argentina ahead of next week’s debt restructuring offer. And finally, in Venezuela, a small advance in the process to nominate a new election body already looks fragile.
Today, 2 March, has been dubbed “Super Monday”, as schools and places of work re-open after the January-February vacations. Beyond today, various protest marches are planned for this month, most notably on 8 March to mark International Women’s Day. President Sebastian Pinera claims that his administration and security forces are better prepared for public order problems than they were when serious unrest first broke out last October. Congress also resumes sessions from today following the February recess, with several initiatives on the agenda; these include the government’s pension reform, which has won lower house approval but faces a tougher route through the Senate, as well as health, minimum guaranteed wage, and security reforms.
The COVID-19 outbreak is likely to keep the government under pressure this week. Although there are still only a handful of confirmed cases in the country, the health sector was already facing medicine shortages and disruption following the chaotic rollout of a new healthcare provider (INSABI) at the start of the year. The public backlash was already eating into President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO)’s approval ratings; frustration with health sector problems and the implementation of other government social programs was in evidence over the weekend when a visibly riled AMLO was booed at an event in his home state of Tabasco. The AMLO administration will also be closely watching US moves at the border in light of US government comments over the weekend about possible health screening.
President Jair Bolsonaro will start the week meeting with Senate and Congress Chairman Davi Alcolumbre to discuss presidential vetoes against permitting the rapporteur of the Budget Guidelines Law (LDO) to define which projects would be eligible to receive BRL 30 billion (USD 7.2bn) of the total BRL 46.2bn (USD 10.3bn) in government funds set out in parliamentary amendments in the draft. An agreement had been reached between the government and Congress to “return” BRL 15 billion (USD 3.6bn) to the Executive branch but the government is now considering dropping the agreement and allowing the matter to go to a vote. The government is confident that it has the absolute majority of senators on its side, which is sufficient to maintain the veto (41 out of 81) even in the presence of a likely opposite majority in the House. The vote may take place tomorrow, 3 March.
At the formal opening of the new congressional session yesterday, 1 March, President Alberto Fernandez announced that he would send judicial reforms to Congress in the coming days. Fernandez said he would root out political influence within the judiciary, though his promise to dilute the power of federal judges who are in charge of sensitive corruption cases – including those faced by VP Cristina Fernandez (CFK) – raises questions about his real intentions. Fernandez also announced that a new hydrocarbons law would be on the agenda, though he did not provide details. The government is set to make its debt restructuring offer to creditors next week.
This week, ten civil society representatives are supposed to be sworn in as members of a committee tasked with appointing the five-member National Electoral Council (CNE). The appointment of the ten individuals is unusual because it counts on the backing of all sides – the mainstream opposition led by Juan Guaido, the other, much smaller opposition faction led by Luis Parra, and President Nicolas Maduro. A further 11 deputies should also join the committee to name the new CNE. Some within the Guaido-led opposition have recently talked of a 2-2-1 formula for the CNE, under which the regime and opposition would each nominate two CNE rectors, with the fifth position being filled by consensus. This formula could be highly fragile, and the process to re-establish a more credible electoral body is likely to be highly fraught. Fresh tensions between the regime and opposition are already in evidence after a masked gunman pointed a weapon at Guaido and shots were fired at vehicles used by Guaido’s staff on 29 February.