This week, the region’s vaccine procurement picture continues to look very uneven. Brazil should vote on the re-introduction of an emergency assistance package. In Mexico, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) is being challenged (again) by women’s groups. In Argentina, VP Cristina Fernandez (CFK)’s quest for legal impunity continues. Colombia looks set to prolong its relaxation of deficit limits. Venezuela’s recent saber-rattling with neighboring Guyana is set to continue. Finally, Peru will see a new presidential poll after a week in which campaigning should intensify.
The Latin American region continues to present a mixed picture in its pandemic management. Starting 5 March, Argentina’s Formosa province has seen violent protests triggered by new Covid-19 restrictions, while Paraguay has experienced three days of unrest provoked by frustration with the government’s lethargy on vaccines. Meanwhile, Chile’s vaccination procurement and rollout has been so successful (21% of the population has now received at least one dose) that the government of Sebastian Pinera has dispatched 40,000 spare doses to Ecuador and Paraguay, both vaccine laggards. Chile, alongside Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, have procured the largest quantities of vaccines in the region.
The House of Representatives should vote by 10 March on the text previously approved by the Senate of the emergency constitutional amendment (PEC Emergencial) that combines spending cuts with the re-introduction of the emergency assistance that elapsed on 31 December. In addition to rejecting the end of mandatory spending in the original proposal, the House approved a text that re-instates a state of calamity under which BRL 44 bn (USD 7.7bn) can be directed towards emergency assistance. The House is likely to seek an approval without changes in order to avoid having to send it back to the Senate. Approval requires two votes with a three-fifths majority. The value of the assistance was not included in the amendment and will be stipulated in an executive order. President Jair Bolsonaro has already signaled that the government will favor four equal monthly installments of BRL 250 (USD 44) for 33mn people (half as many as in 2020).
In addition, the House will on 9 March consider congressional committees’ leaderships. A strong and vocal Bolsonarista, Bia Kicis from the social-liberals (PSL), will be chosen for the Constitution, Citizenship and Justice (CCJ) Committee – the chamber’s most important. It is still unclear what the solution will be for the Foreign Relations Committee, but agreements struck at the time of the election of House Speaker Arthur Lira indicate that the race involves the far-right PSL, the center-right social-democrats from the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), and the leftists from the Workers’ Party (PT).
As part of international women’s day today, 8 March, protests are being staged by women’s groups to call for greater government action to curb violence against women. Protestors are also mobilizing against AMLO’s support for Felix Salgado Macedonio as gubernatorial candidate for Guerrero state on behalf of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena). Salgado, a veteran AMLO ally, has been accused of rape and sexual assault. However, AMLO has refused to even consider dropping Salgado and instead has repeated his view that women’s groups are part of a “conservative reaction” to his government. The issue has caused internal divisions within Morena that could undermine the party’s chances in June; an internal party committee has ruled that the Morena candidacy should be contested again, though that process has not concluded.
Justice Minister Marcela Losardo’s position continues to hang in the balance after VP Cristina Fernandez (CFK)’s attack on the judiciary last week. CFK launched her broadside as part of a case in which she is accused of approving the sale of USD futures contracts below market rates in 2015, just one of several, mostly-corruption related, investigations she faces. The sentencing for money laundering last month of a longstanding CFK ally, Lazaro Baez, partly explains her concerns; specifically, Baez’s children have been caught up in the case, which worries CFK, whose daughter Florencia Kirchner struggles with mental health problems and does not enjoy immunity from prosecution, which both CFK herself and her son Maximo Kirchner do possess. Not only do CFK’s family legal troubles continue to dictate government policy but Losardo’s replacement would almost certainly be another CFK loyalist.
The Fiscal Rule Advisory Committee is set to meet today, 8 March, to discuss an extension of deficit limits beyond 2022. The Committee suspended the fiscal rule in June 2020 for two years to create extra fiscal space to deal with the fallout of the pandemic. However, as Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla confirmed last week, emergency spending could actually increase in 2021, which is why the government has given itself a new deficit target of 8.6% of GDP this year, up from the 7.8% deficit that closed out last year. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in February endorsed a more gradual fiscal consolidation plan. In parallel, the government maintains its plan to send a fiscal reform bill to Congress in the coming weeks.
Bilateral tensions with Guyana are likely to persist this week following the latest instalment in the two countries’ long-running territorial dispute, which has worsened as Guyana starts to develop its promising offshore oil resources. Last week, the Guyanese government delivered a formal protest to Venezuela after two Venezuelan Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets flew over Guyana’s Region Seven. The incident follows two other developments in January: the seizure of two Guyanese fishing vessels and President Nicolas Maduro’s creation of a new “Territory for the Atlantic Façade” which incorporates the Essequibo region which Venezuela lays claim to. These actions are part of the regime’s reaction to the International Court for Justice (ICJ)’s December 2020 ruling that it can hear the territorial dispute, which Venezuela rejects. Maduro may also perceive benefits in keeping the armed forces focused on an external dispute, while looking to whip up nationalist sentiment.
The presidential candidates will outline their anti-corruption strategies in the first half of this week as part of an initiative organized by the Comptroller-General’s Office. In parallel, five of the leading candidates are scheduled to hold a debate organized by the newspaper El Comercio on 9 March; the candidates involved are Yonhy Lescano, George Forsyth, Keiko Fujimori, Veronika Mendoza, and Daniel Urresti. Forsyth’s place in the race has now been settled following a ruling by the JNE electoral board, as has that of the ultra-conservative Rafael Lopez Aliaga, who has been climbing in the polls. The next poll by Ipsos – to be published on 14 March – should confirm whether Lopez Aliaga has sustained his poll rise.