This week, in Mexico presidential term limits and judicial independence are under debate as the lower house gears up to consider a bill to extend the Supreme Court president’s tenure. In Argentina, the government’s pandemic control plans have become caught up in a bitter political and legal battle. Peru’s presidential run-off campaign gets going with the hard left Pedro Castillo leading the polls and coronavirus cases surging. Colombiais also experiencing a new wave of Covid-19 as a politically delicate tax reform looms large. Meanwhile in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro will face an enquiry into his handling of the pandemic. Finally, Cuba has sealed a generational change in its political leadership which the officially retired but still-active Raul Castro has carefully shepherded.
A controversial bid to extend the term of the Supreme Court (SCJN) President Arturo Zaldivar is likely to remain the dominant issue this week. The lower house is due to debate the initiative – which was added at the last minute to a judicial reform bill – after the Senate approved it on 15 April. The proposal would extend Zaldivar’s term to 2024 – i.e. the rest of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO)’s presidency. Critics see the initiative as a test of a possible future presidential term extension and/or as a way for AMLO to ensure the SCJN remains loyal and biddable through 2024. AMLO probably also wants greater control of the CJF judicial oversight and supervisory body, which the SCJN president also heads.
Separately, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard will travel to Russia on 24 April to visit facilities where the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine is manufactured and ensure supply contracts are honored. The government has ordered 24mn Sputnik V doses, though fewer than 1mn have so far been delivered. Ebrard’s visit could well be more cosmetic than consequential. Mexico’s most widely applied vaccines are from Pfizer, Sinovac, and AstraZeneca. The speed of the vaccine rollout has been improving over the last two months; so far in April, around 360,000 doses have been administered daily.
A Supreme Court ruling is due this week on the highly divisive issue of whether the government can go ahead and close educational establishments in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (AMBA) for the rest of April (and potentially beyond) as authorities respond to surging coronavirus cases. The capital’s opposition mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta – the most popular politician in the country – is resisting President Alberto Fernandez’s decree, partly because schools were shut for most of 2020. Rodriguez Larreta has also criticized the government for over-promising and under-delivering on vaccines. Against a backdrop of government policy being “judicialized”, some teachers on strike and parents protesting against closures, and with the AMBA a key electoral battleground in the October mid-terms, political tensions will likely remain heightened.
The first poll since the 11 April first-round presidential election, which was released on 18 April, has Pedro Castillo of the hard left Peru Libre (PL) party on 42% of the vote, ahead of his run-off rival Keiko Fujimori of Fuerza Popular (FP), who is on 31%. The Ipsos poll has 16% of voters saying they will cast a blank or spoiled ballot, and 11% undecided. The result indicates how Fujimori’s anti-vote outweighs even the prospect of deep economic uncertainty under a Castillo-led administration. In an article published on 17 April, the notable author and losing presidential candidate in 1990 Mario Vargas Llosa called on Peruvians to vote for Fujimori as the “least worst” option; Vargas Llosa also predicted an erosion of democracy and the possibility of a military coup in the event of a Castillo victory. The next seven weeks of campaigning are likely to be highly unsettled.
In parallel, the coronavirus situation remains highly challenging. Deaths from coronavirus have hit new heights, averaging around 330 daily over the past seven days. Based on official figures, deaths from coronavirus in the first three and a half months of 2021 represent over 50% of the total deaths officially attributed to Covid-19 in the whole of 2020. In reality, the total death toll of 57,537 is thought to be as much as three times higher. Yesterday, 19 April, the government rejected a total quarantine as unworkable, which leaves it almost wholly reliant on the vaccine rollout. Only 1.62% of the population have so far received two doses.
This week will see joint congressional commissions ready themselves to begin examining the tax reform unveiled by Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla last week. The reform, which aims to raise USD 6.4bn (2% of GDP), has priority status but even so, the congressional process is time-consuming at the best of times. With congressional elections scheduled for March 2022, getting the reform through Congress will be a huge test for a government that has struggled to manage the legislature. Carrasquilla wants the reform passed by the end of the current congressional session on 20 June. A coronavirus outbreak in the lower house could also potentially disrupt proceedings; Colombia is experiencing its “second wave” with curfews in force from tonight in Bogota and another weekend lockdown looming.
The week will see the appointment of a president and a rapporteur for the Senate parliamentary inquiry committee (CPI) to investigate the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by the Jair Bolsonaro administration. It is likely that the CPI will have an anti-government majority and could inflict considerable damage on the president. The government’s increasing weakness comes at a time when negotiations over the 2021 budget must be finalized for presidential sanction before the 22 April deadline. Bolsonaro is likely to veto any part of the budget bill that may be considered to violate the official budget ceiling so as to avoid running any risk of committing an impeachable offense.
President Miguel Diaz-Canel was yesterday, 19 April, confirmed as the new First Secretary of the Communist Party (PCC), replacing former president Raul Castro (2008-2018), who turns 90 in June. With two other historic revolutionaries also stepping down from the PCC politburo, the baton of power finally passes to the next generation. Castro’s former son-in-law Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, who is head of the powerful military-run GAESA conglomerate, is also promoted to the politburo. The change comes at a politically delicate moment following the recent exchange rate unification and currency devaluation, which the regime advanced amid the economic crisis sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, recent protests over freedom of expression and racial injustice speak to emerging social dynamics catalyzed by greater internet access. However, Diaz-Canel is unlikely to significantly accelerate economic reforms and yesterday emphasized his intention to continue consulting Castro.