This week, Chile marks two years since the outbreak of protests just as the constituent assembly born out of that unrest starts to debate the content of a new constitution. In Peru, a new stage of Pedro Castillo’s presidency opens up as his party appears to be submitting to new realities. In Brazil, this week will be important for a new cash transfer program that could prove important for President Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral prospects next year. In Ecuador, President Guillermo Lasso remains stymied by his legislative weakness. Venezuela‘s talks to try to end its long-running political crisis are in stasis.
The country – and Santiago in particular – is on high alert today, 18 October, two years to the day since the outbreak of major unrest that lasted until the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020. The institutional response to the unrest involved a cross-party agreement to set in motion the writing of a new constitution to address protestors’ demands for a fairer social compact. The constituent assembly that emerged from this process will start work on the content of the new constitution from today, 15 weeks after its inaugural session (the body has been bogged down in arguments over its internal procedures), which leaves it with just under nine months to complete its work.
A split within the governing Peru Libre (PL) party has looked imminent following the cabinet changes made by President Pedro Castillo earlier this month. Last week the PL party boss Vladimir Cerron accused Castillo of swerving to the center-right and said that any PL legislator who votes to endorse the new cabinet led by Prime Minister Mirtha Vasquez will be expelled from the party. At least a dozen of the 37-strong PL bloc could remain loyal to Cerron. Standing up to Cerron could boost Castillo’s approval ratings in the short-term and it could actually help secure congressional support for the new cabinet given that opposition parties will not want to be seen siding with Cerron. However, a party split would ultimately leave Castillo vulnerable in the face of a still largely hostile Congress.
A special House of Representatives committee will vote on and approve tomorrow, 19 October, a constitutional amendment that would allow the government to delay court-mandated payments of judicial claims due in 2022. This should clear some space in next year’s budget to secure the creation of a new cash transfer program, the Auxilio Brasil – an element of great electoral importance for President Jair Bolsonaro. The Senate should also determine the processing of a controversial bill approved by the House last week on new rules for the incidence of the state-level VAT, the ICMS, on fuel; the influence of governors in the chamber should prevent the bill from moving forward. The week will also see the reading and approval of the final report from the Senate inquiry into the pandemic, with requests for the indictment of the president, a few ministers, and possibly his politician sons for a host of crimes, including crimes against humanity.
President Guillermo Lasso has divided up his “mega-bill” of reforms after it was denied legislative time; Lasso now plans to submit two of its newly repackaged parts covering tax and labor reforms to the National Assembly this week. However, Lasso’s lack of anything close to a legislative majority still makes getting these proposals passed very difficult. Relations with the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie) remain especially tricky; the Conaie is holding an assembly on 22 October to determine its next steps, with fuel subsidies the main sticking point between the two sides. Some within Conaie are openly calling for a return to the protests that shook the government of Lenin Moreno in October 2019. Lasso last week announced that he would consider using his powers to dissolve the National Assembly – and trigger fresh elections – if it opts for obstructionism.
In parallel, Lasso will hope to use a brief visit to Quito tomorrow, 19 October, by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to recover credibility on the security front – and boost his domestic position against would-be agitators from Conaie and former president Rafael Correa’s Union for Hope (UNES) party, which is the dominant bloc in the National Assembly. A serious prison riot late last month and worsening public perceptions of security have opened up a new flank for Lasso, who has said he wants to lobby the US for a “Plan Ecuador” program of security aid based on the Plan Colombia initiative.
President Nicolas Maduro has suspended his negotiating team’s participation in the latest round of regime-opposition talks originally meant to get underway this week. This follows the extradition to the US on 16 October of the Colombian national Alex Saab, a key Maduro financier and fixer tasked with dodging sanctions, who was arrested in Cape Verde in 2020. In retaliation, Maduro also ordered the return to prison from house arrest of six oil executives (five of whom have US citizenship) who work for the PDVSA subsidiary CITGO. Suspending talks allows Maduro to avoid having to offer the opposition any more electoral concessions ahead of the 21 November regional and local elections. Meanwhile, Saab’s fate is a reminder to regime officials with corruption and human rights charges hanging over them that maintaining the status quo – however dysfunctional – may be in their best interests.