Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: The Venezuelan opposition scores an electoral victory in Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas, the right to euthanasia stirs debate in Colombia, and dozens of Salvadoran journalists and activists are hacked with Pegasus spyware.
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For once, Venezuela’s opposition has some good news: an election victory that may hold clues to the future.
The success occurred in a do-over of a gubernatorial race in the western state of Barinas on Jan. 9. The original vote had been held as part of nationwide regional elections on Nov. 21, 2021, which European Union observers said were marked by “structural shortcomings.” These included arbitrary disqualifications of opposition candidates, judicial rulings that tilted the playing field, unequal access to media, and extensive use of state resources to campaigns.
Barinas’s contest was no exception: After opposition candidate Freddy Superlano earned 37.6 percent of votes—putting him ahead of incumbent Argenis Chávez, the ruling United Socialist Party candidate, who earned 37.21 percent of votes—Venezuela’s Supreme Tribunal of Justice blocked the final ratification of results, saying Superlano had been ineligible to run in the first place. Many observers said the ruling amounted to fraud. The court then ordered a repeat of the election, with Superlano ineligible to run again.
Barinas is former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s home state and, until now, has been a longtime United Socialist Party bastion. But given the first election’s results, the party was not taking chances. Ahead of Sunday’s vote, the federal government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro filled the state with troops and delivered trucks of water, gasoline, and cooking gas to voters—a familiar tactic to try and influence results.
The Socialists also decided to switch up their candidate, choosing to run former Vice President and Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza instead of Argenis Chávez—the brother of the late president. Some analysts read the choice as the party’s attempt to distance itself from the local Chávez political clan after their poor performance in November 2021. The opposition, meanwhile, got behind a local politician named Sergio Garrido.
The opposition won again and by a much larger margin: 55.4 percent to 41.3 percent. Arreaza quickly conceded to Garrido. Roberto Picón, a national election official who had criticized Venezuela’s supreme court ruling on the last round, said Sunday’s election occurred “without technical problems.”
What makes Garrido’s victory so noteworthy is voters who chose a smattering of opposition candidates aside from Superlano in the original election chose to unite behind Garrido in the rerun. The United Socialist Party, for its part, did succeed in upping its vote count, international affairs expert Francisco Rodríguez pointed out in Global Americans. But cooperation among opposition groups proved to be a bigger force.
That victory “would not have been possible without the support of key centrist forces that have up to now been excluded from the mainstream opposition,” Rodríguez wrote. Ahead of 2024 presidential elections, he argued, the lesson is one of unity.
Of course, unity at the polls does not guarantee victory in Maduro’s Venezuela. Plenty of observers have stressed this week that the Barinas vote is only a small step in remedying what is still an authoritarian and bleak political landscape.
What seems apparent after Sunday’s vote, however, is that a significant portion of the opposition now believe electoral strategies are worth pursuing—a stark departure from a previous three-year boycott carried out by many. Even prominent opposition figure Juan Guaidó, who boycotted the vote, said Garrido’s victory was a “lesson in resistance” and “unity.”
The editorial board of El País wrote that the results in Barinas should prompt international participants to invest new energy in the stalled Mexico round of talks between Maduro and the opposition, as they could yield guarantees about presidential election conditions before 2024’s critical vote.
“People don’t have time right now in Venezuela to go march in the street,” University of Oxford political scientist Maryhen Jiménez Morales told Efecto Cocuyo journalist Luz Mely Reyes. “The option they have to express their discontent and potentially improve their quality of life is to vote for the opposition.”
Venezuelans continue to suffer under hyperinflation and as much as 96 percent of the country is living in poverty. Even before the pandemic slump, some economists called Venezuela’s crisis over the last decade the world’s worst economic collapse outside of wartime in at least 45 years.
Jiménez said another takeaway of the Barinas vote was the importance of organizing at a local level: “There is a structure there. There are grassroots groups there, and it worked. They did their political work before the election.”
In that sense, she added, “2024 is just around the corner.”
Thursday, Jan. 13 to Wednesday, Jan. 19: A Haiti Unity Summit takes place in the United States at the Southern University Law Center in Louisiana. Representatives of Haiti’s government and civil society are due to speak about a path out of the country’s political crisis.
Thursday, Jan. 20: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro begins a two-day trip to Suriname and Guyana.
Thursday, Jan. 27: Xiomara Castro is inaugurated as the first female president of Honduras.
Hacking in El Salvador. Pegasus spyware was used to hack phones of 35 employees of Salvadoran news organizations, according to a joint investigation by digital rights watchdogs Access Now and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab. In one case, the software reinfected a journalist’s phone more than 40 times.
The attacks are some of the most extensive yet discovered using Pegasus, which has been reportedly used by governments in several countries to target activists and dissidents.
Most of the attacks in El Salvador targeted employees of the news site El Faro, which is known for its exposés about Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s government. Citizen Lab said it found “circumstantial evidence” of the hacks originating from the government, while Bukele’s communications director said the government of El Salvador “is in no way related to Pegasus.”
Ortega’s fanfare. Many of the international envoys present at Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inauguration for a fourth consecutive term on Monday were predictable, representing friends of the regime, such as Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Aside from fellow autocracies Venezuela and Cuba, Latin American governments otherwise kept their distance—that is, except for Mexico and Argentina.
Ortega “has over recent months led the most serious violation of political rights and coercion of critical voices in Latin America since the last wave of military regimes receded in the 1980s,” the International Crisis Group’s Tiziano Breda and Ivan Briscoe wrote for War on the Rocks. Ortega’s crackdown has prompted mounting international sanctions and a split from the Organization of American States.
Little in the country appears set to change in 2022, except a possible increase in outward migration. Almost 72,000 Nicaraguans were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border between January and November 2021, up from 2,000 migrants in the same period the previous year.
Climate migrants. Costa Rica’s congress is weighing a proposal to allow people forcibly displaced by climate change to live and work in the country. If passed, the Central American nation would be at the vanguard of a new interpretation of what it means to be a refugee.
A lawmaker from the ruling Citizens’ Action Party presented the measure and said Costa Rica would aim to advocate for other countries to adopt it in international forums. Costa Rica is seen as a global leader in climate policy, with 99 percent of its electricity generated from renewable sources. It also has a successful record of curbing deforestation and a highly detailed regional strategy for a green economic transition.
Unconventional billionaire. One of Brazil’s billionaires is not like the others. The New York Times has a new profile of Luiza Trajano, founder and chair of retail giant Magazine Luiza. Trajano made waves in 2020 when she restricted an executive trainee program to only allow Black applicants. Trajano called it a valid and necessary form of affirmative action, earning both praise and blowback.
Through it all, Trajano has remained highly respected in Brazil’s business community, so much so that she’s been repeatedly asked to run for office and was whispered to have been considered as a possible running mate for former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in this year’s presidential election. (More recently, bets have shifted that former São Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin would run on a Lula ticket.)
Trajano spearheaded a fundraising drive last year to buy equipment for Brazil’s public health system to help administer COVID-19 vaccines, suggesting she’s comfortable playing a role in public life—official title or not.
Guatemala’s currency is named after what tropical bird?
The quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala. It is the sacred bird of the ancient Mayans and Aztecs, said to represent the ancient Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.
In Focus: The Right to a Dignified Death
In 2015, Colombia began regulating the right to euthanasia for terminally ill patients after decriminalizing the practice in 1997. In July 2021, the country’s Constitutional Court extended the right to nonterminal patients with intense suffering. Euthanasia is when a doctor administers a life-ending procedure, as opposed to assisted suicide, when a doctor gives a patient medication to administer by themselves.
This past weekend, the first Colombians without a terminal prognosis died by euthanasia. They were Martha Sepúlveda, who had a progressive neurological disease known in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Víctor Escobar, who suffered from chronic lung disease, partial paralysis, hypertension, fibrosis, and other ailments.
Both cases were the subjects of legal battles. Escobar, whose pain could not be resolved with medication, had first solicited euthanasia over two years ago. Sepúlveda’s euthanasia was legally scheduled last August but suddenly blocked by a medical committee two days before it was due to occur in October 2021—in part due to media coverage that showed her smiling and laughing at a local restaurant. A judge eventually reauthorized the procedure.
The controversy over Sepúlveda’s case became a topic in the runup to Colombia’s May presidential election, with several candidates speaking publicly about it.
There is deep cultural resistance to euthanasia in heavily Catholic Latin America. Colombia is the only country in the region where euthanasia is technically legal, though Argentina and Mexico allow patients to reject treatments that would prolong their lives. Globally, only seven countries permit euthanasia: Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Spain.
A bill to legalize euthanasia in Chile is currently sitting in its congress while Peru authorized the procedure in an exceptional case to a woman last February who suffers from a degenerative disease. Chilean President-Elect Gabriel Boric supports legalization while Peruvian President Pedro Castillo opposes it.
Escobar, a truck driver, left a video message shortly before his death thanking those who supported him. “I’m not saying goodbye, just see you later,” he said. “You can’t buy life. Little by little, all of our times will come.”
At the moment of his death, he had planned to wear a jersey of his soccer team, Deportivo Cali, which won Colombia’s national championship in December 2021. “My duty as a Cali fan [was] fulfilled.”