Venezuelan village mourns 23 drownings, seeks those missing

The travelers were all from Güiria, a town of about 40,000 people that is only a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride away from Trinidad and Tobago. The fatal trip was one that thousands of others had made before them, with human rights organizations estimating that at least 40,000 migrants have traveled illegally to Trinidad and Tobago after crossing a maritime boundary known as Dragon Mouths.

The fatal trip highlights a worsening migration problem that has increased tensions between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, with government officials and opposition leaders blaming each other. At least 23 people died in the attempt in early December, and more than a dozen remain missing. Authorities have identified at least 21 people who drowned, including nine women and four children between the ages of 2 and 8. Bodies were found at sea or washed up on nearby beaches, and the search continues for those missing. The ages of the adults range from 18 to 67 years old.

“The town is desolate,” said the resident who had requested anonymity as she began to cry.

As night falls in Güiria, clusters of people walk toward the harbor to provide support and accompany hundreds of family members who remain there waiting for information about their loved ones.

Catholic Priest Jesús Villaroel told The Associated Press that Monday night was especially long and sad for many because authorities began mass burials using wooden coffins donated by the local government. Before the bodies were buried, dozens of residents clad in white carried candles as they gathered in front of a church and walked to the harbor where the bodies were located.

A man identified as the owner of the boat “My Memories,” has been detained, according to Attorney General Tarek William Saab. One resident said the owner himself lost two of his sons and four grandchildren in the shipwreck.

Meanwhile, the government is seeking search warrants for various houses to detain six people it says are involved in the case. Officials arrested one person they said lives in the house from where one of the boats departed and said they are investigating whether some authorities in the state of Sucre where Güiria is located are involved. Saab said that “mafias” operating in both nations could be involved as well.

More than 5.4 million people have fled Venezuela in recent years, the equivalent of 18% of the country’s population of 30 million.

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Brazil’s Bolsonaro popular as ever, no matter his handling of the coronavirus

Yet Bolsonaro’s political future seems rosy, certainly more so than his hemispheric kindred spirit President Trump. A new poll from the Brazilian firm Datafolha this week found that 37 percent of those surveyed saw Bolsonaro’s government as “great or good,” while 32 percent saw it as “bad or terrible” — the latter is two points lower than the last time the poll was conducted in August. His approval ratings remain at their highest since he took office in 2019.

Polling also found that a majority of Brazilians — 52 percent — believed Bolsonaro deserves “no blame” for coronavirus deaths. To an outsider, at least, it’s a surprising verdict on a president who raged against social distancing restrictions, squabbled with cabinet ministers who took the pandemic’s threat more seriously than he did, feuded with state governors who instituted local lockdowns and ended up contracting the virus himself.

Bolsonaro’s political struggles earlier in the year extended beyond his management (or lack thereof) of public health. “Allies said he was leading the country on a suicide mission,” wrote my colleague Terrence McCoy. “His most popular deputy, Sérgio Moro, resigned as justice minister and accused him of corruption. Bolsonaro was growing more erratic by the day — conducting lengthy and unfocused meditations on national television, undermining his own government’s health admonishments, waving a box of hydroxychloroquine at an emu-like bird, and regularly fanning calls for him to lead a military takeover of the country.”

That none of this has cratered Bolsonaro’s presidency is both a reflection of his particular appeal as well as Brazil’s pronounced political divisions. Bolsonaro came to the fore as an anti-establishment outsider, channeling widespread public frustration and cynicism about the country’s political classes and government. During the pandemic, he has pandered to a cult of individualism and self-reliance and, not unlike Trump, insisted that the country can’t afford to shutter businesses to keep the virus at bay.

“Everything is about the pandemic, and we need to stop with this thing,” Bolsonaro said at a news conference last month. “We’re all going to die. Everyone here is going to die. … We have to stop being a country of sissies.”

Bolsonaro’s distinct brand of bravado has won him support from his loyal base of business elites and middle-class men. But his popularity has also grown among Brazil’s poor, who have benefited from months of direct cash transfers that his government implemented earlier this year because of the pandemic. Between April and September, tens of millions of Brazilians received a monthly stipend of $120. That monthly figure dipped thereafter to $60, though the package’s funding is set to expire.

“The benefit reached many people long before the disease did,” Cesar Zucco, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a university and research institution, told my colleagues. “Many people have gone two or three months with never-seen income, and they have not yet seen the disease. And even if they have, it’s income they’re not used to making.”

Economic analysts also suspect that the infusion of direct cash helped stave off the worst-case predictions surrounding Brazil’s pandemic-induced recession. In June, the International Monetary Fund projected a more than 9 percent hit to Brazil’s GDP, but banks now predict an economic contraction under 5 percent.

But Bolsonaro has few laurels upon which to rest. The populist measures have put him at odds with his finance minister, Paulo Guedes, a disciple of Milton Friedman and a proponent of supply-side economics. “It’s one of the most generous social programs on the planet and, some say, too expensive for a poor country like Brazil,” wrote Thomas Traumann in Americas Quarterly. “Given this and other stimulus initiatives, this year’s fiscal deficit is expected to exceed $169 billion — or about 12% of GDP. In the most optimistic forecasts, Brazil will not have a budget surplus again until 2026.”

And, politically, his fortunes have sagged. In local elections last month, the candidates Bolsonaro endorsed all slumped in the polls, with a set of centrist factions winning power in cities across the country. “He spent all his popularity and energy kicking us,” Fausto Pinato, a centrist federal lawmaker, told the Financial Times. “And now he needs us to help him. We don’t need that.”

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro continues to battle domestic rivals over the handling of the pandemic, with attention now squarely focused on the production and distribution of vaccines. João Doria, the governor of São Paulo, announced that he intends to make vaccinations mandatory in his teeming state of 45 million people through a program starting early next year.

Experts warn that such mixed signals are a recipe for disaster. “When science gets politicized, it always opens the path for conspiracy theories, that you are being wronged and others are trying to fool you,” microbiologist Natália Pasternak Taschner, a prominent scientist in Brazil, told my colleagues. “And no one wants to be wronged and fooled, so it opens the door for mistrust.”

“They’re playing with lives,” Denise Garrett, a Brazilian American epidemiologist, told the New York Times. “It’s borderline criminal.”

The current course of the pandemic may leave hospitals in some parts of the country on the brink of collapse. “We’re facing a campaign of disinformation and denial,” Suzana Lobo, president of the Brazilian Association of Intensive Medicine, told my colleagues. “The impact in January will be very, very large. Our fear is that in January and February, the health system won’t be able to bear it.”

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In Philippines drug war, ICC sees ‘reasonable basis’ for crimes against humanity

Human rights groups have raised alarm for years about the violent campaign, saying security forces have often killed suspects with impunity, in what they say in many cases amounts to extrajudicial executions that have left communities traumatized.

Duterte has repeatedly defended the crackdown, saying it is necessary to secure the country and protect civilians from violent drug dealers. He has brushed off calls from foreign countries and local critics to reel in his security forces.

The ICC report said its preliminary investigation focused on events that unfolded between July 2016 and mid-March 2019 as part of Duterte’s war on drugs.

The court in The Hague acknowledged that Philippine officials have claimed that deaths that occurred during the crackdown have been justified but said that “such narrative has been challenged by others, who have contended that the use of lethal force was unnecessary and disproportionate under the circumstances, as to render the resulting killings essentially arbitrary, or extrajudicial, executions.”

Fatou Bensouda, the court’s chief prosecutor, who issued this week’s report, opened the preliminary inquiry into the killings in the Philippines in 2018. That year, Duterte announced his country would withdraw from the ICC, a process that was finalized last year.

The ICC inquiry, he said in 2018, was an attempt to paint him as a “ruthless and heartless violator of human rights.” He said at the time that he intended to arrest Bensouda if she entered the Philippines to pursue an investigation.

Despite the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC, the court “retains jurisdiction over alleged crimes that have occurred on the territory of the Philippines” while it was party to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC, the report said.

The inquiry focused on allegations that Duterte and other high-ranking officials, including law enforcement officials, “actively promoted and encouraged the killing of suspected or purported drug users and/or dealers, and in such context, members of law enforcement … and unidentified assailants have carried out thousands of unlawful killings throughout the Philippines,” according to the report.

Harry Roque, Duterte’s spokesman, told reporters Tuesday that court officials “can do what they want to do.”

“We do not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC,” he said.

The Philippine government has acknowledged that as of October, nearly 6,000 suspects have been killed in the war on drugs, Reuters reported. Watchdog groups say the true toll is probably far higher, with killings carried out by security forces and vigilantes.

A 2020 report from the U.N. human rights office said the government’s “focus on national security, countering terrorism and illegal drugs has resulted in numerous systematic human rights violations, including killings and arbitrary detention, persistent impunity and the vilification of dissent.”

Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that the campaign ramped up during the pandemic. An analysis by the group determined that there was a 50 percent increase in deaths linked to the war on drugs between April and July this year.

The ICC intends to decide early next year whether it will pursue a full investigation of the alleged drug war abuses in the Philippines.

In the meantime, Duterte has pledged to handle the coronavirus pandemic as he has his war on drugs.

“Together, we shall fight this pandemic with the same fervor as our campaign against illegal drugs, criminality, insurgency and corruption in high places and entrenched parochial interests,” he said in a national address last month. Earlier in the pandemic, he gave police permission to shoot those who violated the national lockdown.

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