Friday, November 21, 2014

Peña Nieto’s Selective Definition of ‘Bad Apples’

Mexico marked the 104th anniversary of the start of its revolution yesterday by holding protests around the country, with largely peaceful demonstrators demanding an end to corruption and the return of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa. The largest were held in Mexico City, where tens of thousands of protesters converged on the city’s central square.

President Enrique Peña Nieto, however, chose to mark the occasion by presiding over a military decoration and promotion ceremony, where he gave remarks along similar lines as his recent condemnation of violent protests. While he did not specifically mention the day’s massive demonstrations, Proceso reports that the president said that violence was “unacceptable, regardless of its origin,” and that “an attack on [the country’s] institutions is an attack on all Mexicans.”

According to El Universal, Peña Nieto also took the opportunity to praise the military’s commitment to maintaining order “with full respect for human rights,” saying that this “could not be questioned under any circumstances.” And in a clear reference to the alleged army massacre of 22 suspects in Tlatlaya earlier this year, the president asserted that “the greatness of a century-old institution, the work of more than 212,000 Mexican soldiers, should not be judged based on the few elements that may have strayed away from the principles and the spirit of their service.”

What is ironic about this remark is how much Peña Nieto himself is guilty of judging the recent wave of anti-government demonstrations by the violent actions of a tiny minority. In a statement earlier in the week, the president labeled demonstrators as “violent movements”  and accused them of having no clear goal other than “generating destabilization” and “us[ing] the shield of sorrow as cover to carry out protests” against his government. He made no mention of the largely peaceful marches that have occurred in recent weeks.

By all accounts, yesterday’s protests were overwhelmingly nonviolent as well. Reforma reports that Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong even described the march in Mexico City as “peaceful and orderly,” and the AP claims it was “mostly peaceful” despite some masked youths battling with police in its aftermath. According to the wire service: “Whenever masked protesters tried to join Thursday’s march, demonstrators shouted them down with chants of “No violence!” and “Off with the masks!” According to Milenio just 31 people were arrested for violent acts, a surprisingly low figure considering the size of the crowds.

News Briefs
  • While yesterday’s demonstrations saw a large turnout, it remains to be seen whether the current wave of protests will succeed in forcing meaningful judicial reforms and anti-corruption measures where similar movements -- like Javier Sicilia’s Caravan for Peace -- have failed in the past. El Universal notes that one of the proposals made by relatives of the missing students in yesterday’s rally was the creation of a civil society committee against disappearances. The suggestion is vague, but it points to holes in state’s efforts to meet the demands of drug violence victims and their relatives. This was illustrated earlier this week by Peña Nieto’s own Executive Commission on Victims (CEAV), which issued a press release on November 18 claiming that it is keeping in touch with organizations “working with the victims” of the Ayotzinapa case. However, one of the groups named is the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), which has in turn claimed that the CEAV mischaracterized the NGO’s work with victims, noting that the CEAV’s communication with the CMDPDH is “is not relevant” to caring for the relatives of the disappeared students.
  • Following the Guatemalan Constitutional Court’s Wednesday decision to uphold recent controversial judicial appointments despite objections from civil society, Guatemalan news site Nomada has extracts from the dissenting opinion voiced by two of the five judges on the panel. Among the irregularities identified by the judges are several instances of conflict of interest, a lack of standardized measures to judge candidates based on merit, and the influence of apparent favor-trading on the entire process.
  • Yesterday brought further indications of ongoing the militarization of citizen security in Honduras.  El Heraldo and the AFP report that the country’s National Police director, Gen Ramon Sabillon, was demoted by President Juan Orlando Hernandez as an apparent result of Sabillon’s opposition to Hernandez’s reliance on a newly-created military police force.
  • Colombia’s peace talks appear to be on their way to overcoming the crisis posed by the FARC’s capture of army general Ruben Dario Alzate on Sunday. El Espectador reports that yesterday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said that the operation to free the general, his companions, and two soldiers captured in a separate incident in Arauca province was “under way.” Semana claims that the captives could be freed today at the earliest.
  • While the terms of the prisoner release remain unclear, the FARC are claiming that they are not seeking to use it to improve their leverage at the negotiating table. In an interview with Radio RCN, FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo said that the guerrillas are working to release their prisoners “as fast as possible” to get peace talks back on track. “From the beginning we have said that this is a gesture of goodwill, a contribution that seeks to create an environment that improves the situation to allow the talks to proceed more calmly,” the rebel said.
  • Reuters has an analysis on the state of the Venezuelan opposition, noting that while it remains badly fractured and disorganized, President Nicolas Maduro’s flagging popularity and worsening economic conditions may work in its favor in legislative elections next year.
  • The White House appears to be gearing up to take a harder stance on human rights abuses in Venezuela. On Wednesday, Deputy National Security Adviser Antony Blinken said the administration “would not oppose to moving forward with additional sanctions.”
  • El Ciudadano and the BBC report on a landmark ruling published on Wednesday,  in which a Chilean court ordered the state to pay roughly $7.5 million to 30 former political prisoners held by the Pinochet regime in a prison on Dawson island in the Tierra del Fuego region.
  • Vice Magazine highlights Chile’s experiment with medical marijuana, noting that despite government approval for a groundbreaking program that provides 200 cancer patients with access to cannabis oil, users of medical cannabis are still being arrested in the country. This may change soon, however, as on Tuesday lawmakers in the lower house’s health commission began debating decriminalizing marijuana for medicinal and recreational use.
  • On Wednesday, thousands of people marched in Quito and other major cities in protest of the constitutional reforms being prepared by President Rafael Correa’s ruling Alianza Pais party. AFP and El Universo report that the demonstrations brought together indigenous groups, students, teachers and unions, many of which were protesting a recently-passed package of labor reforms.  The Wall Street Journal notes that Correa has said demonstrators are looking to destabilize the country. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Colombia Clears a Hurdle in Peace Talk Crisis

Today’s headlines bring excellent news for Colombia’s peace process: the government and FARC rebels have reached an agreement on the necessary conditions for the release of the captured army general and four other guerrilla prisoners.

As El Espectador reports, in a brief press conference yesterday representatives of the peace talk guarantor countries -- Cuba and Norway -- told reporters that the two sides had come to an agreement to free the captives “as soon as possible.” In addition to General Ruben Dario Alzate and his companions, the rebels will release two soldiers captured last month in Arauca. This was confirmed by a press statement released by the president’s office, which thanked the guarantors for their support and promised that the Colombian negotiating team would return to Havana as soon as the FARC prisoners were freed.

El Tiempo notes that the speedy agreement has highlighted the important role that Cuban and Norwegian authorities play in keeping both sides at the table. According to Semana magazine, the army will temporarily cease military operations in Arauca and Choco provinces in order to allow the guerrillas to organize the release, and BluRadio reports that Cali Archbishop Dario de Jesus Monsalve claimed yesterday that sources in the army told him that the prisoners would be freed in 48 hours.

The terms of the prisoner release remain unknown, but the fact that both sides reached a consensus so rapidly suggests that the swap will not prove too costly for the Colombian government. Despite speculation that the FARC would be able to use the capture to force a bilateral ceasefire, it is not likely that administration of President Juan Manuel Santos would have crossed what it considers to be a red line, especially so quickly.

As Adam Isaacson points out, while the FARC’s capture of the general may have been permitted under the ground rules of negotiations, the reality is that Colombia’s political climate would not allow the guerrillas to continue peace talks while holding the army official. The FARC, he argues, were forced to “choose between keeping Gen. Alzate or keeping the peace process alight.”

But while FARC may have ultimately had little choice but to free General Alzate, the fact that they are acting to resume negotiations as fast as possible is a positive sign. La Silla Vacia suggests that the deal has provided the FARC an opportunity to show they are committed to peace talks, and may also indicate the rebels’ increasing concern over public opinion.

News Briefs
  • Major anti-government marches are planned across Mexico today, coinciding with the anniversary of the Revolution of 1910. El Universal reports that three caravans of relatives of the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students are due to converge in downtown Mexico City after weeks of traveling around the country to raise support for their cause.
  • In his latest response to recent allegations of corruption in his administration, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has published details of all of his assets. Animal Politico has the full list, which includes four houses, an apartment, four tracts of land, artwork, jewelry and watches, furniture and other home accessories, as well as financial investments. The president released the information after praising his wife’s explanation of her acquisition  of a property tied to a government contractor, which as the New York Times notes failed to directly address the root of the controversy.
  • The new head of Mexico’s semi-governmental National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), former UNAM lawyer Luis Raul Gonzalez Perez, held his first press conference as ombudsman on Tuesday. In it, he promised reporters that he would not seek re-election (and would work to end the position’s eligibility for re-election), and warned that the country is facing a “human rights crisis,” as El Universal and Notimex report.
  • Global Witness’ recently-released report on the deadly risks faced by environmental rights activists in Peru, which named the country the fourth most dangerous in the world for environmentalists, has struck a nerve. Official Peruvian press agency Andina has published the transcript of an international press conference yesterday in which President Ollanta Humala was asked about his commitment to protecting the Amazon and indigenous communities ahead of the upcoming COP20 climate summit. Humala said he did not agree with painting indigenous rainforest defenders as “the best guardians of the forests,” and claimed that this was the role of the state. “For this reason the state must hire forest officers, and there is the National Forest Service et cetera,” Humala said.
  • Despite concerns over corruption and civil society groups’ objections to recent judicial nominations in Guatemala, the country’s Constitutional Court upheld the appointments in a 3-2 ruling yesterday afternoon. Prensa Libre reports that the new Supreme Court and appellate court judges -- who were reportedly chosen as a result of backroom deal between the ruling Patriot Party (PP) and the opposition Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER) -- will assume their offices in five days’ time. In an interview with El Periodico, human rights advocate Helen Mack of the Fundacion Myrna Mack told the paper that the decision represents proof of the lack of judicial independence in the country. As a next step, Mack endorsed a proposal by the UN-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to hold a series of technical conferences to put together an agenda for justice reform.
  • Steve Inskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition has a brief interview with former Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who describes some of the risks she faced in her job. Out of concern for her safety, Paz y Paz claims that she traveled with a seven-member security detail in Guatemala. Asked about why she has moved to the U.S. after leaving office, the ex-prosecutor said her family “needed to be away for a little bit.”
  • O Globo and the AP profile a new report by Brazil’s Observatório do Clima on greenhouse gas emissions, which found that the country’s emissions increased by eight percent in 2013 and called for more investment in alternative energy sources.
  • Among the flurry of decrees issued by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in his final hours before the expiration of his expanded powers last night is a measure to create a new “National Anti-Corruption System.” While details on the reforms are scarce, El Universal reports that the new institution will report directly to the president and that reforms include new sanctions for bribery. Spain’s El Pais describes the measure as a response to recent allegations of entrenched corruption from opposition groups and civil society.
  • Also on Maduro’s decrees, Hugo Perez Hernaiz of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights explains recent measures passed by the president which aim to heighten the importance of communes and communal councils. While these structures are held up by government supporters as a unique form of community governance, Perez Hernaiz notes that are many concerns about their potential to undermine representative local government and ultimately expand executive authority.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez appears to be recovering well after undergoing treatment for a colon infection. La Nacion reports that her cabinet chief, Jorge Capitanich, has announced that the president will return to work next Tuesday, three weeks after being hospitalized.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Peña Nieto Hits Back at Critics, Warns of ‘Destabilization’ Efforts

It took a couple of days after returning from his Asia tour last week for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to find his bearings and counter the wave of criticism and corruption allegations he has received of late. Yesterday, the president came out swinging against recent opposition protests, condemning an alleged “destabilization” effort against him and dismissing reports that his wife’s acquisition of a home was linked to companies bidding on a lucrative rail contract.

Speaking at a women’s health event in Mexico State yesterday, El Universal reports the president directly addressed the recent demonstrations for the first time since his return. News site Animal Politico has the full text of the leader’s remarks. According to Peña Nieto, the wave of protests in the country appeared to be part of an “orchestrated effort to destabilize the country” and halt his administration’s policies.

“We have seen these violent movements that intend use the shield of sorrow as cover to carry out protests; protests which at times do not have a clear goal. It would seem that they respond to an interest in generating destabilization, creating social disorder, and above all, threatening the national project that we have been promoting,” Peña Nieto, said. He also claimed that outrage against him is misguided, as his administration has been among “the most sensitive to the issue, the most supportive” of the parents of the missing 43 students of Ayotzinapa.  Many of the parents might disagree, however, as several have expressed repeated doubts about the federal investigation into the incident to the press.

The president’s statement was followed later in the day by another from his wife Angelica Rivera. In a YouTube video posted on her website, the first lady said she would sell the controversial property that linked the Peña Nieto family to a company that has won lucrative government contracts.  Still Rivera denied allegations of wrongdoing, saying she had been in the process of paying the house off with money obtained during her 25-year acting career.

These statements offer the first glimpse of how the president is aiming to lessen the public outrage that has boiled over in recent weeks. Particularly telling is the fact that Peña Nieto made no mention of the overwhelmingly non-violent protests, lumping all dissent into the category of “violent opponents of reform.” This suggests that a concrete proposal to fight corruption or reform the rule of law in the country -- as many international and domestic civil society advocates have called for -- is likely off the table for now.

News Briefs
  • The Associated Press reports on the Peruvian government’s latest efforts to crack down on illegal mining, just as the country prepares to host UN-sponsored climate talks next month. Meanwhile, a recent Global Witness report on the country’s failure to protect environmental rights defenders has made a splash in local (see La Republica and Gestion) and international media (NYT’s Dot Earth blog, a separate AP note), in particular because of the report’s finding that the 57 killed between 2002 and 2014 makes Peru the fourth most dangerous country for environmental activism.
  • Cuban authorities have announced the first case of a medical worker from the island apparently contracting Ebola while working to combat the virus in West Africa.
  • NPR’s Diane Rehm show yesterday profiled the main arguments in the debate over whether to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba, featuring input from Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, American University Cuba expert William LeoGrande, the Center for a Free Cuba’s Frank Calzon and Brookings’ Ted Piccone.
  • The latest challenge to the Colombian peace talks, triggered by the FARC’s capture of an army general on Sunday, is showing no signs of resolving anytime soon. Despite the fact that the FARC peace negotiating team said in an initial press conference that it had “no information” on the general’s whereabouts, the rebel leadership later confirmed his capture after one of its units released a statement explaining that it had  taken him prisoner.  As El Tiempo reports, FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo has stressed that the rebels are willing to negotiate with the government over the general. "The mechanisms for resolving this problem must be created, [and]  proposing how to discuss this situation in Colombia lies in [President] Santos' hands," the guerrilla is quoted as saying. Caracol Radio reports that Catatumbo also expressed the FARC's commitment to getting peace talks on track, saying it is necessary to "find a prompt, peaceful and just solution to this problem." More in the U.S. press from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
  • The incident has highlighted the difficulties of carrying out peace negotiations while hostilities continue. The FARC appear to be pressuring for a bilateral ceasefire, and have been joined by figures on the country’s left, as noted in yesterday’s briefing. Semana magazine reports that the main obstacles to a ceasefire are President Santos’ repeated claims that an end to hostilities will not occur until a final deal is reached, and the fact that the Uribe-led conservative opposition would likely criticize him ruthlessly for reversing on this point. El Espectador notes that lawmakers are already warning that a ceasefire could allow the guerrillas breathing space to regroup militarily.
  • Fortunately, there have already been signs that the suspension of the peace talks will prove temporary. El Tiempo reports that President Santos has called on the guarantor nations of the Colombian peace process, Cuba and Norway, to step in and mediate the crisis at the negotiating table. And according to El Espectador, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is preparing to serve as a facilitator of the general’s release.
  • In a Miami Herald op-ed, United States Senator Marco Rubio discusses his recent visit to Colombia, and makes the case for an expanded U.S.-Colombia partnership. Among other things, the senator argues that the general’s kidnapping shows that the U.S. role “must be clearly defined as one of helping the Colombian government force the best possible outcome from any future dealings with the FARC.”
  • Today marks the expiration of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s temporary authorization from Congress to legislate by decree. El Universal reports that the president issued 28 last-minute measures -- most related to economic policy -- yesterday, more than double the 13 other decrees he issued during his year-long period of expanded powers.
  • According to El Periodico, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court has begun deliberating on the challenge to the recent judicial nominations in the country, which were suspended amid concerns voiced by civil society groups that the process involved backroom dealings.  A final ruling on the case is expected in the coming days.
  • Salvadoran news site El Faro reports on Honduran authorities’ apparent lack of a system to register disappearances, noting that not even the government’s Interior Ministry keeps a reliable tally of the number of individuals who have gone missing.
  • The head of Honduras’ National Police has said that authorities have located the bodies of this year’s Miss Honduras and her older sister, both of whom have been missing for six days in a case that has made headlines in the Central American country. According to La Tribuna, police believe the boyfriend of the older sibling was responsible for the killings.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Will Colombia's Peace Talk Crisis End in a Ceasefire?

Colombia’s peace negotiations are marking their two-year anniversary this week in the midst of a major crisis. While the FARC rebels are holding their cards close to their vest ahead of a planned press conference later this morning, figures on the country’s left are using the incident to fuel the insurgents’ calls for a bilateral ceasefire.  

Last night, President Juan Manuel Santos issued a stern address in which he called on the rebels to hand over their captives so talks could resume. El Espectador reports that in a nationally televised speech, Santos demanded that the FARC release General Ruben Dario Alzate and his two companions (a captain and an army lawyer), as well as two soldiers taken prisoner earlier this month following a separate clash in Arauca province.  

“We must be clear: although we are negotiating in the middle of a conflict, the FARC have to understand that peace does not come from ramping up violent actions and undermining confidence,” he said.

Santos’ statement came after the FARC peace negotiators in Havana signaled that they would hold a press conference on the general’s kidnapping today at 9am EST. Interestingly, newspaper El Tiempo has reported that the head of the FARC’s 34th Front (which was responsible for taking Alzate captive) is a member of the negotiating team, which should help assuage fears of a “rogue FARC unit,” or that the rebel leadership in Havana is unfit to guarantee the general’s safety.

The president’s remarks illustrate the difficulty posed by carrying out the peace talks in the midst of hostilities. So far the Colombian government has refused to concede on this point, even as the FARC have repeatedly called for a bilateral ceasefire and implemented several short-term unilateral ceasefires in gestures of good will.

Yet this position has come at a cost for the government.  As journalist Miguel Angel Bastenier notes, the FARC may have been within their right to take General Alzate captive, as the terms of the negotiations state that nothing is settled until a final agreement is reached. Of course, the gesture does not exactly inspire confidence in the rebels’ commitment to peace either.  In a column for El Pais, security expert Juan Carlos Garzon Vergara points out the paradox of the FARC’s position in arguing for a bilateral ceasefire by non-compliance with a promise to give up so-called “retentions.”

With the issue of ongoing hostilities in focus, some in Colombia are capitalizing on the moment to call for both sides to initiate a ceasefire. La FM Radio reports that social movement leader Piedad Cordoba held a press conference yesterday to pressure both the government and rebels to suspend hostilities during the holiday season. The ex-senator has since taken her pleas to social media, where they have been echoed by users of the hashtag #TreguaYA (“truce now”), as well as leading left-wing figures like the president of the Polo Democratico Party, Clara Lopez Obregon.

This push has gained some attention in international press. Today’s New York Times features an editorial noting that many Colombians are “demanding a more sensible response by calling for an immediate cease-fire by both sides,” and The Economist points out that the Colombian left has “echoed FARC’s demands for a ceasefire,” while the kidnapping of the general “has raised the volume.”

Meanwhile, there is reason to be skeptical that a ceasefire could aid the Colombian peace process. One of the primary fears of the government has been that rebels would use a ceasefire to regroup and reorganize militarily. And in an analysis of seven peace processes around the world, news site La Silla Vacia notes that negotiating after a ceasefire has generally only worked when both sides are nearing a final peace deal, which may not apply in the Colombian case.

News Briefs
  • The kidnapping of the Colombian general has fueled a wave of speculation over the circumstances behind his apparent breach of military protocol, in which he visited a remote community in his area of command while dressed as a civilian and accompanied by only a minimal security detail. Recent reporting on the murky details of his capture has fueled this trend. El Espectador cites a source who claims that the general may have been conducting secret negotiations with the FARC’s 34th Front “for something like a demobilization.” El Colombiano, citing interviews with local townspeople, claims that the general’s alleged captors were unarmed.
  • Just as the Guatemalan Constitutional Court is preparing to rule on the legitimacy of recent judicial nominations, the UN-backed  International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)  has announced an invitation for officials and civil society to work together to establish an agenda for judicial reform in the country, El Periodico reports.
  • The heads of Brazilian state-owned oil giant Petrobras have issued their first statement on the company’s ongoing corruption scandal since a former executive was arrested on Friday. As The Wall Street Journal and O Globo report, Petrobras leaders told journalists they had hired legal consultants to look into allegations of money laundering, and would establish a new compliance division moving forward.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has made headlines for making rare public remarks last week about the torture she suffered at the hands of the Pinochet regime. Speaking on TV network Chilevision, the president said she was “mainly tortured psychologically, and [suffered] some beating,” but acknowledged that she was luckier than the hundreds who were killed by security forces.
  • The Washington Post has the latest on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s unwillingness to adopt austerity measures that financial analysts say are necessary but could hit his already low approval rating in the country.
  • Spanish news agency EFE reports that Maduro’s decree powers, which were granted to him by a legislative majiroty last year following some vote-wrangling, are set to expire. While Maduro has taken advantage of his last few days of expanded power to sign a number of decrees to fight what he refers to as “economic war” against elites, he will have a harder time enacting such measures after his powers expire tomorrow.
  • BBC Mundo has an exclusive interview with Raul Mijango, a former congressman who helped negotiate the failed ceasefire between El Salvador’s Barrio 18 and MS-13 street gangs.  Mijango is defensive about the truce and its temporary reduction of homicides, and claims that the gangs’ agreement to create “peace zones” is working in nine municipalities despite reports of ongoing extortion.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Colombia Peace Talks Suspended After General Kidnapped

The Colombian government suspended peace talks with FARC rebels on Sunday after the alleged kidnapping of an army general in the western department of Choco.

According to Caracol Radio and Semana, General Ruben Dario Alzate and two others were abducted by armed men along a remote river in Choco. Hours after the incident, a massive search and rescue operation was organized in the area, but so far there have been no signs of the three.

Yesterday evening President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that the FARC were behind Alzate’s abduction, and announced that plans for the official negotiating team to travel to Havana on Monday for the latest round of talks had been canceled. Dialogue with the rebels, the president said, would be suspended “until this is cleared up and these people are freed.” As RCN reports, Santos said he held the FARC directly responsible for the safety of the three hostages.

If the reports of FARC involvement are true, Alzate’s capture amounts to a valuable find for the guerrilla group. Local and international media have reported that this incident amounts to the first time in 50 years of conflict that the guerrillas have managed to take a general prisoner.

Yet the story is also interesting for other reasons, like the unanswered questions about what the general was doing in the area where he was captured. Local press reports claim that Alzate was surveying an energy project in a rural community while he was intercepted, but it is unclear whether he was conducting this work in any official capacity. As the head of all military operations in the area, it was highly unusual for the general to be traveling in a dangerous area with such light security, as El Tiempo notes.

 In a Twitter message yesterday, President Santos himself voiced doubts about Alzate’s activities, asking the Defense Ministry to explain “why Gen. Alzate broke all the security protocols and was dressed in civilian clothes in a red zone.”

Colombia conflict analyst Virginia Bouvier, in a characteristically astute analysis of the incident, writes that Santos would be unwise to allow this one incident to derail the peace talks, and “would do well to remember that there are saboteurs on all sides.” The Colombian government, after all, has had to confront its share of attacks on the peace process as well, as repeated allegations of military interference demonstrate.

News Briefs
  • The New York Times has published the latest in a string of editorials calling for reforms to U.S. policy towards Cuba. In today’s column, the paper’s editorial board criticizes the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which allows Cuban doctors on overseas assignment to defect. While it concedes that Cuba should “compensate medical personnel more generously,” the paper also claims that the U.S. program amounts to political manipulation of immigration policy in order to fuel “brain drain” on the island.
  • Following Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s return to his country on Saturday following a weeklong series of trade talks in Asia, the Wall Street Journal reports that protests continues to rage across the country. The New York Times has a round-up of analysts’ speculation over whether the president will capitalize on the moment to implement judicial and anti-corruption reforms. Because Mexico saw similar waves of popular discontent with drug violence and security policies under former President Felipe Calderon, the NYT reports that many analysts are skeptical of the potential for the current protests to result in meaningful change.
  • According to O Globo, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff met with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Australia yesterday. The Brazilian leader later told local press that her  Foreign Ministry is talking with the State Department about rescheduling an official visit to Washington, which was canceled last year in the wake of the NSA spying scandal.
  • The WSJ notes that Brazilian Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo hit back against the government’s critics over the weekend, issuing a statement denying that the Rousseff administration is interfering with a federal police investigation into a Petrobras money laundering scheme.
  • In Paraguay, a judge has begun heating oral arguments in the trial of 13 rural laborers accused of killing six police officers in the 2012 clashes that contributed to the ouster of President Fernando Lugo. As BBC Mundo reports, some in the country have criticized the trial as one-sided, noting the fact that none of the police who killed 11 workers have faced charges.
  • Nomada has an update on the recently-halted judicial nomination process in the country. According to the Guatemalan news site, the country’s Constitutional Court will decide this week whether to annul recent judge appointments and start the progress again, as some anti-corruption groups have suggested. However, because two of the five judges on the top court have been accused of lacking impartiality in the case, they may be relieved by substitute magistrates. Nomada claims that two other judges are expected to vote in favor of annulling the nominations, meaning that the deciding vote could lie with one of the two replacements.
  • Recent requests made by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions and the UN’s human rights chief for the release of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Lopez’s defense team has told journalists that the judge handling the case has rejected the appeals, calling them merely statements in favor of the opposition figure.
  • As Haiti begins to rely more on its own police force in the face of a withdrawal of United Nations peacekeeping forces, the Associated Press reports that the country’s law enforcement officers are increasingly facing the first tests of their trustworthiness and effectiveness.
  • Uruguay’s El Pais reports that the government is rolling out the latest stage of the country’s bold new cannabis law: authorizing the commercial production of hemp. Also this week, the paper notes that the law’s regulatory body, the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA), is expected to announce the next phase in the bidding process for the companies interested in obtaining contracts to grow psychoactive cannabis for commercial sales.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Truth Commission: 421 Killed or Disappeared by Brazil’s Dictatorship

Nearly 30 years after Brazil’s return to democracy, the country’s National Truth Commission (CNV) is preparing to release a revised count of those who were killed or disappeared by the 1964-1985 military regime. But while the CNV has not yet published its final report, the figure has already come under fire from human rights advocates, particularly from state-level truth commissions.

As O Globo reports, the final report (which is to be turned over to President Dilma Rousseff on December 10) will include the names of 421 people who were killed or disappeared. CNV President Pedro Dallari has said that this figure includes 59 victims who were left out of an initial estimate of 362. Globo columnist Ancelmo Gois has obtained a breakdown of the total 421 -- subsequently reported in Spain’s El Pais -- which notes the following:
  • Of the total, 18 were killed outside the country, many under the auspices of the U.S.-backed “Operation Condor.”
  • The remains of 181 of the total had already been located and identified before the CNV was established in 2012.
  • 32 bodies were located by the CNV and returned to their relatives.
  • The whereabouts of 208 disappeared victims remain unknown. Among these are the roughly 70 peasants and militants who were members of the Araguaia guerrilla movement.
While the unpublished CNV report represents an important step towards reconciliation in the country, some have already criticized it for being too conservative in its account of dictatorship-era abuses. O Estado de S. Paulo reports that São Paulo State Truth Commission President Adriano Diogo has criticized the list for not including the names of 14 individuals identified as victims by relatives’ groups. And according to O Povo, Special Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances (CEMDP) President Eugênia Gonzaga submitted a report to the CNV last week noting that the list of victims should be revised, as it does not include deaths among indigenous communities or groups of rural workers.

O Estado also reports today that the CNV has come under fire from the state truth commissions in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul for the fact that it is not expected to mention the country’s controversial 1979 amnesty law, even though it will press for further investigation into dictatorship crimes.

Interestingly, defenders of the amnesty law are increasingly finding themselves on the wrong side of public opinion.  A March Datafolha poll found that support for the punishment of dictatorship-era abuses now stands at 46 percent, up from 40 percent in 2010. The same poll found that some 46 percent of the population is in favor of annulling the amnesty law, while just 37 percent are against it and 17 percent are undecided.

News Briefs
  • Brazil’s ongoing Petrobras corruption scandal appears to be deepening. According to O Globo, today federal police across the country are carrying out 27 arrest warrants and questioning suspects accused of taking part in a massive money laundering and kickback scheme. Among those already arrested is Renato Duque, former director of engineering and services at the state oil company.
  • This week’s issue of The Economist features an analysis of the state of the rule of law in Mexico, asserting that President Enrique Peña Nieto’s focus on economic reforms may have come at the expense of implementing a meaningful overhaul of its corrupt criminal justice system. According to the magazine, the president can still prove his critics wrong by leading a purge of local police forces and judges, as well as fast-tracking a bill to make the attorney-general’s office independent and create an anti-corruption agency.
  • The Financial Times has an excellent take on how the recent Iguala student disappearances and reports of corruption have had on the Peña Nieto administration’s legitimacy, both domestically and internationally. When he returns from his G20 overseas trip tomorrow, the paper notes, the Mexican president will face an uphill battle to convince his critics that he can show the same leadership on rule of law reforms as he has on economic issues.
  • Yesterday, Mexican senators voted to select the new head of the semi-governmental National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). By a nearly unanimous motion (97 votes compared to two for both his competitors) the Senate chose former UNAM attorney Luis Raul Gonzlez Perez. As Animal Politco reports, opposition lawmakers are heavily critical of outgoing CNDH head Raul Plascencia, accusing him of being too complacent with impunity and corruption in the government.
  • In Guatemalan news site Plaza Publica, Oswaldo J. Hernandez reports on the arguments presented to the country’s Constitutional Court by civil society and legal experts, both in favor of and against re-starting the country’s judicial nomination process.  In October, transparency advocates managed to convince the court to put the appointment of top judges on hold over irregularities in the nomination process, and a final decision is expected to come in the coming days.
  • Hugo Perez Hernaiz of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights offers a look at the work of Venezuela-based civil society groups in both the Inter-American and United Nations human rights systems, describing cases presented to the UN Committee against Torture and before the IACHR in recent weeks.
  • Argentina’s La Nacion offers an interesting detail on President Cristina Fernandez’s recent hospitalization: while she received no official visitors during her treatment, she allegedly transmitted orders to her cabinet via her son, Maximo Carlos Kirchner. This was likely to get around leaving Vice President Amado Boudou in charge, as the VP is facing corruption charges and the move would have fueled criticism from the opposition.
  • The L.A. Times profiles comments made on Wednesday by Colombia’s lead peace negotiator in Havana, Humberto de la Calle. Speaking in Bogota, the official told rebels that “the time has come to make big decisions,” a remark that comes as some analysts question whether the talks have stalled on the issue of reparations to conflict victims.
  • The Miami Herald looks at the potential for a lasting peace to come out of the Havana negotiations between the FARC and Colombian government, noting concerns among analysts that segments of the insurgent group could break away continue armed and criminal activity even after a peace deal is signed. Even despite these worries, the paper notes that no peace process is perfect, but that even a partial demobilization would likely have positive ramifications for Colombia.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mexico’s Tipping Point

With protests in the wake of the Ayotzinapa disappearances raging across Mexico, analysts and observers are increasingly asking one question: has popular outrage over Mexico’s violence finally reached a tipping point?

Yesterday saw continued demonstrations, with protesters in Guerrero state setting fire to the state legislative building there, and students in Michoacan blocking roads and succeeding in temporarily shutting down access to the airport in Morelia, as Animal Politico reports.  The day before, protesters in Acapulco did the same to roadways leading to the city’s airport.

Meanwhile, the wave of discontent with the level of violence in the country received an important endorsement from the Catholic Church. According to El Universal the Mexican Bishops’ Conference has released a statement expressing solidarity with the families of the missing 43 students and the other “thousands of anonymous victims,” and calling for an end to violence, disappearances and death.

The continued protests, which have shown no sign of stopping despite officials’ likely discovery of the 43 students’ remains and the arrest of those allegedly responsible for their murder, have led some to conclude that Mexico has reached the end of its patience for corruption and drug-fueled violence. More than one commentator -- see Ricardo Monreal Avila’s column for CNN Mexico or analysts cited in this recent Christian Science Monitor piece -- have referred to the current moment as “the drop that spilled the glass” or even the “real” Mexico’s Moment.

In Alma Guillermoprieto’s must-read overview of the disappearances for the New York Review of Books (which she has recently updated), the writer notes that it is unlikely the official explanation for the disappearances “will quell the relatives’ fury and pain, or soothe the outrage felt by so many Mexicans at the state of their country today.”

Writing for The New Yorker, Francisco Goldman offers a hopeful take on the near-daily protests in the country that have followed the disappearances, quoting the Mexican priest and human rights defender Alejandro Solalinde. From the New Yorker:

For Solalinde, the country’s turning point might have come during a five-hour meeting, on October 28th, between the family members of the missing students and the President in Los Pinos. The blunt talk and disappointment expressed by the families was widely publicized. “These were Mexico’s poorest people, who were used to imagining the President as someone unimaginably great. They discovered that our President is small. The little man of Los Pinos, small and weak. The myth of the strong government is falling. People see that our system is corrupt, decadent, weak. People are losing their fear of describing things as they are.” 

Two sectors of society, Solalinde said, will drive change in Mexico: the youth and women. “These two, each on their own side, have been the most punished, abused, infiltrated, massacred, disappeared,” he said. “People are going to give their all. This movement isn’t going to stop.”

In spite of all the optimism regarding the potential for transformative change to come out of the protests, there is reason to be cautious. Mexico watchers said the same thing in 2011 about poet Javier Sicilia and his Caravan for Peace, which even succeeded in obtaining a televised exchange with then-President Felipe Calderon in which victims pleaded for an end to his failed security strategy. Very few substantial concessions then followed, which suggests outrage alone is not enough.

In an insightful column for El Universal, Mexican political scientist Mario Campos reaches the same conclusion. In order to make meaningful progress against impunity and insecurity, Campos argues that civil society organizations in the country must make sure that the protests are paired with legislative reforms. To him, this means “a kind of Pact for Mexico 2.0, only this time presented by citizens to the powers that be, and not the other way around as occurred in the first year of this government.”

News Briefs
  • While the Venezuelan government has repeatedly characterized the murder of PSUV Congressman Robert Serra as a political crime committed by Colombian paramilitary elements, Colombia’s ambassador to the country has placed this narrative in question. As El Nacional and The Miami Herald report, Ambassador Luis Eladio Perez has told reporters that the alleged perpetrator of the crime was in fact a Venezuelan citizen with few connections to Colombia. In response to the statement, PSUV legislative head Diosdado Cabello made televised remarks yesterday in which he accused Perez of “knowing part of what is really being investigated” in connection with Serra’s death.
  • Members of a legislative committee in Colombia’s Senate voted yesterday to support a bill that would allow marijuana for medical use, sending it to the floor of the full chamber. The AP notes that a supporter of the measure, Roy Barreras, drew comparisons to the use of coca tea for medicinal purposes, which he served to his colleagues on the committee yesterday before the vote. El Espectador reports that Barreras, a doctor, also “prescribed” a marijuana-infused tea to the Uribista lawmakers of the Centro Democratico party, and a coca tea for Alvaro Uribe himself, “to help him relax and see life in peace, and that war is not good.”
  • The United Nations representative in Colombia, Fabrizio Hochschild, has expressed concern about the lack of due process evident in a recent indigenous court ruling in Cauca, which sentenced five alleged FARC members to between 40 and 60 years of prison for the murder of two members of the local Nasa tribe. Two others were sentenced to lashings.
  • Former São Paulo Mayor and Culture Minister Marta Suplicy made headlines on Tuesday for splitting from Presdient Dilma Rousseff’s administration, stepping down from her position and calling on the president to name “an independent economic team with proven experience”  to “rescue” the president’s credibility. As the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times note, the statement has been interpreted as a sign of a split in the ruling Workers’ Party over what direction economic policy should take in the next government.
  • The New York Times’ Upshot section reports on a trend with interesting implications for the region: citizens of Latin America are rapidly losing their identification with the Catholic religion, with a new Pew survey noting that while 69 percent of the region is Catholic, 84 percent say they were raised in the faith.
  • Venezuelan Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, whose case has gathered international support since she was arrested after freeing a banker who was facing charges of violating currency controls in 2009, had her trial postponed on Wednesday, meaning that she has now waited over a year for her day in court.
  • In a Huffington Post column, Congressman Jim McGovern calls on the U.S. to take responsibility for its role in supporting the El Salvadoran military despite the atrocities it committed during the country’s bloody civil war. As part of this gesture, he argues that the U.S. should close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas.