Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Venezuela Talks Make Limited Progress

The second round of talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition yesterday saw the creation of an agenda for future negotiations as well as some promising -- if relatively minor -- signs of compromise on concrete issues from both sides. 

Unlike the talks on last Friday, last night's dialogue was not broadcast on television or radio. The closed door meeting brought together the head of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition as well as top cabinet officials, including Vice President Jorge Arreaza and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua. The foreign ministers of Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia, as well as Vatican representative Aldo Giordano served as intermediaries.

In general, the prospects for talks to result in major changes to Venezuela's political landscape remain limited. After the meeting MUD Secretary General Ramón Guillermo Aveledo told reporters that the government had rejected opposition demands for an amnesty for individuals they deem to be political prisoners. This is one of four key demands of the MUD (as well as some elements of the student movement), along with the widening of a newly-created national truth commission, the de-politicization of key government ministries and the disarmament of militant Chavista collectives.

Still, the five-hour dialogue resulted in an important breakthrough for the truth commission. EFE notes that Vice President Arreaza announced that the two sides agreed that it should be made up of not only five Chavista and four opposition lawmakers (as Maduro had initially announced), but mutually agreed-upon figures as well. This is an important step towards legitimizing the commission, although it does nothing to address concerns about its lack of autonomy from the executive branch, which were raised recently by the broad human rights group coalition known as the Foro Por La Vida.

While the AP asserts that the talks come amid "rising doubts" of a political opening, there were signs of limited progress on two other issues as well, as Spain's El Pais reports. The government reportedly nixed a blanket amnesty, but Aveledo said that they would seek other means to address the issue. He also told reporters that the government had agreed to work with the MUD to appoint a joint medical committee to review the health of imprisoned police commissioner Ivan Simonovis, one of the longest-held alleged political prisoners in the country.

The MUD, for its part, appears to have conceded somewhat as well. The Vice President announced yesterday that the MUD leadership reportedly agreed to participate in the government's security strategy, the Plan Patria Segura, which was launched last year.

News Briefs
  • The AP looks at the mixed reaction towards Cuban doctors operating in Venezuela as part of an agreement to send subsidized oil to Havana in exchange. While the Cubans are viewed with suspicion among middle and upper class Venezuelans, for many poor residents of the South American country they offer a level of health care that was previously unavailable.  
  • A new report by the USAID Inspector General has found serious shortfalls in a U.S.-sponsored housing project in Haiti, which audit says is over budget and has built only a fraction of the 4,000 homes promised.
  • In a Wall Street Journal column, Stanley N. Albert criticizes the UN’s insistence that it is not legally liable for the cholera epidemic in Haiti that has killed 8,000 people and sickened 800,000. Alpert, who represents Haitian plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the UN, lays out the legal argument for his case, pointing to three different instances in which the international organization has assumed responsibility for innocent third-party damages.
  • Yesterday, Bolivia filed a claim against Chile over a long-running border dispute in the International Court of Justice, hoping to regain access to the sea that it lost following a military defeat in 1883. La Razon reports that Bolivian President Evo Morales traveled to the Hague to deliver the 200-page petition to the court personally. Reuters notes that Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has told local press that her government is “confident” that international law is on its side.
  • As local residents survey the damage left by the deadly fire in hills surrounding the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, the government has pointed to lax development policies as a major contributor to the disaster.  In an interview yesterday, Bachelet announced that officials would take measures to prevent affected locals from constructing homes in dangerous areas, saying the government would help relocate them.
  • The Miami Herald looks at the “cat-and-mouse game” played by dissident groups on the island and supporters in Miami who send aid money and supplies. Regular seizures of donated goods and money by Cuban state security agents, supporters argue, merits a certain degree of discretion in order to promote democracy efforts on the island.  As an example, the Herald notes that Freedom House returned a $1.7 million USAID grant for a Cuba program in 2011 because officials were “asking for too many details” on the money was spent.
  • The New York Times reports on the latest corruption scandal in Brazil, this one involving allegations that executives at oil giant Petrobras received bribes in exchange for contracts and may have been involved in a money laundering scheme. The NYT reports that the scandal, which has been linked to at least one lawmaker of the ruling PT party, is indicative of scaled back expectations for the company.
  • In a press conference yesterday, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina told reporters that he supported a national “debate” over authorizing presidential reelection in the country, La Prensa Libre reports. While he cautioned that he himself did not intend to present an amendment to the law, Perez characterized the lack of reelection as “the worst of the systems we could have,” saying it contributed to instability.
  • While Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has earned a reputation as the “world’s poorest president,” his recently disclosed financial statement shows that his wealth has increased 74 percent since 2012, El Pais reports. The AP notes that the president’s net worth is equivalent to some $322,000, and that Mujica claims the increase is due to the fact that he did not deposit his money into bank accounts until recently.
  • Today’s NYT features an op-ed by Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabo de Carvalho of the Rio de Janeiro-based Igarape Institute, who argue that the recent militarization of the Mare slum earlier this month constitutes a step back from the success of the city’s police pacification model, which emphasizes community policing over repression. While they acknowledge that pacification is far from perfect, they point to statistics showing a dramatic reduction in violent crime in pacified areas as indicators of its potential to improve public security and expand basic services. In a separate column for the Huffington Post, Muggah asserts that improved security in Brazil will depend on reforms to its police institutions, including the merger of military and civilian police forces.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Dubious 'Disarmament' in Michoacan

The Mexican government claims to have reached a breakthrough agreement to “disarm” the vigilante militias of Michoacan state, but the pact still leaves them with considerable degree of influence and firepower.

Yesterday, 34 different “autodefensa” heads met with Alfredo Castillo, the federal government's commissioner in Michoacan, to sign a treaty outlining their organizations’ future. The pact effectively ends a tense standoff between officials and vigilante leaders, many of whom had refused a government order to disarm and incorporate themselves into the military’s “rural defense forces.”  

El Universal has a copy of the agreement, which stipulates that autodefensas must register their firearms with the state by May 10, and incorporate by the following day into either the rural defense forces or a newly-created Michoacan police unit, to be called the “rural state police.”

While this is a victory for the federal government, in reality it is far from a disarmament. As vigilante leader Jose Manuel Mireles told newspaper Milenio yesterday, the groups will only surrender their heavier weapons (the paper claims this includes heavy machine guns, rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles), whereas the AK-47  and AR-15 assault rifles carried by many members will remain in use so long as they are registered. Translated from Milenio:
[The autodefensas] also agreed to register the heavy and smaller caliber weapons that have not been accounted for by the federal government; they will be put away and not be carried around in Michoacan territory or used to advance on to other municipalities.

Also, they will "institutionalize," or rather, their members will form part of the police or military state rural defense groups. Those who do not enter groups recognized by the federal and state governments "will hold onto" their weapons in communities or homes. Whoever fails to comply with these guidelines will be detained starting May 11.
Regardless of whether they are incorporated into legal police structures or not, any agreement that allows members to retain weapons in safehouses seems bound to encourage abuses like the torture and extrajudicial executions that rights activists have repeatedly criticized in recent years.

News Briefs
  • In The Daily Beast, Venezuelan journalist Marcel Ventura writes a biting critique of President Nicolas Maduro’s deepening of the role of the military in government, pointing to his record promotion of 200 generals in July and his nomination of multiple military officers to serve as civilian cabinet members. Due to allegations of involvement in drug trafficking, the rising profile of the military also may have worrisome consequences for corruption in the country, Ventura writes.
  • The Mexican government has announced that it will go after money laundering suspects by adopting “kingpin lists” similar to those used by authorities in the U.S. However, as the AP points out, the Mexican lists will remain confidential, available only to financial institutions, those accused of crimes and investigators.
  • Yesterday the White House confirmed that Uruguayan President Jose Mujica will meet with President Barack Obama on May 12. In a brief statement, the White House claimed the two would address mutual trade interests and collaboration on health and technology, while Mujica has said he plans on pointing out the U.S. and other wealthy nations’ “errors” in the region. Spain’s El Pais notes that Mujica has also strongly praised the U.S. ambassador to Uruguay, Julissa Reynoso, for drastically improving relations between the two countries.
  • The New York Times reports on the damage that ongoing wildfires have wrought on hilltops around the Chilean port city of Valparaiso. At least 15 people were killed as a result of the fires and some 11,000 were left homeless, according to the AP. El Mostrador notes that President Michelle Bachelet has announced she will appoint three officials to head disaster relief efforts in the two northern areas affected by the earthquake last week as well as another to oversee things in Valparaiso.
  • In Foreign Affairs Latinoamerica, the Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter profiles U.S. involvement in the discussion around revitalizing the Organization of American States. Shifter points to ways in which the Obama administration could further American interests by engaging more actively in the OAS system, instead of treating it as a “relatively minor instrument” for foreign policy, as it currently does.
  • BBC Mundo reports on Bolivia’s uniquely strategic position as a result of the unrest in Ukraine. With the U.S. and European Union reducing reliance on Russia’s exports in response to the annexation of Crimea, Bolivia may have found new markets for its natural gas, though this is complicated by its lack of a maritime port.
  • The Washington Office on Latin America has a new report on the potentials and challenges of a post-conflict political atmosphere in Colombia. It contains a comprehensive update on the major sticking points of talks with FARC rebels, as well as recommendations for U.S. aid following an eventual peace accord. According to the report, the U.S. should increase aid aimed at improving state presence in rural areas and supporting transitional justice efforts, among other objectives. Spanish news agency EFE has picked up the report, and highlights remarks by author Adam Isacson, who calls for the level of U.S. aid to Colombia to return to its 2003-07 peak of $600-$700 million annually, more than double the current amount.
  • The Venezuelan government and opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) are set to hold talks again this evening. Unlike last Thursday’s dialogue, El Nacional reports that the meeting will be held in private, and that the MUD is expected to demand a law granting amnesty to individuals allegedly held prison for political motives since 1999.
  • The L.A. Times’ Vincent Bevins looks at the unique challenges posed by the decision to host World Cup games in the Amazonian city of Manaus, a city that critics say lacks the necessary infrastructure.
  • A new Ipsos poll suggests that the two main candidates ahead of Panama’s May 4 presidential election, Jose Arias of the ruling Democratic Change (CD) party and Juan Navarro, from center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), are in a dead heat. Both have 32 percent support, while current Vice President Juan Varela in not far behind with 26 percent.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Anti-Fumigation Fight Sees Tactical Victory in Colombia

Colombia’s top administrative court has struck down a controversial program authorizing coca fumigation in national parks. While authorities say fumigation in protected areas was rare anyway, the ruling comes amid growing skepticism about aerial spraying and could hasten its demise.

On March 31, the Colombian Council of State announced that it had decided that spraying in national reserves contributed to a loss of natural vegetation and irreparable damage to the environment.  The main target of the ruling was glyphosate, the pesticide most frequently used for coca eradication. Citing inconclusive evidence about the health and environmental safety of glyphosate, the tribunal found that spraying in protected areas could not be justified under the precautionary principle of policymaking.

In response to the decision, Colombian drug control officials downplayed its significance. Ricardo Restrepo, head of the country’s anti-narcotics police, told the AP that his office “had never” sprayed in natural reserves, pointing to two parks where they have refrained from acting.

Nevertheless, the decision appears to be part of a trend, as more officials in the country turn against the practice. In October, the Colombian government agreed to pay $15 million to Ecuador to compensate for health problems caused to Ecuadorean farmers by glyphosate spraying along the border as part of an aerial coca eradication campaign. The agreement sparked controversy in Colombia, where the government was accused of holding the Ecuadorean border region to higher standards than the rest of the country.

In a visit to Washington last month, Colombian Justice Minister Alfonso Gómez Méndez asked his U.S. counterparts to reconsider allocating funds for coca eradication, proposing that they be used instead to address “the causes of illicit cultivation.”

As Just the Facts’ Adam Isaacson has noted, however, the government is not unified on the issue. Officials in the National Police and Defense Ministry have stepped up praise for U.S.-supported fumigation programs, in direct response to the government’s signaled openness towards cutting them.

While the Council of State ruling only applied to spraying in certain protected areas, it is still a significant blow to the arguments in favor of fumigation. As Rodrigo Uprimny of the Bogota-based Dejusticia research center argued in a Saturday column for El Espectador, the same argument used by the court applies to spraying in general. He writes:
In this judgment, the Council of State cancels a resolution authorizing spraying in national parks, for violating [precautionary principle, or] PP. One might think, then, that the sentence only impacts spraying in those areas. But this is not the case. For procedural reasons, the council could only invalidate that resolution, because it was the norm in question; however, its doctrine on the PP is broader and attacks the legal grounds for spraying, as the damage to human health and fragile, rich ecosystems do not occur in national parks alone.

News Briefs 
  • El Espectador looks at a forward-thinking needle exchange program underway in the central Colombian city of Pereira, which supplies users of injectable drugs with clean needles as part of an effort to cut down on HIV and hepatitis transmission. The paper also notes that the program, which has support of international harm reduction advocacy organizations like the Open Society Foundations, stands in stark contrast to President Juan Manuel’s recent efforts to crack down on low-level drug trafficking by demolishing houses accused of links to “microtrafficking” in a northeast Bogota slum.
  • Even as certain Venezuelan opposition sectors remain critical of talks with the government, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) has announced the makeup of its delegation to continued talks. While the government’s side will be represented by Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, Libertador Mayor Jorge Rodriguez and Vice President Jorge Arreaza, El Universal reports that the MUD will be represented by deputy MUD Secretary Ramon Jose Medina and five opposition lawmakers. The first round  these talks is set to begin tomorrow.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is having a tough time in her first month back in office. On Saturday, she had to face the second emergency of her young second term, following the 8.2 earthquake on April 1. A major fire swept through the hills of the port city of Valparaiso, leaving at least 12 dead and forcing authorities to evacuate some 10,000 to evacuate. La Tercera reports that Bachelet has postponed her first planned overseas trip this week -- official visits to Argentina and Uruguay -- in order to coordinate disaster efforts.
  • According to El Universo, Ecuadorean environmental groups presented some 700 thousand signatures to electoral authorities on Saturday in favor of holding a national referendum on President Rafael Correa's decision to end restrictions on oil drilling Yasuni National Park. BBC Mundo has an excellent profile of the coalition behind the pro-referendum effort, which is made up primarily of young people disenchanted by Correa’s environmental policies.
  • Imprisoned former USAID contractor Alan Gross ended his hunger strike on Friday, reportedly in response to a request from his 91-year-old mother. According to a statement from his lawyer, Gross said similar protests would not be needed in the future as long as both the U.S. and Cuban governments “show more concern for human beings and less malice and derision toward each other.”
  • Frank Bajak of the Associated Press chronicles the phenomenon of “subnational authoritarianism” in Peru’s Ancash Region. Since coming to power in 2006, Governor Cesar Alvarez has silenced critics and reportedly bought off local media outlets. The March killing of one of his most vocal opponents, Ezequiel Nolasco, has focused attention on Alvarez’s abuse of power, but federal authorities are accused of ignoring evidence of his brutality.
  • Ultimas Noticias has an in-depth report on the impact that scarcity of basic goods in Venezuela has had on the country’s poor. According to the paper, scarcity has forced residents of low-income areas around the capital city of Caracas to flock in record numbers to private and state-managed supermarkets in the center to stock up on food.
  • The Washington Post highlights declining domestic support for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, even as his popularity abroad continues to grow. Analysts cited by the Post claim that the president’s ambitious reform efforts have yet to benefit most Mexicans, a factor which could hurt him and his PRI in July 2015 midterm elections.
  • Sunday’s edition of Mexican daily El Universal featured an investigation into the use of the controversial legal mechanism known as the “arraigo,” which allows the pre-trial detention of suspects for extended periods in order to allow investigators to build a case against them. According to the paper, over 11 thousand people have been held under this procedure, most for “crimes against health,” a term applied to drug-related crimes. Fortunately for critics of the arraigo, there is evidence that the emphasis on pretrial detention is falling. The first year of the Peña Nieto administration saw a 64 percent drop in arraigo detentions compared to the last year of President Calderon’s term in office, and a 22 percent drop compared to the same period in his predecessor’s administration.
  • On Sunday the New York Times published a front-page article on delayed development and infrastructure projects in Brazil, which have languished due to a slowed economy and bureaucratic inertia. While the government has defended state funding on infrastructure projects despite the delays, critics say they point to the problems with Brazil’s reliance on state-controlled companies and banks to promote economic growth. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Missing Faces in Venezuela's Talks

In a six-hour long televised “debate” consisting of reading alternating prepared statements, Venezuela’s government and opposition figures held the first of a series of dialogues aimed at bridging the country’s polarized political gap. But there were some notable absences in last night’s meeting, a factor that limits their potential to end ongoing demonstrations.

The talks kicked off with statements from the Vatican’s ambassador to Venezuela, Archbishop Aldo Giordano, who read a letter from Pope Francis, as well as Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, who conveyed the support of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

Next up was President Nicolas Maduro. While the president was allowed a 40 minute opening statement and another 40 minute statement at the end, the other participants were limited to 10 minute segments (though speakers on both sides ran over this limit). For those who missed it, Ultimas Noticias has a good overview of the highlights from the talk, and VTV has posted recordings of the majority of statements online. Over at Venezuela Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde offers a nearly blow-by-blow account of the talks, ultimately concluding that the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) gained more from dialogue than the government.

Other good accounts in the U.S. media this morning include: the New York Times (which notes both sides’ efforts to “score propaganda points”), Reuters’ juxtaposition of the talks with the rising death toll linked to continuing violence, and the Washington Post’s look at cracks in the opposition leadership.

While the MUD’s secretary general and opposition leader Henrique Capriles were present last night, many of the figures who have led anti-government protests over the past two months were not. El Nacional has a list of government critics who are not participating in the negotiations. While some of these, like representatives of NGOs like PROVEA and the Venezuelan Penal Forum, were not invited, the opposition sector aligned with the imprisoned Leopoldo Lopez and recently-ousted lawmaker Maria Corina Machado has adamantly boycotted the talks. Venezuela’s student movement, the primary engine behind the recent protests, was also absent last night. El Nacional notes that student leaders have also largely rejected dialogue without the release of imprisoned demonstrators, though some groups (namely the JPEP, or Student and Popular Patriotic Council) have been more critical of talks than others.

El Universal notes that talks are scheduled to resume on Tuesday, and will apparently involve smaller coordinating groups, with the government side represented by Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, Libertador Mayor Jorge Rodriguez and Vice President Jorge Arreaza.

News Briefs
  • Today’s New York Times features an investigation into the changing dynamics of undocumented immigration along the U.S-Mexico border in southern Texas, where authorities say the number of border crossings has soared in recent years. This wave of migrants, most of whom are from Central America, appears to be encouraged by the fact that they are more likely to be released while their cases proceed, according to the NYT.
  • BBC Mundo looks at the potential for Venezuela’s talks to lead to a more inclusive government, as some in the hemisphere have advocated. But as analysts note, this would open up the leadership of both sides to criticism from their respective bases, a risk they may not be willing to take.
  • This Saturday marks the deadline for opponents of drilling in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park to gather the signatures needed to trigger a referendum on the plan. El Pais reports that environmental groups say they have more than the 600,000 signatures required and will present them to authorities for review tomorrow.
  • Lawmakers in Brazil’s Senate took a first step towards repealing the country's dictatorship-era Amnesty Law. On Wednesday, the Senate’s human rights committee approved a bill appealing part of the law which prevents retroactive punishment of abuses against opponents of the military dictatorship, which passed would open up the possibility for new cases.
  • The Washington Post reports on a plea deal reportedly taken by Sinaloa cartel lieutenant Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, in which he has agreed to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors in exchange for information. As the paper notes, the development could worsen the potential for a power vacuum in the dominant cartel
  • InSight Crime has published co-director Steven Dudley’s remarks at a recent Session of the Inter-American Committee Against Terrorism, in which he takes on assertions of growing links between terrorist groups and organized crime in Latin America. Far from conspiracies of a growing Hezbollah presence in the region, Dudley argues that dealings between criminal groups and terrorist networks are “just business,” and do not constitute long-term working relationships.
  • Peruvian officials have arrested 28 members of a political movement calling for the release of imprisoned Shining Path members, known as the Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (Movadef). According to El Comercio, authorities have charged Movadef leaders with receiving drug trafficking proceeds from Shining Path guerrilla Comrade Artemio, who was arrested in 2012. The AP notes that those arrested include the lawyer of imprisoned Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman, as well as Walter Humala, a cousin of President Ollanta Humala.
  • The Inter-American Dialogue's Latin American Advisor features commentary from Costa Rica analyst Jose Antonio Muñoz and former Costa Rican Vice President Kevin Casas-Zamora on the major hurdles awaiting President-elect Luis Guillermo Solis. Both commentators suggest that his main challenges will include establishing a working relationship with the country’s business sector while still managing the expectations of his base. Writing for the AULA blog, however, Fulton Armstrong offers a slightly more optimistic take, noting that a number of business groups in the country have tentatively signaled that they can work with him.
  • Western Nicaragua was shaken by a 6.1-magnitude earthquake yesterday near Managua. While officials say there were reports of at least 23 injured, so far there appears to be just one reported death, which is significant considering that a quake of similar scale in 1972 had a devastating impact on the capital city, as AFP notes.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

USAID’s Defense of Cuba Program Falls Short

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has responded to criticism of its democracy promotion work in Cuba by insisting that its failed “Cuban Twitter” program was conducted with full oversight, and did not involve sending overtly political messages to subscribers. But remarks by former White House officials, as well as some of the program’s internal documents, suggest otherwise.

In congressional testimony on Tuesday, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told lawmakers that the agency program, known as ZunZuneo, was completely legal. It had been repeatedly disclosed to members of Congress in a series of reports from 2008 through 2013, he said. Shah also emphasized that the program was aimed at facilitating communication, to “promote information sharing amongst Cubans.”

In a blog post published on Monday, USAID denied that ZunZuneo sought to “funnel political content,” and claims contractors only sent subscribers “news, sports scores, weather, and trivia.” Everything else, according to USAID, was generated by users themselves.

However, the Associated Press -- which broke the story -- has challenged this assertion. The news agency provided an example of at least one message sent to Cuban cell phones which overtly poked fun at government officials, as well as several other drafts that may not have been sent out.

One sent message read: "Latest: Cuban dies of electrical shock from laptop. 'I told you so,' declares a satisfied [Telecommunications Minister] Ramiro. 'Those machines are weapons of the enemy!'" While relatively mild, it still contradicts USAID’s characterization of the program.

Additionally, questions remain as to whether the Obama administration had direct knowledge of the program. In remarks to reporters last week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney described the ZunZuneo effort as “discreet” and not “covert,” an important distinction considering that covert operations must have presidential approval. In a Newsweek interview published yesterday, former White House National Security Council expert on Latin America Fulton Armstrong said that the administration “had not been briefed on the [USAID’s] regime-change programs, and that the secret operations continued just as they had under Bush-Cheney—aggressive, over-funded, and in obvious need of oversight and review.”

Armstrong also criticized the administration’s handling of secret negotiations with Cuban officials over imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross. According to Armstrong, in 2010 he helped negotiate Gross’ expedited release with Cuba in exchange for a USAID agreement to trim its more aggressive regime change programs. However, Newsweek reports that this deal was subsequently nixed by “die-hard USAID officials,” who insisted that programs would continue unchanged despite support for the reforms among some senior USAID and State Department figures.

Meanwhile, Gross remains committed to a hunger strike that began last week in protest of “shared responsibility” in Washington and Havana over his continued imprisonment. The move has led Cuba’s top Foreign Ministry official for U.S. affairs to release a statement noting officials’ “concern” over the protest, as well as reiterating the government’s willingness to exchange Gross for the three remaining members of the “Cuban Five” held in U.S. prison.

News Briefs
  • Venezuela’s government and leading members of the opposition will sit down this evening as part of negotiations facilitated by UNASUR foreign ministers and a Vatican emissary. Yesterday President Nicolas Maduro sent an official invitation to the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to help mediate, though the opposition has indicated that the current Vatican ambassador will participate in the first meeting today. The talks will be televised live, and opposition leader Henrique Capriles has confirmed that he will join the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition leadership at the dialogue. According to a statement released earlier this week, the MUD will insist on four main agenda items: an amnesty for political prisoners, an independent national truth commission, the de-politicization of key government ministries and the disarmament of militant Chavista collectives. As the Miami Herald reports, however, both sides have taken care to tamper expectations of this initial meeting bringing concrete results.
  • In a post for Venezuela Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde offers some analysis of the opening positions of both the opposition and government, noting that there appears to be little overlap between the two. Both sides will face pressure from their bases not to give in too much, and both risk being labeled “traitors” from extremists in their camps (though this is a greater factor for the opposition). Still, Smilde is cautiously optimistic about the talks’ potential to reduce the country’s political polarization.
  • Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, has a column in the New York Review of Books in which he offers a rebuttal to Maduro’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. Wilkinson takes issue with Maduro’s comparisons of the current protests to the 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez, and describes his government’s continued attacks against press freedom -- which in the case of print media appear to have heightened in recent months.
  • Another left-leaning regional leader, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, has penned a similar op-ed in the English press. Ahead of visits to Harvard and Yale this week at the invitation of university officials, the Ecuadorean leader wrote a column in yesterday's Boston Globe defending his administration’s record on press freedom. In it, Correa claims that the notion of “freedom” promoted by his critics excludes social justice, and asserts that his heavy-handed approach to bad press is part of a battle against those who “seek impunity for media to manipulate the truth.”
  • The AP profiles the ongoing investigation into one of the biggest scandals to hit Mexico’s congress, involving the reportedly common practice of lawmakers skimming off of funds designated to city budgets. While the investigation has so far touched only PAN Congressman Luis Alberto Villarreal, at least eight city leaders elsewhere have said they were approached by lawmakers seeking kickbacks.  
  • Guatemala’s Plaza Publica has an interview with former First Lady Sandra Torres, who is trying to rally the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party for the next elections. But as the news site points out, Torres’ self-described “social democratic” platform relies on the business class for funding, and many of her positions (including maintaining tax exemptions for the maquila sector) seem at odds with her ostensibly center-left orientation.
  • BBC Mundo explores weakening support for Bolivian President Evo Morales among the base organizations that brought him to power in 2005. While polls suggest Morales will easily win reelection in October’s general election, only 45.7 percent of Bolivians say they would vote for him, a figure lower than either of his previous victories in 2005 and 2009.
  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has released its latest Global Study on Homicide, as well as a website providing useful graphs and diagrams comparing homicide rates around the world. The study suggests that the Americas has overtaken Africa as the region with the largest number of homicides, with the hemisphere accounting for roughly one-third of all murders. Some 30 percent of homicides in the Americas can be traced to organized crime, according to the report. As Reuters notes, Honduras and Venezuela are the top two most violent countries, according to 2012 homicide statistics.
  • Argentina has been hit by a massive 24-hour strike organized by its largest labor unions today, in protest of rising inflation and a  government cap on wage increases. The Wall Street Journal points out that the strike is being led by Hugo Moyano, head of the largest Argentine labor federation and a onetime Kirchner ally.
  • The Argentine government yesterday carried out a massive “mega-operation” in the port city of Rosario, involving 3,000 officers and some 90 raids throughout the city, La Nacion reports. The AP notes that Security Minister Sergio Berni described it as the largest anti-drug operation in the country’s history.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Venezuela's Opposition, Government Agree to Dialogue

The Venezuelan government and the opposition have agreed to begin a series of talks mediated by the Vatican and foreign ministers of the region, an important first step towards overcoming the country’s deeply polarized political climate.

Yesterday when the leadership of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition first confirmed its attendance at a meeting with the government, to be sponsored by the visiting delegation of Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) foreign ministers, expectations were low. MUD Secretary General Ramon Guillermo Aveledo was careful to frame the meeting as an “exploratory” one, and not necessarily the beginning of dialogue.

Fortunately, there appears to have been significant progress made in the meeting, which was attended by two other MUD leaders as well as President Nicolas Maduro, First Lady Cilia Flores, Vice President Jorge Arreaza and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, according to El Pais.

The specifics of the future talks are still being ironed out, but El Nacional and Ultimas Noticias report that both Arreaza and Aveledo have confirmed that they will take place in the presence of “good faith” witnesses. According to the vice president, this role will be filled by the foreign ministers of Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil, as well as the Vatican’s representative in the country. In a press conference following the meeting, Arreaza also said that the talks would “touch on all issues in the country’s interest,” including economic issues. There was no mention of giving into demands to disarm pro-government “colectivos,” or of freeing imprisoned opposition members.

The first of these meetings is to take place either today or tomorrow, and both parties have agreed that it should be broadcast live on national television.

But while the MUD’s formal leadership has agreed to participate in the talks, the most visible faces of the Venezuelan opposition remain skeptical. Reuters notes that in a series of Twitter messages posted by his wife on his behalf, imprisoned opposition figure Leopoldo Leader said he believed only in a dialogue of equals, not with one side “on its knees.”

A quick scan of the Twitter profiles of the other leading MUD figures suggests that they share similar sentiments. Maria Corina Machado has insisted that any dialogue lead to a “democratic transition,” rejecting any talks that would, in her words, “stabilize the dictatorship.” Even Henrique Capriles, the most pro-dialogue opposition leader, has cautioned that dialogue would not mean that “the people should quit demanding their rights.”

News Briefs
  • Despite earlier signals from the Obama administration that it was considering supporting limited sanctions of Venezuelan officials, Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers yesterday that no such actions will be taken as long as dialogue in the country continues. When questioned by Republican Senator Mark Rubio about this, Kerry replied that the current strategy was to avoid giving the Maduro government an “excuse” to pull out of talks, reports El Nuevo Herald.
  • Kerry’s remarks square well with recent statements by President Maduro. In an exclusive interview published yesterday by The Guardian, the Venezuelan president characterized ongoing protests as an extension of longstanding U.S. intervention in the region, calling them proof that the Obama administration wants to "get their hands on Venezuelan oil."
  • In remarks to the House and Senate subcommittees responsible for overseeing the budget of the U.S. Agency for International Development yesterday, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah told lawmakers that the agency’s “Cuban Twitter” program was completely legal. As the New York Times reports, Shah insisted that its goal was merely to promote uncensored communication, did not constitute a covert political operation. However, the Associated Press (which first leaked the story) reports that it obtained documents which clearly show that the program was used to transmit political messages and poke fun at government officials.
  • As “autodefensa” leaders in Mexico’s Michoacan state continue to ignore calls to disarm and federal officials announced an investigation into state government corruption,  Milenio  and El Universal report that the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto is fending off comparisons with the heavy-handed approach to the state of his predecessor, Felipe Caledron.
  • BBC Mundo profiles the Uruguayan government’s interest in using its historic marijuana regulation initiative to test the potential for cannabis use to reduce dependence on crack. In remarks to the AP, National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada confirmed that the penal system will make the drug available to prison inmates on doctors’ orders. Calzada also announced that the rollout of the specific regulations of the law has been delayed by a couple of days, and will now be unveiled between April 20 and 25.
  • The AP reports that chronic construction delays in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the 2016 Olympics have led to “unprecedented venting of criticism and complaints” from international sports leaders, prompting the International Olympic Committee to promise to take action to ease the situation.
  • Colombia’s Semana reports that President Juan Manuel Santos has said that if a court orders him to restore ousted Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, he would do so. According to the magazine, Petro’s defense team has submitted a legal challenge to his removal to the country’s top administrative court, but it is not clear whether the case would be taken up any time soon.
  • Yesterday El Salvador’s security ministry confirmed reports that street gangs in the country appear to have received training from weapons experts, a development which comes amid growing concern over the gangs’ sophistication. As InSight Crime notes, recent statements by security officials continue to put pressure on President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren to adopt a detailed security strategy to address the issue of gang violence.
  • A landmark human trafficking case in Argentina came to a close yesterday after a court sentenced the accused to between 10 to 22 years in prison, reversing a lower court decision which found the 10 defendants not guilty. The 2002 disappearance of Marita Veron led her mother Susana Trimarco to launch a high-profile campaign which earned her international recognition, and focused attention on human trafficking in the country.  In remarks to La Nacion following the trial, Trimarco said the ruling brought “a little bit of peace,” and promised to continue her search for her daughter.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

El Salvador’s Gang Truce to Test President-Elect

The Associated Press has a somewhat misleading headline this morning: “Salvadoran Govt: Gang Truce Hasn’t Worked.” Salvadoran security officials, the news agency claims, have recognized that the government-facilitated truce between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs has failed to rein in their criminal activity.

The problem with this is that the actual Justice and Public Security Ministry press release cited by the AP makes no mention of the truce. But it does note that police statistics show that the average daily homicide rate for the first three months of 2014 has risen to 8.9, compared to 6 per day in the same period last year. The ministry also claims that the number of attacks on police officers has risen compared to 2013, and that the gangs appear to have expanded their territorial control and “social and institutional” influence. Some gang factions are targeting security forces “with the goal of pressuring the new government that will take office in June,” according to the statement.

While the press release does not directly address the truce, it highlights the dilemma facing President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren. On the campaign trail he took great pains to avoid the issue, and has continued to do so after winning last month’s election, downplaying the government’s reliance on the ceasefire. He has so far given no indication whether he will continue unofficial support for the gang pact. With the homicide rate up 44 percent according to forensic authorities, this is becoming increasingly hard to justify to an already skeptical public.

But even with the increase, the average number of daily homicides remains significantly lower than its peak at roughly 12 per day in 2011, before the truce took effect. This places the incoming president in something of a catch-22, which news site El Faro summed up well in a recent editorial:
Two years after it began, the truce is now a political failure. Not even the president has wanted to publicly admit that it is a government strategy, and [former Security Minister] Munguia Payes and his negotiators have failed to garner enough support to make it a successful project. The truce has brought them high costs due to their failure to sell its benefits to the public. Or to the international community. 
At this point, and as has been already announced by gang leaders, breaking the truce could put the country in a situation that no government wants to face when it comes to office; especially when the state has not taken these past two years to prepare for its end.
Ultimately, Sanchez Ceren may have no choice but to continue his predecessor’s quiet backing of the truce. An even more drastic surge in homicides would only play into the hands of the opposition ARENA party, which fueled the narrative that the ruling FMLN is soft on crime -- and even complicit with the gangs -- in the lead-up to the election.  

News Briefs
  • In response to the recent AP story on the failed U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) effort to launch a Twitter-like social network in Cuba to undermine government censorship, the agency has published a rebuttal to several of the AP’s allegations. According to the USAID, the program was conducted in complete compliance with the law and with oversight of the Government Accountability Office. The agency also denies that private information of Cuban subscribers was used to shape USAID policies, and that the budget for the program came from funds “publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan,” as the AP claims.
  • Former USAID worker Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009 for secretly working to provide locals with uncensored internet access, appears to have taken advantage of media focus on the Cuban Twitter story to announce that he has begun a hunger strike. According to a statement given by Gross’s lawyer, the move is a protest against the “shared responsibility” of the U.S. and Cuba for his continued confinement and mistreatment.
  • Yassmin Barrios, the Guatemalan judge who found ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, has been suspended from the country’s bar association, fined some $650, and prohibited from serving as a lawyer for one year. The penalty is in response to a petition filed by defense attorney Moises Galindo, who alleged that Barrios’ curt remarks to him during the trial constituted a breach of professional ethics.
  • Brazil’s O Estado reports that ongoing investigations into a money laundering and bribery scandal involving Petrobras have led authorities to lawmaker Andre Vargas of the ruling PT. Likely in an attempt to ward off any blowback ahead of October elections, Vargas has reportedly come under strong pressure from President Dilma Rousseff and the PT leadership to resign as a result of the allegations.
  • Yesterday Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that he would meet face-to-face with opposition leaders, in accordance with a proposal made by the visiting UNASUR foreign ministers’ delegation. According to Ultimas Noticias, Maduro said he was prepared to “forgive” whatever necessary as part of a process of “national healing,” and that the meeting would be facilitated by the delegation.
  • In the wake of the Spanish government’s decision to suspend exports of riot gear to Venezuela last week, Venezuelan officials are not pleased. The Guardian reports that the Maduro government released a statement criticizing the decision, as well as questioning Spain’s “moral authority” on the issue. Venezuela also called on Spanish officials to follow Maduro’s example and “promote dialogue with its distinct social groups who are seeking justice.”
  • El Pais profiles a movement towards increased openness in Cuba’s state-controlled press. As the paper notes, economic reforms on the island have been accompanied by efforts to move state media away from an emphasis on “glorifying national realities,” towards more constructive criticism of flaws and inefficiencies in the country’s political system.
  • The Miami Herald looks at discontent among Colombian unions with the government’s failure to comply with a Labor Action Plan passed along with the its free-trade agreement with the United States, meant to improve labor rights in the country. According to a new joint report by four Colombian labor groups, union killings and threats have continued, and basic requirements in the agreement have gone unheeded by the government.
  • While the overall number of Haitians displaced by the disastrous 2010 earthquake has fallen, a new study by the International Organization for Migration shows that 78 of the 243 remaining refugee camps in the country have seen their population rise, in many cases due to an inability to pay rent elsewhere.
  • Jose Manuel Mireles, one of the most visible leaders of the so-called “autodefensa” militias in Mexico’s Michoacan state, has refused to obey the government’s order to disarm. The L.A. Times reports that barricades to keep out federal forces have sprung up in cities throughout the state, while Animal Politico adds that Mireles has refused to participate in disarmament until three major figures in the Knights Templar cartel have been captured.