Tuesday, September 2, 2014

FARC Temper Hopes for Imminent Ceasefire

While the Colombian negotiating parties in Havana have made some important progress recently, FARC leaders have made it clear that the peace talks are nowhere near establishing an end to hostilities.

On Friday President Juan Manuel Santos announced that General Javier Florez, until recently head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces, would be in charge of a new “Transitional Command,” tasked with overseeing “the process of moving from war to peace,” as well as supervising the demobilization of the FARC and the surrender of their weapons. One week prior to the announcement, Santos appointed Florez as head of a military sub-commission in charge of mapping out the details of an eventual ceasefire.

This followed a brief but historic meeting between Colombian military leaders and FARC negotiators in Havana on August 22.

These developments, paired with the important progress made on the issue of both parties’ responsibility to conflict victims (see Virginia Bouvier’s concise analysis of the 27th round of talks), have fueled cautious optimism that the peace process could succeed, despite Santos’ recent warning that FARC attacks could jeopardize the future of negotiations.

But in their recent remarks to the press, the FARC have sought to dampen expectations somewhat. In an AFP interview last week, for instance, FARC negotiator Andres Paris cautioned that a ceasefire, as well as disarmament, would be a slow process. “No one has suggested to the FARC, nor have we ever said to the government, that there would be a single moment when we would hand over our arms. I repeat, there will be no photo op of the FARC handing over its arms,” he told the news agency.

On top of this, yesterday the FARC’s top negotiator in Havana, Ivan Marquez, stressed via a press release that negotiations are not “in the final stages,” and accused the government of “creating false expectations.” Marquez claimed the rebel group was particularly alarmed about Santos’ claim that General Florez would oversee the FARC’s demobilization.

“It should be noted in relation to the creation of the Transition Command, that the FARC will in no way accept a military hierarchy to resolve issues that are political by definition,” Marquez said. The guerrilla added that any demobilization would also be contingent on the “demilitarization of the state and society.”

This may be a long way off. According to Tony Lopez, a Cuban political analyst who appears to have some access to the backchannel talks in Havana, restructuring the Colombian armed forces to focus exclusively on protecting national sovereignty rather than internal security is currently off the table. As Lopez writes in analysis for Las 2 Orillas, the issue is one of 28 sticking points that have been left to debate at the very end of the peace process, a list which also includes the specifics of land redistribution and a series of proposed political reforms.  

 News Briefs
  • Foreign Policy has a thorough investigative report on the status of the proposed free market “zones for economic development and employment" (ZEDEs), also known as “model cities,” in Honduras. Following a Supreme Court endorsement of a constitutional amendment allowing for the creation of ZEDEs in May, the controversial initiative appears to be moving forward despite concerns from local communities and civil society groups who accuse the project as a violation of sovereignty and human rights.  Particularly interesting is the makeup of the committee overseeing the ZEDEs, which includes libertarian heroes like Grover Norquist, Ronald Reagan’s son Michael, Cato Institute senior fellow Richard Rahn and Barbara Kolm, the head of Austria's Hayek Institute.
  • Last night, Brazil saw the second televised debate of the main presidential candidates ahead of the October 5 vote. In the course of the debate, it became clear that President Dilma Rousseff is no longer writing off leading challenger Marina Silva. As Folha notes in its analysis, Rousseff clearly went on the offensive last night, attacking Silva’s proposed policies as utopian and unrealistic. As the AFP reports, Rousseff also doubled down on her commitment to popular social programs and following in the legacy of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
  • São Paulo-based Reuters correspondent Brian Winter has an analysis of Marina Silva’s chances of winning October’s election. Despite the polls showing that she could ultimately beat Rousseff in a runoff vote, he notes that the local press is becoming increasingly skeptical of her anti-establishment image, a factor which could ultimately prove drive her poll numbers back down in the coming weeks.
  • The New York Times takes a critical look at Mexico’s education system, profiling a new Mexico City billboard set up by civil society group Mexicanos Primeros which calls attention to the amount of money spent on salaries for teachers who do not show up to work.
  • According to Mexican news site Animal Politico, President Enrique Peña Nieto has announced that he will present new legislation in the Senate aimed at providing greater protections to children and adolescents in the country. In addition to leveling fines against adults who are informed of school violence or abuse but do not take action, the bill would give unaccompanied Central American migrant youth access to services like medical, psychological and legal assistance, as the Wall Street Journal notes.
  • In an address to Congress on Monday, Peña Nieto gave a detailed account of his administration’s security accomplishments, claiming to have brought drown the country’s 2013 homicide rate to 19 per 100,000, from 22 the year before. Also on citizen security, it seems the first units of Mexico’s controversial new gendarmerie police force are being deployed around the country. Milenio reports that the federal government has deployed them in five states across the country: Baja California, Chiapas, Guanajuato, Jalisco and Tamaulipas.
  • Yesterday, lawmakers in the Mexican state of Coahuila passed a marriage equality bill. While Mexico City passed a similar law in 2009, Coahuila will be the first and only state in the country to recognize same-sex marriages, as Proceso notes.
  • The Washington Post has an update on the suspiciously one-sided trial of Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez, noting that the judge presiding over the case has rejected all but one of 68 proposed defense witnesses, while allowing the prosecution to call 108. The trial’s outcome appears almost certain, but because of the number of witnesses called Lopez’s lawyers say it will likely drag on for months.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Brazil’s Marina Silva Reverses on LGBT Rights Overnight

Marina Silva’s odds of winning Brazil’s presidential election in October are looking better and better. As the AP notes, Friday brought some bad news for President Dilma Rousseff’s re-election campaign in the form of a one-two punch: not only is the economy now officially in a recession, but polls show support for Silva is continuing to rise.

According to the latest Datafolha survey, support for Silva increased by 13 points in two weeks, with the poll showing both her and Rousseff tied in the first round with 34 percent of the vote. In a second-round matchup, however, Datafolha found that Silva would beat the president by ten points, 50 to 40 percent.

Also on Friday, Silva released her official electoral platform, outlining her position on a range of issues in a 244-page document. The program contains a number of interesting proposals, like putting an end to re-election and gradually increasing healthcare spending to 10 percent of GDP. On economic issues, Silva promised to lower the country’s tax burden and give more autonomy to Brazil’s central bank, which has earned her support among the business community.

Silva's platform also included support for hydroelectric power as well as same-sex marriage, two issues she has opposed in the past due, respectively, to her environmentalism and devoted evangelical Christian beliefs.  As The Economist points out, her decision to back away from her unyielding Green image and the inclusion of these points clashes with her opponents’ -- Rousseff and the PSDB’s Aecio Neves -- efforts to paint her as an inflexible leader with radical beliefs.

A day after unveiling her platform, however, cracks began to develop in her re-branded image as a moderate on social issues, at least when it comes to LGBT rights.  

In her initial program, the chapter on LGBT rights began with an impressive recognition that Brazilian society is “sexist, heteronormative and exclusionary.” In it, Silva’s campaign expressed support for legislation to eliminate barriers to adoption for gay and lesbian couples, formalize the recognition of same-sex marriages (which Brazil’s Supreme Court legalized in a landmark decision last year), and championed “raising awareness of the diversity of sexual orientation and new family structures.” The platform also backed several bills in Congress which aim to make it easier for trans individuals to change their identification cards and to criminalize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  

As O Globo reported, Silva even defended these positions when questioned by journalists on Friday, saying that she was committed to the “secular state” and that “our commitment is that the civil rights of all people must be respected.”

But her platform came under heavy fire from conservative groups, in particular from popular Pentecostal televangelist and culture warrior Silas Malafaia, who accused Silva of supporting “the gay activist agenda.” 

Just 24 hours after presenting the platform, the Silva campaign walked it back, issuing a revised edition. As Folha de S.Paulo reports, the new version eliminates the language on heteronormativity and sexism, replaces explicit endorsement of gay marriage with support for civil unions, backs off of advocating legislation recognizing individuals’ gender identities, and does not propose removing barriers to adoption by same-sex couples.

According to Globo, a spokesperson for Silva's campaign claimed that the initial platform contained a number of mistakes due to a “procedural error,” and that it did not “faithfully portray the results of discussion on the topic during the planning stages of formulating the [campaign’s] government plan.”

Nevertheless, the sudden revision seems very much like standard politicking in order to appeal to evangelical voters, a move which clashes harshly with Silva’s promise to usher in an era of “new politics” in the country.

News Briefs
  • The Miami Herald looks at a renewed criminal investigation into former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is accused of stealing embezzling millions of dollars in public funds from 2001 to 2004, during his second term in office. According to the Herald, the former leader has been keeping a mostly low profile, even as hundreds of supporters have rallied in front of his home to prevent his arrest.
  • Inter-American Court Judge Diego Garcia Sayan’s bid for OAS Secretary General has been officially launched, and El Comercio reports that the Peruvian jurist is in Washington today to hold a ceremony to kick start his campaign.  However, Foreign Minister Gonzalo Gutierrez told reporters yesterday that the Humala administration’s support for Garcia Sayan remains under evaluation, and will depend on his regional support.
  • While the creation of a "technical" military commission to study a potential ceasefire in Colombia has fueled a wave of reports on the feasibility of an end to hostilities in the country’s long-running armed conflict, the FARC have sought to temper expectations somewhat. In a recent AFP interview, FARC negotiator Andres Paris cautioned that a ceasefire, as well as disarmament, would be a slow process. “No one has suggested to the FARC, nor have we ever said to the government, that there would be a single moment when we would hand over our arms. I repeat, there will be no photo op of the FARC handing over its arms,” he told the news agency.
  • The Washington Post has a report on how imprisoned Sinaloa Cartel kingpin “Chapo” Guzman has been faring since his arrest earlier this year. As the Post notes, despite some reports in recent weeks about Guzman organizing a mass hunger strike in his prison to call for better conditions, authorities say inmates there have little to no contact with each other. The paper also claims that Guzman receives some special treatment: he has not been required to shave his moustache, in spite of the prison’s mandatory shaving rule.  
  • The L.A. Times is the latest U.S. outlet to profile the relatively low number of immigrants from Nicaragua compared to other Central American countries, which most analysts chalk up to a greater emphasis on community policing. But the paper also identifies another, lesser-known reason for this: the fact that Nicaraguan immigrant communities were not established in the U.S. in areas with the same heavy gang presence as Salvadorans and Guatemalans, which greatly reduced the spread of so-called “maras” in the Central American country in the deportation wave of the 1990s.
  • Spanish news agency EFE reports that imprisoned leaders of El Salvador’s Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 have released a communiqué in which they claimed to have agreed to a new truce similar to the one that led to a drop in the homicide rate in 2012. The gang leaders are also calling on the government of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren to endorse their ceasefire to assure its success. Also on El Salvador’s maras, El Faro’s Sala Negra looks at the government’s decision in 2004 to designate separate facilities for Barrio 18 and MS-13 gangs, a move which some believe only furthered their influence in the country.
  • In a recent interview with EFE during a visit to Panama, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina reaffirmed his support for alternative drug policies, saying some drugs should be legalized, while others should be regulated. He also told the news agency that he believes the United States has become more flexible on the issue, which he called “an important change.”
  • Today, Cuban authorities are implementing new rules that will drastically restrict the amount of goods that travelers to Cuba can bring in their luggage, officially intended to eliminate a black market for items that private businesses are meant to purchase from the state. But as the Associated Press notes, the law will also take a toll on Cubans’ access to commercial goods brought in by visiting relatives.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Uruguay Slowly Rolling Out its Marijuana Law

On Thursday, the day after the Uruguayan government began receiving the first applications to legally grow up to six cannabis plants per household, officials provided an important update on the status of marijuana regulation in the country. While the law is slowly coming into effect, it looks almost certain that it won’t be in full swing until sometime in early 2015.

Despite initial reports that just 10 prospective home-growers had registered with the designated post offices around the country -- which were based on a statement released only three hours after the registry’s launch -- this number has grown since then.

As Uruguayan AP correspondent Leonardo Haberkorn reports, the Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) announced yesterday that after two days, a total of 54 had signed up. Of these, 21 were based in the capital city of Montevideo, and 33 live throughout the country’s interior. The IRCCA has said it will review all applications and issue the first legal home-cultivation licenses within a period of 30 days.

The creation of the home-growers’ registry comes after the launch of the first “marijuana membership clubs,” which under the law can have a maximum of 45 members and grow up to 99 plants. While the clubs have not yet been licensed to grow by the IRCCA, at least four have taken the first step of registering as civil associations with the Ministry of Culture.

Home-growing and the membership clubs are two of the three methods of accessing the drug legally under Uruguay’s new law. The third involves purchasing commercially-produced cannabis, which is making progress as well. In July, the government began a bidding process for those interested in serving as the two to five commercial growers that officials believe are necessary to satisfy domestic demand for cannabis.

While the AP reports that an administration official told reporters “more than 20 and less than 25” companies had applied to supply the drug to Uruguayan pharmacies, El Pais has more precise details on the bidding process.  Yesterday, the IRCCA held a gathering of some 40 representatives of the bidders, and the Montevideo-based paper obtained a head count of sorts, even speaking with some of the prospective foreign and local investors.

The institute reportedly received proposals from 22 companies, of which 8 are Uruguayan, 10 are foreign (including U.S. and Canadian firms) and 4 are of mixed nationality. In two weeks’ time this number will be whittled down to 20, from which a total of five companies will obtain cultivation licenses.

According to El Pais, the IRCCA won’t complete the selection process for at least a month and a half. This means cultivation won’t begin until around November, at the earliest. Taking into account time needed for growing, harvesting, packaging and shipping the product to sales points, it is then safe to assume that President Jose Mujica is correct in estimating that the drug won’t be available in pharmacies before next year.

Ultimately it seems officials are in no rush, and are more concerned with working out the kinks of marijuana regulation than starting as fast as possible. As IRCCA head Augusto Vitale told El Pais, “This is a unique model in the world. This type of license is unprecedented.” Nevertheless, Vitale claimed that the first experiment with commercial cultivation will follow three main guidelines. According to him: “We know there will be continuous production [via greenhouses]. We know that there must be between one and two tons produced. And we know that setting the price shall be a crucial variable, and that it will compete with the illegal market.”  

News Briefs
  • To follow up on yesterday’s look at the race for OAS Secretary General, Uruguayan weekly Busqueda (article behind a paywall, unfortunately), known as the leading political chronicler in the country, claims that diplomatic sources in Canada, the United States, and Brazil have all conveyed their approval of Foreign Minister Luis Almagro’s bid for OAS leader.
  • On Thursday, Colombia’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling paving the way for same-sex couples to legally adopt children, but as El Espectador reports it applies only in cases where one of the partners is the child’s biological parent. Despite the ruling’s shortcomings, LGBT rights advocates contacted by La Silla Vacia claim that the vast majority of same-sex couples seeking to have children opt to do so via artificial insemination rather than adopting an unrelated child, which means that the decision is still an important practical victory for Colombia’s gay and lesbian communities.
  • Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera has raised pressure on the federal government to raise the country’s minimum wage, which as the Wall Street Journal notes ranks behind only Haiti in the Americas. Yesterday, Mancera presented a proposal to lift the minimum daily wage from 67.3 pesos to between 80 and 87 pesos (or $6.10 to $6.60, says McClatchy’s Tim Johnson), and move that has significant support among lawmakers of the PAN and PRI as well.
  • While there has been a flurry of reporting recently -- See Forbes or Bloomberg -- on Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva’s growing backing among the financial class, she also appears committed to her environmentalist roots. O Globo has obtained a copy of her campaign platform, to be released at an event today in São Paulo, in which she commits to decreasing the country’s reliance on Brazil’s oil industry in favor of more renewable energy sources like biofuel, solar and wind power.
  • Brazilian news site Agencia Publica has an investigation into the Brazilian military dictatorship’s use of napalm against guerrillas during the 1970s, which was confirmed in documents released by the country’s National Truth Commission last year. The news site notes that craters from the bomb blasts where they were deployed can still be found, as well as shells and other remnants of the bombs themselves.
  • The Associated Press has a useful update on the situation in the Dominican Republic for individuals of Haitian descent, which has improved little since lawmakers passed a law in May meant to resolve the legal status of thousands who were stripped of their citizenship. According to the AP, some 115,000 have applied for residency and work permits under the law, but authorities say just 275 meet its criteria.
  • The AP also has a look at Ecuador’s plans to launch the first government-backed digital currency. While authorities have not yet given it a name or provide technical details, the currency is expected to start circulating in December and is reportedly aimed at helping those Ecuadoreans who are too poor to access formal banking.
  • After mathematician Artur Avila became the first Brazilian to win the prestigious Fields Medal earlier this month, The New York Times features a look at the research center where he works, Rio de Janeiro’s National Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics. As the NYT notes, it has become a world-renowned education center, “a hidden gem in a country with few world-renowned educational institutions.”
  • While Haiti’s coffee industry has enjoyed a boom in recent years, a new report by Catholic Relief Services has found that global climate change will put it at risk. As the Miami Herald reports, the study found that over the next 40 years the amount of land suitable for coffee cultivation will likely decline.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Surveying the Field in the OAS Secretary General Race

Peru may have just lost its candidate to become the next OAS leader, but Uruguay and Guatemala are sticking with their own candidates (despite their flaws), and a potential nominee has surfaced in Mexico as well.

As part of a deal with lawmakers to approve his latest cabinet shuffle, the administration of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala is backing off from supporting Inter-American Human Rights Court Judge Diego Garcia Sayan’s bid for OAS Secretary General. His candidacy was staunchly opposed by the Fujimorista opposition, which among other things objects to his support for the 2001 creation of Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

However, the Peruvian government appears to be playing coy about whether or not it will fully withdraw its support for Garcia Sayan. In an official statement released yesterday, Foreign Minister Gonzalo Gutierrez said the administration’s position was still under analysis and would be decided “at the opportune moment.” In the meantime, Gutierrez reiterated that Garcia Sayan is “an excellent candidate.”

The move comes two months after the emergence of the first nominees to take current OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza’s place once he steps down in May 2015. While elections will likely be held early next year, so far Guatemala’s Eduardo Stein and Uruguay’s Luis Almagro are the only candidates to be decisively endorsed by their governments for the position.

In his Saturday column, widely-read commentator Andres Oppenheimer took a swing at Almagro and Garcia Sayan, arguing that Stein represents the “strongest supporter of democracy and human rights” of the three. As proof, Oppenheimer cites human rights advocates’ criticism of some of the Peruvian jurist’s decisions for the Inter-American Human Rights Court, as well as the fact that he held his position on the court while floating his name as a candidate (though the columnist also notes that the court has accepted his petition for a leave of absence in order to campaign).

Oppenheimer also claims unnamed “diplomatic sources” say both Garcia Sayan and Almagro are backed by ALBA bloc countries, most of which have supported the Ecuador-led efforts to defang the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

As a point against Almagro, he cites a February quote from the Uruguayan foreign minister, in which he said that the Venezuelan clashes had involved “deaths on both sides.” But it’s worth noting here that not only is this statement factually accurate, it’s not that far from Jose Miguel Insulza’s own remarks around the same time. On February 17 the OAS leader warned that continued protests could “lead to more acts of violence,” and called on both the Venezuelan government to “avoid the use of force by police or related groups,” as well as on the opposition “to demonstrate peacefully avoiding provocations.”

On top of this, Oppenheimer’s defense of former Guatemalan Foreign Minister Eduardo Stein is more than a little thin. He dismisses the fact that Stein signed a public letter opposing genocide charges against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt on the grounds that Stein says the letter has been “misinterpreted,” because it “essentially called for due process to investigate all human rights crime.” In reality, the letter (see Plaza Publica’s coverage) explicitly calls the Rios Montt trial a “betrayal” of peace and reconciliation, and accuses its supporters of dividing the country. And in another statement that is sure to irk human rights advocates in the region, Stein recently spokeout in defense of ex-police chief Erwin Sperisen, who was convicted in Switzerland of overseeing the execution of seven Guatemalan inmates in a 2006 prison raid ordered by the Berger administration.

Considering these positions, it’s hard to believe Stein is truly the “strongest supporter” of human rights among candidates for OAS chief. If he is, the entire field is hopeless.

Fortunately for critics of the current candidates, there are signs that new names will be presented soon. As El Universal recently reported, Mexican Emilio Rabasa’s name has been floated as a potential nominee. In addition to currently serving as Mexico’s OAS ambassador, Rabasa was the Zedillo administration’s coordinator for peace negotiations with rebels following the Zapatista uprising.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday, active duty Chilean sailor Mauricio Ruiz held a press conference in Santiago yesterday to come out publicly as gay. He reportedly did so with the express authorization of his superiors, a fact that La Tercera and the BBC report marks the first time this has happened in Chile’s history, and an important milestone in the socially conservative country.
  • Today’s Wall Street Journal features a glowing profile of Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) candidate Marina Silva, noting the recent Ibope and Datafolha surveys which suggest she would beat incumbent Dilma Rousseff in a second round vote in October’s election. The paper also cites Ibope’s Marcia Cavallari, who -- echoing similar comments by Datafolha head Mauro Paulino -- argues that support for Silva lines up with the profile of those who participated in the June 2013 protests.
  • Last night, Silva appeared on news program Jornal Nacional, the latest in the show’s primetime series of interviews with Brazilian presidential candidates. Globo has a full transcript and clip of the 15-minute interview. While she largely held her own, the interview got off to a tough start for Silva when her questioner asked her about the fact that the jet Eduardo Campos was killed in had been paid for by suspicious shell companies. This, as her interviewer noted, seems to contradict her campaign’s promises to break with the backroom, corrupt politics of the past. Silva’s response, in which she denied any irregularities associated with the plane, is being widely in local press today (see Folha de S. Paulo, or Veja)
  • Forbes looks at one of the biggest financial backers of Silva’s campaign, the multimillionaire banking heir Maria Alice Setubal, who is also serving as her campaign coordinator. Her proximity to the candidate, Forbes notes, has attracted other major financial backers.
  • The AP reports on an apparent rash of illnesses that broke out in the Colombian town El Carmen de Bolivar recently. Because locals say it has mostly affected girls who recently received the popular HPV vaccine Gardasil, it has fueled skepticism towards the drug even as some authorities have chalked the “illness” up to a case of mass hysteria.
  • The Chinese firm behind Nicaragua’s proposed rival to the Panama Canal has begun a census in areas along the project’s path, taking stock of properties and households there. But while the government claims the survey will provide accurate estimates of property values, local residents fear they will receive unfair payment and be forced out of their homes.
  • Uruguay’s El Pais claims that the first day for residents there to legally register up to six cannabis plants in their households got off to a “slow” start yesterday. However, the paper’s assertion that “little more than ten” homegrowers have registered is not necessarily reliable, as it is based on an official count released at midday.
  • After Mexican officials released a dramatically increased estimate of the number of people who have been disappeared as a result of the country’s violent drug war last week, relatives of the disappeared are fuming. The AP profiles reactions to the news from relatives and victims’ rights groups in the country, which criticize the government’s figures as confusing and their work as incompetent.
  • Following Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s recent support for debate over a proposal to move the country’s capital to Santiago del Estero, the New York Times’ Simon Romero compares it with other efforts to move or establish new capital cities around the world. However, he also notes that analysts view the statement as largely symbolic, and few expect anything to come of it.
  • Salvadoran news site El Faro reports on a decision by the Constitutional Court of El Salvador published a ruling on Tuesday which in effect orders political parties to select their internal leaders according to democratic means, and requires them to make their funding sources public information.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Brazil’s Marina Silva Surges in Polls Ahead of First Debate

According to a new Ibope poll published yesterday, newly-appointed PSB candidate Marina Silva would defeat President Dilma Rousseff of the PT in the event of a second-round runoff vote in October’s election.

The Ibope survey, based on some 2,500 responses collected August 23-25, shows Rousseff with 34 percent support, followed by Silva with 29 percent and the PSDB’s Aecio Neves with 19 percent. A hypothetical second-round matchup shows 45 percent for Silva and 36 percent for Rousseff.

But just as with last week’s Datafolha survey, the Ibope poll should probably be taken with a grain of salt. It was conducted only 10-12 days after the death of the PSB’s initial candidate, Silva’s running mate Eduardo Campos, and sympathy for Silva could be artificially boosting her support. As O Globo reports, this is the prevailing interpretation in the Rousseff and Neves camps, which are -- at least publicly -- dismissing Silva’s popularity as an falsely inflated.

Moving forward, however, it will not be as easy for either candidate to continue to write her off. Last night, the Band TV Network hosted the first debate of the presidential campaign, marking the first opportunity for candidates to directly respond to each other’s policy proposals.

Unfortunately, as the BBC’s Rio correspondent Wyres Davies points out, the debate largely featured more platitudes than policy. Part of this was due to its structure; a total of seven candidates participated in the debate, which stretched over three hours across five rounds.

Much of the debate focused on general criticism of the Rousseff administration, while she in turn focused most of her attention on Neves, as Estadão reports.  The PSDB candidate, for his part, did his best to frame Silva and Rousseff as two sides of the same coin, and took advantage of the debate to announce that hedge fund founder and former central bank chief Arminio Fraga would be his finance minister if victorious in October.

Silva, in turn, attempted to cast herself as the true alternative voice among the leading candidates. At one point, when asked about her party’s ties to economic elites, she criticized the PT’s alleged discourse of “class conflict,” saying: “the problem with Brazil is not the elites, but the lack of them.”

The inclusion of the four minor candidates in last night’s debate also contributed to a wider than normal range of positions on social issues. Particularly notable was the contrast between Pastor Everaldo Pereira of the Social Christian Party, who devoted much of his time to condemning same-sex marriage (which Brazil’s Supreme Court legalized last year) and privatizing Petrobras, and the Green Party’s Eduardo Jorge, who proposed legalizing abortion and regulating the black market for illicit drugs. As the Brasil Post notes, the latter’s radical positions and somewhat rambling answers made him an instant favorite of social media users in the country, though polls show him with only one percent support.

News Briefs
  • Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s attempts to get lawmakers to approve a newly-reshuffled cabinet narrowly succeeded yesterday after Congress denied him a vote of confidence for the second time this year on Friday. According to the Wall Street Journal, opposition lawmakers had demanded that changes to private pensions be suspended, as well as the withdrawal of the administration’s support for Inter-American Human Rights Court Judge Diego Garcia Saya’s controversial bid for OAS Secretary General. The WSJ reports that the administration has suggested it will cede to the pension demand and “consider” backing off support for Garcia Sayan.
  • As mentioned in Monday’s briefing, today Uruguay’s Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) is slated to begin accepting applications from individuals to grow up to six marijuana plants per household. According to El Pais, the first to do so this morning was Juan Vaz, spokesman of the Association of Cannabis Studies (AECU) and a leading figure in the country’s marijuana legalization movement. The IRCCA has said it will review all applications and issue the first legal home-cultivation licenses within 30 days.
  • A new study released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) yesterday is calling into question the antipoverty gains made in Latin America over the last decade. According to the report, more than a third of Latin America’s population (38 percent) remain “vulnerable” to sliding back into poverty in the event of a financial or environmental crisis. As the BBC reports, the report also praised poverty reduction initiatives over the last decade in Peru and Bolivia, while noting that the level of poverty  increased in Guatemala by 6.8 percent and remained relatively stable during that time in Uruguay, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
  • In a column for The Guardian, UNDP Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean George Gray Molina asserts that new data published by the World Bank shows that the decline of inequality in the region is beginning to stagnate. Gray Molina offers three potential paths forward for regional governments interested in reversing this trend, though he acknowledges pessimistically that the most likely scenario will be a continuation of the current, faltering policies.  
  • While Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ambitious reforms to the energy and telecommunications sectors have made him popular among foreign investors, a new survey by the Pew Research Center suggests they have cost him support at home. The poll shows that the percentage of those who rate Peña Nieto’s influence negatively has risen nine points since 2013, to 47 percent, while those who rate it positively fell from 57 to 51 percent. As the L.A. Times reports, the most pronounced change in attitudes has to do with the economy; the number of those who disapprove of the president’s economic policies grew 14 points from last year, and now stands at 60 percent.
  • In Ecuador, six policemen accused of taking part in the September 2010 “coup attempt” against President Rafael Correa have been sentenced to 12 years in prison. As El Universo reports, they were convicted earlier this month of attempting to assassinate Correa.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has raised eyebrows for backing a proposal to move the country’s capital from Buenos Aires to Santiago del Estero, located some 700 miles northwest of the city. As La Nacion reports, the suggestion was first made by her party’s congressional leader in the lower house, Julian Dominguez.
  • A former top lieutenant for Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, who has admitted to killing hundreds for the Medellin Cartel, has been released from prison. John Jairo Velasquez, alias Popeye, was freed yesterday amid protests from several of his victims, as the AP reports.  Newspaper El Espectador has a collection of responses from 10 people who lost relatives to Popeye’s hit squad, many of whom question why he has not been re-charged after admitting to murders for which he has not yet been convicted.
  • The BBC has an in-depth report on the rise of private drug treatment centers in Guatemala, which largely operate outside official regulations. Because the Health Ministry has just one official tasked with monitoring them, the frequently Christian-oriented clinics often sweep individuals off the streets and detain them for indefinite lengths of time against their will. While held, they are frequently subjected to questionable or even abusive treatment, including beatings and forced labor. According to the report, there may be as many as 6,000 people held in these centers.
  • The Miami Herald offers an overview of the Panama Canal Authority’s efforts to trap and relocate animals in the area affected by the ongoing expansion of the canal, as well as to offset deforestation by planting new trees. Some 5,800 animals of different species -- mostly reptiles and mammals -- had been rescued as of June, and authorities say that for every hectare of vegetation cut, two hectares of trees will be planted in already protected areas.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Colombia’s ‘Peace Talk Hacker’ Points to Uribista Conspiracy

The hacker accused of attempting to sabotage Colombia’s peace process and cause President Juan Manuel Santos to lose his re-election bid in June has gone public, accusing allies of former President Alvaro Uribe of plotting against talks with FARC rebels.

When computer engineer Andres Sepulveda was arrested in May after videos surfaced of him meeting presidential candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga , he initially resisted claims that he was hired by the Zuluaga campaign to shake public faith in the Havana talks. He signed a document alleging that he was being pressured to admit to false evidence against Zuluaga, Uribe, and other members of Uribe’s Democratic Center party.

But in an extensive interview with Semana magazine, Sepulveda now says that he was compelled to sign this by Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez, an Uribe ally. Saying he has since been “abandoned” by Uribismo, Sepulveda has now turned entirely against his former employers. In the interview, he admits to illegally gathering information on the peace talks in Havana.

According to the hacker, the Zuluaga campaign explicitly gave him money to purchase sensitive data from a secret military intelligence post in Bogota that was monitoring the communications of the government negotiating team in Havana. The listening post, which was shut down in February after being discovered by public prosecutors, caused President Santos to speculate over “loose wheels” in the military plotting against the peace process.

Sepulveda claims that not only did Zuluaga’s campaign ask him to obtain the private communications of the FARC negotiators in Havana, they wanted him to dig up dirt on the Democratic Center’s political enemies. This included anyone who publicly supported the peace talks, like President Santos, Senators Ivan Cepeda and Juan Manuel Galan, and Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre.

As The Miami Herald reports, the news has struck a nerve in Colombia, with Santos calling for a full investigation into Sepulveda’s accusations, and Zuluaga and Uribe denying them wholeheartedly.

The allegations that military intelligence officers are actively colluding against the peace talks come at a particularly key moment for the peace process. The government is beginning to study the feasibility of a ceasefire, and needs the military command to be united on the issue.

Fortunately, so far things have been going well on this front. For the first time since negotiations began, a group of military leaders traveled to Havana on Friday to begin outlining a ceasefire with FARC commanders there.  Yesterday, the Defense Ministry announced that General Javier Florez, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces, would be leaving this position to head the ceasefire commission full time.

News Briefs
  • In his latest op-ed, Miami Herald syndicated columnist Andres Oppenheimer looks at the race for OAS Secretary General, which kicked off in July when Guatemala and Uruguay named their respective nominees to the position. Since then, Peruvian Inter-American Human Rights Court Judge Diego Garcia Sayan has signaled his interest in the job as well. Oppenheimer is critical of Uruguay’s Luis Almargo and Garcia Sayan, claiming they are “courting the votes of Venezuela and its ALBA bloc allies.” He argues that while the race is still too early and the South American candidates may yet prove their critics wrong, Guatemala’s Eduardo Stein is the best candidate to appear thus far. However, in doing so Oppenheimer minimizes Stein’s decision to sign a controversial a public letter condemning the genocide charges against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. Stein apparently claims the letter was “misinterpreted,”  and that it was really a call to investigate all human rights crimes.
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero reports on the impact that Brazil’s upended presidential race has had on financial markets in the country. As he notes, foreign investors and commercial interests are becoming increasingly critical of President Dilma Rousseff’s economic policies, even as her creation and expansion of social programs have made her largely popular among the country’s low-income citizens. Meanwhile, O Globo takes a look at the positions of the three main presidential candidates on security issues, noting that they all agree that the federal government should increase its role in citizen security. Rousseff, for her part, has even proposed a constitutional amendment that would redefine security as a federal issue rather than a state one, as it stands under current law.
  • After close to 40 hours of negotiations, judicial authorities in Brazil’s Parana state say they have reached an agreement with the hundreds of prisoners that took control of a penal facility there in a riot that left four dead. According to O Globo, some 800 inmates -- 75 percent of the prison’s population -- will be transferred to other prisons under the deal.
  • Ecuadorean press freedom advocacy group Fundamedios has accused President Rafael Correa of inciting violence against U.S.-based opposition journalist Emilio Palacio, who recently made allegations that the president secretly flew to New York on a private jet in April. In response to the claim, Correa said the report was false and asked supporters in his weekly address whether they wouldn’t like to “give [Palacio] some kicks,” as El Comercio reports. Fundamedios also noted that following Correa’s remark, official paper El Telegrafo issued a report accusing Palacio of lying and anonymous Twitter users made remarks about putting a price on his head.
  • BBC Mundo has an insightful report on the struggles of Mexican families who have lost children to U.S. Border Patrol officers, who often claim they are forced to open fire after the youths began throwing rocks at them. Despite efforts by the ACLU and others to prosecute officers for excessive use of force, U.S. courts have consistently ruled that the victims are not subject to U.S. law as they were killed on Mexican soil.
  • Mexican officials have announced plans to increase investment in the country’s rail lines and allow them to speed up, which they frame as part of an initiative to dissuade Central American migrants from riding on top of north-bound trains, the AP notes. Authorities also say they will increase surveillance along train routes, though they have not offered specifics on this plan.
  • In the latest instance of violence against media professionals in Honduras, on Saturday the owner of a television channel was gunned down in the eastern province of El Paraiso. As EFE notes, the country’s human rights office says 48 media workers and journalists have been killed in the country since 2003.
  • The government of Guatemala declared a state of emergency yesterday in 16 of its 22 provinces in response to one of the worst droughts in the country’s history. As La Prensa Libre reports, authorities say some 236,000 families are affected by the drought, and that it could fuel malnutrition and hunger in parts of the country towards the end of the year.
  • The Vatican has announced that its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Jozef Wesolowski, has lost his diplomatic immunity and may be tried there on charges that he sexually abused Dominican children. As the New York Times recently reported in a profile of the case, many Dominicans feel that the Vatican inappropriately shielded Wesolowski from criminal charges when it whisked him out of the country last year. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Mexico Launches Scaled-Down 'Gendarmerie' Police

Recent days have seen quite a bit of coverage of Mexico’s new gendarmerie in U.S. press, following the launch of the police force on Friday. In general, reception of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s initiative has been lukewarm at best.

Part of this, as the L.A. Times notes, has to do with the fact that it has been significantly pared down since Peña Nieto first proposed a 40,000-strong gendarmerie on the campaign trail in 2012. Instead of a massive force that would replace the involvement of the army and navy in providing citizen security, the newly inaugurated force has just 5,000 officers, and it constitutes a division of the Federal Police rather than an independent branch.

According to the Wall Street Journal, its downsizing was due in part to strong opposition from the military, which would have had to scale back operations considerably under the initial plan.

As it stands, the gendarmerie is slated to serve as a safeguard for commercial activity. The Washington Post reports that it will be used to protect rural commerce and key industries like mining and tourism. However, it’s worth noting that in Friday’s launch ceremony the president said the new police will also be deployed in urban as well as border areas, according to El Financiero. He also promised that the gendarmerie would be "absolutely respectful of human rights."

But despite these assurances, many skeptics aren’t convinced about the initiative’s usefulness. Both The Economist and The New York Times have particularly good rundowns of the main criticisms of the program, both of which quote Ernesto Lopez Portillo of security think tank Insyde, who likens the new police to “aspirin for a cancer.” In general, Lopez and other analysts argue that what is needed is a greater emphasis on improving law enforcement and judicial institutions, not simply adding more police to an already dysfunctional system.

Yet another criticism of the new police force was recently made by transparency advocacy group Fundar, which released a report on the initiative in July. While its authors applaud the Peña Nieto administration’s decision to keep the new force under civil authority, the report concludes that the gendarmerie operates under a strategic vision that “prioritizes eliminating the enemy over protecting the civilian population.” According to Fundar, the creation of the gendarmerie speaks to a chronic lack of prevention efforts and is ultimately an extension of militarized approaches of the past.

News Briefs
  • The government of Costa Rica has announced that it will open an investigation into the work of USAID contractor Creative Associates International, which used the country as a base to carry out secretive democracy promotion efforts in Cuba like the failed ZunZuneo initiative. Costa Rican intelligence chief Mariano Figueres told the Associated Press that the administration of Luis Guillermo Solis has found no record of government knowledge of the program, and that its only information comes from the AP’s own reporting.
  • On Saturday, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa announced that the government would begin legally recognizing same-sex couples in civil unions. However, as El Universo and the AFP note, the president was careful to stress that he “never offered to support” same-sex marriages, and does not see the law as a first step towards marriage equality.
  • Now that a military commission has been sent to dialogue with FARC rebels in Havana to outline a potential ceasefire, and a panel of experts has been chosen to analyze the impact and origins of the conflict, Colombia’s peace talks are in what the government considers a “decisive phase,”  Reuters reports. News site La Silla Vacia has a very helpful overview of the makeup of both of these commissions, ranking the 12 members of the so-called “Historical Commission” in terms of their left-right political leanings, and noting that the military’s ceasefire research team is heavy on intelligence figures.
  • Writing for Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Michael McCarthy explains how lawmakers in the country are gearing up for a battle over nominations to the CNE electoral authority ahead of 2015 elections. Because the ruling PSUV lacks the two-thirds majority needed in Congress to approve new CNE members, McCarthy suggests that the party might delay a vote on the issue to ensure that it benefits from the current, pro-government CNE in the legislative elections.
  • The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has a new president. Former Colombian leader Ernesto Samper has been elected to serve as the head of the regional body for the next two years, according to EFE.
  • Uruguay’s Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) has announced the beginning of the next stage of the country’s marijuana law: allowing individuals to legally register up to six marijuana plants per household. As EFE reports, the registration process will begin on Wednesday, and the IRCCA will review all applications and issue the first legal home-cultivation licenses in 30 days.
  • The New York Times profiles the reaction in the Dominican Republic to the defrocking and upcoming trial of the former Vatican ambassador to the country, Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski. While the case is the first time that the Vatican will hold a criminal trial for sexual abuse, the fact that Church officials helped Wesolowski avoid criminal prosecution in the Dominican Republic has sparked outrage there.
  • After a mass riot broke out in a prison in the southern Brazilian state of Parana yesterday, some 700 prisoners took control of the facility. O Globo reports that four individuals were killed and authorities are currently negotiating with inmates to improve prison conditions. Two of the victims were decapitated, as the BBC notes.
  • Over at InSight Crime, this author has an analysis of Rio de Janeiro’s “UPP Social” program, which was presented to the public in 2008 alongside the policing part of its pacification initiative. While extended occupation by military police was the stick, UPP Social was sold as the carrot, promising to establish a state presence in neglected urban areas. However, crime experts in Rio are largely critical of the program, and Mayor Eduardo Paes has recently changed its name to dissociate it from the police’s pacification strategy.
  • Argentina’s Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have successfully identified the 115th child who was taken from a Dirty War victim and adopted under a different name. The 37 year-old woman, it turns out, is the granddaughter of yet another of the founders of the organization, just weeks after Grandmothers President Estela de Carlotto was reunited with her long lost grandson.