Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Correa Critic Arrested on Libel Charges

Authorities in Ecuador have arrested a critic of President Rafael Correa on defamation charges, continuing the pattern of his government’s aggressive use of libel suits to target political opponents.

El Universo reports that yesterday morning police in Quito detained Dr. Carlos Figueroa, a former head of Ecuador's Federation of Medical Doctors who has been wanted since March. Along with opposition lawmaker Jose Clever Jimenez and journalist Fernando Alcibiades Villavicencio, Figueroa is accused of slandering Correa by filing a request with the attorney general to investigate the president’s handling of a police uprising in September 2010. In their petition, the three alleged that Correa perpetrated “crimes against humanity” by ordering security forces to raid a hospital where he was being held.

In 2012 a judge dismissed the case, and ruled that it was “malicious and reckless,” constituting defamation of Correa’s character. Following a lengthy court battle, in March of this year Ecuador’s National Court of Justice sentenced Figueroa to six months in prison, while Jimenez and Villavicencio received sentences of 18 months each. When the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested that Ecuador take precautionary measures to protect the rights of the accused, this was swiftly rejected by the government.

The three then went into hiding, briefly taking refuge in the Sarayaku indigenous community in the Amazon before leaving again when their presence heightened tensions between locals and security forces.

As the case has played out, Correa has been vocal about condemning the three, describing their actions as not only slander, but false testimony as well. In the last high-profile libel case pursued by the president, two of his critics in the press were saved from paying a multimillion dollar fine by a last-minute presidential pardon. But Correa has shown no inclination towards clemency in this instance, saying that forgiving Jimenez would amount to impunity.

On top of Correa’s anti-slander crusade, some in the country have pointed to the implementation of controversial media law passed last year as further proof that the government is unfairly targeting opponents. Press freedom advocacy group Fundamedios, for instance, has accused the media watchdog created under the law of ignoring and failing to remedy complaints about inaccurate coverage in state media, while disproportionately targeting private media outlets that publish content that is critical of the government.

News Briefs
  • As El Espectador reports, Colombia looks set to become the latest country in the hemisphere where lawmakers will debate legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. Semana features an interview with Senator Juan Manuel Galan of the Liberal Party, the sponsor of the initiative. While he is vague on specifics, Galan said that the goal of the legislation would be for the government to work with medical experts to determine the proper dosage and method of administration of medicinal pot. When asked about how patients could access the drug, Galan told the magazine it would be “up to the government to determine whether to permit home cultivation” of marijuana.
  • Meanwhile, public support for Uruguay’s marijuana initiative does not appear to be growing even as the government moves forward with its implementation. Leading pollster Cifra published a survey yesterday showing that two-thirds (64 percent)  of respondents are against marijuana regulation. This figure has been remarkably consistent, and stands at the same level as in December 2012, when President Jose Mujica temporarily placed the issue on hold to allow for greater public debate. The poll also found that 62 percent of Uruguayans believe the best course of action is to repeal the law, rather than wait to see its results.
  • In the wake of Peru’s passage of a controversial new environmental law, Cesar Gamboa of Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR) has a column in Project Syndicate arguing that the measure is a blow to Peru’s economic outlook as well as its environmental standards. He argues that law’s lifting of restrictions on mining operations in the country only deepens its dependence on the extractive industry, against Peru’s long-term national interests.
  • The New York Times profiles dissatisfaction with the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose reforms have been more popular abroad than at home.
  • The Miami Herald reports on a new Central Bank survey released yesterday which lowered the forecast for economic growth in the country, a sign that the odds of a post-World Cup boost for the economy are looking grim. But while the Herald frames this in the wake of last week’s Datafolha poll showing that President Dilma Rousseff could lose a second-round matchup in October elections, a new Ibope survey contradicts this, suggesting she would win a runoff by an eight-point margin, as O Globo reports. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

More on the Child Migrant Crisis

The past several days have seen the continued publication of solid commentary on the increase in the number of unaccompanied child migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, including some which challenges conventional wisdom on the topic.

The biggest story on the subject of late was published in the Washington Post over the weekend, which reported that some in the White House were long aware of the situation, but may have overlooked it as a “local” issue. According to the Post, officials in the Obama administration had received specific warnings about the dramatic increase in undocumented immigration as far back as 2012, two years before the president declared the issue a humanitarian crisis. While White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest lashed out at the report in a Monday press conference, criticizing its reliance on anonymous sources, Politico's Dylan Byers notes that Earnest’s remarks are ironic considering the administration’s own frequent use of anonymous sources to provide background briefings to the press.

Another thought-provoking analysis of the issue, from a Mexican perspective, comes from Animal Politico. The news site has a multimedia presentation on the causes of the immigration spike and the challenges that Central American migrants face along the journey northward. Interestingly, the report finds that gangs and migrant smugglers may not pose the biggest threats along the way after all. Animal Politico points to a 2013 survey conducted by a migrant shelter in Coahuila state, in which migrants identified Mexican Federal Police as the main exploiters of their situation.  Some 47 percent of those who had been extorted said Mexican police had demanded money from them, compared to just 16 and 8 percent who blamed Mexican criminal groups and Central American maras, respectively.

If this data holds across the country, it suggests U.S. pressure on Mexican police to crack down on immigration along the Guatemalan border has the potential to lead to even further exploitation and higher bribes being demanded.

Also noteworthy is an analysis of regional crime statistics by Central American Politics’ Mike Allison, who points out that violence can’t be the only contributing factor behind the increase in migration, as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras each saw their homicide rates drop over the past two years. Along similar lines, in an El Pais column Salvadoran political analyst (and former FMLN guerrilla) Joaquin Villalobos places the blame for Central American immigration squarely on economic factors, arguing that the Northern Triangle countries have economies that are uniquely exploitative, marked by wealthy elites who benefit at the expense of the majority. As proof, he points to the lack of migrants coming from “revolutionary Nicaragua, Keynesian Costa Rica and the Panama Torrijos founded by recovering the canal.”

News Briefs
  • Sunday’s New York Times featured an editorial excoriating Congressional Republicans for blocking immigration reform efforts. Noting the recent publication of a HuffPost/YouGov poll which found that 47 percent of U.S. respondents favor deporting immigrant children “as soon as possible”, the Times asserts that it is the duty of the Obama administration and lawmakers to “make the moral and legal case for compassionate action” in the face of such kneejerk nativism.
  • After being re-elected on Sunday as head of Bolivia’s largest federation of cocalero unions, in the Chapare region, President Evo Morales promised to expand legal recognition of coca crops in the country by supporting a new coca law “after the elections” in October, according to La Razon. The AP notes that one reform proposal would raise the legal limit on coca cultivation from around 30,000 acres to more than 49,000.
  • Two months after lawmakers in Mexico’s Puebla state passed a controversial new measure known as the “Bullet Law”-- which was criticized by human rights groups for allowing police to use deadly force against demonstrators deemed “violent” -- the law may soon be repealed. Milenio reports that Puebla governor Rafael Moreno Valle has sent a bill to the state legislature calling for the law to be struck from the books following the death of a 13 year-old child at a protest earlier this month, who was allegedly killed by a police bullet.  Lawmakers will take up debate over the issue tomorrow, according to Animal Politico.
  • Following the arrest of 19 activists in Rio de Janeiro the day before the closing game of the World Cup on July 13, O Globo obtained access to a police investigation which reportedly found proof that the accused were planning on using explosive devices in violent protest against police. After a court ordered their preventative detention, yesterday three Rio activists sought diplomatic asylum in the city’s Uruguayan consulate, but El Pais reports that the individuals since left the building.
  • The Associated Press looks at Haitian President Michel Martelly’s proposed plans to renovate a section of downtown Port-au-Prince, which is being billed as a sign of a comeback in the capital city but is under fire for displacing local residents.
  • Colombian Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez’s lawyers staved off what appeared to be his imminent dismissal last week by demanding the recusal of two magistrates of a lower section of the Council of State, the top Colombian administrative court. The case was then passed on to the full floor of the Council, which is set to decide on the recusals today. While human rights NGO Dejusticia has also called for the recusal of certain judges affiliated with Ordoñez in the full Council, the ensuing legal struggle could last months, and ultimately makes his dismissal unlikely,  Semana magazine reports.
  • In recent weeks, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has been heavily lobbying in support of a package of constitutional reforms presented by his Alianza PAIS party currently under review by the Constitutional Court. They include a number of controversial proposals, including ending term limits for all elected officials and increasing the role of the military in public security.  Writing for Ecuadorean political and cultural commentary site, constitutional expert Ramiro Avila Santamaria has a compilation of some of Correa’s main arguments in favor of the reforms. Avila then responds to each one from a legal perspective, highlighting the potential for the changes to undermine judicial independence, freedom of the press and constitutional constraints on presidential power.
  • After a lengthy court battle in Chile ended last week with a cancer patient obtaining legal access to cannabis-based drug known as Sativex, La Tercera notes that the development has raised expectations among some reform advocates that a change is brewing in the country’s drug policy, at least as it applies to marijuana. As BBC Mundo reports, current Chilean law classifies marijuana as a “list 1” substance, on the same level as opium, heroin and cocaine.
  • The trial against jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on charges of inciting violence is set to restart tomorrow, and he appears to have launched a press offensive in anticipation. Ahead of the trial, Lopez penned a letter published in Grupo de Diarios America papers on Sunday in which he attacked the Maduro government as “corrupt, inefficient, repressive and antidemocratic.” Lilian Tintori, his wife, wrote an op-ed of her own in the Washington Post, calling the charges against him and other alleged political prisoners as a mockery of justice and due process.
  • The body of Honduran TV reporter Herlyn Espinal was found on Monday in the violence-plagued city of San Pedro Sula, one day after he went missing. The national human rights commission notes that Espinal is the 37th journalist killed in the country in the last decade, but La Prensa reports that Security Minister Arturo Corrales told reporters that police do not believe the crime was related to his profession.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Colombia’s Santos Seeks to End Re-Election

In a speech before Colombia’s newly-inaugurated Congress yesterday, President Juan Manuel Santos called for lawmakers to become a “Congress of peace,” and to “legislate for a new, post-conflict nation,” El Espectador reports.

Of course, one of the biggest obstacles to this is the right-wing opposition led by Santos’ former boss, ex-President Alvaro Uribe. While Santos’ coalition holds a majority in both houses, Uribe’s position gives him a greater platform from which to attack the peace process. In an insightful analysis of how Uribe’s arrival to Congress will change the political landscape in Colombia, La Silla Vacia notes that the new legislative term marks the first time in recent history when the country’s right wing has found itself in the opposition minority. As a result of Uribe’s heightened profile, the news site argues that the legislature will take on new importance as a political battleground.

Aside from Santos’ message of peace, the president renewed his support for another initiative with important consequences for Colombia’s democratic development: ending presidential re-election.

Echoing statements he made on the campaign trail in recent months, Santos promised to present a bill to reverse a 2004 constitutional amendment that paved the way for Uribe to seek reelection in 2006. As BBC Mundo reports, the president said the measure would abolish re-election, but extend the presidential term to “five or six years.” Because the reforms would not take effect until he leaves office in 2018, Santos would not benefit from them and will end his current term after the normal four-year period.

If passed, Santos’ proposal would amount to a rare curb on executive power in a region where leaders like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales are flirting with indefinite re-election. And by extending the presidential term by one or years, the measure deflects criticism from those who say ending re-election would limit the ability of presidents to implement meaningful policies.

News Briefs
  • On Friday, the Associated Press published an investigation by Caracas-based correspondent Hannah Dreier on the impact that Venezuela’s 2010 ban on foreign funding has had on NGOs in the country. While the existence of fines as high as double the amount of received donations intimidate many civil society activists, Dreier finds that the Venezuelan government is either unable or unwilling to enforce the ban. Last year, the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy together provided $7.6 million to support Venezuelan civil society groups, 15 percent more than in 2009.
  • Nearly three decades after the height of the Contra War, the specter of political violence is again rearing its head in Nicaragua. In the north of the country on Sunday, unknown gunmen opened fire on buses in which Sandinista supporters were returning from a rally in Managua celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. Five individuals were killed in the attacks, and 19 were injured, according to La Prensa. Police reportedly have four suspects in custody. While authorities have chalked up the violence to the work of common criminals, Fusion notes that a shady neo-Contra group known as the “Armed Forces of National Salvation (FASN-EP)” has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Whether the FASN-EP represents a significant security threat remains to be seen, but the incident is the latest in a series of attacks that suggest Contra groups are rearming in the country, as InSight Crime has reported.
  • On Saturday, Folha’s Poder e Politica aired an interview with Jose Mujica, in which the Uruguayan president offered some typically off-the-cuff remarks about the state of Latin American relations, discussing the threat of Brazil being seen as a regional “imperialist,” and lamenting the “stagnation” of the Mercosur trading bloc.
  • In Mexico, public opinion is largely opposed to U.S. immigration policies and sympathetic to the plight of Central American migrants, making a crackdown on migration through the country largely unpopular. But the crisis along the U.S. -Mexico border has increased pressure on Mexican authorities to restrict the flow of migrants, and Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong has framed a new border deal with Guatemala as a step in that direction, The New York Times reports. U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that he will meet with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in the White House on Friday to discuss a regional approach to the issue.
  • The L.A. Times reports that dangers faced by undocumented immigrants do not stop north of the Texas-Mexico border, with the hostile arid landscape there proving fatal to more than 400 immigrants since 2009. The AP, meanwhile, has an interesting factbox showing the costs associated with smuggling migrants from Central America into the U.S., with a total price tag ranging from $5,000 to $10,000. Reuters notes that many of those deported to their countries of origin are faced with the difficult task of repaying loans to smugglers and criminal groups, risking death if they fail to pay up.
  • The director of a group home raided in Michoacan last week, in which hundreds of youths and adults were found living in deplorable conditions, was freed from police custody on Sunday without charges, the AP reports. In the aftermath of the raid a number of high-profile Mexicans, including former President Vicente Fox, leapt to her defense and supported her release.
  • In a column for Razon Publica, Colombian drug policy experts Juan Carlos Garzon and Julian Wilches write that Colombia has been “the victim of its own success” in terms of its security strategy in recent years. While large transnational criminal groups have found it much harder to operate in the country, an increase in domestic demand for drugs has accompanied the rise of smaller, local gangs.
  • On Thursday, Colombian negotiators and FARC rebels at peace talks in Havana released a joint communiqué outlining the method by which delegations of victims’ groups will be sent to weigh in on the peace process. Under the agreement, the first delegation will arrive in Havana on August 16th. Colombia conflict analyst Virginia Bouvier has a breakdown of the development, noting that it represents a “vote of confidence” from both the guerrillas and government in the role that the United Nations system in Colombia and a think tank affiliated with the National University have played in carving out a space for participation of civil society in the talks.
  • El Nuevo Herald has a long report on U.S.-Cuba cultural exchanges, noting the ways in which the program has been used by musicians and musical scenes to open spaces autonomous from official influence, which is especially the case with Cuban hip-hop.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Brazil’s Presidential Race Heats Up

Just days after the presidential campaign ahead of October's general election in Brazil formally kicked off, a new poll suggests President Dilma Rousseff could face a tighter race than expected.

According to a Datafolha survey released yesterday, support for the PT candidate is at 36 percent, a figure which has stayed roughly constant since April. The percentage of respondents backing her biggest rival, Aecio Neves of the PSDB, is unchanged compared to the last poll in early July, standing at 20 percent. The PSB’s Eduardo Campos is in a distant third, with 8 percent support.

While these numbers have not moved significantly, Datafolha’s past polling shows that the president’s advantage over Neves in a hypothetical second round matchup has shrunk drastically in recent months. In February she held a 27-point lead among respondents asked about their preferences in a second round vote, 54 to 27 percent. However, the most recent poll shows Dilma only four points ahead, with 44 compared to Neves’ 40 percent. This is within the survey’s margin of error, making the two statistically tied for the first time.

It’s important to note, however, that the Datafolha poll showed that the combined support for Neves, Campos and a half dozen lesser challengers totaled 36 percent, equal to the percentage in favor of Rousseff. For this reason, Folha is careful to point out that it remains unclear whether Rousseff will fail to obtain over 50 percent of votes and avoid a runoff.  Still, the president’s falling margin makes a runoff increasingly likely, as Reuters notes.

News Briefs
  • After the AP reported yesterday that Pentagon officials had relayed plans to transfer six Guantanamo Bay detainees to Uruguay to Congress, the news has been confirmed by the New York Times, which reports that the transfer was approved by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. According to the Washington Post, the men include four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian. One of the Syrians is reportedly behind a high-profile legal challenge to the military’s force-feeding of detainees.
  • Yesterday, Bolivia signed into law a bill authorizing children as young as 10 to work as long as they attend school and remain under parental supervision. It also sets the minimum age for legal work contracts at 12, though these children would also have to attend school in order for such contracts to be valid. The law’s supporters, including President Evo Morales and an association of organized working children, say it will help regulate an existing reality and minimize the potential for abuse. But its critics, like HRW’s Jo Becker, argue the government would be better off expanding conditional cash transfer programs in exchange for school attendance.
  • The Global Post has a profile of Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez, one of the leading proponents of the theory that the powerful Sinaloa Cartel has brokered deals with top officials in the Mexican government, including President Enrique Peña Nieto. Among Hernandez’s most inflammatory allegations is the assertion that former President Felipe Calderon’s decision to crack down on drug trafficking began as an effort to defend Sinaloa Cartel interests, and that his administration had direct contact with Sinaloa figures.
  • The L.A. Times reports on the raid on a shelter in the Mexican state of Michoacan earlier this week, in which nearly 500 children and 100 adults were rescued from appalling conditions. Although the shelter’s director, a 79 year-old woman known as Mama Rosa, has been accused of subjecting children to unhygienic living standards and abuse, a number of prominent Mexicans -- including former President Vicente Fox -- have come to her defense.
  • Semana has an update on the status of the Colombian peace talks in Havana, where FARC and government negotiators have turned to the issue of conflict victims. Both sides have issued a joint statement confirming that 15 delegates from the Mesa Nacional de Victimas, a national victims’ group coordinating body, will be sent to Havana on August 16. However, there remains a lack of consensus over the makeup of this first group and future delegations, as Reuters notes.
  • In an interview with CNN Español last night, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was asked about reports which emerged in November 2013 that the country had spent $8 million on the peace process in Havana at that point. While the president accepted the figure, he downplayed its significance, saying: “The resources invested there are minimal compared with the dividend that peace can bring us.” El Espectador notes that he also rejected claims that peace would mean total impunity for crimes committed by FARC guerrillas.
  • According to El Pais, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s plans to unveil new economic reforms earlier this week were unexpectedly delayed at the last minute, which the paper asserts is proof of an ideological dispute within the government.
  • El Nacional reports that on Sunday, members of Venezuela’s ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) will select delegates to the party’s national congress in Caracas on July 26-28. The paper points to the congress as a potential flash point for the emerging divisions within Chavismo, noting concerns about the PSUV’s internal procedures raised by prominent intellectuals of the Venezuelan left on
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that his government is seeking to reestablish a Cold War-era electronic surveillance station in Lourdes, Cuba, reports of which raised concerns that it could jeopardize the potential for further U.S. rapprochement with the island. In a statement published online yesterday, Putin said the listening post had been closed “in agreement with our Cuban friends,” and that there were no plans to renew its activities.
  • The Economist looks at the status of negotiations between holdout creditors and the government of Argentina, which have yet to make significant progress even as the country is two weeks away from default. While a last minute deal is still likely, the magazine describes the behavior of Argentine officials in recent weeks as “erratic.” 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Honduran President Wants a ‘Plan Colombia’ for Central America

In an interview with Mexican paper Excelsior on Monday, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez hinted that he believed his country deserved the kind of U.S. security aid programs implemented in Colombia and Mexico in recent years. Since floating this initial trial balloon, he has been much more direct.

At a forum on regional migration issues in Tegucigalpa yesterday, Hernandez called for a surge in aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, saying “one has to recognize that our countries can't do it alone.” From Reuters:
Honduran Foreign Minister Mireya Aguero told the conference efforts to step up security at the U.S. border were not working and that U.S. aid would be better spent in Central America. 
"It's much more practical for the United States to launch a mini-Marshall plan, as they did after World War Two, to create opportunities and really get to the root of the problem in Central American countries that is fueling migration," she said. 
Hernandez, who took office in January after pledging to crack down on crime, said U.S.-backed battles against cartels in Colombia and Mexico have pushed drug traffickers into Central America, increasing violence, which is causing the exodus. 
Yet he underlined the success of U.S. efforts in Colombia. 
"Today, for example, Plan Colombia is showing major success. It was worked on together, those generating demand for drugs in the north and those producing drugs in the south assumed joint responsibility and it was effective," he said.
According to El Heraldo and La Tribuna, a U.S. aid package was the first item of Hernandez’s four-point proposal to stem the northward flow of Central American migrants, and one of two which would require action by U.S. policymakers. The other is the adoption of a “clear” immigration policy in the United States, and a regional communication campaign to explain it to Central American residents (potentially like the one currently being funded by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol). Hernandez also proposed taking apart migrant smuggling routes and border "blind spots," and the implementation of a plan to re-settle deported migrants in their countries of origin.

For the moment, it does not seem that there is any political will in the United States for a major aid push in Central America. Of the $3.7 billion in funding that the Obama administration has requested to address the immigration crisis on the border, less than $300 million would go to address the root causes behind immigration in Central American countries. Rather than promising new aid, Reuters reports that Simon Henshaw, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, said international and regional development banks should take on the task of spurring development in the region.

News Briefs
  • Following up on yesterday’s post, it appears that Ecuadorean national drug agency CONSEP on Monday released updated regulations (.pdf) for the country’s reformed penal code which lay out four categories of drug possession, based on certain quantities for each substance and corresponding with sentences ranging from two months to 13 years.  Somewhat surprisingly, the new regulations are significantly tighter than the guidelines published by CONSEP last year, which recommended pressing no criminal charges against offenders caught with “minimal” quantities of illicit substances (e.g.  less than ten grams of marijuana, one gram of cocaine, or one-tenth a gram of heroin). While these guidelines still apply, under the new regulations those who possess minimal quantities could still face between two and six months in prison. Ultimately, it seems Ecuador’s 2008 constitutional reform which redefines drug use as a public health problem rather than a security issue is still far from being a reality on the ground.
  • On Tuesday, Mexican security forces in the southwestern state of Michoacan raided a shelter in the city of Zamora, freeing nearly 500 children and some adults from appalling conditions, including imprisonment as well as physical, sexual and psychological abuse. As the BBC reports, families of children housed in the shelter had long complained about conditions there, and Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam has announced an investigation into these allegations. Animal Politico points out that the case highlights a lack of government oversight over the work of such shelters around the country.
  • News site Plaza Publica reports on Guatemalan President Otto Perez’s approach to anti-mining protests in the country, which has essentially framed the mining opposition as a part of a national security strategy.
  • The upper house of Chile’s Congress voted on Tuesday to approve a tax reform measure, a pillar of President Michelle Bachelet’s campaign for office. The Wall Street Journal describes the 33-1 vote as “a return to a more traditional consensus approach in Chilean politics.”
  • An anonymous military source has confirmed to the AP that Pentagon officials have notified Congress of plans to transfer six Guantanamo Bay detainees to Uruguay. If the plan holds, Uruguay will become the first South American country to accept detainees from the U.S. military base.
  • NACLA has a good overview of the efforts by Uruguayan activists to fight a push from conservative sectors in the country to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16, a proposal that has considerable support in Uruguay and will be on the ballot in this October’s general election. This week brought good news for the “No a la baja” campaign, led by a coalition of Uruguayan human rights organizations. While past polls have consistently shown majority support -- ranging from 57 to 65 percent -- for the ballot initiative, a new survey suggests the campaign may be having an impact. A poll published this week by Factum shows that for the first time, public opinion over lowering the age of criminal responsibility is split nearly evenly: with the number of those firmly decided either in favor or against tied at 39 percent.
  • Writing for Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog, Juan Nagel offers a snapshot of the Venezuelan opposition. While recent weeks have seen a flurry of reporting regarding potential splits in the ruling United Socialist Party, Nagel paints a picture of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable that reveals just as many internal disputes, with the main dividing issue being whether or not to fuel street protests in a bid to oust President Nicolas Maduro.  
  • Following his visit to Haiti earlier in the week, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon traveled to the Dominican Republic yesterday, where he urged legislators to adopt a more comprehensive solution to last year’s ruling effectively denying citizenship to thousands of people of Haitian descent. While a law promising to resolve the legal status of those affected was passed in May, human rights advocates in the country say its impact will be limited. In his statement, Ban urged lawmakers to go further, saying doing so would require them to use their “compassion as human beings and as leaders of this country.” Both EFE and the AP note, however, that some lawmakers were indignant at his remarks, describing them as interference in the country’s internal affairs.
  • In exchange for Russia’s decision to forgive 90 percent of Cuba’s Cold War-era debt, officials in Havana have reportedly agreed to allow the re-opening of a Russian electronic surveillance post on the island. The New York Times reports that Russian lawmakers have confirmed the news, since issuing statements praising “what seemed to be a step by Russia toward re-establishing a military presence in Cuba.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why So Many Drug Arrests in Ecuador?

One year after Ecuador took a step towards decriminalizing drug possession, the number of people arrested on drug charges seems to have unexpectedly doubled.

Yesterday, Ecuador’s La Hora reported that police statistics show 4,116 individuals were arrested for small- and large-scale drug trafficking and related crimes in the first half of 2014, up from 2,937 arrests during the same period last year. Of these, 627 were minors, nearly double the 315 arrested in the first six months of 2013.

These figures should probably be taken with a grain of salt, as it is not entirely clear what the paper considers drug-related crimes (La Hora lumps carrying an illegal firearm along with drug sales, and vaguely refers to other “associated” offenses) and a chart accompanying the article appears to give contradictory numbers.

Still, accepting it at face value, the report is surprising. Little over a year ago, official drug agency CONSEP announced a change to its approach to drug possession, setting maximum quantities for illicit substances to be considered for individual consumption. The move was interpreted by regional and local press as a significant drug policy reform. But when Ecuadorean Attorney General Diego Garcia clarified that the changes were only intended as recommended guidelines, and would not be mandatory for judges, this received far less play in the media.

So while police officials told La Hora that the figures suggest an increase in youths becoming involved in drug trafficking, it’s worth questioning how many of these youths would be penalized at all under CONSEP’s revised guidelines.

Fortunately, the future for Ecuador’s drug policies is looking bright. In January 2014, lawmakers approved reforms to the country’s penal code meant to separate drug traffickers from small-time users. The changes will overturn the controversial Law 108, in place since 1991. As Coletta Youngers writes in the latest issue of NACLA’s Report on the Americas, the measure has become known as one of the harshest anti-drug laws in the region:
Law 108 does not distinguish the drug in question, the quantity of drug involved, or whether an alleged crime is violent or non-violent. All of those convicted of a trafficking offense are subjected to the same severe mandatory minimums of 12 years in prison. Furthermore, a drug trafficker can be indicted in multiple categories—for example, possession and transport—and thus the sentences can sum up to a maximum of 25 years. As the minimum sentence for homicide is 16 years, someone convicted for a low-level drug offense, like small-scale dealing, can end up with a higher sentence than a murderer.
Such draconian sentencing, combined with a policy approach that measured success in terms of how many individuals were jailed, has fueled alarming levels of overcrowding in Ecuador’s prisons.

The new penal code, which will establish more proportional sentences as low as two to six months for small-scale offenders, is still being implemented. As El Comercio reports, CONSEP’s recommendations were not automatically included in the new code, and the agency is currently preparing separate, more detailed guidelines based on the quantity in possession. According to Youngers, however, once in effect the reform could apply retroactively to thousands of prisoners in the country, potentially offering a major relief to its overburdened penal system.

News Briefs
  • Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Orosio Chong has appointed a new head of an independent agency to address immigration along the country’s southern border with Guatemala, El Universal reports.  The L.A. Times notes that the nominee, Humberto Mayans, is a PRI senator.
  • Guatemalan President Otto Perez told reporters yesterday that he and the presidents of Honduras and El Salvador are considering traveling to the United States to speak with Congressional leaders and President Barack Obama about the surge in unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • At the BRICS summit in Fortaleza yesterday, the governments of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa released a statement announcing the creation of the highly-anticipated BRICS bank, to be called the “New Development Bank.” Control of the new bank, which will receive an initial $100 billion in capital, was divided up among the members. As the Financial Times reports, the bank will be headquartered in Shanghai, China, and its first president will be from India. The first chair of the bank's board of directors will be Brazilian, and the head of the board of governors will be from Russia. El Universal reports that today the BRICS leaders are meeting with their counterparts from the UNASUR bloc in Brasilia.
  • With the World Cup over, authorities in Brazil are now turning their attention to preparing for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The Wall Street Journal reports on the preparations already underway, noting that the task may be even more challenging than laying the groundwork for the soccer tournament. The Washington Post, meanwhile, notes that officials are optimistic about the Olympics in the wake of the relatively successful World Cup.
  • This week’s issue of The Economist features an overview of insecurity and crime in Latin America, which it describes as the region’s biggest problem. While the magazine points to the drug trade and income inequality as factors behind the trend, it ultimately places blame on the lack of strong judicial institutions in Latin America, as well as a need for greater emphasis on community policing.
  • During a speech on Tuesday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced plans to move forward what he called a “fiscal revolution,” El Universal reports. According to the Miami Herald, the project will include an audit of every company that received dollars at preferential rates during the first half of the year, as well as a potential shakeup of his administration’s economic ministers.
  • In a column for El Espectador, Cesar Rodriguez Gaviria of Bogota-based NGO Dejusticia reflects on taboos regarding discussion of institutional racism in Colombia, drawing on recent remarks by Brazilian soccer star Neymar to compare it to persistent discrimination in neighboring Brazil.
  • The full chamber of Colombia’s highest administrative court will hear arguments in the case of Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez’s controversial and allegedly illegal re-election in 2012, instead of the smaller five-judge section set to rule on the case earlier this week.  As El Espectador reports, the development is good news for Ordoñez, as his ouster was virtually guaranteed in a ruling from the smaller section, and he is believed to have more allies in the full chamber.  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bolivia's Evo Morales Launches Re-Election Bid

Bolivian President Evo Morales has officially registered his candidacy for a third presidential run ahead of October 12 elections, despite a constitutional ban on more than two terms in office.

Morales’ bid was supported by a unanimous Constitutional Court ruling in 2013, which found that because the constitution was changed by a national referendum before he was re-elected in 2009, another five-year term in office would technically only be his second under the new charter.

While the opposition has criticized this decision as biased and unfounded, it remains sharply divided and unable to present a single unified candidate. As La Razon reports, Morales faces four challengers ahead of the October vote, with the most formidable being cement magnate Samuel Doria Medina of the centrist Unidad Nacional (UN) party, followed by Juan del Granado of the center-left Movimiento Sin Miedo (MSM).

The Associated Press points out that Doria Medina failed to win more than 10 percent of the vote in each of the previous three elections. However, an April Tal Cual poll suggested he had support of 14 percent of the electorate, compared to 38 percent for Morales (down from 46 points in January). What’s more, late last month Doria Medina gained the endorsement of Santa Cruz governor Ruben Costas, whose support from 9 percent of the electorate may boost the UN candidate’s chances significantly.

Ultimately, while Morales’ reelection is still the most likely outcome, Costas’ support means that the odds of the vote gong to a second round are growing, as The Economist’s Intelligence Unit has noted.

News Briefs
  • In the face of the surge in undocumented immigration of unaccompanied minors along the U.S.-Mexico border, Washington’s answer to the problem has focused on allocating more resources to speed up deportation proceedings.  In an interview with San Diego’s KPBS FM, however, Ev Meade of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute points to the overwhelming evidence that this plan will have no deterrent effect on immigration.
  • Today’s Wall Street Journal features a column by Middlebury College Professor David Stoll, who argues that immigration to the U.S. from Central America has a negative impact on the region, claiming that it breaks up family structures and that remittances fuel inflation in migrant-sending communities. And because living costs in the United States are so high, he asserts that those traveling north for family reunification are largely condemned to poverty, with youth facing “a high risk of being sucked into gangs” in the U.S.
  • In an interview with Mexican paper Excelsior yesterday, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez blamed the rise in child migrants on major U.S.-funded crackdowns on drug trafficking in Mexico and Colombia, which he argued have pushed traffickers into Central America. Reuters notes that he argued for a major U.S. security assistance program on the scale of those seen in these two countries.
  • United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Haiti yesterday to launch a new sanitation program meant to aid in the country’s fight against the cholera epidemic that has killed over 8,000 people since 2010. The Miami Herald reports that while he described his visit as “a necessary pilgrimage,” and previously discussed the UN’s “moral responsibility” to help eradicate cholera, he gave no apology or acknowledgement of the role that UN peacekeeping forces played in introducing the disease to the country.
  • The New York Times profiles the recent sale of Venezuela’s leading opposition-leaning newspaper El Universal to a mysterious Spanish company, which critics suspect of being a straw buyer for pro-government elements.
  • Over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde has translated Datanalisis pollster Luis Vicente Leon’s Sunday column in El Universal, in which he shows that U.S. sanctions are opposed by a majority of Venezuelans of all political stripes, and would only serve the interests of extremists on both the Chavista and opposition sides.
  • Paraguayan lawmakers have voted in favor of creating a new civilian intelligence agency,  ABC Digital reports.   InSight Crime notes that the measure, which is awaiting the approval of President Horacio Cartes, was supported by his predecessor Fernando Lugo, and is being billed as a step towards cracking down on Paraguay’s small but persistent EPP insurgency.
  • In the L.A Times, Robert Muggah uses the example of disappeared Rio de Janeiro bricklayer Amarildo de Souza to argue in favor of police around the world adopting body-mounted security cameras. Meanwhile, Brazil’s O Dia has a heartbreaking update on the Amarildo case. According to the paper, Amarildo’s widow has finally been found after going missing herself for ten days. Relatives say she had turned to alcohol to manage her severe depression, and was in a state of confusion, saying she was looking for her deceased husband.