Thursday, November 27, 2014

Charges Filed Against Yet Another Venezuelan Opposition Figure

Venezuela’s attorney general has announced that Maria Corina Machado will be charged in association with an alleged plot to kill President Nicolas Maduro, making her the latest opposition figure to face questionable and seemingly politically-motivated charges.

As El Nacional reports, yesterday the office of state prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz announced that Machado had been ordered to appear before authorities on December 3 to face charges “for alleged links with the assassination plan against the President of the Republic.” El Universal notes that six other well-known opposition figures have been linked to the case by prosecutors, including former UN Ambassador Diego Arria, ex-governor of Carabobo state Henrique Salas Römer and constitutional lawyer Gustavo Tarre Briceño.

The charges ostensibly stem from vague allegations first made in May by heavyweights in the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV). As “evidence” of a supposed coup plot, these officials presented private emails between the opposition figures featuring critical remarks about the Maduro administration. One of the messages highlighted by Chavista leaders featured Machado telling Tarre that current U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker had “reconfirmed his support and indicated new steps.” Yet despite the alarmist claims by government officials, there seemed to be little to no incriminating evidence in the emails.

For her part, Machado has consistently denied any wrongdoing and claims that these charges are retaliation for demanding that the leadership of the current National Electoral Council be replaced, a major issue ahead of the 2015 legislative elections.

Should the case move forward, it is hard to believe that it will not have repercussions for Venezuela’s image abroad. Machado has made a name for herself internationally as a leading critic of the Maduro government by speaking out against the loss of her legislative immunity before the Organization of American States (OAS) earlier this year. At the very least, a high-profile court case against Machado -- on top of the highly questionable trial against Leopoldo Lopez -- would add fuel to the growing calls in the U.S. for targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials.

And while U.S. President Barack Obama has been unwilling to expand sanctions in the past, he appears to have adjusted this position. Just last week Obama’s nominee for deputy secretary of state, Tony Blinken, plainly signaled a willingness to work with lawmakers by “moving forward with additional sanctions.”

News Briefs
  • As El Universal reports, today at mid-day Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is expected to announce a new security and justice reform proposal, which he and his administration have been touting in recent days as a plan to “prevent the tragic events of Iguala from repeating themselves.”  Scarce details about the proposal have been reported in the press, though the Mexican interior minister has said it will aim to address weaknesses in the rule of law, particularly at the municipal level.  In anticipation of Peña Nieto’s announcement, in recent weeks various civil society actors in Mexico have been lobbying for the proposal to include certain measures. El Economista reports that research and advocacy group Fundar is calling for the president to use this moment to commit to transparency and accountability  in order to renew public faith in the state. Another NGO, México Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD), has presented the administration with a “Strategic Plan to Combat Corruption and Impunity,” which stresses transparency as well as cracking down on corruption and implementing long-delayed judicial reforms.
  • Regardless of its content, Peña Nieto’s implementation of the plan is sure to be hindered by the growing corruption scandal that has tarnished his own image. Already under fire for his ties to a luxury home owned by a private contractor that has won lucrative contracts, Aristegui Noticias reports that Peña Nieto made use of another property belonging to the same company in 2012 when he was president-elect.
  • In a column for  Foreign Policy, John Ackerman argues that the U.S. government is “directly responsible” for the Ayotzinapa disappearances, largely because of its support of Peña Nieto's security strategy and failure to condemn corruption and human rights violations.
  • Ahead of the upcoming climate conference in Peru, the Brazilian government has announced that the rate of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest has fallen 18 percent from August 2013 to July 2014. However, O Globo’s Míriam Leitão points out that this figure is misleading, as a month-by-month breakdown shows that deforestation has sharply risen in the past six months.
  • The Associated Press has a must-read profile of the booming business of private security in Latin America, which has accompanied a rise in homicide and other violent crimes. The piece raises some excellent points on insecurity in the region, noting that the rise in “guards-for-hire” mostly offers increased protection to the wealthy and middle-class citizens who can afford them, “leaving the poor majority to fend for themselves in a region already suffering from world's worst income disparity.”
  • Also from the AP this morning is a look at the “rondas urbanas” in Cajamarca, Peru. These citizen patrols consist of whip-toting vigilantes who have been accused by human rights groups as acting as a kind of morality police, even though many locals view them favorably.  
  • Following the FARC’s release of two soldiers, the rebels are moving forward with the release of their three remaining captives in Choco province. El Espectador reports that President Juan Manuel Santos has confirmed that military operations in Choco have been suspended and that the release is being slated take place on Saturday.
  • Ecuador’s El Universo has an update on the constitutional reforms proposed by the ruling Alianza PAIS party, which would among other things pave the way for President Rafael Correa’s indefinite reelection. According to the paper, lawmakers are set to hold the first legislative debate on the reforms on Monday, December 1.
  • While the Venezuelan government has been accused of making little progress on recent allegations of human rights violations, it may be compensating for this by investigating abuses that occurred prior to the election of the late Hugo Chavez. Spanish news agency EFE reports that Attorney General Luisa Ortega has announced that a recently-created “Truth Commission” has opened up investigations into some 200 out of 72,000 cases of specific violations committed in the context of the state’s 1958-1999 persecution of left-wing groups. The commission’s creation has been largely praised, though some local groups like PROVEA have raised concerns about its selective investigations. For example, in October PROVEA noted that PSUV Congressman Roger Cordero Lara -- accused of taking part in a deadly bombing of a rebel camp in 1982 -- continues to enjoy legislative immunity from prosecution for the crime.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

FARC Release Captured Soldiers: 2 Down, 3 to Go

Colombia’s peace talk crisis cleared another hurdle yesterday as FARC guerrillas released two soldiers who had been taken as prisoners last month in the northern department of Arauca. The rebels have yet to release their three most controversial captives, a necessary precondition for negotiations to continue, but FARC leaders say they will likely be handed over by the coming weekend.

Semana reports that that the two were presented to an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team along the border with Venezuela. In addition to the head of the ICRC in Colombia, Christoph Harnisch, the team was accompanied by representatives of the Cuban and Norwegian governments, further illustrating the importance of their role as guarantor nations. According to El Espectador, the soldiers were then taken to a military hospital in Bogota where they were greeted by Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon.

While the release of the two soldiers is a positive development, the government has been clear that the Havana talks won’t resume until the FARC turn over General Ruben Dario Alzate and his two companions, who were captured in the department of Choco on November 16.  

Fortunately, all signs indicate the rebels are moving forward with the release, despite issuing a warning on Sunday that military operations in Choco could jeopardize the operation. In a press conference yesterday, the FARC negotiator known by the alias Pablo Catatumbo told journalists: “If all goes well, I think this weekend we will be able to say the general has returned home.” Ex-Senator Piedad Cordoba, who has helped facilitate FARC captive releases in the past, told El Colombiano that she had been told the release would take place either today or Thursday.

Even once the captives are freed and the talks resume, the toll of the recent weeks’ drama on the negotiating climate remains to be seen. President Juan Manuel Santos appears to be hopeful on this front, telling reporters that the release of the two soldiers shows the “maturity of the peace talks,” as Caracol Radio reports. However, FARC leader Timochenko has said that Santos “changed the rules of the game” by halting talks because of the general’s capture, and that moving forward the negotiations will have to take “diverse considerations” into account.

La Silla Vacia points out that while it is unclear what these new considerations may be, it is apparent that both sides’ faith in talks has been tested. Meanwhile, time is running out for both sides to put an eventual agreement to a vote, at least if they hope to hold it alongside 2015 regional elections.  As the news site has noted, a final accord would have to be signed by February 2015 in order for Congress to authorize holding a referendum in the October vote.

News Briefs
  • Building on previous statements by his interior minister, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto yesterday claimed to be preparing a plan to reform the rule of law in the country. As Reforma reports, the president said his plan would require a “collective effort” by lawmakers and society in general in order to “prevent the unfortunate events in Iguala from repeating themselves.”
  • Mexico’s main left-wing opposition party, the PRD, was dealt a major blow yesterday to its already tattered image in the wake of public criticism of the party’s ties to political corruption in Guerrero state. As El Universal reports, PRD founder Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas -- who has played an important elder statesman role over the years -- renounced his ties to the party, criticizing current leadership’s decisions on based on “short-sightedness, opportunism and complacency.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on a proposed Brazilian law which would change the way the country calculates its national budget, which critics see as an attempt by the Rousseff administration to get around missing its budget target for the year.
  • Folha de S. Paulo has an update on the case of Amarildo de Souza, the Rio de Janeiro bricklayer whose disappearance and murder set off mass protests last year. According to the paper, the government of Rio state has been ordered by a judge to pay Souza’s family for overdue pension funds, as well as to subsidize medical and psychological treatment for their ordeal.
  • InSight Crime features a highly informative analysis of Venezuela’s “colectivos,” or militant leftist groups with various functions and structures that have both worked and clashed with state agents. While the government of President Nicolas Maduro has a mixed relationship with these groups, the author notes that it is clear that they have enough political capital to make the administration avoid direct confrontation with them.
  • In another look at growing alternatives to traditional state power in Venezuela, the Washington Post reports on government-supported communes, an initiative that some critics say is meant to help undermine opposition-controlled local governments.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has returned to her regular duties, making her first public appearance yesterday after being hospitalized three weeks ago for a colon infection.
  • Wrapping up a two-day visit to Cuba, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo took the opportunity to remark yesterday that the government of Spain “would like to see a more rapid pace to the economic reforms” on the island, with a view towards allowing more private initiative and foreign investment.
  • In a recent New York Times op-ed, journalist Tina Rosenberg profiles the epidemiological  law enforcement strategy of Cali Mayor Rodrigo Guerrero, who used rigorous statistical analysis to support policies aimed at mportant homicide reductions in his city.
  • Also on Colombia, the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program has a new report out this week on the FARC’s ties to Colombia's illegal drug trade. While author John Otis finds that there is little evidence the guerrillas are involved in high-level international retail of cocaine, he notes that the group’s control over coca-growing areas and drug smuggling corridors make it “far more powerful and influential than any of the country’s more traditional drug trafficking organizations.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Peru Court Rejects Fujimori's Re-Sentencing Appeal

Despite concerns by civil society groups over the partiality of the judge involved, Peru’s Supreme Court has rejected a request by former President Alberto Fujimori’s defense team to amend his 25-year sentence for human rights abuses.

The petition was filed regarding Fujimori’s role in ordering the Grupo Colina death squad to carry out killings and kidnappings in 1991 and 1992. As previously noted, the former leader’s lawyers claimed that the court system contradicted itself by naming both Fujimori and his top advisor Vladimiro Montesinos as the masterminds of two death squad cases.

The selection of Judge Javier Villa Stein to preside over the case was initially questioned by human rights groups like APRODEH and IDL because of public statements he has made in support of Fujimori in the past, but these do not appear to have played a role in the decision. As El Comercio reports, the judge told reporters that he and others on the court “could be for or against [Fujimori’s sentence], but we cannot do anything other than what is established by the code of criminal procedure.” In his ruling, Villa Stein found that there was simply no legal ground on which to review the sentence.

The AFP points out that the ruling is the second blow to Fuijmori’s defense team in recent days, as on Friday a separate court found that he was ineligible to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest.

In an unexpected development, RPP reports that Fujimori’s lawyers have responded to the ruling by claiming that they plan to take his case to United Nations human rights organizations. William Castillo, the ex-leader’s defense attorney, reportedly told journalists that the Inter-American human rights system was not an option as it had shown a “political bias” against his client.

The news agency notes that IDL’s Carlos Rivera responded to the claim by pointing out that Chile’s Supreme Court granted Fujimori's extradition to Peru in 2007, proof that, in his words, “all over the world, it is possible to recognize serious civil rights violations like murder, kidnapping and disappearances.”

News Briefs
  • While there has been plenty of recent coverage on the millions who will benefit from U.S. President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration, the L.A. Times notes that many others outside the country will not, due to the aggressive deportation strategy adopted by the administration in recent years.
  • It seems Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto may seek to use the recent protests over the Ayotzinapa disappearances to push for reforms to the rule of law in the country after all. Milenio reports that Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong has told journalists that this week the president will make an “important announcement” regarding areas “where there is weakness of the Mexican State…particularly in the municipalities.”
  • Animal Politico brings more bad news regarding the state of Mexico’s investigations into human rights abuses: according to the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Center Prodh), only two cases of sexual torture have resulted in federal courts sentencing those responsible. The group is attempting to raise awareness of the practice, and especially of its use by law enforcement elements, in a new social media campaign called “Breaking the Silence.”
  • The protests following last night’s grand jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, have focused international attention on the issue of proper policing and crowd control tactics.  Reuters has a useful rundown of rules of engagement regarding the use of deadly force around the world, noting that officers in Venezuela and Mexico have a license to gradually escalate their responses based on the amount of violence employed by protesters.
  • As the investigation into Brazil’s Petrobras scandal deepens, O Globo reported yesterday that the energy giant announced yesterday that it had received a subpoena from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission requesting documents related to the inquiry.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that the Petrobras scandal has also raised questions about the involvement of the state company’s private partners, which include multinational construction companies that have won lucrative contracts ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
  • Salvadoran news site El Faro offers a sobering look at a 1974 handbook used by the Central American country’s National Guard to determine whether rural suspects apprehended by soldiers were “communists.” The manual suggested questioning detained individuals about their religious beliefs, their attitudes towards the United States, and their voting preferences in order to identify potential insurgents.
  • A court in El Salvador has ruled that former President Francisco Flores, accused of embezzling millions during his 1999-2004 presidency, can be held under house arrest due to health concerns. La Prensa Grafica reports, however, that the ruling has been appealed by prosecutors to a higher court. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Guatemala’s Supreme Court Judges Take the Bench

Despite allegations that backroom deals political interests played an overwhelming role in their nomination, the 13 judges who will serve on Guatemala’s Supreme Court for the next five years are set to take office today.

As mentioned in last Thursday’s post, the country’s Constitutional Court upheld the appointments of the Supreme Court and appellate judges in a 3-2 ruling. Nomada has extracts from the dissenting opinion in the case, which notes numerous conflicts of interests, the lack of clear standard to appoint candidates on merit, and the influence of favor-trading on the entire process.

For the civil society groups that supported a freeze on the nomination process over these irregularities, the decision represents a major blow to judicial independence. The Fundacion Myrna Mack, for instance, has issued a statement slamming the ruling as an attempt by the top Guatemalan judges to “ingratiate themselves with economic, political and military powers, with a view to consolidating conditions of impunity and protect the privileges of these powers.”

In spite of the defeat, the next step for anti-impunity advocates in the Central American country appears to be endorsing a proposal by the UN-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to hold a series of technical conferences to put together a clear agenda for judicial reform. As Prensa Libre has reported, the CICIG is preparing to release a new report this week on the state of the many reform efforts that have emerged since the end of Guatemala’s armed conflict in 1996.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the CICIG initiative will succeed where previous efforts have failed. The stakes are high, as this may ultimately be the anti-impunity commission’s last opportunity. Its current mandate set to expire in September 2015, and President Otto Perez Molina has made it clear that he has no intention of renewing the CICIG’s mandate, saying the 2012 extension would be its last.

News Briefs
  • This morning, the Peruvian Supreme Court’s Permanent Criminal Chamber is set to hear arguments on the merits of a petition submitted by imprisoned former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori to review his sentence. La Republica reports that the Legal Defense Institute (IDL) will be observing the proceedings, with IDL’s Carlos Rivera telling the paper that the case has no merit and is merely an attempt to “keep the ex-president in the public spotlight.”
  • Brazilian paper Folha de S.Paulo reported on Friday that President Dilma Rousseff will choose Treasury Secretary Joaquim Levy as her administration’s new finance minister. While the decision has not been confirmed, it could be interpreted as a nod to the government’s critics of its economic policies, and Levy’s nomination has already been attacked by figures in Rousseff’s Workers’ Party.
  • Today’s U.S. headlines feature several analyses of President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration last week from a Latin American perspective. The AP profiles the positive responses to the move from the governments of Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, though the latter is also cautioning its citizens that the order only applies to those who arrived before December 2009. The Washington Post reports on the hopeful reactions of Mexicans living along the U.S. border. The Pew Research Center meanwhile, has an interesting look at the demographic breakdown of the birth countries of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., noting that those born in Mexico will benefit the most from Obama’s plan, followed by Central Americans.
  • In a column for Mexican news site Animal Politico, Simon Hernandez Leon of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro Prodh) has a useful breakdown of the top ten “lessons learned” from the Ayotzinapa disappearances. Especially noteworthy is the author’s justification of the protest chant “it was the state,” noting that while the federal government did not order the disappearance of the 43 students, it certainly failed to protect them or investigate their disappearance in a timely manner.
  • Last week Mexico quietly updated the official statistics on disappearances in the country, and the new figures are not encouraging. This year alone more than 5,000 people have been disappeared or gone missing, making 2014 the worst year on record for the crime.
  • Uruguayan President Jose Mujica’s characteristically candid media strategy has gotten him into trouble. On Friday, Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica published an interview with Mujica in which he was asked about his opinion on Mexico’s security and rule of law crisis. The president responded by saying that the Ayotzinapa case “gives one the sense, seen from a distance, that this is a kind of failed state, in which public authorities have completely lost control.” The Mexican government did not take kindly to the remarks, and the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called on the Uruguayan ambassador to the country to explain them. Mujica, meanwhile, has gone into damage control mode. Late yesterday his office released a statement by him which said that countries suffering from drug violence, like Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, "are not, nor will be, these nations, innocuous or failed states."
  • It appears that Friday’s reports that the FARC prisoners would be released in 48 hours were misinformed. As Semana reports, the rebels announced yesterday that the release of General Ruben Dario Alzate and his two companions was being hindered by the military’s continued operations in the area where they were taken. The army has responded by announcing a freeze on all operations in Choco province. Officials say, however, that they have received the coordinates of the location of two captured soldiers in Arauca, and that their release is underway, according to El Espectador.
  • After a three-year investigation, a Chilean judge has condemned two former military officials to jail for the 1974 torture and death of President Michelle Bachelet’s father, Alberto Bachelet Martinez, who died while being held in military custody by the Pinochet regime.
  • Over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Rebecca Hanson looks at President Nicolas Maduro’s appointment of a federal commission to fight corruption within the country’s police force. So far the commission has echoed past proposals to improve police professionalization, and there is no guarantee these will be heeded by the government, but Hanson argues that the commission’s investigation of visible cases of police violence is a positive step forward.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Peña Nieto’s Selective Definition of ‘Bad Apples’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Colombia Clears a Hurdle in Peace Talk Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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