Friday, August 1, 2014

Report Points to Holes in Ecuador’s Judicial Independence

A new report on Ecuador’s judiciary published by three civil society groups in the region is making waves in the South American country.

The report, “Judicial Independence in Ecuador's Judicial Reform Process” (Spanish, .pdf file), was authored by Peruvian jurist Luis Pasara. It was released this week by the Washington-based Due Process of Law Foundation, Colombia’s Dejusticia, and the Legal Defense Institute (IDL) of Peru. It takes an in-depth look at the effect of judicial reforms in Ecuador, which were ratified by a 2011 national referendum.

Pasara focuses on twelve recent cases in which opponents of President Rafael Correa; indigenous, environmental and student activists; and opposition journalists have been found guilty of disproportionate charges including defamation, sabotage, disturbing public order and even terrorism. Some of these, like the libel case against the directors of El Universo, were reported in international media and are relatively high-profile. Others, like the August 2013 conviction of three indigenous community leaders of “organized terrorism” following a 2009 anti-mining protest in which protesters clashed with police and one individual was killed, are less well-known outside Ecuador.

On top of the politicization apparent in these rulings, the researcher also points to evidence that judges who do not conform to the Correa administration’s preferences have been sacked. When the 2011 reforms were approved, they paved way for the creation of a new Judicial Council tasked with appointing judges and overseeing disciplinary proceedings in the court system. Based on a sample of 42 such disciplinary cases, the report determines that most of them involved allegations that judges committed “inexcusable errors” in their decisions.

In effect, Pasara argues, this amounted to removal of judges not because they applied laws incorrectly, but simply because the Judicial Council disagreed with their decisions.

The report’s publication was picked up by local (see El Comercio, La Hora) and international (Colombia’s El Espectador, Spain’s El Pais) press. El Pais also follows up on it today with a critical look at the selection process for Supreme Court justices in the country, noting concerns that a shift from lifetime appointments to nine-year terms could pave the way for undue executive influence on the court.

Pasara's findings have also struck a nerve in Ecuador. As El Comercio reports, yesterday Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Ramirez released a statement claiming that Pasara's selection of sample cases was biased, and responded to “political-media criteria” rather than judicial principles. According to El Universo, Judicial Council President Gustavo Jalkh has lashed out at the report as well, accusing its sponsors of having hidden motives.

News Briefs
  • President Cristina Fernandez yesterday gave her first remarks in the wake of the July 30 deadline for Argentina and holdouts to make a deal on payments. Noting that officials had attempted to transfer payments to holders of restructured bonds but were prevented by the effects of a U.S. court ruling, the president insisted that Argentina is not technically in default. As the L.A. Times reports, this statement was echoed by cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich, who also said that the government was considering taking its holdout battle to the International Court of Justice at the Hague or the United Nations.
  • Mexico’s Animal Politico looks at a new law passed by state lawmakers in Sinaloa that severely restricts reporting on insecurity and crime. In addition to banning officials from speaking to the press without permission of state prosecutors, the law prevents journalists from photographing or recording crime scenes, a “direct violation of the right to information,” the news site argues.
  • The Cuban government appears to be getting off relatively easy in the U.S. for violating an international embargo on weapons transfer to North Korea last year, the Miami Herald reports. On Wednesday the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned two North Korean companies and various cargo ships linked to the discovery of Cuban weapons bound for the country in the Panama Canal last year, but barely mentioned Cuba’s role in the incident. According to the Herald, “a knowledgeable Washington official” hinted that authorities felt that the current U.S. embargo against Cuba was sufficient and that further sanctions would be redundant.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are due to meet today in Cartagena. As Semana magazine reports, one of the top issues on the agenda will likely be the thriving trade in subsidized Venezuelan fuel and food along the Colombian border, which is contributing to scarcity of goods in the area. EFE notes that the meeting comes just as Santos has announced a cabinet shuffle in which ex-Senator Juan Fernando Cristo was named as his new interior minister.
  • One day after the head of Venezuela’s opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, resigned, his second-in-command Ramon Jose Medina has stepped down as well.  Live Aveledo, Medina came under criticism from elements of the MUD recently, after he insinuated that jailed opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez brought his imprisonment on himself.
  • Today’s New York Times reports on Knights Templar cartel kingpin Servando Gomez, and his penchant for taunting officials in online videos and making media appearances. The NYT notes that the latest video of him posted online, which shows him meeting with the son of a former governor of Michoacan, raises questions about his connection with the political class in the state.
  • The Agence France-Presse looks at Uruguay’s innovative approach to its strict anti-tobacco legislation, which is fueling an ongoing David and Goliath-type battle against Phillip Morris in a World Bank tribunal.  As the AFP notes, one of the signature initiatives of the 2006 anti-smoking law has been the launch of a Health Ministry program which hires former tobacco industry workers as to monitor compliance with the measure.
  • The BBC reports that the top Guatemalan immigration official, Alejandra Gordillo, has announced that U.S., Mexican and Guatemalan authorities have reached an agreement to establish more checkpoints in southern Mexico to prevent migrants from hitching a ride north on the dangerous freight train known as “La Bestia.” 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Argentina in Default

After talks between Argentine officials and bondholders in New York failed yesterday, Argentina appears to have gone into default for the second time in 13 years.

La Nacion reports that Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, speaking to reporters at the Argentine consulate in New York late last night, confirmed that last minute attempts to strike a deal had been scrapped. Shortly before his announcement, Standard & Poor’s declared Argentina to be in “selective default.”

Fortunately for Argentines, current conditions are very different from the 2001 default. While the country has experienced a decline in growth and is battling high inflation, its economy is far stronger than it was 13 years ago and the debt represents a much lower percentage of its GDP (7 percent vs 40 percent in 2001, according to economists cited in the Christian Science Monitor). In his remarks, Kicillof urged the country to keep calm, emphasizing that “tomorrow will be another day and the world will keep turning.”

As Bloomberg Businessweek points out, technically Standard & Poor’s new rating gives holders of restructured bonds the right to demand full repayment immediately, but this is unlikely to happen.

The main winners from Argentina’s default are investors who hold so-called credit default swaps, which act as a kind of insurance and provide payment in the event of a default. BBC Mundo notes that many in Argentina suspect that the holdout “vulture funds” that have been battling the country in court over the past several years stand to gain considerable profits from these deals.

The Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a Buenos Aires-based civil society group that has framed Argentina’s position against the holdouts as one based on established international human rights norms, has continued to press its case. In a letter signed by one hundred human rights organizations worldwide and released yesterday, the group argues that the holdout battle is an “expression of the injustice inherent in the global financial system.” The fact that the UN is currently drafting a set of new Sustainable Development Goals to follow up the Millennium Development Goals, CELS asserts, provides an opportunity “to promote the creation of a mechanism[ …] to resolve unsustainable debt scenarios in line with human rights principles.”

Meanwhile, there is still hope that Argentina and its debt-holders can make an arrangement through intermediaries. The Wall Street Journal reports that Kicillof hinted that a so-called “private sector solution” remains on the table, which would involve Argentine bankers giving a $250 million guarantee to the holdouts. These in turn would have an incentive to ask a U.S. judge for a stay in the enforcement of Argentina’s debt obligations until the end of the year.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday, El Salvador became the fifth country in Latin America to recall its ambassador to Israel for consultation, joining Ecuador, Brazil, Chile and Peru. Haaretz reports that Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor described the decisions of these countries as “encouragement for Hamas,” saying: “Israel expects countries that oppose terrorism to act responsibly and not to hand terrorists a prize.” Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who already broke off diplomatic relations with Israel alongside Venezuela in 2009, announced yesterday that Bolivian border officials would henceforth require Israelis to first obtain a visa to enter the country.
  • Following Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ warning that the FARC are “playing with fire” by continuing infrastructure attacks and may jeopardize the future of the peace process, a senior rebel negotiator responded directly in an interview with The Guardian. According to the FARC’s Marco Leon Calarcá: “[T]hey're playing with fire when they try to eliminate our leaders with bombings. That could make us leave the table, because it would be clear they had no political will to reach agreement.”
  • La Silla Vacia has an analysis of Santos’ recent shift in tone, which comes just as negotiators are at their most tense moment and both sides are tackling the controversial issue of responsibility for abuses. As the news site notes, the peace talks in South Africa and Northern Ireland saw similar escalations at this point as well.
  • As noted in yesterday’s post, the Brazilian Forum on Public Security released a new poll on police attitudes towards reform and best practices in law enforcement in the country, “The Opinions of Brazilian Police on Reform and Modernization of Public Safety,” (.pdf). Out of the 21,000 officers of the various police forces in the country that responded to the survey, roughly half supported the creation of a new, civil police force to replace Brazil’s state-level military police, as O Globo reports. As UOL notes, the poll found that 76.1 percent of military police officers support the demilitarization of their branch. Speaking at the forum’s annual meeting in São Paulo yesterday, Brazilian Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo admitted that there has been a shortage of resources for citizen security efforts in the country. But according to Estadão, he described as part of a larger scarcity of resources “for every issue.” El Pais reports that Cardozo also claimed that the Rousseff government plans to keep in place a federal/state/local police integration strategy adopted during the World Cup.
  • Two letters from Human Rights Watch to Brazilian lawmakers and São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin this week have focused attention on torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners and individuals in police custody in the country and in São Paulo state. HRW documented 64 cases of alleged abuses since 2010 nationwide, 40 of which amounted to torture, as O Globo and the AP report. As a remedy, the group urges senators to pass a proposal that would require suspects to appear before a judge within 24 hours of their arrest, allowing them to report abuses against them and deter a reliance on confessions obtained through torture. In response to HRW’s concerns about impunity for extrajudicial executions in São Paulo, Folha de S. Paulo reports that the state government released a statement saying: “All complaints are thoroughly investigated, and if irregularities are proven, those responsible face civil and criminal penalties.”
  • The AP reports on a funeral service held in Guatemala on Wednesday for 31 Ixil Mayans killed in a massacre in Quiche province in 1982, the perpetrators of which have never been prosecuted.
  • Reuters takes a look at a bill passed earlier this month which aims to make it easier to track aid money in Haiti, and also calls on the U.S. to hire more local contractors. It is currently awaiting president Obama’s approval.
  • While Uruguay has been praised internationally for its progress on marriage equality, marijuana regulation and abortion decriminalization, it still has some important shortcomings when it comes to human rights. Writing for Foreign Policy, Debbie Sharnak has a good overview of these, which include historic marginalization of Afro-Uruguayans, last year’s Supreme Court decision which effectively reinstated amnesty for dictatorship-era abuses, and an upcoming ballot initiative to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16, which is widely popular. Not included, but worth mentioning, is a forced drug treatment bill that passed in the Senate last year and is being debated in the lower house. As I have pointed out, forced treatment is both ineffective and in violation of human rights norms, and ultimately shows Uruguay has work to do yet on drug policy.
  • Police in El Salvador arrested a Spanish Roman Catholic priest yesterday on charges that he colluded with gang members to smuggle cell phones and drugs, and get them favorable treatment in prison. Another priest in his parish has said that the arrest is reprisal for his work involving mediation of gang conflicts. Also arrested as part of the same investigation were 12 police officers, two judges, three court employees, according to the AP. News site El Faro reports that another suspect detained by officials is an alleged member of the Perrones drug trafficking network.
  • Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, secretary of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition in Venezuela, announced yesterday that he was stepping down from his post. In his resignation letter, Guillermo made a veiled swipe at his critics in the MUD, saying he had fallen victim to a government plot that had been “lustfully embraced” by senseless elements. As the AP notes, his decision to enter into UNASUR-mediated talks with the government in April was attacked by many in the opposition.
  • The U.S. State Department yesterday announced that it had imposed travel restrictions on U.S. travel for “a number of Venezuelan government officials” linked to human rights abuses in the crackdown of anti-government protests earlier this year. Reuters reports that State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said authorities were refraining from identifying the individuals publicly due to visa record confidentiality restrictions.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Santos to FARC: Attacks Could Derail Peace Process

After winning re-election on a platform to continue peace talks with the FARC, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has shifted his tone somewhat, warning the rebels that continued attacks on infrastructure could end the peace process altogether.

Speaking at a sugar industry event yesterday, the president gave one of his strongest condemnations of armed FARC actions during the peace process. Referring to attacks like the recent destruction of electric pylons that left the Pacific port city of Buenaventura without power, Santos said such incidents were “demented.” He also claimed the guerrillas were ultimately “digging their own political grave because this is exactly what makes people reject them.”

According to a statement released by the administration, Santos continued: “This is what we’re telling them:  If you keep this up, you are playing with fire and this process can end; because we can’t stay in this situation indefinitely, as the Colombian public is confused and doesn’t understand.”

It’s worth noting that while Santos has criticized FARC attacks during the peace process before -- even as he refused their offer of a bilateral ceasefire -- this is the first time in recent months that he has described them as a potential deal-breaker.  

Following a December bomb attack on a police station in Cauca that left nine dead, Santos condemned the violence and promised to continue the military offensive against the FARC.  A month later, in response to a bombing of a public plaza in a town near Cali that killed one and left over 40 wounded, Santos called the incident “an act of infinite stupidity,” and  “irrational and contradictory” on the part of the FARC.  In April, he warned the rebels that their destruction of highways and bridges in Cauca was lowering public faith in the peace process. But in none of these cases did he explicitly put the future of talks on the line.

Bogota-based newspaper El Tiempo today calls Santos’ remark “one of the harshest statements yet about the future of the negotiating table in Havana,” and points out that it was made as both the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups appear to have stepped up attacks on infrastructure targets in recent months. Semana magazine cites Vicente Torrijos, a political analyst at Bogota's Rosario University, who described the president’s words as a reaction to rebels’ apparent attempt to put pressure on the peace process by escalated attacks. Reuters notes that the statement comes in the wake of his election contest against Uribista challenger Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, whose popularity “showed the strength of skepticism about the peace talks.”

News Briefs
  • Argentina has until midnight (Eastern Standard Time) tonight to avoid going into default for the second time in 13 years and the eighth time in its history. The Wall Street Journal reports that an Argentine bankers association has presented a last-minute proposal to fend off default, and La Nacion notes that Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof has said that negotiations with bondholders will continue today. In a column for Medium, Felix Salmon has a critique of mainstream reporting on Argentina’s debt negotiations, providing a look at the calculus behind Argentine officials’ approach to the issue. As he notes, both the political and economic cost of a default for the government is relatively low, especially compared to the last default in 2001.
  • Brazilian news site R7 reports on a new survey to be published today by the Brazilian Forum on Public Security (Forum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública), showing 73.7% of Brazilian police officers support the demilitarization of the Military Police, the state police forces. The poll, which collected responses from 21,000 police, also found that 93.6% identified corruption as one of the main obstacles to their job efficiency, and 99.1% complained of low wages. For a good discussion of the importance of reform and demilitarization of Brazil’s police, see this February NYT column by Vanessa Barbara.
  • Many of the region’s heads of state arrived in Caracas yesterday for the 46th Mercosur Summit, in which Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez will take over the bloc’s rotating presidency from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. As La Nacion reports, the two day meeting is the first summit with a Paraguayan leader present since the country was suspended following the ouster of President Fernando Lugo in 2012. EFE notes that the heads of states present offered support for Argentina’s holdout battle. According to El Observador, Uruguay’s Jose Mujica offered a critical take on the summit in his address to participants, questioning the utility of the bloc’s frequent meetings. Calling for more fruitful dialogue, Mujica said that if the region’s presidents had nothing significant to negotiate, they should just “talk on the phone.”
  • WBEZ Radio has a good interview with Frank Bajak, head of Andean News for the AP, who discusses Peru’s recent controversial environmental reforms and their consequences. He notes that a new law passed last month restricts the Environmental Ministry’s jurisdiction to set water, air and soil standards, as well as ability to set aside nature reserves.
  • Reuters reports on the latest manifestation of extreme devotion to Hugo Chavez -- what Hugo Perez Hernaiz and David Smilde have called a “civil religion” -- in Venezuela by some of his supporters: a new type font, based on the deceased leader’s own handwriting.
  • For Animal Politico, Ernesto Lopez Portillo Vargas of Mexican security policy research group InSyde has an overview of Mexico’s response to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s recent decision to send National Guard troops to the state’s southern border. While Perry has described the move as sending of a “powerful message”  to dissuade undocumented immigration, the order was criticized by Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretariat, which sent a note of protest to Washington.
  • InSight Crime’s Patrick Corcoran has a write-up of the main findings of a recent report by Mexican think tank Fundar, which concludes that Mexico’s newly launched gendarmerie police force operates under a strategic vision that prioritizes eliminating the enemy over protecting the civilian population, and is essentially an extension of militarized approaches of the past. Corcoran goes even further, arguing that the new force is simply “window dressing,” incorporating units and individuals from previously existing security institutions with no real change in focus.
  • Spanish news agency EFE reports on the efforts of "Hijos e Hijas por la Memoria," a Colombian organization of youths that have lost parents in the country’s armed conflict, and which is now calling on both the U.S. and Cuban governments to declassify intelligence documents related to their respective roles in the conflict.
  • The latest issue of Americas Quarterly features an analysis of the European Union’s improved ties with Cuba by the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ Sarah Stephens, who argues that it paves the way for the Obama administration to pursue similar engagement. The publication also features AQ’s third annual Social Inclusion Index of the hemisphere, which takes into account a broad range of factors including human development, women’s’ rights, insecurity and education. This year, the index has been tweaked to add indicators of access to justice and disability rights.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Corruption in El Salvador: Flores, Then Saca, Now Funes?

As president of El Salvador from June 2009 to the first of last month, Mauricio Funes made a point of exposing corruption under the two previous Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) administrations. Former President Franciso Flores is currently on the run from charges that he embezzled millions in Taiwanese aid money during his 1999-2004 presidency, and his successor Antonio Saca has been accused of money laundering and is widely seen as corrupt.

But recent reporting by Salvadoran news site El Faro suggests the first president from the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has some skeletons hiding in his own closet.

In May, El Faro published an investigation into Funes’ ties to wealthy private security magnate Miguel Melendez, a key donor to the ex-president’s 2009 campaign. Allegedly in return, Melendez received a series of generous government contracts, to the tune of at least $14.6 million during the course of the Funes administration. The news site also pointed to evidence that the president appointed a number of Melendez’s allies to key government posts, starting in late 2011.

What’s more, El Faro reported that Funes’ cozy relationship with Melendez went both ways, noting that the businessman obtained loans to construct properties for a woman rumored to be Funes’ lover, 25 year-old Ada Mitchell Guzman Siguenza, as well as her mother. The latter two also reportedly benefited from their proximity to Funes, obtaining cushy government contractor positions and -- in Ada Mitchell’s case -- a diplomatic passport.  

Despite El Faro’s bombshell, Funes neglected to give any explanation of the apparent favor-trading scheme. Until now.

Yesterday, the news site published an interview with the ex-president, in which he responded to the investigation. They also press him about the more than 80 trips abroad he made during his presidency, many of which were made on Melendez’s own plane or in his company.

The interview is worth reading in full, not only because it sheds further light onto the influence-peddling allegations against Funes, but also because El Faro’s Efren Lemus and Carlos Dada do a spectacular job of contradicting his defenses with documented evidence. One example: when Funes denies ever requesting a diplomatic passport for Guzman Siguenza, his interviewers cite the administrative log of the request, which is listed as coming from the administration directly.

News Briefs

  • Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes has found himself linked to corruption allegations, after Epoca and Veja magazines published audio and video suggesting that his former right-hand man, Congressman Rodrigo Bethlem, took part in a kickback scheme. In the footage, which was recorded by his estranged ex-wife, Bethlem admits to having a Swiss bank account and receiving under-the-table payments from an NGO which had received a city contract to operate a drug treatment center for addicts to crack cocaine. The revelation is especially damning in light of the fact that, as Julia Michaels of the Rio Real Blog notes, Bethlem was the primary architect of Rio de Janeiro’s controversial forced treatment initiative. Newspaper  O Globo reports that Paes has opened up an internal audit into the contracts overseen by Bethlem until his departure from the mayor’s office in April of this year. Meanwhile, the state public prosecutors’ office claims to already have evidence of irregularities committed by Bethlem and is currently looking into them, according to Veja.
  • After former Venezuelan military intelligence official General Hugo Carvajal was released back to Venezuelan custody on Sunday, a U.S. State Department spokesman issued a statement expressing concern regarding reports that Venezuela “threatened the governments of Aruba, the Netherlands, and others to obtain this result.” In remarks to the Wall Street Journal, Aruban top prosecutor Peter Blanken said Venezuelan authorities had threatened to cut off air links to Aruba and Curaçao, as well as to end a contract to manage a refinery in Curaçao. He also noted that Venezuelan navy ships neared the Dutch islands over the weekend, but Dutch officials say they were told this was part of a routine naval exercise, and maintain that the decision to release Carvajal was made on purely legal grounds.
  • The New York Times has more on the Carvajal saga, providing a detailed look at the charges filed against him by U.S. prosecutors. According to one of two federal indictments against him that were unsealed last week, Carvajal is implicated in coordinating a cocaine shipment from Venezuela to Mexico, which some analysts have taken to mean that he moved beyond merely accepting bribes from kingpins towards active involvement in the drug trade.
  • Buzzfeed has obtained internal Obama administration documents which show that U.S. officials expect international efforts to restrict access to “La Bestia,” the network of trains connecting Central America with the U.S. border, to be limited. This is largely because its associated dangers ensure that it is only used by 10 percent of undocumented immigrants according to the Department of Homeland Security.
  • The U.S. State Department published its latest annual report on freedom of religion worldwide on Monday. As the Miami Herald reports, it notes that the Cuban government continued to allow greater freedom of religion on the island last year, lifted restrictions on foreign religious workers and returning several church properties confiscated in the 1960s.
  • In a column for Colombia’s La Nacion, Senator and sponsor of a new bill to legalize medical marijuana in the country Juan Manuel Galan offers a sketch of his position on the matter, arguing that his proposal consists not of “importing a foreign model,” but of opening up a debate with Colombian policy experts over the best way of making it work there.
  • As the July 30 deadline for Argentina to make a repayment deal with holdout creditors draws nearer, Reuters reports that the Argentine government is meeting with the U.S. mediator in the case today in New York in the hope of reaching a last-minute agreement. Many analysts, however, believe the prospects of avoiding a default look dim.
  • Today’s Wall Street Journal features an overview of suspicions that Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband Nestor Kirchner abused their positions to increase their net worth, which rose from $2.5 million in 2003 to $17.7 million in 2010. As the WSJ notes, a prosecutor investigating ties between a construction magnate and the Kirchners alleged that the couple was laundering money via shell companies before he was suspended and placed under investigation himself.  
  • Under the attention-grabbing headline “Bolivian president seeks votes in the bedroom,” the AP highlights remarks made by President Evo Morales on his re-election campaign ahead of the October vote. On Sunday, Morales reached out to Bolivian couples, saying: “The couple decides its vote in bed, and before it decides it in bed, we have to reach those people, explaining our program.” According to the president his ticket is “the only one that guarantees economic and political stability.”

Monday, July 28, 2014

No Sign of Rebellion in Venezuela’s Ruling Party Congress

Despite indicators of growing dissatisfaction with President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela’s United Socialist Party (PSUV), he appears to have consolidated support among delegates at the party’s national congress.

When Maduro fired longtime planning minister Jorge Giordani last month, the dismissal angered some on the left in the PSUV, which in turn sparked a wave of speculation over a potential  split emerging in the party (See the AP and the Economist’s Intelligence Unit).  But at the PSUV’s third national congress, which kicked off on Saturday, no signs of this division have emerged.

As El Universal reports, one of the congress’s first moves was to elect Maduro the new head of the party, and to name the deceased Hugo Chavez its “eternal leader.” In his address to party delegates, the president made an apparent veiled reference to internal division between more moderate PSUV members and leftists. According to Ultimas Noticias, Maduro called on the party to organize itself against both “internal and external threats,” adding that the path forward was not through “dying leftism or sellout reformism.”

Reuters suggests that the main reasons for the lack of visible dissent at the PSUV Congress was low turnout in the election of delegates, and the fact that candidates supported by the Maduro administration had more resources to campaign.

Still, Venezuela analyst David Smilde suggests that the congress should not be interpreted as proof that Maduro has overcome opposition within his party. While he believes the government managed to “domesticate” the congress, Smilde told the news agency that Maduro will inevitably face problems when it attempts to implement economic reforms in the near future.

“They are going to sidestep the difficult questions. Then in August they will do what they have to. What they have in mind is slow change, like turning a big ship,” Smilde told Reuters.

News Briefs
  • After his detention in Aruba on Thursday, former Venezuelan military intelligence chief General Hugo Carvajal has been returned to Venezuela after a Dutch court ruled on Sunday that he was eligible for diplomatic immunity.  The Miami Herald and Wall Street Journal note that if Carvajal, who had been arrested at the request of U.S. authorities, had been extradited it may have led to revelations of high-level drug trafficking links within the Venezuelan government.
  • Following U.S. President Barack Obama’s meeting with three Central American presidents in the White House on Friday, all four leaders issued a joint statement pledging to “address the underlying causes of migration by reducing criminal activity and promoting greater social and economic opportunity.” But no new aid packages were announced, and the AP reports that Obama “played down” a proposed program that would make it easier for Hondurans to apply for refugee status from their home country. The New York Times notes that after the meeting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez echoed previous calls for the U.S. to recognize its own demand for drugs as a contributor to the spike in migration.
  • Recent days have seen continued publication of excellent op-eds on the surge in unaccompanied child migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.  In the Miami Herald, Jose Miguel Cruz argues that the root of the problem lies not only in the lack of immigration reform or the northward flow of drugs, but in the failure to build transparent and effective judicial institutions in Central America despite billions of dollars in international aid meant to strengthen citizen security there. In Politico, the Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter makes a similar point, arguing that Central American leaders need to be compelled to do more to improve the rule of law and tackle corruption. Saturday’s New York Times featured a column by El Paso county judge Veronica Escobar, who argues that the border “crisis” is myth, highlighting the work of local community organizations and charities in providing shelter and care to migrants in the U.S. southwest.
  • A new poll published by Bolivia’s Pagina Siete on Sunday shows President Evo Morales with a commanding lead over rival candidate and cement magnate Samuel Doria ahead of October elections, with 44.6 percent favoring the president compared to 19.8 percent for Doria.
  • On Thursday, a U.S. federal appeals court in Miami dismissed a mass lawsuit filed by Colombian conflict victims against Chiquita over allegations that the banana company colluded with the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) through a subsidiary in the northwest of the country. According to the AP, the judges ruled 2-1 that they lacked jurisdiction in the case as the alleged crimes occurred outside the U.S. InSight Crime notes that the case sets an important precedent, dealing a major blow to victims’ efforts to hold companies responsible for paying off illegal armed groups in Colombia.
  • Paraguay may become the next country to recognize the International Criminal Court (ICC). BBC Mundo reports that ICC President Sang Hyun Song met with Paraguayan Justice Minister Sheila Abed over the weekend to address potential changes to the country’s criminal code that would be necessary to ratify the Rome Statute, the Court’s founding document.  
  • Uruguayan National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada has announced that the next stage of the country’s marijuana regulation law, issuing licenses for individuals and collectives to grow cannabis plants, will begin in less than a month. According to El Pais, Calzada also gave further details about how authorities intend to keep tabs on licensed marijuana plots, saying that authorities will conduct site visits to ensure that growers possess only the correct number of plants (six plants per household, a maximum of 99 plants for 15-45 member “cannabis clubs”).  As La Republica reports, the government has also officially launched the beginning of a bidding process for those interested in growing the drug for commercial purposes.  The paper also notes that Calzada said officials will be monitoring the impact of the law in three stages:  two years after its implementation, then six years, then twelve years.
  • For the first time since 1996, the Brazilian government recently made significant contact with an isolated indigenous Amazon tribe along the border with Peru, the L.A. Times reports. According to officials and indigenous rights advocates, the contact was made after a combination of violence and disease pushed the community off of their land.
  • The Associated Press today has a long profile of Nicaragua’s “First Comrade” Rosario Murillo, the wife of President Daniel Ortega who has crafted a public image that relies on a unique blend of New Age spiritualism, socialism and Catholicism. As communications chief, Murillo has developed a reputation for strict adherence to official talking points and avoidance of critical journalists. While she is widely considered a potential successor to Ortega, the AP notes that recently-passed reforms allowing indefinite reelection make the president’s departure from office unlikely anytime soon.
  • In a column for Animal Politico, Emilio Carranza Gallardo of Mexican security policy research center Insyde offers a look at the challenges that Mexico’s switch to a more adversarial justice system poses for journalists and media outlets in the country, arguing for greater emphasis on the principle of due process and familiarity with different stages of the new trial system. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Guatemala, Too, Would Like a ‘Plan Central America’

Today, the same day President Obama is set to meet with the leaders of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to discuss the child migrant crisis, the front page of the New York Times announces that the U.S. is weighing a plan to allow youth in Honduras to apply for refugee status without leaving their country. The NYT reports:  
The proposal, prepared by several federal agencies, says the pilot program under consideration would cost up to $47 million over two years, assuming 5,000 applied and about 1,750 people were accepted. If successful, it would be adopted in Guatemala and El Salvador as well. 
It is unclear how the administration determined those estimates, given that since Oct. 1 more than 16,500 unaccompanied children traveled to the United States from Honduras alone.
So while the logic behind the proposal is to dissuade Honduran (and eventually Salvadoran and Guatemalan) child migrants from taking the dangerous journey through Mexico, just a fraction would be eligible for resettlement. Exactly why they would take these odds-- especially when relatively few  unaccompanied minors are returned to their home countries under the current scheme -- is left unexplained.

In any case, the plan is not likely to placate the presidents visiting the White House today. As noted in last Thursday’s news brief, Honduras’ Juan Orlando Hernandez has been clear in lobbying Washington for an increase in security and development aid to Central America as a solution to the spike in immigration. Since then, he has been joined by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina. In a CNN interview yesterday, Perez Molina said he would also like to see a Plan Colombia or Merida Initiative-sized aid package in the region, specifically calling for a “Plan Central America.”

In separate remarks to the Washington Post, Perez Molina also criticized proposals to increase spending on security along the U.S.-Mexico border. “With just 10 percent of the money that you’re investing on the U.S. border, it could be spent at minimum in the three countries and I’m confident that it would be much more profitable than investing it on border security or border control with Mexico,” he told the Post.

The Guatemalan leader also announced he will press Obama to make Temporary Protected Status (TPS) available to Guatemalans in the country, which is generally given to those who cannot return to their home countries violence or natural disasters. Considering that TPS granted to immigrants from both Honduras and El Salvador is set to expire next year, this is likely on the minds of Hernandez and Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren as well.  

News Briefs
  • On top of U.S. immigration policy and security cooperation, there is a chance that drug policy could come up in today’s White House meeting. In a recent Time Magazine interview, President Hernandez was explicit in linking U.S. demand for drugs with the flow of migrants from Honduras. He also criticized changing attitudes towards drug policy in the U.S., saying: "In the United States, many officials see the drug problem as basically one of health, as how much it costs to treat an addict and stop them getting involved. But for us it is life and death. That is the difference.” Recent weeks have seen a number of drug policy reform advocates making the same link between migration and drugs, albeit to argue an entirely different point (see the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter in the Washington Post, or the  Drug Policy Alliance’s Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett  in CNN Opinion). But in a post for the WOLA Border Fact Check Blog, Adam Isaacson explains why making this connection is problematic. As he points out, the main large-scale transporters of drugs in the northern triangle countries -- networks like the Texis Cartel or Perrones -- generate less violence than street gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18, which are far less involved in the transnational drug trade.
  •  Also on drug policy, Colombia’s RCN Noticias has a general overview of the marijuana policy debate in the country following Senator Juan Manuel Galan’s announcement that he will present a bill seeking to legalize medical marihuana. According to the news agency, the Catholic Church, members of the Conservative Party and Alvaro Uribe’s Centro Democratico have opposed the idea, although some analysts have argued that it could deal a blow to criminal groups profiting from growing domestic demand for drugs in Colombia.
  • General Hugo Carvajal, a former chief of Venezuelan military intelligence, was arrested yesterday on the Dutch island of Aruba, where he had been appointed consul general. He is wanted in the United States on charges that he colluded with FARC rebels to protect drug shipments and provide them with arms and logistical aid. El Nacional reports that Venezuelan authorities, including the deputy minister of foreign relations, have arrived to the island to argue that the arrest is a violation of diplomatic norms. But the NYT notes that officials in Aruba say Carvajal was never duly accredited and was not eligible for diplomatic immunity. Security analyst Doug Farah tells the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. is likely hoping to question the general about alleged ties between the government and illicit trafficking networks.
  • After the governor of Mexico’s Puebla state presented a proposal to strike down the so-called “Bullet Law” which was criticized for authorizing police to open fire on protesters deemed violent, Reforma reports that lawmakers have not yet take up debate over the issue. According to La Jornada, that the governor’s bill specifies that the law cannot be struck from the books until it has been replaced with a new regulation.
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero has a profile of a newly-built giant replica of Solomon's Temple in São Paulo, complete with 10,000 seats, an oasis of olive trees and a helipad. The temple, Romero notes, is evidence of the rise of evangelical Christianity in Brazil’s competitive religious landscape, and President Dilma Rousseff’s plans to attend its inauguration underscore the political importance of evangelicals in the country.
  • With Haitian President Michel Martelly and opposition lawmakers still divided over a proposal to hold long-overdue parliamentary and local elections on October 26, the date is looking increasingly unlikely. Despite the gridlock, the Miami Herald notes that Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe appears to be adopting a “Hillary Clinton-like” campaign strategy, giving stump speeches around the country to drum up support for a likely presidential run even though he has not officially declared his candidacy. According to the Herald, his campaigning has generated suspicion raised concerns about its destabilizing potential.
  • Following Brazil’s decision to recall its ambassador to Israel for consultation in the wake of the military operation in Gaza, the response by an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman has raised eyebrows in Brazil. “This is an unfortunate demonstration of why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, according to the Jerusalem Post. “The moral relativism behind this move makes Brazil an irrelevant diplomatic partner, one who creates problems rather than contributes to solutions.” O Globo reports that Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo replied with: “If there is a diplomatic dwarf here, Brazil is not one of them,” adding that the decision was made in the wake of reports of civilian casualties in Gaza.
  • As Argentina’s July 30 deadline to pay holdout creditors draws nearer, The Economist explains that the main stumbling block preventing a deal is the Rights Upon Future Offers (RUFO) clause written into the government’s restructured bond agreements. This clause prevents Argentina from giving the holdouts a better deal than those that have accepted restructuring. But because it expires December 31, Argentina has been lobbying -- unsuccessfully -- for a stay in the enforcement of its debt obligations to the holdouts until then.
  • The Guardian reports on the reopening of the biggest nickel mine in Central America, Guatemala’s Fenix mine, which had been closed for 30 years. The inauguration of the mine has been marked by violent confrontations between security forces and local residents, who say authorities are carrying out an intimidation campaign on behalf of the mine’s owners.
  • On Wednesday, lawmakers  in Chile’s lower house voted 53 to 20 to pressure President Michelle Bachelet to close the Punta Peuco prison facility, which houses military officials convicted of committing human rights abuses during the Pinochet regime. The facility, which holds some 50 inmates, is the last remaining such prison in the country, after the smaller Penal Cordillera was closed last year.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lopez on Trial, Venezuela’s Opposition Badly Divided

After being held for five months in prison, Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez finally went to trial in Caracas yesterday on charges of inciting violence during February’s wave of protests.

While Lopez’s day in court finally arrived, it was marked by some suspicious shortcomings in the way the case is being handled. As El Universal reports, the judge in the case has refused to allow the defense to submit any of its proposed evidence against Lopez’s detention. The public prosecutor’s office, meanwhile, was granted permission to present 56 separate pieces of evidence against the opposition leader, including videos, reports and testimony from witnesses and experts.

On top of this, Lopez’s attorneys have complained that their petitions to open the hearing to the press were denied. No cameras or reporters were allowed into the courtroom, as the Wall Street Journal notes. When asked about the case at a press conference yesterday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was unsympathetic, saying: “He is responsible for crimes. He has to pay, and he will pay[…]For us, what's important is to govern and to make sure that groups like these don't do any more damage to the country.”

Proceedings against Lopez, as well as several student protesters detained during the protests, will resume on August 6.

If lowering the profile of Lopez’s trial and promising to treat others calling for Maduro’s ouster with a firm hand are part of a strategy to isolate the opposition, this appears to be working. Lopez’s “La Salida” demonstrations have fizzled out, and the smaller, student-led protests that have persisted have failed to generate momentum.

Meanwhile Henrique Capriles, the former presidential candidate who has taken a more conciliatory approach to opposing Chavismo, continues to advocate a longer-term strategy than Lopez’s calls for Maduro to resign. In an interview published on Venezuelan commentary site yesterday, Capriles defended this, basing it on the assumption that an economic downturn in the near future is inevitable. “What I proposed was let’s give the economic and social crisis the opportunity to do its work -- because we knew it was coming -- so then let’s tactically allow the economic and social crisis time to become a political one,” said Capriles.

But even assuming an economic crisis arises, it is unclear whether Capriles can gain traction among moderates in the Chavista camp, let alone unite the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition, which remains badly fractured in the wake of the split over protest strategies. And as Juan Nagel points out in Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog, the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) seems to have used these divisions to its advantage despite all recent reports about  dissent within in its own ranks. Nagel writes:
In parallel, the government was busy cracking down on protestors and driving a wedge between opposition leaders. The authorities are keeping Lopez in solitary confinement until trial, have stripped [opposition lawmaker Maria Corina] Machado of her parliamentary post, have taken away her passport, and have charged her with "incitement to commit acts of violence." But a few days ago, a high-ranking MUD politician stated that Lopez had brought jail on himself, and that therefore the opposition felt no responsibility to do anything to get him out. (The politician in question has also recanted). 
The debate between the two factions continues to rage, and instead of talking to each other, they are taking to the media to trash one another. The fighting has bred deep suspicion and disappointment in opposition public opinion.

News Briefs
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has elected a new Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. Uruguayan Edison Lanza will take up the job on October 6, when current Rapporteur Catalina Botero steps down. In addition to his experience as a lawyer and press freedom advocate, Lanza worked from 2000 to 2012 as an editor and writer for Busqueda, an Uruguayan weekly magazine that has established itself as the leading political chronicler in the country. Spanish news agency EFE notes that Lanza will take office at a particularly difficult moment, in which the rapporteurship has become the central target of ALBA bloc countries calling for IACHR reform. In a piece published in Grupo de Diarios America papers today, an anonymous IACHR observer remarks that Lanza’s nationality may work to his advantage, as leaders like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa may be less inclined to criticize “a rapporteur of Mujica’s Uruguay” than Botero, who is Colombian.  For more on Lanza’s positions, see this Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) briefing on the main candidates’ stances on freedom of expression in the hemisphere in response to a questionnaire. In his answer, the Uruguayan stresses the importance of internet freedom, protecting whistleblowers, and the links between freedom of expression and securing ESC rights.
  • The Miami Herald looks at Venezuela’s efforts to relocate the thousands of people who have taken up residence in Caracas’ largest unfinished skyscraper, the Tower of David. The paper notes that authorities have denied rumors that the tower was purchased by Chinese developers.
  • The New York Times reports that conmen posing as charity workers in the U.S. have obtained identifying information on migrant children held at U.S. military bases, fueling a predatory scheme in which relatives are made to pay exorbitant “fees” to reunite with them.
  • Ahead of President Barack Obama’s scheduled meeting with the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador tomorrow to discuss the increase in unaccompanied child migrants from the region, Guatemala’s Otto Perez has confirmed that he plans to use the visit to call on Obama to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to undocumented Guatemalans living in the country. His predecessor, Alvaro Colom, made similar requests during his administration, with no luck.
  • The office of Peru’s Prime Minister, as the Wall Street Journal aptly puts it, has continued to be a “revolving door” under the administration of President Ollanta Humala. Prime Minister Rene Cornejo resigned on Tuesday after it was reported that an adviser of his gave money to an informer to discredit an opposition congressman spearheading a corruption investigation of Cornejo. He was replaced by former labor minister and Congresswoman Ana Jara, who has promised to improve transparency and anti-corruption efforts, RPP reports. It is possible that Urresti’s resignation in the face of corruption allegations will increase pressure on Daniel Urresti, Humala’s newly appointed interior minister who currently faces murder charges, to step down as well. Peruvian journalist Fernando Vivas, however, argues in an El Comercio column that Urresti’s “mano dura” image may have actually given Humala’s administration an image boost, making his dismissal unlikely.
  • La Nacion reports Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou was made to appear before a federal judge and present a written statement yesterday in connection to allegations he improperly registered a car under his name, charges that are unrelated to the corruption case against him. The AP points out that while the allegations against Boudou have left President Cristina Fernandez with no obvious successor, she still has not commented publicly on the case against him.
  • The Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Americas Blog features a tidy roundup of Latin American leaders’ responses to Israel’s military action in the Gaza Strip. Interestingly, the left-wing governments of Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia have issued predictably harsh condemnations of Israel’s use of force (and Hamas’ rocket attacks), they have been joined by the typically more moderate governments of Chile and Uruguay. More recently, O Globo reports today that Brazil has recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultation.