Monday, September 22, 2014

Still No Drug Consensus in the Americas

On Friday, representatives of the 35 members of the Organization of American States met in Guatemala City in a special summit to discuss the achievements and challenges of the hemisphere’s approach to illicit drugs.  While there were some important advances made in the context of the lead-up to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs in 2016, the meeting was by no means a watershed display of regional unity on the issue.

For the moment, it appears Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa was correct when he remarked in a visit to Guatemala last month that, on drugs, “[t]here is no common position, least of all in the Americas.”

Prior to the summit last week, there was hope that it would provide an opportunity for the Americas -- a region that has become a hotspot for drug policy reform and experimentation, as recent developments in Uruguay, Mexico, Chile and Colombia show -- to band together and push for major changes to the international drug policy regime at UNGASS 2016. The summit had been scheduled in the wake of last year’s OAS Secretary General report identifying legalization and decriminalization as valid policy options, and after OAS members agreed in the subsequent Antigua Declaration to move towards adopting a “comprehensive policy” on drugs in the region.

Earlier this month, 28 civil society organizations in the hemisphere published a joint declaration on the issue at the 5th Latin American Conference on Drug Policy in Costa Rica, under the banner of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC). Among other things, the groups called for OAS members to adopt a drug strategy based on respect for human rights, as well as the distinction between “harms associated with drug use and harms associated with drug policy.”

Much like the Antigua Declaration, however, the resolution published on Friday was far weaker than many drug policy reform advocates surely would have liked. While the OAS General Assembly agreed on “the importance of Hemispheric and international cooperation to jointly tackling the world drug problem,” it did not adopt any stance on concrete policy actions. Perhaps the closest the resolution comes to the IDPC’s recommendations is in a provision asserting the need for “responses that prevent social costs or contribute to their reduction,” though this is to be carried out “according to the reality of each State.”

Still, Friday’s resolution is important for two reasons. First, it commits OAS organs like the General Secretariat and the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) to continue to evaluate progress on drug policy in the coming years, with an emphasis on “scientific evidence, experiences and impact indicators.” Second, the General Assembly resolved to forward their resolution to the United Nations “for consideration” of UNGASS 2016, showing that there is at least a general agreement that the region as a whole will have to demonstrate at least some unity at the UN meeting in two years’ time.

News Briefs
  • Unlike other regional leaders like Juan Manuel Santos and Jose Mujica, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has cultivated a reputation as a crusader for widening the drug policy debate in the hemisphere, but has so far made no major push to enact reforms in his own country. However, last week saw some important progress on drug policy reform at a national level, when a civil society commission appointed by Perez Molina released a preliminary report on drug laws (.PDF file here) in the country on Thursday, as La Prensa Libre reports. Like the OAS resolution, the report does not call for any radical changes.  However, it raises some important points about drug policy in Guatemala, and its conclusion makes some sensible, albeit cautious, recommendations. For example, the report notes that Guatemala’s approach to drugs runs “counter to the legislative developments” elsewhere in the region, and that its failure to specify which amounts of drugs can be classified as destined for personal consumption rather than sale leaves considerable room for judges to impose their own standards. Among other recommendations, the commission calls for closer monitoring of black market pricing and purity data, for a deeper study of the “cost of the current drug policies” in Guatemala, and for a rigorous analysis of the size of the country’s illicit poppy crop. According to the report, a final version will be presented to the president in December, and the commission’s mandate was recently extended to the end of this year. After that, it remains to be seen what will come of Perez Molina’s claims that the report “might lead to” a bill legalizing marijuana and poppy cultivation.
  • In the race for the next OAS Secretary General, Uruguay’s Luis Almagro seems to be gaining momentum. El Pais reports that on Thursday, the Uruguayan foreign minister’s bid received the public backing of the government of Paraguay. Paraguay joins Chile and Brazil in endorsing Almagro, and there have been reports in local press that the United States also views the Uruguayan candidate positively.
  • Venezuelan police commissioner Ivan Simonovis, who has been lionized by the opposition as the longest-held political prisoners in the country, has won an important victory. Citing his poor health, a judge has ruled that he is eligible to be moved from his current facility to house arrest, though the AP notes that the Supreme Court has said he will be moved back when his health improves. The Wall Street Journal profiles remarks by some analysts who believe that the move was a part of a political calculation on President Nicolas Maduro’s part,  an effort to partially placate his opponents.
  • While Maduro’s efforts to crack down on smuggling along the Colombian border have been criticized by the Venezuelan opposition as a hopeless crusade, they seem to be making some impact, albeit one with negative side effects. The Miami Herald reports that border communities in Colombia that have traditionally relied on inflows of cheap subsidized goods from Venezuela have seen their access to affordable food drop considerably, leading to a spike in chronic hunger and malnutrition.
  • Today’s New York Times features a report on the crackdown on undocumented migration in Mexico at the behest of the United States, which has made the already perilous journey even more difficult for Central American migrants.
  • Despite the evidence that has come out recently to suggest that Mexican soldiers massacred 21 suspects in Mexico State in June, authorities are sticking to the official version of events, maintaining that the victims were killed during a shootout. El Universal reports that the Mexican Ministry of Defense has insisted that no wrongdoing occurred, and that it is willing to cooperate with a federal investigation into the matter.  Representatives of the Mexican Human Rights Commission (CNDH) have also told reporters that they are looking into the massacre allegations.
  • After Mexico’s Coahuila state became the second sub-federal jurisdiction to legalize same-sex marriage -- following Mexico City -- on September 1, Animal Politico reports that the measure has gone into full effect, with a state registry office recognizing the marriage of a gay couple on Saturday, for the first time in its history.
  • The political reforms presented by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, which include a proposal to end presidential reelection, will be debated today in Congress, Semana magazine reports.  On top of ending reelection, the bill would change the way the inspector general (procurador) and ombudsman’s positions are appointed, giving the executive branch the authority to present senators with a list of candidates rather than allowing lawmakers to name them directly.
  • Marking the 38th anniversary of the death of Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier in a car bomb placed by Pinochet regime intelligence agents in Washington DC, BBC Mundo has an interview with Juan Gabriel Valdes, the current Chilean ambassador to the U.S. who only escaped being a victim in the bombing by circumstance.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Witnesses: Mexican Soldiers Killed 21 in June Massacre

It was a suspicious story from the beginning. When authorities announced that 22 people had been killed by army personnel in a June 30 shootout in the state of Mexico, the Associated Press noted with skepticism that all but one soldier had miraculously escaped injury, and that “the warehouse where many bodies were found showed little evidence of sustained fighting.”

Despite the questions over the incident, Mexican authorities have persistently stuck to the official version of events. On July 17, Mexico State Attorney General Jaime Gomez Sanchez assured reporters that there was “no evidence whatsoever” that the 21 victims were executed.

But this story became harder to defend this week, when Esquire Mexico published an investigation into the incident featuring exclusive testimony from a witness who offered a disturbing description of the events. According to alias “Julia,” who officials identified as a kidnapping victim freed in the operation, only one suspect was killed in a shootout, which broke out after soldiers opened fire first. The rest surrendered, but were then killed after being interrogated. A medical examiner who carried out an autopsy on one of the victims, a 15-year-old girl, told Esquire that her wounds were the result of a point-blank execution.

 “Julia” also claims that authorities held her in confinement for one week after the incident, saying that Navy officials, state prosecutors and federal investigators all coerced her to sign documents identifying the victims as criminals.

Alongside Esquire’s report, yesterday the Associated Press published an account from the 15-year-old’s mother, who had allegedly approached the suspected drug gang to try to retrieve her daughter from them. In addition to confirming soldiers’ murder of her daughter, she claims that the army killed two men claiming to be kidnapping victims, as they were apparently unconvinced of their stories.

These reports have caused uproar among international and Mexican civil society organizations alike. As Proceso magazine reports, the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center (Centro Prodh) and Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH) have called on authorities to carry out a transparent investigation into the incident. Human Rights Watch’s Jose Miguel Vivanco released a statement yesterday calling for a clarification of the facts, as well as describing the testimony as a potential indicator of “the worst slaughter of civilians by the military of this administration.”

The head of Mexico’s Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has also said it is looking into the alleged massacre.

Even if an independent investigation fails to materialize, at the very least the incident casts further suspicion on President Enrique Peña Nieto’s decision to continue the military-heavy security policies of his predecessor. Relying on the army for law enforcement, after all, was initially sold to the public as a necessary measure to compensate for the relative corruption among local police forces. But with the military potentially responsible for abuses like those described by the witnesses mentioned above, it’s worth questioning just how incorruptible the Mexican armed forces really are.

News Briefs
  • Yet another poll has been released regarding Brazil’s presidential race. Like other recent surveys, Friday’s Datafolha poll suggests that President Dilma Rousseff is closing the gap between herself and her main challenger Marina Silva. A hypothetical second-round matchup shows the two statistically tied, with 46 percent for Silva and 44 for the president.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro may not be as wildly popular as Hugo Chavez, but he certainly has a knack for making the same kinds of inflammatory statement as his predecessor. Yesterday, for example, Maduro raged against the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald, BBC Mundo and CNN, among other outlets, for reporting on a series of deaths called by what one medical industry figure called an “unknown” illness. Authorities in the country say the cause of these deaths are established and likely due to Chikungunya disease, and Maduro accused the above outlets of waging “psychological warfare” against his government.
  • Laura Capriglione of Brazilian news site Ponte offers a critical look at São Paulo's progressive mayor Fernando Haddad, who has established a name for himself as a champion of alternative drug policies and unique approaches to urban administration. However, the reporter asserts that he has a “dark side,” noting his repressive response to a movement calling for more public housing, and failure to look into police abuses.
  • Also on Guatemala, Plaza Publica profiles an effort by the LIDER opposition party, whose leader Manuel Baldizon is the leading candidate in next year’s presidential elections, to revive an old law that would criminalize investigating companies without prior authorization, a potentially profound limitation of the public’s access to information.
  • The Chilean government announced yesterday that three suspects had been arrested in connection with the recent Santiago subway station bombing. El Mercurio reports that an anarchist group took responsibility for the attack in a statement posted o line yesterday, in which it also claimed that police had been informed about the attack ten minutes beforehand, in hopes that the site would be evacuated.
  • Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa continues to play coy about whether or not he will seek another term in office once his current one expires in 2017. Yesterday in remarks to a group of supporters, the president said he as “not in the least interested in re-election,” even though he has thrown his support behind a reform package that would, among other things, allow for his indefinite reelection.  
  • One day after conflicting  pro-government and anti-government demonstrations were held in main cities around Ecuador on Wednesday, El Comercio reported that Interior Minister Jose Serrano announced that criminal investigations would be carried out into violence he attributed to an opposition student group, the Popular Democratic Movement (MPD). 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mixed Signals from the U.S. on Venezuela’s Anti-Drug Efforts

Yesterday, just two days after the White House criticized Venezuela for failing to pull its weight in the fight against drug trafficking, a top State Department official cushioned this criticism somewhat.

On Monday the State Department released a statement saying that the White House had issued a memo naming Venezuela as one of the three countries (alongside Burma and Bolivia) that “failed demonstrably” to meet their international counterdrug obligations in the past year. The announcement was not terribly surprising, as both Venezuela and Bolivia have consistently made this list for the past four years at least.

As they have in the past, Venezuelan officials reacted strongly to the classification, accusing the U.S. of using the War on Drugs as a “means of domination and violation of the sovereignty of our countries [in Latin America], as an excuse to maintain military presence in our territories,” El Nuevo Herald reports.

On Wednesday, however, State Department anti-narcotics official William Brownfield made an interesting concession in remarks to reporters in Panama. “Now, I have to admit something, starting a year and a half or so ago, efforts have been detected by the Venezuelan government to control and reduce the transit of illicit drugs through their territory,” said Brownfield, according to the AP. “There is little collaboration with the United States at least, but I have to admit that there is evidence of serious efforts to control it.”

The news agency notes that the remarks come as Jay Bergman, DEA director for the Andean region, is posed to Venezuela to begin high-level talks over restarting cooperation with U.S. anti-drug efforts. The visit is the result of nearly two years of preparation by both governments.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday’s Senate debate in Colombia regarding former President Alvaro Uribe’s links to drug traffickers and paramilitaries proved to be more lively than expected. Surprisingly, Uribe actually showed up in person, and while he initially stormed out in protest of Ivan Cepeda’s allegations of his paramilitary ties, he later returned and took the mic to --as he put it -- defend his honor. Still, while the debate made headlines in Colombia, both La Silla Vacia and the AP note that most of the evidence and testimony presented by Cepeda was largely public knowledge.
  • The government of Venezuela said yesterday that it would be moving to revoke the citizenship of actress Maria Conchita Alonso, who has been a high-profile critic of President Nicolas Maduro. The NYT notes that in a recent interview with Voice of America she said she wished the U.S. “would invade with bullets to remove all those wretched communists from Venezuela,” a comment which the government has used to portray her as a violent extremist.
  • Animal Politico and Fusion report on the shockingly high incidence of rape and sexual assault reported by Central American migrants women during their journey to the border. According to estimates by migrant aid workers, more than half and as many as 80 percent of all women are victims of sexual assault along the way north.
  • Guatemalan news site Plaza Publica profiles a unique immigration trend in that country: a growing number of transgender Hondurans have fled to neighboring Guatemala not only because the economic conditions are better and the crime rate somewhat lower, but also in response to a hostile, discriminatory environment. However, many say that the level of discrimination they face in Guatemala is just as bad.
  • In response to the government’s calls for a public demonstration of support, a major demonstration of supporters of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa took place yesterday in Quito, EFE reports. According to El Universo it was joined by separate opposition protests by certain unions and indigenous groups, and authorities say 74 people were arrested yesterday.
  • InSight Crime has published a partial transcript of an interview conducted by Jerry McDermott with Paraguayan drug czar Luis Rojas. In it, Rojas laments the lack of technical knowledge over the exact size of the country’s illicit marijuana crop, despite the fact that Paraguay has long been South America’s largest source of the drug. Rojas is also surprisingly self-critical of Paraguay’s anti-drug approach, frankly calling for a more comprehensive approach to the problem. “90 percent of our resources in repression of the drug trade, and not attacking the problem at its roots, which are also social,” he said.  
  • Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva has granted her first interview to a foreign news agency since replacing her late running mate Eduardo Campos as the Socialist Party’s nominee. In a wide-ranging interview with the Associated Press, Silva discussed her desire to address the dissatisfaction voiced by many Brazilians in last year’s June protests, as well as her view of some of Brazil’s foreign policy priorities. According to Silva, if victorious she would press Brazil to be more vocal regarding human rights abuses abroad in places like Cuba, Venezuela and Iran.
  • Argentina took a step further in its efforts to prosecute Dirty War-era abuses yesterday, as a trial against three doctors accused of facilitating the theft of babies of captured dissidents went underway. As Pagina12 reports, the three allegedly helped military officials mask the identity of babies born to captive mothers in the 70s and 80s, signing false birth certificates permitting them to be put up for adoption.
  • In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Argentine writer Pola Oloixarac describes how President Cristina Fernandez’s battle with the so-called “vulture funds” has raised her profile and boosted her flagging popularity. Oloixarac claims this is the result of a national Argentine “weakness for defiant characters.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Colombia’s Senate to ‘Debate’ Uribe-Paramilitary Ties

A supposed “debate” between former President Alvaro Uribe and leftist Senator Ivan Cepeda over Uribe’s links to drug trafficking and paramilitary groups has become front page news in Colombia. But due to limits placed on the debate by his supporters, and because Uribe’s attendance is in doubt, the event may have a limited impact.

The debate is the result of a long bureaucratic battle waged by Ivan Cepeda, who has attempted to force a formal legislative examination of Uribe’s alleged dirty past ever since the former president assumed a Senate seat in July. He submitted a proposal to the full Senate soon after the current term began, and while Uribe himself voted in favor of it, the measure was ultimately defeated by a 52-30 vote.

But Cepeda was not dissuaded, and instead pressed for a debate in a side committee, the “Second Commission,” which was ultimately arranged. However, an Uribista think tank known as the Centro de Pensamiento subsequently presented a challenge to the proposal to the Senate Ethics Committee. In an absurd twist, earlier this month the committee ruled that the debate could go forward, but only if Cepeda did not mention Uribe by name.

The event is slated to take place today on the Senate floor at 9am Bogota time (10am EST). Nearly every major paper in the country has coverage of the debate this morning. El Tiempo reports that as of last night, Uribe had not confirmed whether he will be attending the debate, and that he is under no obligation to do so. According to El Espectador, several leading figures in his Centro Democratico party have come out in support of Uribe ahead of the event, insisting that the numerous, repeated reports that he had ties to the AUC paramilitary coalition are false and defamatory.

Even if Uribe fails to show, the debate should draw further attention to these allegations, which the ex-president has found hard to shake since leaving office. Yesterday Cepeda told RCN Noticias that he intends to mention Uribe by name in his remarks today, and to focus his arguments on specific evidence of paramilitary collusion, regardless of the Ethics Committee’s resolution. According to Semana magazine, the head of the Ethics Committee himself has also softened the ban on mentioning Uribe, saying that in practice it only prevents Cepeda from touching on “issues of a personal nature.”

News Briefs
  • O Globo reports that yet another public opinion poll has been released in Brazil which shows Marina Silva and President Dilma Rousseff in a dead heat in a second-round matchup. According to pollster Ibope, Silva has 43 percent support compared to 40 for Rousseff, making them statistically tied. The Wall Street Journal also reports on the new poll, but seems to overlook another interesting finding. Compared to the last Ibope survey, support for conservative challenger Aecio Neves increased four points, to 19 percent.
  • The AP has a nice overview of Silva’s foreign policy positions, as laid out in her platform and according to statements made by top advisor Mauricio Rands. While a Silva victory would almost certainly mean improved relations with the U.S. and Europe, some analysts believe it would not necessarily mean that Brazil would become more critical of human rights abuses in Venezuela or Cuba, an issue for which Rousseff has been criticized.
  • The government of Guatemala is being criticized by freedom of the press advocates this week after it released a rebuttal of a story on suspicious business dealings of Vice President Roxana Baldetti before the story had even been published. The El Periodico piece linked a property owned by Baldetti to businessmen who have received lucrative government contracts in recent years. In response to the government’s preemptive denial of any wrongdoing, the paper has accused officials of spying on it. Earlier this year, Baldetti targeted El Periodico editor Jose Ruben Zamora with charges of blackmail and defamation, but the suit was dropped in response to international pressure.
  • News and commentary site Vox has an interesting overview of the impact that the U.S. embargo on Cuba has on Major League Baseball, describing how many Cuban baseball players often become victims of criminal human trafficking networks in third countries, who extort them for cuts of their future earnings. The easiest and most complete solution to this problem, according to the author, would be to put an end to the U.S. embargo.
  • Yesterday’s New York Times featured a report on the hysterical warnings by some conservative groups that ISIS militants are plotting to infiltrate the U.S. via the Mexican border. Despite officials’ repeated insistence that there is no proof of this, nor any cause for alarm, the narrative has proven difficult to squash.
  • Acting U.S. ambassador to Argentina Kevin Sullivan has come under fire by the government of President Cristina Fernandez, after he remarked to newspaper Clarin that “that it was "important for Argentina to exit default as soon as possible to return to the path of growth and attract the investment it needs." The statement was interpreted as a criticism of the Fernandez administration’s battle with holdout creditors, and La Nacion reports that Foreign Minister Hector Timerman summoned him to convey the government’s disapproval and threaten him with revoking his diplomatic credentials.
  • At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Timothy Gil identifies the primary actors in Washington that are calling for a shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Venezuela. While he notes that the State Department has on multiple occasions demonstrated a willingness to increase dialogue with the Venezuelan government, these efforts have been significantly undercut by jockeying in the Senate over a bill to impose targeted sanctions on Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses.
  • The Associated Press has more on the video released on Monday by a pro-government television show in Venezuela, which purports to show two opposition activists plotting to stockpile weaponry and launch armed attacks from neighboring Colombia. The two activists, who made international headlines recently after they were deported for allegedly violating the terms of their visas, have been placed under arrest by military intelligence, as El Nacional reports. The AP suggests that the arrests could “further embolden government hardliners who accuse Maduro's opponents of trying to violently overthrow his 17-month-old socialist administration.”
  • Haiti’s seemingly unsolvable delays over a bill to hold overdue local and legislative elections have earned criticism from U.S. lawmakers this week. According to the Miami Herald, a bipartisan group of 15 legislators have sent a letter to Haitian Senate President Simon Desra, urging their counterparts in Haiti to put aside their differences and schedule the vote.
  • The New York Times reports on the increasing dangers of mining the silver-rich mountain of Cerro Rico, regarded by many in Bolivia as a national symbol. Because the mountain has been mined for centuries it is beginning to cave in at the top, posing a safety threat to an estimated 1,500 workers.
  • In Foreign Policy, Sibylla Brodzinsky looks at the laudable decision by Colombia, Brazil and Uruguay to welcome refugees and asylum-seekers from Syria, who are finding it far easier to resettle in Latin America than in North America or Europe.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Historical Memory and Revisionism in Latin America

A recent column in The Economist magazine on historical memory initiatives in Latin America accuses the region of largely “rewriting” history, asserting that efforts to raise awareness of the abuses of the Cold War have led to the promotion of a biased version of events. The argument has triggered an outpouring of criticism online from historians and Latin American analysts pointing out the various holes in the article’s logic.

The main thrust of the column is that the emergence of post-conflict museums and historical memory centers in the Latin America has been accompanied by a kind of historical revisionism, in which the anti-democratic leanings of leftist dissidents and guerrilla groups are overlooked. “[A]lthough the right may bloodily have won the cold war in Latin America, the left has won the peace,” the piece asserts. And the forgotten truth, “is that the cold war in Latin America was fought by two equally authoritarian sides.”  

While The Economist insists that this in no way “mitigates the inexcusable barbarity” of Cold War-era dictatorships, the assertion of equal authoritarianism nevertheless sets up a false equivalency that is simply inaccurate.

As Colin Snider writes at Americas South and North, to be authoritarian one must have control of the tools of power: “Even if armed lefts had taken power, we’ll never know if they would have committed violence on the level of the right-wing dictatorships, because the armed and revolutionary lefts did not take power. The right did.” Mike Allison of Central American Politics points to several examples of widespread abuses by Guatemala’s ERP, El Salvador’s FMLN and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, but also argues that the authoritarian right’s human rights violations throughout the region dwarfed abuses of the authoritarian left in places like Cuba and Nicaragua.

Snider also makes an excellent point regarding the magazine’s tacit acceptance of a totally “objective” history. As he notes, using -- as The Economist does -- initial estimates that “just” 8,960 people were disappeared in Argentina to discredit the current figure of roughly  30,000 ignores the fact that the earlier estimate is a product of a fragile period, in which the military still held significant influence.

Lillie at Memory in Latin America makes a similar point, and argues that this version of what is commonly referred to as the “dos demonios” theory (in which both sides were equally violent and flawed) amounts to endorsing a “means of obscuring human rights abuses and seeking to paper over the crimes of the past.”

Researcher and freelance reporter Steven Bodzin also offers a valuable take on The Economist piece, publishing a transcript of a 2013 interview he conducted with Ricardo Brodsky, executive director of Chile’s Museo de la Memoria, just before the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup. In it, Brodsky responds to criticisms like those made in the magazine article, which insinuates that the museum’s interpretation of history lacks context. According to Brodsky: “This context is the installation of the dictatorship, the elimination of political parties, Congress, the free press, the creation of security apparatus and control above all, the end of the rule of law, is the context of the human rights violations. This context is very close to this museum. So the criticism of context lacks a basis.”

There’s little more to add on this that hasn’t already been said, but for this author it seems appropriate to make one other point regarding The Economist’s evidence for its argument. One of the few concrete examples of historical revisionism given in the piece is the allegation that “most young Uruguayans mistakenly believe that the Tupamaro urban guerrillas (whose survivors are now in office) fought a military dictatorship rather than helped to topple a civilian democracy.”

The source for this claim, according to the magazine, is former President Julio María Sanguinetti. While the Colorado Party figure is absolutely correct in asserting that Uruguay’s MLN carried out most of its armed activity against a democratic regime in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the group cannot reasonably be said to have helped “topple” the government. The insurgency was militarily defeated by late 1972, and most of its main leaders -- including MLN founder Raul Sendic, current President Jose Mujica and current Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro --  were imprisoned by then.

Uruguay’s democracy was only “toppled” by President Juan Maria Bordaberry of the Colorado Party, under whom Sanguinetti initially served as Minister of Education. In June 1973, Bordaberry dissolved Congress after steadily increasing the military’s role in internal security matters and in response to intensifying labor conflicts. He began ruling by decree with the support of the military, thus laying the foundation for the “civic-military” dictatorship that ruled Uruguay until 1985.

It would seem, then, that The Economist itself is guilty of engaging in the kind of historical revisionism it claims to condemn.

News Briefs
  • The White House has once again identified Bolivia and Venezuela, along with Myanmar, as the three countries that have “failed demonstrably” to make significant efforts to adhere to their international counterdrug obligations. In a memo issued to the State Department and published on Monday, the president also named a list of 22 drug-producing or drug transit countries.
  • Lorent Saleh and Gabriel Valles, the two Venezuelan opposition activists who made international headlines after Colombia deported them back to Venezuela for allegedly violating the terms of their visas, have been accused of inciting violent rebellion in their home country. Semana magazine reports on a recording released yesterday on a Chavista program in which the two appear to confirm plans to receive military training in Colombia, which comes after the emergence of photos of the two holding what seemed to be automatic weapons.
  • The Miami Herald reports on the growing political conflict in Haiti surrounding the court-ordered house arrest of ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is being investigated on corruption charges that his supporters say amount to political persecution. While a judge has ruled that Aristide cannot receive visitors without authorization, a group of opposition lawmakers and Aristide allies are planning on visiting the former leader in his home today in a show of defiance.
  • Today’s New York Times features a profile of Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva, describing how her anti-establishment image, humble origins and promise of “new politics” have resonated with many Brazilians who are tired of entrenched corruption and faulty public services.
  • The AP has a report on the struggles of indigenous Brazilians to maintain their identities even as increasing deforestation and the promise of employment have drawn them to the slums of major cities. According to the news agency roughly one in four indigenous people are believed to be living in urban areas, where they face fierce discrimination.
  • Pope Francis yesterday met with an Argentine judge to assist in an investigation into the 1976 death of Bishop Enrique Angelelli, a left-leaning bishop who is suspected of being killed by the junta. While the Vatican has not provided any details of the meeting, last year Francis provided information showing that Angelilli had informed Rome of his problems with military authorities.
  • IPS has an analysis of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s endorsement of a bill that would overturn the country’s amnesty law, which could open up a new chapter in the country’s post-dictatorship era. The news agency also has some good coverage of last week’s Fifth Latin American Conference on Drug Policy in Costa Rica, noting the manner in which repressive drug policy regimes throughout the hemisphere have disproportionately hurt the poor.
  • In Venezuela news, two stories in today’s press offer a glance at the extent and impact of good shortages in the country. Reuters has a look at the increasingly inventive ways that Venezuelans with the means to travel are turning to purchase tickets out of the country, now that most major airlines have cut back service there. Venezuela’s status as the nation with one of the highest levels of plastic surgery rates has taken a hit as a result of the difficulty of procuring foreign currency and imported items there, leaving many plastic surgeons unable to get standard brand name breast implants, the AP reports.
  • The New Republic looks at the work of Salvadoran photographer Fred Ramos, who has taken a series of photos of the outfits worn by unidentified individuals found in anonymous graves in the country in recent years. In addition to providing a haunting reminder of the prevalence of violence in the country, Ramos’ work offers relatives of the missing a potential way to identify them by their clothing.
  • Yesterday, Hurricane Odile hit Mexico’s Baja California, forcing the evacuation of thousands, leaving many without power and wreaking havoc on infrastructure and tourist areas alike. The Washington Post reports that it is the most powerful hurricane to hit Mexico’s Baja Peninsula on record.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mexico Security Forces Accused of Crimes Against Humanity

On Friday, a group of NGOs -- two Mexican and one international -- presented the International Criminal Court (ICC) with a report (see .pdf) detailing abuses committed by security personnel, primarily of the army, in Baja California from 2006 to 2012.

According to the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), the Citizen Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), security officers in the state perpetrated “systematic and widespread” abuses “within the framework of a government policy.”  

As the NYT notes, the report’s authors found that military and police “arrested civilians in their homes without any legal warrant, subjected them to acts of torture in military facilities, forced them to sign blank sheets of paper that would be used for their self-incrimination or to incriminate others, and placed drugs and arms in their possession as ‘evidence,’ ” all with the “direct participation” of top officials in Baja California.

The abuses detailed in the report occurred under the administration of Felipe Calderon, but the fact that the cases are being presented to the ICC is in itself an indictment of current President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government. Under the terms of the Rome Statute, which entered into force in Mexico in 2006, the ICC can only take on cases in which national courts are “unwilling or unable” to investigate or prosecute them. 

While Peña Nieto has criticized Calderon’s military-heavy approach to security, he has largely continued the policies of his predecessor. In its annual state of the nation report submitted to Congress earlier this month, the administration revealed that the government’s reliance on the military has increased, with the number of army patrols and drone operations up compared to last year.

News Briefs
  • Interestingly, while Peña Nieto has seemingly accepted a militarized approach to fighting insecurity in his own country, in recent weeks his government has been increasingly vocal in its opposition to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s decision to deploy the National Guard along the border. Last month, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement formally protesting the move, but in a Friday interview with El Universal, Peña Nieto went even further, calling it the result of a “reprehensible” attitude.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet took a brief trip to Uruguay on Friday, where she announced that Chile would be closely watching two policies in the nearby country: the acceptance of Guantanamo Bay prisoners and marijuana regulation. The AFP reports that Bachelet told journalists that her government was “in a process of reviewing its legal framework” regarding marijuana, and Telesur notes that Chilean drug authorities recommended the removal of the drug from a list of banned substances in March.
  • In Uruguay, supporters of Frente Amplio candidate Tabare Vazquez are taking solace in signs of discord between the opposition Colorado and National parties with the October 26 elections fast approaching. While the two are historically opposed to each other, presidential challenger Luis Lacalle Pou of the National Party will likely need some support from the Colorado base in order to beat Vazquez in a likely runoff race in November. But the relationship between the two parties looked as rocky as ever this week after Colorado candidate Pedro Bordaberry accused Lacalle Pou of trying to orchestrate a backroom deal to secure his support in a second round, which Bordaberry characterized as “extortion” in remarks relayed to Busqueda magazine.
  • The latest poll in Brazil’s presidential race, released on Friday by Ibope, suggests that President Dilma Rousseff may have closed the gap between herself and challenger Marina Silva. According to the survey, the two are statistically tied in a second round matchup, with 43 percent for Silva and 42 for Rousseff.
  • In a ruling with important consequences for the application of Brazil’s Amnesty Law, last week a federal tribunal of Rio de Janeiro ruled that the prosecution of five military officials for the death of dissident lawmaker Rubens Paim in 1971 can proceed, as the charges constitute crimes against humanity.  As prosecutor Silvana Batini told O Globo, it is the first time that the Brazilian justice system has recognized that certain dictatorship abuses amount to crimes against humanity. The ruling has been challenged, however, and will proceed to the Supreme Court.
  • The conservative alliance of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has launched its latest attempt to attack the peace talks in Havana. As El Espectador reports, lawmakers of his party have requested that the government provide details about the immigration status of the Dutch-born FARC guerrilla negotiator Tanja Nijmeijer, and are calling for her expulsion from the process if she is found to be in violation of immigration rules.
  • Following Ecuador’s recent public endorsement of Colombia’s adherence to an agreement to cut aerial coca spraying along the Ecuadorean border, a joint bi-national committee announced on Friday that a ten kilometer anti-spraying “buffer zone” between the two would be cut in half, El Tiempo reports.
  • Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been placed under house arrest amidst a well-publicized investigation into allegations that he embezzled millions of dollars in public funds during his second term in office. The New York Times offers a good analysis of the political context of the court order, which comes as President Michel Martelly are wrangling over a bill to schedule  long-delayed  local and legislative elections.
  • The latest issue of The Economist has a critical take on what the magazine describes as the “intellectual fashion for ‘historical memory’” in Latin America. The author argues that the emergence of post-conflict museums and historical memory centers in the region has been accompanied by a kind of historical revisionism, in which the anti-democratic leanings of leftist dissidents and guerrilla groups are overlooked. The forgotten truth, the magazine asserts, “is that the cold war in Latin America was fought by two equally authoritarian sides.” 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Venezuela Eyes UN Security Council Seat

Venezuela is poised to obtain a rotating seat at the UN Security Council at a General Assembly vote next month. The government of President Nicolas Maduro has not publicly confirmed that it is seeking a seat, but UN diplomatic sources have told the press that Venezuela received unanimous support to represent Latin America in a July meeting of regional leaders.

The Associated Press reports that Venezuela is adopting a low profile strategy toward its bid for the temporary seat, in part because it wants to avoid another confrontation like the one in 2006, in which the General Assembly ultimately picked Panama as a compromise between Venezuela’s candidacy and U.S. support for Guatemala.

While it is tempting to interpret the development as a sign of waning U.S. influence in the region, the reality is far tamer. According to the AP, in the wake of the 2006 dispute the region’s governments “agreed in private to alternate representation in a certain order. Under those procedures, it's now Venezuela's turn.”

Analyst James Bosworth has a good take on what this means for the hemisphere, noting that because Venezuela will be taking Argentina’s position, there shouldn’t be a particularly dramatic shift. He writes:
Latin America and the Caribbean aren't doing this to send a message to their neighbor up north. Instead, the region has an agreement that means it's Venezuela's turn. Nobody from the region is standing up to challenge Venezuela's turn at this seat. While I'm sure some of the Maduro government opponents in Venezuela and the US want to find an alternative and then engage in a high profile diplomatic fight that would leave everyone feeling bitter and angry, we've all got better things to spend our time and political capital on.

News Briefs
  • This week’s issue of The Economist has a good overview of the Brazilian scandal involving recent allegations by imprisoned former Petrobras director Paulo Roberto Costa, who claimed that a number of politicians -- most from the Workers Party  (PT), though he also named Eduardo Campos  -- received kickbacks from a corruption scheme in the state oil company.
  • Following news reports that El Impulso, Venezuela’s oldest newspaper, would be going out of print after Sunday in part due to a lack of affordable newsprint in the country, BBC Mundo reports that the paper has reached an agreement with the government that will allow it to obtain enough newsprint to remain in circulation for two more weeks. After that, however, El Impulso’s future remains uncertain.
  • It appears that Venezuela’s nighttime curfew along the Colombian border, a measure aimed at curbing smuggling and which was originally billed as a 30-day trial program, will be extended. Yesterday President Maduro announced that he was extending the curfew by three months on the advice of an advisory commission, El Nacional reports.
  • Yesterday, the government of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet marked the 41st anniversary of the 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power by creating a new Subsecretary of Human Rights office, as well as announcing that her administration will seek to repeal the repeal the country’s controversial Amnesty Law. According to La Tercera, the government has thrown its support behind a bill sponsored by Senator Guido Girardi, and is calling for lawmakers to fast-track its debate. In remarks to the press yesterday, Justice Minister José Antonio Gómez asserted that overturning the law would not be a major departure from what has already been established by a number of court rulings.
  • In drug policy news, on Monday Santiago Metropolitan Governor Claudio Orrego announced that authorities had given a green light to a pilot project sponsored by the Daya Foundation and the Santiago municipality of La Florida to grow cannabis for medicinal purposes. Specifically, the program will produce cannabis oil to be available to some 200 cancer patients, 24 Horas reports. The initiative will be overseen by the federal Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG), which will ensure that all cannabis is properly accounted for, and the costs to patients will be subsidized by the Daya Foundation. The development comes in the wake of the Chilean Institute of Health’s June decision to allow a breast cancer and lupus patient to access a cannabis-derived drug known as Sativex.
  • Vice News has an interesting report on an “energy revolution” underway in Uruguay, noting that the country’s efforts to develop alternative power sources have made it nearly energy independent. At the same time, however, EFE reports that Uruguay is courting international investors to search for offshore oil reserves in its waters.
  • In Colombia yesterday, Senate President Jose David Name issued a historic apology to the country on behalf of the Colombian Congress for various lawmakers’ support for paramilitary groups in the past. As El Tiempo reports, the gesture was made in accordance with a court ruling in the case against AUC figure Jorge Iván Laverde Zapata, alias “Iguano.”
  • The AP provides an example of the drastic levels of overcrowding in Colombia’s prison system: police in Bogota have been holding 40 prisoners in a public park in the La Granja neighborhood for the past week because they say a local jail has run out of space to house them. According to InSight Crime, however, the use of the park is only temporary until space in a district detention facility opens up in the coming weeks.
  • In response to the worsening Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, the government of Cuba has announced it will be sending 165 health workers to Sierra Leone in October to address the crisis. Meanwhile, the L.A. Times reports that the number of Cuban doctors who are defecting to the United States from third countries -- Venezuela being one of the most common ones -- is on pace to increase by 50 percent this year compared to last. According to immigration officials, over 1,500 Cuban healthcare workers are expected to be admitted to the U.S. this year.