Wednesday, August 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

Mexico Launches Scaled-Down 'Gendarmerie' Police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Mexico Revises the Number of 'Disappeared' (Again)

Three months after Mexican authorities triumphantly announced a dramatic reduction in the officially-recognized number of disappeared, they have walked this back significantly.  

Yesterday, Assistant Attorney General Mariana Benitez announced to reporters that the number of Mexicans who disappeared since the country’s drug war began in 2006, according to official calculations, is 22,322.

In May, Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong put the figure at 8,000. So which is it, and why the seemingly massive difference? The AP explains:
Assistant Attorney General Mariana Benitez said 12,532 people went missing during the 2006-12 administration of President Felipe Calderon, who declared war on drug traffickers. An additional 9,790 have disappeared since President Enrique Pena Nieto took office on Dec. 1, 2012. 
Benitez said that the list of people reported missing during Calderon's government had gone up to 29,707, but that authorities arrived at the figure of 12,532 still missing after finding the rest alive or confirming their deaths. 
She said a second list started with the Pena Nieto government showed 23,234 people reported missing between Dec. 1, 2012, and July 31, 2014. She said 13,444 of those had been located, leaving 9,790 still missing.
Of course, the news suggests that Osorio Chong provided a completely misleading account of the number of new disappearances since Enrique Peña Nieto took office (in May, he said roughly 3,000 had gone missing in 2013 and early 2014 ). Under normal circumstances this would be scandalous, but the plain truth is that that the Peña Nieto administration, like the Calderon administration before it, has consistently relied on using misleading statistics to cast its security strategy as a success.

But even setting this aside, the new numbers are unsettling on their own terms. Assuming Benitez’s account is accurate, 23,234 people have been reported missing in less than two years under Peña Nieto, compared with 29,707 over the course of six years under Calderon. That means that disappearance reports, if they remain stable, are on track to more than double those under the previous government. 

Obviously reports of disappearances have limited empirical value, but these figures, paired with the fact that the country saw a record number of kidnappings last year, don’t bode well for insecurity in Mexico.

News Briefs
  • After announcing her official presidential run this week, environmentalist Marina Silva appears to be consolidating her control over the joint Socialist Party-Sustainability Network campaign. Folha de São Paulo reports that the PSB has chosen former São Paulo Mayor Luiza Erundina to serve as the party’s representative on the joint campaign coordinating body, alongside the RS’s Walter Feldman. Folha notes she does not have strong party roots and has long been closer to Silva than her predecessor Carlos Siqueira, who resigned after publicly breaking with Silva yesterday.
  • The Economist has an analysis of Brazil’s galvanized presidential race, noting the recent Datafolha poll as well as Datafolha head Mauro Paulino’s firm belief that support for Silva is not merely a radar blip that will fade in the aftermath of Campos’ death.
  • El Tiempo reports that in a joint communiqué yesterday, Colombian authorities and FARC rebels identified the academics and conflict experts who have been selected to serve on the so-called “Historic Commission for Peace,” tasked with authoring a conclusive report on the historical causes of the country’s armed conflict and its impact on the population. Semana has the names of those chosen, and Reconciliacion Colombia has more about their academic backgrounds. Also in the peace process, El Espectador reports that a delegation of five Colombian military officials has been sent to Havana to dialogue with FARC leaders as part of preliminary discussions about how to begin a ceasefire.
  • In other Colombian news, the country’s new Justice Minister Yesid Reyes Alvarado is set to appear in Bogota at the first of a series of nationwide forums on drug policy, co-sponsored by the government, the Ideas for Peace Foundation and the UNODC. Reyes just started his post on Thursday, so the fact that a forum on drug policy is his first public appearance is a good omen for drug policy reformers in the country.
  • As the Listin Diario reports, an official ethics commission in the Dominican Republic has banned a public concert in the country by singer Miley Cyrus slated for September 13, on the grounds that she frequently "undertakes acts that go against morals and customs, which are punishable by Dominican law." The AP notes that Cyrus’ act has been criticized for her “onstage antics, including twerking and crotch-grabbing,” and that the same commission has previously banned radio stations from playing songs by artists like Calle 13. However justified Dominican authorities are in their moral outrage, the ruling unquestionably raises questions about the state of prior censorship in the country.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced a new plan to combat the scarcity of consumer goods: requiring public and private stores to install fingerprint scanners, meant to catch those who take advantage of subsidies by selling items on the black market. As BBC Mundo reports, the opposition has criticized the plan, calling it a violation of privacy and a form of rationing.
  • Venezuelan human rights advocates say that 276 protesters arrested during the wave of demonstrations in the country earlier this year have been released and will not face any charges, according to the AP. But El Universal, citing Nizar El Fakih of the Human Rights Center of Andres Bello Catholic University, puts the figure at 212, and notes that the Venezuelan Penal Forum claims this represents just ten percent of the total of people arrested during four months of antigovernment protests.
  • Santiago saw a large-scale protest yesterday, organized by the Chilean university students union (CONFECH) and opposed to the content of President Michelle Bachelet’s education reforms. Organizers say the turnout was 80,000, while authorities put it at 25,000. El Mostrador casts the march as a “key moment” for the future of education reform in the country, noting concerns by CONFECH and other groups that their demands are not being taken into account by the government.
  • As the Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa ruled yesterday that Argentina’s attempt to pay bondholders in Argentina rather than through U.S. intermediary banks is illegal, and cannot be carried out.
  • Uruguay’s El Pais reports that the National Party presidential candidate Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou, whom polls show is gaining momentum in the race against the Frente Amplio’s Tabare Vazquez, addressed his position on marijuana regulation to reporters yesterday. While he said he opposes the country’s new law and believes it will never be fully implemented, Lacalle Pou confirmed that he supports keeping sections of it in place which allow home cultivation of the drug. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Marina Silva is Officially in Brazil's Presidential Race

Brazil’s Socialist Party has confirmed that Marina Silva will take the place of the late Eduardo Campos as its presidential candidate, shaking up the country’s political landscape six weeks before general elections.

As O Globo reports, yesterday’s announcement came after a day-long meeting between the leaders of Campos’ Socialist Party (PSB) and Silva’s political movement, the Sustainability Network (RS). During the meeting it was reportedly settled that Silva would not be required to fully step in for Campos and campaign for candidates with whom she herself has no political affiliation, which includes PSB-aligned candidates in São Paulo, Paraná and Santa Catarina states.

Upon taking over the campaign, Silva also appointed Bazileu Margarido as her campaign’s finance coordinator. Margarido is a close confidante of Silva’s, and served with her as an environmental ministry official in the Lula administration. Sustainability Network spokesman Walter Feldman will take his place as joint director of the PSB-RS campaign, Estadão reports.

In a press conference Wednesday evening, Silva addressed concerns about her capacity to balance the interests of the PSB and her political movement. Saying she sees the two as “brothers,” she promised to treat differences between their agendas “with generosity,” even as she renewed her commitment to register the RS as an official political party in its own right.

PSB leaders named Congressman Beto Albuquerque as Silva’s running mate, a selection that Reuters notes may have been made as much for his PSB ties as his ties to the powerful agribusiness sector. Because of her stance on environmental issues, this is a likely weak point for Silva, especially compared with the industry’s support for the other main challenger to President Dilma Rousseff, Aecio Neves of the Social Democracy Party (PSDB).

As Monday’s Datafolha survey showed, Neves and Silva are tied in second place behind Rousseff at around 20 percent each, roughly 15 points behind the president. However, the most striking finding of the poll found that a hypothetical second-round Marina/Dilma matchup was a statistical tie.

This puts Rousseff in a tougher spot than before Campos’ death, and on Wednesday Reuters fueled the intrigue even further by reporting that a source from the Neves camp confirmed that the PSDB candidate would back Silva in the event of a runoff race with the president.

Still, as Cláudio Gonçalves Couto of the Fundação Getúlio Vargas is quoted in today’s New York Times, it’s worth remembering that the accuracy of Silva’s poll numbers at this point is unclear. As he notes, “We need to wait a couple of weeks for the emotions to settle from the death of Eduardo Campos.”

 News Briefs
  • The head of the Guatemalan military’s joint chiefs of staff, General Rudy Ortiz, died yesterday in a helicopter crash in the northwestern province of Huehuetenango. Prensa Libre reports that the official was on a routine visit to military installation in the area, and that the aircraft encountered bad weather.
  • At the Colombian peace talks in Havana today, the negotiating teams are slated to announce the makeup of the 12-member “Historic Commission of the Conflict and its Victims.” FARC rebels and the government have selected six members of the commission, as well one “rapporteur” each. Once it is convened, the body will be responsible for drafting a final report on the history and impact of the country’s armed conflict in four months’ time, as El Espectador reports.
  • A new poll by Uruguayan pollster Cifra  brings more bad news for the country’s governing Frente Amplio (FA) coalition, suggesting that the FA will likely lose its congressional majority, and potentially the presidency, in October’s general elections. The August survey showed 41 percent voter intention for the FA (two less than a month ago), the National Party with 32 percent (an increase of two points from July), and the Colorado Party steady at 15 percent.  El Pais has a roundup of other polls conducted so far this month, all of which suggest that a FA majority in congress is likely out of the question.
  • The National Security Archives has an analysis of recently-released documents by Mexico’s National Migration Institute, which shed light on the August 2010 San Fernando massacre of 72 migrants allegedly at the hands of the Zetas. The fact that the documents were released in accordance with a ruling that guarantees access to information on human rights abuses is significant, as it constitutes the first time that a Mexican federal agency has framed the massacre as such.
  • Peruvian President Ollanta Humala set off a diplomatic clash with neighboring Chile on Tuesday after presenting a map during an official ceremony that depicts contested territory as part of Peru. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Chilean authorities say that the map does not coincide with a January International Court of Justice ruling on their border dispute, because the court only ruled on their maritime -- and not land -- limits.
  • In Fidel Castro’s latest “Reflexiones” column, the AP notes that the retired Cuban leader claims that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro met with him on Tuesday, a belated birthday visit that was previously unannounced in Venezuela.
  • While Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has presented a plan to pay international creditors through the country’s national bank rather than a New York intermediary bank, as the Guardian reports, Reuters notes that financial analysts say there will likely be no resolution to the situation until after next year’s presidential election.
  • The Financial Times hosts an opinion piece by Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, who argues that China’s increasing investment in the region is being accompanied by a political transformation, whereby traditionally populist systems are being replaced by something resembling “authoritarian capitalism.” As evidence, he cites the business friendly policies of Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, which he claims is accompanied by a heavy-handed approach to press freedom and judicial independence.
  • In response to continuing reductions in the number of international airline flights to Venezuela over payment disputes, the U.S embassy in Caracas has issued a warning to American travelers visiting the country that they could risk being stranded there. El Nuevo Herald reports that the scaled back flights, as well as a jump in prices to make international calls to the country, give the impression that the country is becoming “increasingly isolated” from the rest of the world.
  • In a column for El Tiempo, Latin American political analyst Juan Gabriel Tokatlian takes a look at Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ nuanced -- and occasionally contradictory -- position on drug policy reform. While Tokatlian notes that it’s unrealistic for the hemisphere’s drug reformers to expect the president to entirely reject prohibition, he suggests that Santos could show more leadership on the issue by embracing five proposed principles. These include: recognizing that eradicating drugs and drug use is impossible; putting people at the center of policies rather than substances; admitting that any drug policy should have medium and long-term goals rather than immediate ones; prioritizing a health approach over the traditional security-based one; and finally, recognizing that trial and error-based experimentation with drug policy alternatives is important and necessary. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Peru’s Anti-Environmental Environmentalism

As noted in yesterday’s brief, the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff has an in-depth report on Peru’s campaign to crack down on illegal small-scale mining in the Amazon. In April the government imposed a nationwide ban on informal mining, and since then security forces have stepped up raids on mining camps in the southeastern jungle region of Madre de Dios.

What is remarkable in the Post piece is how much Peruvian authorities are framing these operations as a victory for environmentalism. From the article:
Wearing military fatigues and combat boots, Antonio Fernandez, Peru’s top prosecutor for environmental crimes, watched the mining camp burn. This ghostly moonscape of dead stumps and contaminated pits was primary forest just six months ago, he said. 
“These people have done extraordinary damage,” said Fernandez. “We have to respond with the same amount of force.” 
After years of ignoring the frantic gold rush fouling the Amazon forests of southeastern Peru’s Madre de Dios region, the government has launched a no-mercy campaign to crush it.
And later:

“Extreme profits are never a justification for breaking the law,” Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Peru’s environmental minister, said in an interview.
As Miroff notes, there are questions about officials’ capacity to fully investigate and punish illegal mining operations. Despite the high-profile campaign, just four illegal miners have been prosecuted so far.

But the deeper irony of these remarks lies in the fact that the Peruvian government, far from adopting a “no-mercy” approach to environmental abuse, is in reality moving in the exact opposite direction.  

In July, President Ollanta Humala signed into law a measure that dramatically rolls back environmental protections in the country in a bid to attract international investment. On top of stripping the country’s nascent environmental ministry of its ability to impose air, soil and water quality standards, the new law abolishes its power to set aside protected areas from extraction efforts. For the next three years, the majority of corporate fines for environmental abuses have been capped by half.

Ahead of the next UN climate negotiations in Lima this December, President Humala will likely minimize this law and stress his commitment to striking a balance between economic development and environmental stewardship. But as Cesar Gamboa of Peru’s Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR) argued well in a recent Project Syndicate op-ed, stricter oversight is in the public interest not only for environmental reasons, but for long-term economic ones as well.

News Briefs
  • The Wall Street Journal has an update on the proposed constitutional reforms in Ecuador, which -- among other things --include a measure that could pave the way for President Rafael Correa’s indefinite re-election. While the country’s Constitutional Court has not yet ruled whether the proposals must face a popular vote or go directly to Congress, El Comercio reports that lawmakers of the ruling Alianza Pais coalition are expecting the court to endorse them, and plan on debating them in November. If the timeline holds, they could be passed as soon as December 2015.Members of the opposition, meanwhile, are already working to organize a popular referendum on the reforms next year.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez yesterday announced plans to present legislators with a bill that will allow the country to skirt U.S. jurisdiction of its debt payments, allowing bondholders waiting on payment to swap their debt for new notes under Argentine law, La Nacion and Reuters report.
  • Senators in Chile have approved a tax reform seen as a signature campaign promise by President Michelle Bachelet. Reuters notes that the Senate increased the corporate tax rate in the bill from 25 to 27 percent, meaning that it will now return to the lower house for approval.
  • Following Pope Francis’ announcement that that the Vatican would be moving forward with the process of beatifying the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, DPA reports that the news was applauded by officials in El Salvador. President Salvador Sanchez Ceren issued a brief statement welcoming the move, and Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez said the administration was “extremely pleased” by it. The New York Times offers some reactions among Salvadoran Catholics, with some hoping that his potential beatification would reduce the politicization of Romero’s image.
  • Mexican environmental authorities have charged a mining company in the northern state of Sonora with lying about the cause of a recent chemical spill that has caused the temporary closure of 88 schools in the area. Environment Secretary Juan Jose Guerra Abud said the company, Buenavista Copper, said that the spill was caused by heavy rains, but that this was “totally false.” El Universal reports that public prosecutors have given the company 30 days to rectify three “irregularities” in its Sonora operations.
  • International and local press freedom groups in Honduras are urging authorities to fully investigate the murder of broadcast journalist Nery Francisco Soto Torres, who was killed in Olanchito on Thursday. As the AP reports, at least 46 journalists and media workers have been killed in the country since 2003. In another indicator of the alarming level of insecurity in the country, the news agency reports that masked gunmen killed nine people in an attack on a morgue in San Pedro Sula on Tuesday, apparently aimed at a family who had gone to view the body of a relative killed a day earlier.
  • Gallup has released its latest Law and Order Index, measuring perceived personal safety, confidence in local police and self-reported incidence of theft worldwide. According to its findings, residents of Latin America Caribbean are the least likely among world regions to feel safe, beating out those who live in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as the former Soviet Union. Venezuelans were particularly likely to report insecurity, and the country has both the lowest index score in the region and the world as a whole.
  • Cuba’s Central Bank has announced new anti-counterfeiting plans for certain Cuban peso bills, a move the Miami Herald claims is an apparent part of plans to end the country’s dual currency scheme, first announced in October.
  • The Herald also reports on an innovative approach to sexual assault on mass transit in Bogota: a squad of so-called “pervert police,” a largely female plainclothes unit responsible for arresting individuals caught groping women on public buses.   
  • The Guardian reports on an unusually strict application of copyright law in Colombia, in which a biologist accused of sharing a scholarly work online is facing criminal charges and an eight-year jail sentence in court.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On Mariela Castro’s ‘No’ Vote and Cuban LGBT Advocacy

Two months after Cuba’s revised labor code went into effect, and more than eight months after the measure passed the country’s National Assembly, the AP reports on a largely unnoticed detail in the voting breakdown: Mariela Castro voted against it.

Mariela Castro, the daughter of President Raul Castro and niece of Fidel Castro, gave the thumbs-down to a workers' rights bill that she felt didn't go far enough to prevent discrimination against people with HIV or with unconventional gender identities. 
None of the experts contacted by The Associated Press could recall another "no" vote in the 612-seat National Assembly, which meets briefly twice a year and approves laws by unanimous show of hands. 
"This is the first time, without a doubt," said Carlos Alzugaray, a historian and former Cuban diplomat.
Analysts cited by the AP are split over the significance of the move. Some believe it is evidence of increasing tolerance for critical debate in the Assembly, while others think it is only a sign that the daughter of Raul Castro can get away with what others can’t.

But more interesting than the weight of her vote is another component to the story: the fact that Castro was not alone in calling for greater protections for HIV-positive or transgender individuals. In fact, the news largely escaped notice until the law went into effect in June and LGBT advocacy groups on the island began to publicize Castro’s “no” vote.

As IPS reported last month, the LGBT rights collective Proyecto Arcoiris met with Cuban lawmakers in July to protest the exclusion of transgender and HIV-positive protections in the labor code. Toledo Santander, who headed up the parliamentary commission responsible for drafting the new code, reportedly told those present that the final wording had been altered by a “style commission.”

Francisco Rodriguez, who attended the meeting, wrote on his blog that he responded by rather diplomatically emphasizing “the need for state leaders and the government to study these topics more and to listen more to those who are specialists in these subjects, as well as to exert political leadership on scientific grounds.”

These kinds of encounters are important as they illustrate the potential for civil society to play a role in targeted advocacy on the island, especially when paired with relatively reform-minded political figures like Mariela Castro. For those interested in promoting democratic reforms in Cuba, studying these kinds of relationships might be a better use of time than, say, sending undercover foreign activists to university campuses to attempt to identify potential dissident youths.

News Briefs
  • Today’s Washington Post features a profile of the Peruvian government’s recent highly-publicized efforts to crack down on illegal gold mining, which have included raiding mining camps and demolishing equipment. But despite these displays, the Post notes that just four illegal miners have gone to prison as a result of the government’s campaign.
  • Following the publication of the Datafolha survey which showed that Marina Silva’s likely entry to the presidential race poses a serious threat to President Dilma Rousseff, Folha has an analysis of Silva’s likely support base. According to the paper, the poll found that those who backed Silva tended to be better educated, younger, and upper-middle class. Datafolha head Mauro Paulino argues that this demographic fits well with those who participated in the protests of June 2013.
  • Brazilian news site Ponte reports that President Rousseff has signed a new law into effect which grants city police, known as the Municipal Guards, new powers as well as permission to carry firearms. Ponte notes that several security analysts have questioned the reform over its alleged potential to fuel jurisdictional disputes with the state-level military police.
  • La Silla Vacia has an account of the work of the victims’ delegation to the Colombian peace talks in Havana, describing how delegates were swiftly informed of their nomination over a 48-hour period and then whisked away to Bogota, then Cuba. While their encounters with government and FARC negotiators were emotional and laid a positive foundation for reconciliation, La Silla notes that their reception back home -- especially among right-wing Uribista sectors -- shows that more work on this front is needed.
  • The Washington Examiner reports on the challenges that Washington faces in propping up an anti-narcotic helicopter fleet in Guatemala, where officials’ late payments to contractors have made it so that just two of the six U.S.-supplied helicopters are airworthy due to a lack of spare parts.
  • Pope Francis announced yesterday that he was lifting a ban on the beatification of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero. As the BBC reports, the pontiff told reporters that he saw Romero as a “man of god,” and said it was important that the beatification be completed quickly.
  • In a column for Foreign Policy, former senior advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Fulton Armstrong offers a look at the recent AP reporting on USAID activity in Cuba. Armstrong claims that his work with the SFRC exposed him to a number of controversial projects like the ones the AP has exposed, and asserts that a number of State Department and USAID employees have privately expressed concern over the lack of oversight of the humanitarian agency’s work on the island.
  • Infojus, the press department of Argentina’s Ministry of Justice, has released a copy of the forged birth certificate of the re-located grandson of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo President Estela de Carlotto. As EFE reports, the certificate was verified by a police doctor, and falsely lists the grandson’s parents as rural farmworkers.