Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News Briefs

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

Monday, July 28, 2014

No Sign of Rebellion in Venezuela’s Ruling Party Congress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lopez on Trial, Venezuela’s Opposition Badly Divided

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Correa Critic Arrested on Libel Charges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

More on the Child Migrant Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Colombia’s Santos Seeks to End Re-Election

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

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

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

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

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

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