Friday, October 24, 2014

Last Polls Before Voting Day in Brazil, Uruguay

On Sunday, both Brazilians and Uruguayans will be going to the polls. In Brazil, recent surveys have suggested that President Dilma Rousseff has widened her lead over challenger Aecio Neves. But in neighboring Uruguay, recent polls suggest that that the ruling Frente Amplio coalition isn’t having the same luck.

Yesterday, Ibope and Datafolha both published the results of surveys taken earlier this week, both of which for the first time showed Rousseff leading Neves outside of the margin of error. Ibope has Rousseff beating Neves 49% to 41% of total votes (excluding null and blank votes, Rousseff has 54% to her rival’s 46), while Datafolha found 48 % for the incumbent and 42% for Neves (which would be 53 to 47% of valid votes, respectively).

The Wall Street Journal reports that analysts say Dilma’s rise is a product of her campaign’s ability to secure support among working-class voters. However, the Datafolha survey suggests this is isn’t quite the full picture. As Folha reports, Datafolha’s data shows that the president’s challenger lost support across all classes in recent weeks.  The pollster found that support for Neves after the first-round vote stood at 74% among upper class voters and 67% among the middle class, but that these figures have since fallen to 64% and 58%, respectively.

Meanwhile in Uruguay, the governing Frente Amplio coalition has not seen a rebound similar to Rousseff’s. Polls released this week suggest the FA will fall short of the roughly 47% that most analysts suggest it needs to hold on to its legislative majority.  Equipos Mori has the Frente Amplio at 43.6%, the National Party (PN) at 33.4%, the Colorado Party (PC) at 15.1% and the Independent Party (PI)  at 3.1%; Cifra has FA 43%, PN 32%, PC 18% and PI 3.3%; and Factum suggests FA 44%, PN 32%, PC 15% and PI 3%).

According to El Observador’s helpful projections based on these polls, in the best possible scenario for the FA, they will still lose two congressmen in the lower house. This means that no matter what, the next Congress will see far more debate and vote-wrangling than in the past five years under the FA’s controlling majority.

Because the FA won’t obtain a majority of votes in the first round, there will almost certainly be a presidential runoff on November 30 between the FA’s Tabare Vazquez and the PN’s Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou. On this front the news isn’t good for the FA either. Factum, the only pollster to publish surveys on a hypothetical pairing between the two, found earlier this month that two are statistically tied at 48% for Vazquez and 47% for Lacalle Pou, with a 3 point margin of error. This gap has narrowed from September, when Factum had 50% for Vazquez and 48 for Lacalle Pou, and is a far cry from polls earlier this year. As recently as April, Vazquez enjoyed a 15-point lead over his rival, with 55% to Lacalle Pou’s 40%.

Regarding Uruguay’s plebiscite to lower the age of criminal responsibility, the latest survey from leading pollster Cifra shows that 47% support the reform and 43% oppose it.  However, the good news for Uruguay’s No a La Baja campaign is that this 47% will not automatically translate into votes for the measure. In order to support the initiative, voters have to present a special slip inside the sealed ballot lists of their party of choice. Not including the slip is the equivalent of not voting for the reform, which is why the Frente Amplio lists do not include them. And though the Colorado Party is automatically including the slip in its ballot lists, the National Party is divided on the issue, as El Pais has noted. While Lacalle Pou’s faction of the National Party will include it, Vice President candidate Jorge Larrañaga’s list -- the party’s second-most popular grouping -- will not. Though this seems like a minor detail, Larrañaga’s decision will likely mean the failure of the reform initiative.

News Briefs
  • Though it has largely avoided becoming a major campaign issue thus far, Uruguay’s marijuana law has come into play in recent days, with both Vazquez and Lacalle Pou mentioning it in remarks to the press. Last week, the FA candidate remarked to newsmagazine Busqueda that he saw the law’s provisions on commercial sales in pharmacies as “unheard of,” though he said he would continue to implement it while carefully evaluating its effects.  And as El Pais reports, in a Wednesday interview he again put some distance between himself and the law, remarking that commercial sales could potentially put pharmacies at risk of criminal attacks.  Lacalle Pou, for his part, confirmed to Reuters on Wednesday if elected president he would present a bill to end sales in pharmacies, restricting it to home-growing and cannabis clubs.
  • In the latest twist in the case of the 43 missing students from Mexico’s Guerrero state, Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre Rivero has stepped aside to allow the state legislature to choose his successor, Animal Politico and the AP report.
  • News site Plaza Publica has an interview with the head of Honduras’ National Anti-corruption Council, Gabriela Castellanos Lanza. Since taking office she has made a name for herself as a committed champion against abuse of public funds and criminal influence in government.
  • InSight Crime’s David Gagne offers his take on Guatemala’s recent government-commissioned civil society report on potential drug policy reforms.  In his estimation, the report’s lack of “state regulation or at least decriminalization of marijuana” represents a step backward from Guatemala’s position as a main advocate for a new approach to drugs in the hemisphere.
  • The government of Venezuela yesterday announced the discovery of warehouses packed with food and medical goods that had been meant to illegally smuggle into neighboring Colombia, which President Nicolas Maduro held up as an example of what he has in the past called an “economic war” being waged against the country.  He also said he would use decree powers to raise the maximum jail sentence for smugglers to 14 years, Ultimas Noticias reports.
  • The Dominican government officially gave a response to the recently-published Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling on its citizenship and immigration practices yesterday. As El Listin Diario reports, government spokesperson Roberto Rodriguez Marchena told reporters that the administration of President Danilo Medina “rejects” the sentence even as it continues to adhere to the Inter-American human rights system. According to Rodriguez, the government views the decision as a violation of a state’s sovereign right to decide its own citizenship requirements, enshrined in international law.
  • But while the Medina government claims to respect the American Convention, the court’s ruling has fueled arguments among Dominican lawmakers arguing in favor of withdrawing recognition of its jurisdiction. This includes spokesmen of both major parties -- Medina’s PLD and the PRD -- in the lower house, according to El Dia.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Inter-American Court Rules Against Dominican 'Denationalization'

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled that the Dominican Republic is guilty of systematically deporting individuals of Haitian descent on a discriminatory basis, and that it must take steps to invalidate last year’s controversial ruling that left thousands of people effectively stateless.

Yesterday, the court published its ruling on “Expelled Dominican and Haitian people v. Dominican Republic,” condemning the D.R. for human rights violations committed against Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the 1990s. During this time the court found that tens of thousands of people had been made victims of arbitrary detention and expulsion, violating their rights to a nationality, to recognition as a person before the law and to freedom of movement and residence as laid out in the American Convention.

The decision has been a long time coming. The case is based on a petition first submitted on behalf of 27 victims to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in late 1999, which the Commission passed the case on to the Court after issuing its own recommendations in 2012.

But while the case focuses on violations that took place from 1990 to 2000, yesterday’s sentence goes beyond the specific facts involved, as Acento, Listin Diario and Spanish news agency EFE note.

On top of ordering the D.R. to sort out the legal documentation of the 27 victims, the court took aim at the 2013 Dominican Supreme Court decision that left the legal residency and citizenship status of as many as 250,000 people in doubt. In its recommendations, the court asserts that Dominican authorities should “adopt internal legal measures” to annul the 2013 domestic court ruling, as well as sections of a controversial May 2014 law meant to implement it.

Specifically, the Inter-American Court ruled that the D.R. should “take appropriate steps to void any rules of any kind; whether constitutional, legal, regulatory or administrative; as well as any practice, decision or interpretation; which establishes or has as its effect that the illegal presence of foreign parents causes the denial of Dominican nationality to persons born in the territory of the Dominican Republic.”

This is a significant victory for Dominican civil society groups that have advocated for the rights of Haitians and people of Haitian descent in the country. Because the Dominican Republic has accepted the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court since early 1999, the ruling is legally binding. In fact, Article 74 of the Dominican Constitution establishes that in the event of a contradiction between a national court ruling and an international one, the ruling that is most favorable to individual rights-holders takes wins out.

However, in practice the Inter-American Court ruling is unlikely to bring any change, at least in the short term. As human rights expert Julia Harrington Reddy has noted, a similar judgment in 2005 went virtually ignored and did nothing to prevent last year’s Supreme Court ruling.

In a press conference last night, a spokesman for President Danilo Medina told reporters that the government would need time to analyze the 160-page ruling, but would likely present an official response to the decision by Friday.

News Briefs
  • The AP looks at the support for Brazilian presidential challengers Aecio Neves and Dilma Rousseff among lower middle class voters. Many analysts believe Rousseff’s aggressive marketing has given her an edge among this demographic, taking advantage of Neves’ image as defender of elite interests.
  • In an excellent article for Foreign Policy, Rio-based journalist Miriam Wells explains why regardless of which presidential candidate wins on Sunday, they will have to work with the PMDB legislative bloc in order to govern effectively. As she notes, the PMDB’s long-standing influence and flexibility on ideological issues has effectively turned the party into a political kingmaker.
  • Brazil is not the only country in the hemisphere that will be holding elections on Sunday. Uruguay’s general election is also slated for October 26, though polls indicate that the presidential race will go to a runoff between the ruling Frente Amplio’s Tabare Vazquez and National Party candidate Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou. As the campaigns come to a close, the three leading pollsters have released their final polls ahead of the vote. El Pais and Subrayado have good overviews of the three ( Equipos Mori: Frente Amplio 43.6%, National Party 33.4%, Colorado Party 15.1 and Independent Party 3.1%; Cifra: FA 43%, PN 32%, PC 18% y PI 3.3%; and Factum FA 44%, PN 32%, PC 15% y PI 3%), with most analysts agreeing that the ruling coalition will lose its legislative majority and that the second round presidential race is still too close to call.
  • On Tuesday, Chile’s lower house voted to approve an education reform bill presented by President Michelle Bachelet, as La Tercera reported.The Wall Street Journal  has more on the details of the bill, which will end student copayments, prevent for-profit schools from receiving state money, and eliminate restrictive admission policies.
  • Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam yesterday confirmed reports that Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca had ordered corrupt police to detain protesting students in the town last month, out of concerns that they would disrupt a speech by his wife. Karam also said that the mayor received payments of between $150,000-$220,000 from the local criminal gang, Guerreros Unidos.
  • The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), which has been contracted to help Mexican authorities identify the remains found in the mass graves being uncovered in Guerrero, has cast doubt on the methods used by official Mexican forensic researchers. Animal Politico reports that because of potential procedural errors, two members of the EAAF told the news site that the Mexican government cannot be entirely sure that none of the 30 bodies located thus far belong to the missing students.
  • The Venezuelan government has begun implementing a controversial plan to fight food and good shortages by requiring individuals buying staples like milk, rice, coffee, toothpaste, chicken and detergent to scan their fingerprints to ensure they are not stocking up.  The WSJ describes this as rationing, asserting that Venezuela has now “joined the ranks of North Korea and Cuba.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mexico’s CNDH: Soldiers Killed 15 in Tlatlaya Massacre

Yet another version has emerged of the events surrounding the death of 22 suspects at the hands of soldiers in the town of Tlatlaya on June 30. For two months, both state and federal officials denied that any wrongdoing had occurred, saying that all the victims had died in a shootout even as local and international press reported on witnesses’ claims that all but one of the victims had been executed.

This continued until late September, when Mexico’s Defense Ministry (SEDENA) announced the arrest of eight personnel in connection with the death (this has since risen to 16). Two weeks later, the office of the Attorney General (PGR) announced that four soldiers would be prosecuted  for the alleged murder of eight suspects, while the remaining 14 had been killed in an exchange of gunfire.

Now, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has turned this story on its head. In a summary of the group’s own investigation (.pdf)  released yesterday, CNDH President Raul Plascencia called on the SEDENA, PGR and the government of Mexico state to widen their inquiries into the Tlatlaya killings, saying that it had established that soldiers executed at least 12 and probably 15 of the 22. Contrary to the military’s claims, the initial firefight lasted no more than ten minutes, as the suspects surrendered quickly. As Animal Politico reports, the CNDH accused the soldiers of rearranging their bodies after the incident in order to make the deaths fit the official story.

It remains to be seen how the government will respond to the CNDH’s non-binding recommendations, but the continued absence of the 43 disappeared students in Guerrero and the continued discovery of unrelated mass graves in the area do not exactly inspire confidence in Mexican authorities.

News Briefs
  • The AFP reports that U.S. State Department source has said that the Obama administration is open to the idea of collaborating with Cuban officials to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. "We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with Cuba to confront the Ebola outbreak. Cuba is making significant contributions by sending hundreds of health workers to Africa," the source reportedly told the news agency.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s apparent slight surge in the polls recently, becoming the latest U.S. media outlet to profile the president’s support base among the rural and urban poor.
  • As the search for Mexico’s missing students drags on and new graves are being uncovered, the Associated Press reports on Mexico’s difficulty with identifying remains and the slow pace of documenting disappearances.
  • In an op-ed for the New York Times, Clarin opinion editor Fabian Bosoer and historian Federico Finchelstein criticize a new deal reached between the Argentine and Russian governments that will pave the way for a Spanish language version of the state-owned Russian news agency RT to air in the South American country. To the authors, the agreement is an example of what they describe as a regional march towards “Putin’s approach to media freedom,” in which Latin America’s populist governments are increasingly becoming hostile to independent journalism.
  • InSight Crime offers an update on Mexico’s controversial decision to legalize the so-called “self-defense” militias in Michoacan state, noting that the recent death of a militia leader lends weight to claims that officials have failed to properly equip the groups and bring them into the ranks of the military’s Rural Defense Corps.
  • McClatchy reports on opposition to the Australian El Dorado gold mining project in El Salvador, a mine that environmentalists say would cause devastating environmental harm to affected communities. The future of the mine is being decided by a World Bank tribunal in DC, which is expected to issue a ruling sometime early next year.
  • The Washington Post reports on the campaign efforts of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her challenger Aecio Neves in the latter’s home state of Minas Gerais, noting that his record as governor there has been both attacked by critics and applauded by supporters.
  • The Miami Herald’s Jim Wyss profiles the reactions to the Colombian peace negotiations in Havana among conflict victims, finding that despite all they have endured, many of Colombia’s 6.7 million victims are more interested in reconciliation and peace than revenge.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cuba Calls for U.S. Cooperation on Ebola

Cuba’s commitment to fighting the Ebola outbreak in West Africa -- a product of its longstanding emphasis on medical diplomacy -- has earned applause in recent days from some unexpected sources, including Secretary of State John Kerry.  On Friday, Kerry briefly touched on Cuba’s humanitarian efforts, noting that “Cuba, a country of just 11 million people, has sent 165 health professionals [to Ebola-stricken nations]— and it plans to send nearly 300 more.” 

The following day, state media on the island published a column by Fidel Castro in which the former ruler wrote that the Cubans “will happily cooperate with U.S. personnel in this task, not in search of peace between these two states which have been adversaries for so many years, but rather, in any event, for World Peace, an objective which can and should be attempted.”

Both Kerry and Castros’ remarks were picked up in a New York Times editorial on Sunday, which also described the potential for the U.S. (“the chief donor in the fight against Ebola”) and Cuba (“the boldest contributor”) to complement each other’s work in West Africa. “While the United States and several other wealthy countries have been happy to pledge funds, only Cuba and a few nongovernmental organizations are offering what is most needed: medical professionals in the field,”  the NYT noted.  

At the very least, the paper called for infected Cubans to be given treatment at a U.S. military health center in Liberia. This gesture would be especially important given that, according to CNN, Cuban healthcare workers in West Africa have agreed not to be repatriated to Cuba for treatment if they are infected, in order to avoid spreading the illness.

Yesterday, Raul Castro opened a door to such collaboration. At an ALBA summit on the Ebola crisis in Havana, the Cuban president echoed his older brother’s words. Cautioning that humanitarian work should not be “politicized,” he vowed that Cuba is “willing to work shoulder to shoulder with all other countries, including the United States.”

The invitation is significant in that it provides the Obama administration with an opening to seize on all the recent praise of Cuba’s efforts, improving the fight against Ebola as well as strengthening relations with Havana.

So far, however, such a move seems unlikely. The Miami Herald reports that a U.S. State Department spokeswoman refrained from commenting on whether U.S.-Cuba cooperation on Ebola would be possible, only saying that Cuba was making a “significant contribution.”

The Herald also has more on the ALBA bloc summit, which ended with member nations adopting a 23-point resolution committing them to launch public health campaigns, step up screening at border checkpoints and airports and create “specialized teams” to craft a national strategy to the disease in the event that it crosses the Atlantic.

News Briefs
  • A new poll on Brazil’s presidential field by Datafolha suggests that President Dilma Rousseff has gained some ground on her challenger Aecio Neves. The poll found 52 percent for Rousseff, compared to 48 percent for Neves. While the president’s lead is still within the margin of error, Veja notes that this is the first time that her support has been higher than Neves’ since the runoff phase of the race.
  • Also on the Brazilian elections, Michael Shifter offers an interesting analysis of the race in Foreign Policy. While both Neves and Rousseff have hurled accusations of corruption and nepotism at each other in the past three face-to-face debates, Shifter claims there has been relatively little discussion of their policy differences. This, he says, is due to the fact that there are remarkably few differences between the two, and their divisions “are more like those between Old Labour and New Labour in Britain.”
  • In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Folha columnist Antonio Prata criticizes what he sees as his compatriots’ collusion with everyday corruption and low-level tax evasion schemes, even as they criticize politicians for more egregious versions of the same actions.
  • Panama has suspended a Supreme Court justice accused of using his proximity to former President Ricardo Martinelli to his own economic benefit, charges that have been bolstered by the revelation that he owns multiple luxury apartments that are seemingly outside his official pay range.
  • Analyst James Bosworth takes a look at Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s flagging popularity, with a new Datanalisis poll showing that 30 percent approve of his administration and 68 percent do not. Even more telling is the fact that 82 percent of Venezuelans say the country is not heading in a positive direction.
  • In an update of the race for OAS Secretary General, yesterday the government of Argentina officially endorsed Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro for the job, El Observador reports. Argentina joins Chile, Brazil, Paraguay and -- of course -- Uruguay, meaning the entire Southern Cone is united behind the candidate.
  • The local chapters of international anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International voted over the weekend to elect the group’s next head, choosing Peruvian lawyer José Ugaz over French businessman Pascal Lamy. Ugaz received an endorsement from The Economist last week, which characterized him as the bolder choice of the two candidates, representing “the activist approach.”
  • The Miami Herald looks at a planned Clinton Global Initiative event in Miami this December, which former President Bill Clinton is set to unveil later today. The event is slated as an opportunity to reflect on the 20 years since the first Summit of the America, and as a way for policymakers and experts to assess what the next 20 years holds for the Americas.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Bolivia: a ‘Drug Hub’ of the Americas?

While the United States criticizes Bolivia for permitting coca cultivation for cultural and medicinal purposes, authorities there have held up record-low levels of coca growth as proof that the Andean country has adopted an unorthodox but successful approach to fighting drug trafficking.  

However, critics of Bolivia’s “coca yes, cocaine no” policy have responded by pointing to the prevalence of corruption and a rise cocaine smuggling networks. In a stimulating new investigation that is sure to fuel such arguments, InSight Crime’s Jeremy McDermott asserts that the country is becoming a “center for drug trafficking in South America,” a “fertile ground” for transnational organized crime.

The InSight Crime investigation, published to coincide with Bolivia’s October 12 general election, is the result of a recent visit to the country. There, McDermott spoke with Bolivian drug czar Sabino Mendoza, who asserted that the government of Evo Morales is effectively responding to the transnational criminal threat.  A Santa Cruz trafficker familiar with the country’s underworld disagreed, however, describing the ease with which judges and police can be bribed -- even contracted -- by criminal groups.

McDermott also witnessed Bolivia’s famously porous and corrupt prison system firsthand, which he describes in gritty detail in a profile of the “maximum-security” Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz. Particularly interesting is his rundown of the prices associated with bribes for certain privileges in the prison, including “fees” like a $1 charge for overnight visitors and a mandatory $250 per month to rent a cell.

In an analysis of Bolivia’s overall vulnerability to organized crime, McDermott asserts that the country is being impacted by changing drug trafficking patterns. These include the increasing numbers of Colombian networks shifting operations to Bolivia as a result of repression in their home country, and the emergence of Brazil and Argentina as lucrative markets for Bolivian cocaine and cocaine paste. According to McDermott, Bolivia is “the major supplier” of cocaine paste to these two countries. These trends are complicated by factors like police corruption and a lack of effective border controls, which are among ten risk factors identified by McDermott.

Since its publication last week, the InSight Crime piece has begun to make waves in Bolivia. News portal , for instance, cross-published the investigation in Spanish. The La Paz-based daily Pagina Siete has mischaracterized the report somewhat, with a title breathlessly exclaiming that McDermott had revealed that Bolivia “is the epicenter of drug trafficking.” La Prensa has seized on the piece’s reporting on the cocaine paste market in Argentina and Brazil. And Sunday’s edition of newspaper La Razon featured an overview of the investigation, noting McDermott’s characterization of drug trafficking as a primary challenge for Evo Morales’ new term.

There appears to have been no response from Bolivian anti-narcotics authorities, but any answer would likely be predictable. Officials in the country have in recent years consistently warned that they are fighting a growth of organized crime activity due to foreign “emissaries,” even as they deny that these groups are large or sophisticated enough to resemble “cartels.”

News Briefs
  • In other Bolivia news, electoral authorities yesterday officially declared President Evo Morales the winner of the October 12 presidential election, receiving 61 percent of the vote compared to 24.5 for Samuel Doria Medina. However, La Razon reports that the breakdown of the next Congress is still in doubt, and a final tally will not be available until after voting is re-held in 44 polling centers in Santa Cruz and Oruro departments. The paper also notes that two smaller opposition parties, the Bolivian Green Party and Movement Without Fear (MSM), fell short of the minimum 3 percent of the vote required to be recognized as official political parties.
  • The New York Times has the latest on Brazil’s emerging Petrobras corruption scandal, which allegedly involved the company paying kickbacks to leading politicians, primarily of the ruling Workers’ Party. If these allegations prove true, the paper claims that the scandal would dwarf even the infamous mensalão case.
  • The Wall Street Journal notes that the drought in São Paulo state has become a campaign issue ahead of Sunday’s second-round vote, with President Dilma Rousseff blaming her rival Aecio Neve’s Brazilian Socialist Democracy Party of adopting policies that led to the crisis.
  • The Miami Herald reports that health ministers from the ALBA governments are set to meet in Havana today to discuss a coordinate response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, just as countries around the region are imposing travel restrictions and screening passengers to prevent the spread of the disease.  Meanwhile, Cuba’s leading role in sending health workers to address Ebola has earned some rare praise from Secretary of State John Kerry. On Friday, as PRI reports, Kerry applauded Cuba’s efforts by remarking: “Cuba, a country of just 11 million people, has sent 165 health professionals — and it plans to send nearly 300 more.” 
  • According to El Espectador, Colombia’s Attorney General has determined that the deaths of 34 members of the FARC-linked Patriotic Union (UP) party in the 1980s and 1990s constitute crimes against humanity, meaning that they are not subject to statutes of limitations and can still be prosecuted. Semana magazine reports that Deputy Attorney General Jorge Perdomo told journalists that the state is committed to investigating these cases.  
  • Gustavo Gorriti of Peruvian investigative news site IDL-Reporteros looks at the resurgence of Shining Path rebels in the coca-growing VRAE region. Pointing to a copy he obtained of an internal strategy document written by the guerrilla group, Gorriti argues that the Shining Path is attempting a revival of its activities based on specific lessons learned from past failures.
  • More than three weeks after their disappearance, authorities in Mexico still have not located the 43 students who went missing after clashing with police in a protest against education reforms in Iguala, Guerrero. The NYT notes that officials say at least five mass graves have been uncovered nearby, but that none of the remains have been linked to the students. According to the paper, some analysts say the search is hampered by a lack of centralized authority in the country’s rural areas.
  • Mexico’s federal police have assumed control of 13 municipalities surrounding the town of Iguala. According to Milenio, all of the towns are in Guerrero state but one, located in neighboring Mexico state.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Look at Uruguay’s “No a la Baja” Campaign

In the face of rising insecurity, Uruguay’s conservative opposition succeeded in organizing a referendum on lowering the age of criminal responsibility to take place alongside general election on October 26. If it passes, the measure would drop the age at which offenders could be tried as adults for serious crimes from 18 to 16.

Ever since mid-2012, when the campaign in favor of lowering the age of criminal responsibility succeeded in pairing the referendum with the upcoming election, it has been opposed by certain sectors of civil society. Local human rights groups like Proderechos, the Institute for Legal and Social Studies (IELSUR) and the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ) argued that not only would the measure violate children’s rights and go against a more compassionate view of juvenile justice, but that it would also be ineffective at tackling insecurity. Official statistics show that less than 7 percent of all crimes are committed by teenagers, a figure that has remained stable even as crime has risen over the past decade.

Despite this logic, the measure remained largely popular. A November 2012 Cifra poll found that 64 percent of the population supported lowering the age of criminal responsibility. This makes sense considering that while Uruguay remains one of the safest countries in the Americas, the homicide rate has remained at a record high since 2012, and both violent and non-violent robberies have increased in recent years. 

Compared to elsewhere in the region, the country is behind only Venezuela in terms of the percentage who list insecurity as their greatest concern (36 compared to 47 percent).

Things looked bleak for human rights advocates in Uruguay until late 2013, when the coalition of groups who opposed the reform -- known as the “No a la Baja” Commission -- doubled their outreach efforts and launched a revamped multimedia campaign. Using playful, colorful imagery (see examples at meant to invoke childhood and youth, the No a la Baja team began making its case to the public.

The effect of the appealing messaging and concentrated, coherent arguments on Uruguayan public opinion has been astounding. Support for No a la Baja began to snowball, building a movement that includes not only supporters of the ruling Frente Amplio coalition, but also the local UNICEF office, national trade union center PIT-CNT, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of Uruguay, and some youth factions of the opposition Colorado and National Parties. As an astute analysis of the campaign in La Diaria puts it, supporters of lowering the age of criminal responsibility have been “practically isolated” from joining in the public discussion of the issue.

The No a la Baja Commission convened a march through downtown Montevideo yesterday, and its massive turnout was a testimony to the campaign’s success. As leading dailies El Observador and El Pais report, tens of thousands of people participated in the march, with organizers putting their estimate at around 50,000.

The turnout seems to confirm what recent polls have been indicating: while the outcome of presidential elections is too close to call, it seems safe to say that the measure will not pass on October 26. A September 25 Cifra poll showed that support for the reform has dropped ten points since March 2014, from 58 percent to 48 percent, and while pollsters Factum and Equipos Mori still show slight majorities in favor of the reform, most analysts agree that it will likely fail.

News Briefs                         
  • In a new editorial, the New York Times looks at Evo Morales’ recent re-election as an example of an “unhealthy” trend for democracies in Latin America, noting the similarly extended run of Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff squared off with her main challenger in upcoming elections, Aecio Neves, again yesterday in a televised debate. O Globo reports that both candidates exchanged allegations of nepotism and lying, a pattern that spokesmen from their respective campaigns say will continue until the October 26 runoff vote. After the debate, Rousseff appeared light headed and  had to sit out a period meant for candidates to field questions from journalists, the AP notes.
  • Brazil’s Petrobras scandal, in which leading politicians have been accused of taking kickbacks from the state-owned oil company, has so far been seen as a major obstacle to Rousseff’s re-election, and it is one of Neves’ favorite talking points. However, it appears the scandal has reached Neves’ PSDB party as well. According to O Globo, the former Petrobras director admitted yesterday to bribing PSDB President Sergio Guerra to back off from an investigation into the company in 2009.
  • Animal Politico reports that state lawmakers in Guerrero, Mexico have impeached Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, who is accused of having a hand in the disappearance of 43 students there late last month.  Abarca’s whereabouts remain unknown.
  • Guatemalan candidate for OAS Secretary General Eduardo Stein spoke at the Wilson Center in DC yesterday, where he attempted to drum up support for his bid.  Spanish news agency EFE reports that Stein vowed that if elected, he would stop it from “being a mess,” calling attention to the fact that the OAS’ spare funding is currently divided among757 mandates. According to EFE, Stein promised to “choose those which truly represent the fundamental interests” of the region.  The news agency reports that Stein also said he has received the backing of five countries so far: El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic. El Salvador’s alleged support for Stein is notable given that the Uruguayan press has reported that Foreign Minister Luis Almagro has also been backed by the Central American country.
  • Colombia’s conservative -- and allegedly corrupt -- Investigator General Alejandro Ordoñez has seized on the recent news that the administration of Juan Manuel Santos allowed FARC head Timochenko to travel to Havana multiple times since peace talks began.  El Tiempo reports that Ordoñez sent a public letter to the president asking him to clarify the executive’s views of the legality of the visits, to which Santos has responded by implying that the official is overstepping his official functions.
  • A recent investigation by news site El Faro has revealed the destination of the Taiwanese donations that former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores has been accused of embezzling during his 1999-2004 term. According to the site, most of the $10 million went to the right wing party ARENA, which used it to support its own political initiatives as well as the presidential campaign of his successor, Tony Saca.
  • The killing of journalist Pablo Medina, who worked for Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color, yesterday has set off a wave of indignation over the government’s commitment to protecting media workers in the country, as the AP reports.  According to ABC, Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga has issued a statement promising that the government of Paraguay will investigate the murder to the fullest extent.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Venezuela Blames Lawmaker's Murder on 'Colombian Paramilitaries'

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has asserted that Colombian paramilitary groups were behind the murder of a young rising star in his party earlier this month, but questions remain about the official version of events.

Socialist Party (PSUV) lawmaker Robert Serra’s murder last month kicked off a wave of speculation over the motives behind the crime. The government has labeled the killing a “terrorist act” and insinuated that Serra been killed by right-wing elements, while some analysts (see InSight Crime, The Economist) have questioned whether left-wing collectives could be behind his death.

In recent days, authorities have arrested two suspects in the case, and President Maduro has made multiple promises to provide evidence of an opposition plot.

Last night he finally delivered. As Ultimas Noticias reports, Maduro presented security camera footage detailing the involvement of eight suspects in the murder. These included Serra’s bodyguard and a criminal ring with alleged ties to neighboring Colombia. The “intellectual author” of the murder, according to Maduro, was an unnamed “Colombian paramilitary.”

Despite the presentation of suspects involved in the murder, the official explanation of Serra’s death is light on details about a potential motive.  Maduro also said that authorities had discovered related plans to assassinate National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello and Education Minister Hector Rodriguez, but he was vague about the overall plot.  

So far the government seems to be satisfied with publicly chalking up Serra’s murder to the dark forces of “Colombian paramilitarism” and leaving it at that, at least for the moment.  The AP notes that the president doubled down on claims that former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has links to groups conspiring against his government, though he did not provide any evidence.

An alternate version of the murder was put forward by leading pro-opposition newspaper El Nacional on Tuesday, in an investigation that cited anonymous sources familiar with the case. The paper also claimed that Serra had been betrayed by his bodyguard, but asserted that the incident was in fact a planned robbery gone awry. As proof, El Nacional reported that the assailants forced Serra to open up a safe containing an unspecified amount of dollars and two automatic rifles. Here the narrative falls apart, however, as the report claims Serra was stabbed “for unknown reasons,” and his female assistant was killed to silence any witnesses.

Obviously, both of these narratives are problematic. But considering the polarization of the country’s political and media landscapes, the full truth seems unlikely to emerge anytime soon.

News Briefs
  • Also on Venezuela, David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz profile recent remarks by members of the opposition who have signaled their willingness to renew dialogue with the government, though the two note that the Maduro administration’s response to the Serra murder has likely hurt the potential for talks to restart anytime soon.  
  • The Wall Street Journal has the latest poll numbers in Brazil’s presidential race, noting that both Ibope and Datafolha show Aecio Neves and Dilma Rousseff in a technical tie. Both surveys show 45 percent for Neves and 43 percent for Rousseff.
  • Following up on Fidel Castro’s republication of the New York Times’ recent editorial endorsing an end to the U.S. embargo, the NYT has an analysis of Castro’s Granma column and its significance. As the Times points out, it is noteworthy that the former leader chose to leave in the paper’s criticism of the Castro regime as an “authoritarian government” that silences criticism.
  • Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina is again flirting with drug policy reform in remarks to the international press. In a Reuters interview this week, the president told the news agency that lightening sentences on drug offenders was among several “steps we could take time to analyze.” Reuters reports that the president also remarked that a civil society commission launched to assess drug law reforms -- which released a preliminary report last month -- would have its final recommendations ready “in March or the second quarter of next year.”
  • Four days after Bolivia’s general elections, electoral authorities have finally declared President Evo Morales the official winner of the presidential race, beating  Samuel Doria Medina by nearly 60 to 26 percent. La Razon reports that ten percent of the ballot sheets in the legislative elections have not yet been counted, however, meaning that it is still unclear whether Morales’ MAS will obtain a two-thirds majority. The results so far suggest that the MAS falls just short of reaching this goal, albeit closer to it than exit polls indicated on Sunday.
  • Reuters also reports on the Perez Molina administration’s attempts to lobby the U.S. for more aid money to stem the northward flow of migration, noting that Guatemalan Foreign Minister Carlos Morales said a promised $300 million to Central America was “nothing” considering the scale of the problem. Instead, Morales said that the U.S. should support a plan to spend $10 billion in the region over the next decade, saying the U.S. have an obligation to do so. “If they don't support it, the crisis will kick off again, you can count on it,” Morales told Reuters.
  • The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff writes that the fact that none of the 28 bodies belong to the students did not come as a surprise to many in Iguala, who are used to criminal groups using the area where the graves are being found as a dumping ground for bodies. As he notes, many Mexicans “are asking how the country can possibly tout its modernization efforts if it continues to be a place where gangsters casually kill and bury their victims.”
  • The Mexican military’s investigation into the alleged massacre of 22 suspects in Tlatlaya has deepened. According to Animal Politico, three officers -- including a brigadier general -- have been placed under house arrest in connection with the case, bringing the number of military personnel under investigation to 16.
  • Police in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday announced the arrest of 55 people associated with an illegal abortion ring, an operation linked to the recent deaths of two women who are believed to have died from complications from the procedure, NYT and O Globo report.