Friday, June 10, 2011

Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Hit With Corruption Scandal

One of the most well-respected civil society associations in the region, Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, has become mired in a corruption scandal in recent weeks. Sergio Schoklender, the group’s lawyer and aide to its president, Hebe de Bonafini, is accused of using taxpayer money for personal enrichment.

According to Argentina’s El Clarin, although he was earning only $16,000 annually, Schoklender lived in a 19-room mansion and owned Ferrari and Porsche sports cars, as well as a yacht. Prosecutors believe that he accumulated much of this wealth by diverting funds meant for public housing projects in the country.

Because President Cristina Fernandez’s administration is closely associated with the Mothers, her political opposition appears to be taking every opportunity to use the scandal against her. Ricardo Alfonsin, Fernandez’s main rival in the upcoming October presidential elections, has accused her government of participation in the scandal. "If there wasn't complicity, there was negligence in terms of government controls. This case is just further proof that the controls aren't working in Argentina," said Alfonsin in a recent interview with Argentina’s Canal TN.  Other members of his party have alleged that since 2004, only 35 percent of housing that should have been built with taxpayer money was actually finished.

Despite the criticism, the case is unlikely to affect Fernandez’s popularity. As Reuters reports, a recent poll conducted by the consultancy firm Management and Fit puts support for the president around 54 percent. Although she has yet to announce her candidacy, she is almost certain to run, and it is widely accepted that she could easily win in the first round of elections.

More on this in the following weeks.

News Briefs
  • El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly passed Decree 743 last week, which requires the country’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court to make decisions unanimously rather than by majority. Although it was supported initially by both the opposition ARENA party and rejected by the FMLN (minus President Mauricio Funes, who supported it), El Faro reports that the tables have turned somewhat since then. Now, the FMLN leadership has slightly altered positions and called on the court to “comply with the will of the legislature,” while ARENA has since pulled its approval of the bill. For his part, President Funes reportedly met with his administration advisors on Wednesday to reassess his support. Ultimately, outrage that the decree caused amongst civil society groups in El Salvador has all parties scrambling to work out a way to repeal the law and still save political face. El Mundo with more coverage of the debacle.
  • In Colombia, officials are still searching for the four Chinese oil workers who were allegedly kidnapped by the FARC in the southern department of Caqueta. The workers - three engineers and an interpreter -are the second set of energy company employees to be kidnapped this year, after 23 workers employed by a Canadian energy firm were abducted in March. In addition to the various civilians the FARC are holding for ransom, AFP reports that the guerrillas still have at least 16 policemen and soldiers in their custody, whom they seek to exchange for their own imprisoned fighters. Considering the government’s continued attempts to target the FARC command, I’d say a prisoner swap is nowhere on the horizon.
  • According to Colombia Reports, a new poll conducted by the National Consulting Center and CMI found that President Santos’ approval rating is around 82 percent. According to the poll, Santos still faces considerable pessimism unemployment in the country, with 48 percent of respondents saying they disapprove of his efforts on that front.
  • In Peru, imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori was transferred to a hospital on Thursday, following a sudden loss in weight and some internal bleeding. According to La Republica, the ex-president’s doctor denies that the move is a push for a presidential pardon. But as AP notes, president-elect Ollanta Humala’s recent statement that he would consider pardoning him on health grounds makes the timing of this development seem rather fishy.
  • Meanwhile, Humala kicked off a regional tour on Thursday with a visit to Brazil, where he was careful to praise President Rousseff’s government for balancing its anti-poverty programs with the need for robust economic growth. Mercopress reports that Humala is scheduled to meet with former president Lula da Silva in Sao Paulo today in what will largely be a brief and ceremonial event. From there, he will then fly to Paraguay to meet with President Fernando Lugo as part of the tour that includes Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. According to TeleSUR, he is apparently in the process of planning a visit to the U.S. as well.
  • This week saw Sen. John Kerry continue to use his seat at the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee  to push for a reduction in spending on democracy-building programs in Cuba by 25 percent, to $15 million. As the Miami Herald mentions, the debate over the programs is taking over a progressively Cold War-era tone, with senators calling each other “backstabber” and “communist dupe.”  Since these programs began in the early 1990s, USAID has spent $150 million to fund nongovernmental groups on the island. In Kerry’s 13-point inquiry about the programs to the State Department, he alleges that the programs only serve to complicate U.S.-Cuban relations, and asks whether U.S. interests might better be served by promoting “people-to-people contact promoted by the Administration.”  The full list of Kerry’s 13 questions, along with the State Department’s responses, is available herehere.
  • Bloomberg has an interesting update on Venezuelan politics, with a focus on one of Chavez’s main opponents in the 2012 elections, Henrique Capriles Radonski.  Evidently, the opposition has finally figured out the “secret” behind Chavez’s support from 50 percent of the population: social spending and anti-poverty campaigns. The article cites Inter-American Dialogue president Michael Shifter, who claims there has been a bit of a learning curve there. “Before it was just ‘get rid of Chavez,’ and now there’s a recognition that there’s a reason why he has been in power for 12 years and retains considerable support despite such disastrous governance,” said Shifter.
  • After a cholera outbreak that began in the Dominican Republic earlier this year, medical professionals are going on strike in one of the few hospitals in the country that can treat cholera patients. The AP claims the protests began after a nurse herself came down with cholera after coming in contact with a patient’s waste.
  • A man who served as head of Guatemala’s national police force during the height of the country’s brutal civil war, Hector Bol de la Cruz, was arrested on Thursday for his alleged involvement in the forced disappearance of a union activist 27 years ago. El Periodico reports that according to the indictment, the former police had prior knowledge about the operation, which occurred on February 18, 1984.
  • La Jornada reports on a recent law signed by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, which he claims is a major advancement with respect to human rights in the country. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal revealed yesterday that the country’s drug war has finally started to impact Mexico’s vital tourism industry. The announcement comes one month after Calderon told investors that Mexico’s reputation as a major tourist destination was unaffected by the violence in the country.
  • CNN with a look at “spill-over” corruption amongst U.S. Border Patrol officers along the southwest border.

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