Thursday, July 14, 2011

Recent Developments Raise Freedom of Speech Concerns in Venezuela and Ecuador

The status of freedom of the press in Venezuela and Ecuador is in the headlines this week, after critics of the respective governments have been persecuted for making comments deemed libelous and defamatory by state officials.  In Venezuela, opposition leader and former governor of Zulia state Oswaldo Alvarez Paz has been convicted of spreading false information during a television talk show. As AP and Bloomberg report, Alvarez Paz was arrested last year after he appeared on opposition channel Globovision and claimed that Venezuela had turned into a hub for organized crime and drug trafficking in the region.

The opposition leader (who has expressed interest in running for president in 2012) was sentenced to two years in prison for the remark on charges of “distributing false information,” although according to El Universal he has reached a plea bargain which will allow him to serve his sentence on probation. The ruling comes just two days after the country’s National Association of Journalists (Colegio Nacional de Periodistas - CNP) accused Hugo Chavez’s government of abusing his increased authority over the media to spread “hate” messages, EFE reports. As the Spanish news agency points out, the statement was released in response to government allegations that Globovision had broadcast “messages of panic” after suggesting that Venezuelan armed forces were massacring inmates in the recent standoff between prisoners at the El Rodeo prison complex.  

Meanwhile, the editor of Ecuador’s El Universo newspaper resigned from his position in the hope of dissuading the government from pursuing an $80 million libel suit against the publication. According to AFP, President Rafael Correa filed the lawsuit on March 21 in response to an opinion column in which the editor, Emilio Palacio, called the president a "dictator" and accused him of having ordered an attack on a police hospital during last fall’s failed coup attempt, led by elements of the national police. However, in a letter quoted by Ecuador’s El Comercio, Correa’s lawyer Alembert Vera has said that the government will not drop the suit. “We do not have an official copy of the alleged resignation, but what needs to be clear is that this will not affect the lawsuit,” he said. According to La Hora, President Correa defended the suit in a radio address yesterday, saying that he has not asked Palacio to resign, but merely for the paper to retract his column, which it has not done.

Although in both of these cases the statements made seem rather inflammatory, it’s worth noting that they were each made in the context of editorial commentary, and were not presented as factual reporting. Because freedom of expression is widely regarded as necessary component of democratic regimes, these incidents raise serious questions about the state of democracy in the two countries.

News Briefs

·         After nearly 30 days, it seems that the standoff at El Rodeo has finally come to an end. According to The Guardian and AP, the Venezuelan government has negotiated a peaceful end to the conflict, in which authorities made several assurances to the inmates that they would not be harmed after they laid down their weapons. Grisel Zorrilla, a spokeswoman for the prisoners' relatives, said that despite being slightly dehydrated, the inmates were otherwise healthy and were expected to receive fair treatment from officials. In a message released yesterday via his personal Twitter account, President Hugo Chavez hailed the development as an "example of supreme respect for human rights," but also noted that it should be seen as cause for "great self-criticism," presumably due to prison conditions in the country, which Amnesty International calls “deplorable.”

·         Although Chavez has claimed to be recovering well from his recent cancer surgery, AP says he revealed in a phone call to state television yesterday that he expects to undergo radiation and chemotherapy in the coming months. The Wall Street Journal has more on the announcement, which has added fuel to the seemingly endless cycle of speculation over the leader’s prognosis.

·         In the latest setback to newly-elected Haitian President Michel Martelly's attempt to appoint for prime minister, the International Bureau of Lawyers has urged lawmakers in the country to investigate his most recent nomination, Bernard Gousse, for human rights abuses. AP says group has accused Gousse of unjustly imprisoning Haitian opposition members when he served as justice minister in the interim government following Aristide’s 2004 removal from power.

·         Mexico’s El Informador has collected a number of different responses to Tueday’s Supreme Court ruling which called for more members of the military to be tried for human rights abuses in civilian courts. Both the Mexican Army and Navy have agreed to cooperate on the ruling. At the same time, Excelsior reports that elements of the armed forces are actively lobbying the Mexican legislature for the passage of a controversial Security Law, which they say is necessary to promote security in the country.

·         Mexico’s Federal Police in the country announced yesterday that they had arrested Javier Beltran Arco, alias ‘El Chivo.’ According to AP and El Proceso, Beltran ran an assassins’ ring for the “Knights Templar,” the most powerful successor group of the badly-splintered Familia Michoacana.

·         Colombia’s La Semana claims that the Monday assassination of a mayoral candidate in the Valle de Cauca department brings the total of local election candidates killed to 17.

·         El Comercio reports that the Alexis Humala, brother of Peruvian President-elect Ollanta, has returned to Lima to answer questions from his Nationalist Party about his recent trip to Russia, where he met with Russian businessmen to discuss investments in the country’s gas fields. As Reuters notes, the incoming president has suspended his brother from his political campaign in response to allegations of impropriety. Meanwhile, La Republica points out that Humala will inherit an economy that has been slowing since December.

·         According to El Comercio, a Peruvian general and several other officers are facing scrutiny from investigators after reports emerged that they sold 3,500 gallons of helicopter fuel to a businessman in the Apurímac and Ene River Valley (VRAE) region, a major hotspot for cocaine production. The Peruvian government has banned large sales of fuel in that region because it can be used as a precursor chemical for the drug.

·         Bolivia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has submitted a request to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in which the country asks to be involved in the ongoing maritime dispute between Chile and Peru. As MercoPress notes, this development is the latest in Bolivia’s ongoing dispute with Chile, which the Andean country also intends to sue for access to the sea.

·         The Miami Herald reports on the U.S.’s attempt to deport Chilean Victor Toro, who co-founded   Chile's Revolutionary Leftist Movement in the 1960s and experienced brutal torture at the hands of Pinochet agents. According to Toro, if he is returned to Chile he will face political persecution by the government of President Sebastian Pinera, who he claims represents “the essence of what Pinochet established in Chile."

·         Business magazine Fast Company profiles the work of Sylvia Gereda (a founder of El Periodico) in taking on corruption in the country, despite receiving death threats.

·         The Christian Science Monitor highlights the Obama administration's case against Guatemala over its failure to protect unions. According to the paper, is seen as an attempt to garner US union support for stalled trade agreements.

·         The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) released its annual Economic Survey of Latin America and the Caribbean yesterday, available for download here. The report finds that although the region is expected to grow 4.7% this year, inflation is on the rise and increasing capital inflows could potentially create bubbles in financial and property markets.