Friday, October 21, 2011

Chilean Students Burst into Senate Hearing, Demand Referendum

This week’s round of student protests in Chile climaxed yesterday in the country’s Senate building, where dozens of students stormed into a Senate committee hearing on education to have their demands heard by lawmakers. El Ciudadano reports that about 50 demonstrators burst into the meeting around 12:30 yesterday, calling on legislators to introduce a bill that would allow the future of Chile’s education system to be determined by a national referendum. Four protestors immediately jumped onto the table and unfurled a banner reading “Plebiscite now” as others began chanting slogans against the widely unpopular Education Minister Felipe Bulnes, who exited the room almost immediately.
The activists then stayed in place for eight hours, setting up a live webcam recording of the incident and vowing to occupy the room for as long as it would take to have their demands for free national education met. Finally, members of the center-left opposition agreed to introduce a bill calling for referendum, and the students allowed themselves to be escorted out of the building and arrested by law enforcement officials.
The opposition legislators involved in the deal are taking significant criticism from their pro-government counterparts, much of which has been aimed at Senate President Guido Girardi, who promised the protestors that they would not be removed by force from the building. As La Tercera notes, senators in the majority Coalition for Change have called for Girardi to be censured for what some are calling “a grave dereliction of duty.”
While the proposal for a referendum is unlikely to pass both houses of the center-right controlled Congress, it is clear that if the vote were held the results would probably favor of the protestors’ demands.  Polls have placed public support for the student movement at about 80 percent, and President Sebatian Piñera has seen his approval ratings drop to around 20 percent as a result of his hardline stance against student demonstrators.

News Briefs

·         It appears that the predictions of drug policy analysts in the region have finally come true: Peru has surpassed Colombia as the world’s largest producer of cocaine for the first time in a decade. Yesterday DEA intelligence chief Rodney Benson announced at a Senate hearing that the country is estimated to produce 325 metric tons of pure cocaine annually, making it the number one source of the drug. Although the latest UNODC statistics put cocaine production in Colombia as even higher, the remarks prompted Peruvian President Ollanta Humala to call a press conference in which he reaffirmed his government’s commitment to coca eradication in the country.

·         El Comercio reports that one of Humala’s vice-presidents, Congressman Omar Chehade, is accused of using his position to favor a private firm. According to the paper, a former police commander has claimed that Chehade asked him to evict protesting workers outside of a food processing plant without a court order. Somewhat surprisingly, Humala has endorsed the investigation, telling local press he would “not accept any irregularities.” Under the Peruvian constitution the president appoints two vice-presidents, and because Chehade is his second it is likely that the political fallout from any corruption revelations will be less damaging than it would be if his first vice-president, Marisol Espinoza, was under investigation.

·         For at least the third time, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has announced that he is cancer free. As the New York Times reports, Chavez told state media that a brief checkup in Cuba had informed him that “No abnormal cellular activity exists.” This stands in stark contrast to comments made earlier in the week by a doctor who claimed to have once been his personal surgeon. As reported in Monday’s brief, Dr. Salvador Navarrete estimated that Chavez had less than two years to live.

·         Meanwhile, AFP reports on Chavez’s response to the death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who he eulogized as a “martyr” who resisted the “imperial aggressions” of NATO forces.

·         In Colombia, officials have announced that an airstrike resulted in the death of a top FARC leader in the southwest of the country. According to El Colombiano, José Neftalí Umenza, alias "Mincho" had been a member of the FARC for 40 years, and was the commander of the group’s 30th Front. The paper cites Security Minister Juan Pinzon as saying that Neftali was deeply involved in drug trafficking, and was singlehandedly responsible for 30 percent of the FARC’s total funding, though this seems unlikely.

·         La Razon reports that the activists protesting against Bolivian President Evo Morales’ planned highway project in the TIPNIS region struck down two more invitations from the administration to dialogue on the matter, on the grounds that the government was not opening the exchange up to enough of the movement’s leaders. AP has more on the protestors, which have set up an “Occupy La Paz” type camp in a park just in front of the presidential palace.

·         Mexican President Felipe Calderon has made several swipes at the United States in recent weeks, but his latest may take the cake. According to the Spanish-language transcript of a recent interview with the New York Times, Calderon suggested that “El Chapo” Guzman, the world’s most powerful drug lord, could be living “calmly” in the U.S. along with other high level drug traffickers. "He is not in Mexican territory, and I suppose that Chapo is in American territory," Calderon said, adding: "The surprising thing here is that he or his wife are so comfortable in the United States, which leads me to ask, well, how many families or how many Mexican drug lords could be living more calmly on the north side of the border than on the south side? What leads Chapo Guzman to keep his family in the United States?'"

·         Calderon has also caused a separate media stir with his comments on U.S. deportation policy. On Thursday, the president has accused the U.S. of dumping convicts at the border in order to save costs. Calderon claims this is fueling the violence in the north of country, as some individuals with criminal records turn to a life of crime in the border towns where they are released. As an example, the AP mentions Martin Estrada Luna, who became the alleged leader of a local Zetas outfit in Tamaulipas just 18 months after he was deported.

·         Fifty-seven years after Jacobo Arbenz was toppled in a U.S.-supported coup, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom issued an historic apology to the Arbenz family yesterday. Calling the coup a “great crime,” Colom asked Arbenz’s son Juan Jacobo for forgiveness on behalf of the state. The apology came after a series of negotiations between the government and the Arbenz family, negotiated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Perhaps the most interesting part of the apology was Colom’s recognition that the country  “had not recuperated from [the incident] yet.”

·         The Miami Herald reports on the gender gap in Latin American politics. Although many countries in the region have elected female heads of state, the “glass ceiling” is still very much present.

·         The Peruvian government has released incredible video footage of an encounter between travelers and members of a previously uncontacted Amazonian tribe, who cautiously approached the individuals with bows and arrows at the ready.