Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Chilean Judge Requests Indictment of U.S. Military Officer in Post-Coup Killings

A Chilean judge has requested the indictment of a former United States Navy officer for his suspected role in the murder of two U.S. citizens in 1973. U.S. Navy Captain Ray E. Davis was charged yesterday in the deaths of filmmaker Charles Horman and economics student Frank Teruggi, who were killed in the aftermath of the military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende. Retired military official Pedro Octavio Espinoza Bravo was also charged in the case.

The indictment claims that Horman was detained on September 17th, 1973, and was likely executed the next day. Teruggi was killed on September 22ndHorman's disappearance was the inspiration for the 1982 Academy Award-winning film "Missing," featuring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.

According to The New York Times, much of Judge Jorge Zepeda’s ruling is based on secret U.S. government documents that were declassified in 1999, which show that Capt. Davis, while  commander of the Military Group at the U.S. embassy in Santiago, provided Chilean intelligence with information about the two men.. Zepeda found that Davis did not prevent their murders, “although he was in a position to do so, given his coordination with Chilean agents.”

Although Zepeda’s ruling claimed Davis resides in the U.S., his specific whereabouts are unknown. In 2000 the Times reported that he was retired, and maintained that he had “nothing to do with the deaths and he appeared offended by the resurgence of questions about the killings.”
Despite the ruling, Zepeda must still wait for approval of the extradition request from the Chilean Supreme Court. This may prove tricky, as the specific evidence linking both Davis and Espinoza to the deaths is unclear. As the National Security Archive’s Peter Kornbluh, who has been instrumental in investigating the U.S. role in the killings, told CNN:

“We're now waiting with bated breath to see what the evidence (behind) that indictment actually is. The families deserve to know, and they deserve justice after all these years. Nobody's ever gone to jail, let alone been identified as responsible for these deaths, and almost 40 years have gone by."

News Briefs

  • According to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the poverty rate in Latin America is at its lowest rate in twenty years. The BBC reports that the ECLAC’s latest poverty estimates for the region, released last week in the Social Panorama of Latin America 2011, indicate that the poverty rate fell from 48.4% in 1990 to 31.4% in 2010. In the same period, the rate of extreme poverty fell from 22.6% to 12.3%.  Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia all saw the largest drops in poverty, while Mexico and Honduras were the only two countries that saw poverty increase over the past decade.

  •   Anti-corruption activist Nepomuceno Moreno was gunned down on Monday in Hermosillo, Sonora, in an incident that reflects the complexities of Mexico’s “drug war.” El Universal reports that Moreno was a well-known figure in Javier Sicilia’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, and his fellow activist claim that he was targeted for speaking out against corruption in the local government. Officials, however, claim that Moreno had a criminal past. As the AP notes, these competing narratives “echoed a wider national dispute,” as President Felipe Calderon has repeatedly claimed that the majority of those killed in the drug-fueled conflict are criminals themselves. The attack occurred just days after Sicilia called for a Christmastime "cease-fire" between the government and Mexico's drug cartels in order for each side to "reflect on what they are doing, what they are doing to the country."

  • Meanwhile, NACLA highlights efforts by human rights lawyer Netzaí Sandoval to try key figures in the “drug war” at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Netherlands. Sandoval has filed charges of “crimes against humanity” against Calderon, along with the Secretaries of Mexico’s Army, Navy, and Public Safety, as well as Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The effort has been backed by a petition featuring 23,000 signatures, but it remains to be seen if the Court will take the case. 

  • In preparation for the upcoming inaugural Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit in Venezuela on December 2 and 3, Prensa Latina informs that the agenda is currently being carefully prepared and reviewed.  Every country in the Americas (except for the U.S, and Canada) is expected to send delegates to the meeting, which was initially set for July 2011 but was rescheduled due to Hugo Chavez’s health issues. According to TeleSur , the main themes of the conference will be: political, economic, social and cultural integration; promotion of sustainable development in a time of regional economic growth; creating spaces for solidarity and political cooperation; and integrating CELAC with existing international organizations such as Mercosur and the Andean Community of Nations.  

  • Colombia’s FARC guerrillas have released a statement blaming the Colombian government for the deaths of four hostages who were executed during a shootout with army forces last Saturday. According to the rebels, the men were on the verge of being released as a gesture of good faith, a claim which peace activist Piedad Cordoba confirmed in an interview with Spanish newspaper Gara. Whether or not this is the case, the statement does not directly offer a justification for the murders, which Human Rights Watch has identified as a war crime. 

  • The largest copper and gold mining project in Peru was suspended yesterday in response to days of massive protests against the project, which locals in the northern Cajamarca state feared would damage water supplies.  The battle is part of President Humala’s ongoing attempts at balancing the concerns of the rural poor with the mining industry, which has taken a toll on Humala’s popularity in some sectors. As one protest leader told the AP: We peasants of Cajamarca feel tremendously defrauded by (President) Ollanta Humala and really consider him a traitor."

  • El Heraldo reports that the Honduran congress voted yesterday to grant the military the power to conduct law enforcement patrols and make arrests in an effort to curb violence and crime in the Central American country. Despite concerns over the integrity of the military, Reuters claims that the move is popular, saying that “polls have shown people feel safer with soldiers patrolling the streets,” although the news agency curiously gives no examples. 

  • Mike Allison has an insightful Op-ed in Al-Jazeera English on the resignation of Manuel Melgar and the controversial appointment of David Munguia Payes as El Salvador’s Minister of Justice and Public Security. According to Allison, the appointment is part of a trend of militarizing state institutions in the country.

  • The United Nations anti-impunity commission in Guatemala, CICIG, has announced that it will cut its staff by 30 percent due to a decrease in funding. InSight Crime reports that the Commission, which has been instrumental in strengthening Guatemala’s justice system, has seen a 25 percent reduction in its budget for the next year, from $20 to $15 million. As a consequence, the commission plans to reduce its staff by 30 percent, dismissing at least 60 of its 200 employees over the next four months. The organization has claimed this will have no effect on its work, but whether this holds true remains to be seen.

  • Political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell, whose writings on democracy influenced countless Latin American experts and rule of law scholars, passed away in Buenos Aires yesterday after a four-month struggle with cancer. His eulogy in La Nacion can be read here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Well-Timed Capture of Drug Lord Boosts Venezuela-Colombia Friendship

In another boost to Bogota-Caracas relations, Venezuela announced the capture of one of Colombia’s most wanted criminal bosses just hours before talks were due to be held between the two countries’ presidents.

With relations between the neighbors broken under Colombia’s former President Alvaro Uribe, his successor Juan Manuel Santos has been working to rebuild ties. Facing a storm of criticism from Uribe, who has accused him of “sacrificing democratic values” by dealing with Chavez, Santos has argued that the two can overcome their differences -- these differences including Chavez’s sometime political support for the FARC rebels, who seek to overthrow the Colombian government.

It appears that Santos’ conciliatory attitude is paying off, with Venezuela handing over several suspected criminals in recent months, including some high ranking membersof the rebel group. Early Monday the news emerged that Venezuela had captured Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano," a leader of one of the two rival factions of the Medellin mafia group, the Oficina de Envigado. As well as being responsible for soaring rates of violence in Medellin over the last three years, as he clashed with rival leader Erick Cardenas Vargas, alias "Sebastian,” he is also thought to have helped build links with Mexican groups like the Zetas. The U.S. had placed a $5 million reward on his head.

According to InSight Crime, the arrest was the result of cooperation between Colombian intelligence and Venezuelan authorities, with his arrest on Sunday timed to highlight improving relations between the two. Sebastian was caught in the city of Maracay, and had reportedly had a gastric band fitted in order to help him lose weight and change his appearance from that on his wanted poster. Venezuela has announced plans to extradite Valenciano directly to the U.S.

Santos thanked Chavez on his arrival in Caracas, calling the capture a “welcome gift,” while the Venezuelan leader classed it as a “happy coincidence.” The two presidents went on to announce further steps in cooperation, removing bilateral tariffs from some 3,500 products.

The episode and its timing are reminiscent of one incident revealed in a dossier analyzing FARC computer files, released by the UK Institute for Strategic Studies earlier this year. As the New York Times put it, at the time of the release;
In November 2002, the book reports, before a meeting between Alvaro Uribe, then Colombia’s president, and Mr. Chavez, the FARC asked the Venezuelan Army for permission to transport uniforms on a mule train through Venezuelan territory. The Venezuelan Army granted permission, then ambushed the convoy, seized eight FARC operatives and delivered them to Colombia, allowing Mr. Chavez to inform Mr. Uribe of the operation in person.
As the Wall Street Journal points out, the feted cooperation between Chavez and Santos could be put to the test in the coming months, as Colombia tries to hunt down the FARC’s new leader, alias “Timochenko,” who is thought to hide out in Venezuelan territory. Given Chavez’s well-documented sympathies for the FARC, and regional sensitivities about Colombian security forces operating over their borders, this could pose a real challenge for the two presidents, who famously proclaimed themselves “new best friends” after patching up relations last year.

News Briefs

  • Time magazine has a piece on the rise of “a democratic, socially concerned center-right” in Latin America, with Santos as one of the exemplars, alongside Sebastian Piñera of Chile. The author praises the move to the center on the part of Latin America’s right and left alike, with the emergence of a “modern, moderate, market-oriented democratic and globalized center-left.” Examples of this might include Brazil’s Lula da Silva or Piñera’s predecessor Michelle Bachelet. Meanwhile, Time argues, right-leaning Santos’ agenda includes traditionally leftist goals like land reform, and improved relationships with human rights organizations.
  • The New York Times reports that Nicaragua’s newly re-elected President Daniel Ortega has tightened his grip on the news media, now controlling almost half of the country’s television stations. The former U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua told the newspaper that:
    "the Ortega family’s growing influence recalls the way Anastasio Somoza used nepotism to control the economy before Mr. Ortega’s Sandinistas overthrew his dictatorship in 1979.”
  • InSight Crime has a piece by Malcolm Beith which argues that Colombia’s war against drugs should not be held up as an example for Mexico. For Beith, when Mexico’s government launched its frontal attack on drug traffickers in 2006 it was already far ahead of where Colombia’s government stood in the 1990s, in the sense that Bogota had been distracted from drug traffickers like Pablo Escobar due to the need to fight guerrilla uprisings. Mexico, however, had long been gathering intelligence on the capos and making high-profile arrests. Another major distinction he highlights is that Mexican traffickers like “Chapo” Guzman are far less attention-grabbing than someone like Escobar, who ran for Congress and blew up a commercial airliner.
  • By contrast, Bloggings by Boz has a piece on why Plan Colombia should not be considered as a model for the war in Afghanistan. James Bosworth critiques the argument put forward by Michael O'Hanlon and Paul Wolfowitz, which says that the U.S. should aim in Afghanistan for the kind of “relative success” achieved in Colombia, where conflict continues but has been largely contained, and argues for an ongoing commitment of funds based on that example. For Bosworth, this comparison ignores the differences in scale between the two: “compared to Afghanistan or Iraq, Plan Colombia is peanuts. Over the past decade, there have been times the U.S. has spent more in a day on its two wars than was spent in an entire year in Colombia.”
  • Social conflicts in Peru have taken their first major toll on the Ollanta Humala administration, with a top official in the Environment Ministry resigning in protest against the government’s policies on the issue. As noted in previous posts, protests over the impact of large-scale projects, like mining and gas extraction, are a serious issue for Peru’s government. They could become one of Humala’s biggest problems as they tap into the issue of balancing social concerns against economic development. The Associated Press reports that Jose de Echave, a important figure in negotiations with protestors, resigned because the government “lacks an adequate strategy for dealing with social conflict.”
  • An insight into the reasons behind Peru’s social unrest is given in two recent features on the country. The Guardian Poverty Matters blogreports on an EU-backed project to bring electricity and Internet connection to rural parts of the country. Despite the economic boom driven by foreign investment in extracting Peru’s natural resources, one in four Peruvians currently lacks electricity, with many areas totally neglected by the government. As the blog puts it; “where national governments are not stepping in, Hans Allden, the EU representative to Peru, says solar panels are a cheap and environmentally friendly way to fill in the gap."
    Meanwhile the Associated Press has a feature on Peru’s fire fighters, noting that "Peru’s economy may be booming, but there is scant evidence of the export-driven mineral bonanza in Herhuay’s fire company … Peru’s firefighters are so cash-strapped and ill-equipped that vital lifesaving equipment too often fails at a burning building."
  • The Economist has an article, accompanied by a good map, on the changing face of Mexico’s conflict with organized crime, noting that some of the worst-hit areas have cooled down, while violence has spread to others which have long been thought of as safer. It notes that the murder rates across the country appear to have hit a plateau, after rising for several years.
  • Central American Politics looks at the issue of gender-based violence in Guatemala, where approximately 650 women have been murdered so far this year. The blog notes that the issue of abuse of women in the country is more generalized than statistics on “femicide” can represent, and asks whether the term obscures more than it reveals. “Focusing solely on their deaths [of abused women] neglects the long-term suffering that they endured in life.”
  • USA Today reports on the increased use of mounted patrols by authorities on the U.S.-Mexico border. According to the report, the horses are useful for alerting agents to things they might not notice, like a person hiding, and help them to sneak up on those trying to cross the border more easily than they could in a car.
  • The tiny nation of Guyana went to the polls Monday to choose a new president and parliament, in what Reuters characterized as a choice between the ruling party, which has brought economic development, and opposition parties, who promise to cut rising rates of crime and corruption. Results are expected Wednesday.

Monday, November 28, 2011

FARC Rebels Murder Four Hostages, in New Blow for Peace

Colombian rebel group the FARC executed four hostages during a clash with the army on Saturday in the southern province of Caqueta. One hostage managed to escape during the fighting, and is now in Bogota with his family.

The dead men were all members of the security forces, and had been held by the guerrillas for between 12 and 14 years. They were found with shots in the head and back after having been executed to prevent their rescue -- and still bound in chains.Army Sergeant Jose Martinez Estrada, thought to be the FARC’s longest-held captive, was among the victims. He had a 13-year-old son that he never met.

Sergeant Luis Alberto Erazo Maya, who had been held prisoner since 1999, hid in the jungle while the fighting took place. Rebels reportedly threw grenades at him as he fled, leaving him with facial injuries He has now been reunited with his relatives, including two daughters, and is being treated in hospital. He spoke to the press about his escape;
The guerrillas told us that if there was combat we should run to their side, because they would hand us over safe and sound. I forgot that, and ran into the jungle. My companions, instead, went up to them, and that was when they were murdered in cold blood.
The Colombian government said that the operation was a rescue attempt by the armed forces, who had intelligence that the rebel unit was holding hostages. However, this would be an odd move on the part of the government, as the rebels have a stated policy of executing their prisoners rather than letting them be rescued. The FARC have repeatedly proved their willingness to murder prisoners, as Reuters details;
In 2003, Guillermo Gaviria, governor of Antioquia province, was shot along with an adviser and eight military captives when troops attempted to free them. In 2007, 11 lawmakers were shot when the rebels falsely believed troops entered their camp.
Families of the slain hostages criticized the rescue attempt, while relatives of those who are still being held called on the authorities not to carry out further such operations, asking the government to instead begin dialogue with the FARC.

This dialogue has appeared closer in recent months, with President Juan Manuel Santos taking a number of steps that could form part of a negotiation with the rebel leadership, including legislation to make it possible for demobilized guerrillas to hold public office, and moves towards land reform, a long-held goal of the group. However, less than a month ago, the security forces killed the FARC’s commander-in-chief, alias “Alfonso Cano,” in a raid on his hideout in southwest Colombia. This has been widely condemned as a step backwards for peace, both as an act of violence and because it left the leadership in the hands of “Timochenko,” a more hardline figure. However, Santos has argued that the identity of the person who is at the head of the seven-man Secretariat does not matter, as the body makes decisions as a collective.

This latest tragedy has already damaged the hopes of peace, with Congress setting aside the prospect of political concessions for demobilized guerrillas. As one senator told La Silla Vacia, there should be no such concession for those who “shoot defenseless victims in the back.”

More from the Wall Street JournalLA Times

News Briefs

  • The LA Times has a three-part examination of increasing efforts to stop Mexico’s criminal groups laundering their profits, noting that some say this could “change the tone of the government's military-led crime crusade by striking at the heart of the cartels' financial empire.” The newspaper reports that the sum of money laundered could be worth $50 billion, about 3 percent of the country’s GDP, much of which passes through international banks.
    One report looks at the U.S.’s Kingpin List, which freezes the U.S. assets of those considered help drug traffickers, which it finds to be fairly ineffective because Mexico does not complement it by freezing the Mexican assets of those named. A similar effort was more successful against Colombian traffickers in the 1990s, as that county had laws to sanction those on the U.S. list. As a consequence, “blacklisting Colombian entities eventually strangled traffickers' ability to invest in major businesses and use the national banking system.”
    Bloggings by Boz comments that what is at issue here is that President Felipe Calderon, on taking office, was able to quickly deploy troops and begin the military side of his war on organized crime. Reforms of money laundering regulations took far longer, however, and indeed are still in progress -- something the next president must address. One alternative perspective has been offered by analyst Alejandro Hope, who argues that the idea of fighting organized crime via their bank accounts is a “fantasy,” as many illegal profits are either spent immediately or invested back in criminal activities.
  • In more news on Mexico’s struggle with organized crime, Calderon is facing a challenge from activists who have asked the International Criminal Court to investigate him for war crimes, including the deaths of thousands of civilians, and cases of rape and torture by the security forces. The president has calledthe charges “slander,” and said he might take legal action against the accusers. The activists also asked for the investigation of “Chapo” Guzman, boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, which could undermine Calderon’s often-made assertions that he is held to account while the drug traffickers are not.
  • The New York Times has an editorial on the economic costs of Alabama’s tough new immigration laws, mentioning such factors as the hours that must be spent waiting in line to prove one’s citizenship status, the cost of extra police officers, and the resources diverted to catching undocumented individuals instead of those committing real crimes. It says that the state’s business-friendly reputation took a blow “with the arrest in Tuscaloosa of a visiting Mercedes manager who was caught driving without his license and taken to jail as a potential illegal immigrant.” A report by NPR cites the same example, and quotes one Republican lawmaker who backed the bill as saying “we overrreached,” and that the legislation contains mistakes. Meanwhile, in another strange development in the debate, Newt Gingrich announced that “citizen juries” should decide which immigrants can stay and which must go.
  • New York Times blog looks at the case of anti-government Twitter users whose accounts have been taken over by hackers. One hacked activist reported receiving an anonymous email telling her that an entire floor of the government’s Ministry of Science and Technology was dedicated to “tracking and hacking” the online work of the opposition. 
  • The latest issue of the Economist argues that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s clean-out of corrupt politicians in her government “merely scratches the surface of a problem with roots in the way that politics has developed in Brazil.” It blames the system of coalition-building, in which a culture has arisen of parties being given ministries in exchange for their support for the government, which they then use to cream off public funds. It says that the popular president has not shown much interest in reforming this web of political patronage, and she seems to react to problems as they arise instead of cleaning up the system.
  • Also in the Economist is a look at the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a new regional body which includes all 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The UK publication argues that the organization is not likely to make much progress on regional integration, like many of its predecessors, although it does indicate the slipping of U.S. influence in the Americas.
  • The Miami Herald reports on the latest accusations that the charity of Wyclef Jean, a popular hip hop artist who tried to run for Haiti’s presidency this year, misspent money intended for victims of the country’s earthquake. The allegations, aired in a report by the New York Post, said that less than a third of the $16 million raised by the organization went to help relief efforts, claims rejected by Jean.
  • Enrique Peña Nieto formally registered his candidacy Mexico’s presidency, on behalf of the PRI party, which ruled the country for more than 70 years until it was displaced in 2000. He is set to win the nomination, as no other candidates registered. The BBC reports that Peña Nieto is 20 points ahead in the polls, though the election is not until July 2012.
  • The Washington Post argues that Haiti’s plans to reform the army are a “terrible idea,” citing the abuses committed by the abolished force, including “massacres of peasants; violent attacks on the media; politically motivated murders carried out by individual soldiers; harassment of civic and political groups; and the failure to investigate abuses within its ranks. A year later, the army carried out a bloody coup d’etat — not for the first time.”
  • The New York Times reports on football hooliganism in Argentina, which it links to growing violence in Argentine society as a whole, and to the rise of hooligan groups which operate like “mini-mafias,” running criminal businesses such as drug dealing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

GOP Candidates Raise Specter of Islamic Terrorism in Latin America

The subject of Latin America received some rare attention from the participants in last night’s CNN Republican Security Debate, although much of it was rather off the mark. While there was some mention of more pressing security threats (like Mexico’s drug war) the candidates repeatedly brought up the issue of “radical Islamist” groups in the region, namely Hamas and Hezbollah. Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Rick Perry all mentioned the issue in the debate. Perry, noting that “Hamas and Hezbollah are working in Mexico, as well as Iran, with their ploy to come into the United States,” even called for a “21st Century Monroe Doctrine” to be applied to the region.  In typical Perry style, however, this was in response to a simple question about border security, so the answer’s controversial nature was overshadowed by its arbitrariness.

Conservative fear-mongering using the specter of radical Muslim terrorist groups in Latin America is nothing new. Back in September, Michelle Bachman raised eyebrows when she spoke out against normalizing relations with Cuba due to Hezbollah “missile sites” on the island. In July, Republican Representative Patrick Meehan chaired a House subcommittee hearing on the influence of Hezbollah in Latin America, which saw testimony from several witnesses who claimed the group represents an immediate threat in the hemisphere.

It is true that Hezbollah’s presence in the region is a definite concern, as the organization has been linked to several terrorist attacks on Jewish communities in Argentina in the early 1990s. But the danger is often grossly exaggerated. Security analyst James Bosworth stated this quite well at the time of the hearing, arguing:
“If we're going to hold hearings on individual non-state groups that are threats in the hemisphere, lets start with Sinaloa, the FARC and the Zetas; work our way through the second tier of Los Rastrojos, PCC, Betran Leyva, etc.; and then maybe after a few days or weeks of hearings we could get to the third tier that includes Hezbollah, the Russian mafia and the Triads.”

News Briefs:

  • Surprisingly, Mexico’s drug-fueled conflict does not seem to have taken much of a toll on economic growth. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Mexico’s GDP grew by 1.34 percent during the third quarter of this year, and experts believe that the country’s economy will grow four percent in total this year. Mexico is also on track to bring in $20 billion in foreign direct investment this year, which is as much as it received last year. Still, the article notes that smaller businesses are disproportionately affected by the violence, and are losing out in drug war hotspots like Ciudad Juarez.
  • The office of Mexico’s attorney general announced on Tuesday that it would investigate reports that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) used support from drug cartels in Michoacan to win the gubernatorial race and several congressional races in the state’s recent elections. Reuters reports that local television broadcast footage of an alleged Familia Michoacana leader instructing voters to support the PRI in the municipality of Tuzantla.
  • According to Prensa Libre, the bodies of two Guatemalan men who went missing in 1984 have been located at a former military base and identified through DNA testing. The New York Times notes that this “validat[es] an exhumation process tied to the roughly 40,000 people who disappeared during Guatemala’s civil war.” The individuals were Amancio Samuel Villatoro, a union activist, and Sergio Saúl Linares Morales, an engineering professor. Reuters claims that the two are the first victims to have matched up to the military ledger which details the disappearance of 183 individuals. 
  • Yesterday Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes appointed the first former military official since the end of the country’s civil war to serve as Security Minister. Reuters notes that Funes picked retired general David Munguia despite opposition from fellow members of his FMLN party. Munguia is known as a moderate, and has previously served as Funes’ defense minister.
  • Honduras’ La Tribuna has an interesting interview with Gen. Douglas Frasier, head of United States Southern Command, in which Frasier talks about the U.S.-Honduras military relationship, joint security challenges, and the issue of corruption
  • Meanwhile, Tribuna also reports that retired Honduran general Romeo Vásquez Velásquez’s nascent political party, known as the Patriotic Alliance of Honduras, has presented the requisite number of signatures to the country’s Supreme Electoral Court in order for it to be a registered political party. Honduras Culture and Politics has more on the development, noting that the current total of new parties in Honduras has now risen to three.
  • Following yesterday’s announcement that Cuban farmers will now be able to sell their produce directly to tourist facilities without having to go through a state agency, the AP says the Cuban government has lifted restrictions on internal movement on the island. In the future, relatives of individuals in Havana will no longer need special permission to travel to the capital city. As the wire agency notes, however, the decision does not affect restrictions on travel abroad.
  • Eight members of Congress, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, sent a letter to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos last Friday in which they congratulated him for his efforts to improve labor rights in the country, the text of which is available here. The letter also announced the creation of a Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia in order to make further progress on labor issues.
  • The BBC reports that Venezuela is introducing more price controls on household goods in an attempt to rein in inflation, which has reached 27 percent this year.
  • The LA Times published an editorial which offers a scathing critique of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s security policy. The editorial calls on the Obama administration to “urge Calderon to focus on strengthening Mexico's judicial system and encourage his government to adopt reforms.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

While Chevron Faces Fine in Brazil, U.S. Congress Challenges Cuban Oil Exploration

Brazil’s environmental agency is set to fine Chevron as much as $28 million for the oil spill off the Rio de Janeiro coast, with the possibility of another fine pending based on state laws, reports the AP. To put the fine in perspective, Chevron CEO John Watson earned $16.3 million in compensation in 2010. According to Estadao, the fine represents about 0.014% of the oil company’s total revenues. Chevron could be hit with another fee if Brazilian oil officials decide the company withheld information during the investigation into the oil disaster.

Oil regulators in Brazil also maintain that Chevron was unprepared to carry out their emergency response plan in case of a spill, a claim which Chevron representatives deny, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Brazil authorities now say that 3,000 barrels leaked during an eight-day period, an estimate that is 600 barrels higher than the numbers released by Chevron. The AP provides some important historical perspective on just how serious the spill is:

“Brazil has had bigger oil spills. In 2000, crude spewed from a broken pipeline at the Reduc refinery in Rio de Janeiro's scenic Guanabara Bay, dumping at least 344,400 gallons (1.3 million liters) into the water. Just a few months later, more than 1 million gallons (3.8 million liters) of crude burst from a pipeline operated by state-controlled oil company Petrobras into a river in southern Brazil.

“Brazil's worst oil disaster was in 1975, when an oil tanker from Iraq dumped more than 8 million gallons of crude into the bay and caused Rio's famous beaches to be closed for nearly three weeks.”

Reuters examines some of the political and economic costs for Brazil’s oil industry, predicting that the sale of new concessions may be further delayed. The ongoing environmental disaster may also raise questions about the ties between national oil company Petrobas and its foreign partners, and how much responsibility the Brazilian company bears for when things go wrong in the field.

Likely to raise additional debate over how to hold energy companies responsible for oil spills is a bill just introduced in U.S. Congress. According to the Miami Herald, the proposed legislation would allow U.S. interest parties to sue the companies responsible for any potential oil spills that would affect U.S. territory.

The bill is meant to address concerns that Spanish company Repsol, set to begin offshore drilling in Cuban waters just 50 miles from Florida, could one day see a major oil disaster. U.S. oil industry officials say that Cuba is unprepared to handle such a scenario. Additionally, in the event of a spill, the trade embargo would make cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba extremely difficult.

News Briefs
  • The U.S. is financing a $2 million naval base on an island about 70 kilometers off the coast of Honduras, reports Honduras Weekly. This is the second naval base U.S. forces have established in cooperation with Honduras in the past two years, intended to combat drug trafficking. The latest security effort in Honduras, a police and military surge dubbed “Operation Lightning,” dramatically lowered violence rates by as much as 90 percent in the national capital, according to President Porfirio Lopez.
  • Two weeks after the U.S. and Bolivia agreed to restore diplomatic ties, Bolivia affirmed again that the government will not allow Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents back into the country, reports Reuters. NACLA has some good analysis on why this new agreement represents a “political victory” for Bolivia. The Evo Morales administration also stepped back from signing a trilateral agreement with Brazil and the U.S., which would have outlined new measures for monitoring the Andean nation’s coca production. According to the AP, this is the fifth time the agreement has been delayed since March.
  • After a jailed Venezuelan newspaper editor staged a two-week hunger strike and had to be hospitalized, authorities now say he will be released, says the AP. Leocenis Garcia turned himself in to authorities on August 30 after he was charged with “insulting public officials and instigating hatred.” The arrest warrant for Garcia was issued after his periodical, Sexto Poder, printed a feature entitled“Powerful Women of the Revolution,” which included photos of Supreme Court President Luisa Estella Morales in a revealing outfit.
  • The New York Times looks at the history of a catchphrase long used to dismiss Brazil’s potential to be the region’s greatest economic power: “Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be.” The article gives a biographical sketch of the man behind the much-cited slogan, Viennese writer Stefan Zwieg.
  • The LA Times has a feature on Indian trackers, employed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who search for drug smugglers that pass through indigenous land in Arizona. According to the ICE, an estimated $2 billion worth of drugs has passed through one U.S. reservation in the past five years.
  • Reuters summarizes recent activity by Paraguay’s elusive guerrillas, the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP). Even though the group is thought to number no more than 20, President Fernando Lugo has made the campaign to hunt down EPP leaders his top security priority. Reuters notes that this has made him politically vulnerable during an uneasy time of his presidency.
  • The AP reports on the trial of 13 police officers accused of brutality during a prison riot just after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. The country just received a temporary parliament building, built with about $2 million from USAID.
  • Following the liberalization of the housing market, Cuba will soon see another reform, this time in agriculture. Communist Party newspaper Granma reports that starting December 1, farmers will be able to sell their produce directly to tourist facilities without having to go through a state agency first. A more readable version of the story is available at the BBC.
  • IPS examines efforts by Southern Cone countries to preserve the Rio de la Plata river basin, the second largest in South America and one of the world’s most important fresh water reserves.
  • An Al Jazeera video reports on Bolivian children growing up with incarcerated parents.
  • The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas interviews Fernado Rodrigues, a journalist who was also one the of the key backers of Brazil’s recently passed media transparency law. The law is similar to the Freedom of Information Act in the U.S., and makes it easier for interest parties to request and receive information from government bodies. While this should eventually allow Brazilian media to access government records, even those once deemed classified, Rodrigues notes that Brazil now faces the real challenge of putting the law from paper into practice.
  • Finally, a lighter piece from Reuters examines bureaucratic hassles in Brazil, where long lines, red tape and a powerful lobby of notaries, who make millions from handling state paperwork fees, make life difficult for both residents and expats.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chevron Oil Spill May Stain Brazil's "Pragmatic" Economic Policy

Chevron admitted to an accident caused by deep-sea drilling off the coast of Brazil, reports Reuters. A Chevron spokesman told the news agency that an estimated 18 barrels of oil was floating on the ocean surface off Brazil, in contrast to initial reports which maintained up to 5,000 barrels had spilled. According to U.S. environmental group Skytruth, where activists are using satellite imagery to track the spill, the most recent imagery from November 12 suggests some 15,000 barrels have been lost. The environmental disaster will likely create more controversy for Brazil’s offshore oil industry, expected to turn Brazil into the world’s fourth greatest oil producer by 2020.

According to the AP, the leak began November 7 and Chevron told Brazilian authorities what had happened a day later. According to Business Week, the U.S. energy company says they plugged the leak on November 13. So far there are no estimates on clean up costs.

Brazil saw large scale protests across the country last week, in regards to a proposed law which would redistribute oil royalty wealth. The Chevron accident may refocus public anger on the environmental dangers of offshore drilling, or else may create a new backlash against the partnering of national oil company Petrobras with foreign partners like Chevron. Bloggings by Boz predicts such a backlash is one likely outcome, arguing:

“If they can fully blame Chevron, then they don't have to acknowledge that it could also happen to Petrobras. They need this spill to be portrayed as a malevolent accident by a foreign oil company, not something that can happen to any effort to drill off shore.”

As the New York Times notes, Chevron is already facing an extended legal battle over the pollution of Ecuador’s Lago Agrio region. Brazilian police have said they are investigating the Chevron spill, amidst accusations by some officials that the company has been uncooperative with local authorities and reluctant to share information. Meanwhile, Brazil’s Energy Minister has voiced the possibility that Chevron could face legal action if found to have broken environmental law.

The accident is a reminder of the challenges facing Brazil as the country aggressively courts foreign partners while continuing to develop its oil, agriculture and gold industry. Brazil is already reportedly set to limit the amount of land that foreign agri-businesses can own, according to Merco Press. Depending on the true extent of the Chevron spill, there may be new concerns over the role of foreign firms as Brazil continues expanding its oil trade.

As the New York Times points out, Brazil’s economic policies are fundamentally driven by pragmatism. In terms of the nascent oil boom, this means striking a balance between developing offshore drilling and ensuring that environmental standards are followed. The Times notes that such pragmatism is akin to behaving like a “reality-based community,” instead of allowing economic policy to be discolored by politics:

“Leaders had to move beyond their ideologies. Facts had to become more important than principles. And a kind of pragmatic right-left consensus had to emerge — namely, that both a bustling market and an active government are essential to durable economic growth.”

For now, however, it seems all the facts regarding the Chevron spill case have yet to emerge.

News Briefs
  • El Faro reports that an unnamed group of top police commanders are willing to resign if a military official is appointed as the new Public Security Minister. Former minister Manuel Melgar resigned November 8 after two years of service, a decision widely understood as motivated by Melgar’s failure to achieve more results in reducing El Salvador’s crime rate. Another key factor is likely his deep unpopularity with U.S. officials, who cite claims that Melgar was involved in a 1985 guerrilla attack that left three U.S. marines dead. According to El Faro, retired general David Munguia Payes is rumored to soon took Melgar’s place, but the decision may provoke serious protest from the police.
  • Eric Olson, senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, analyzes why the PRI won in last week’s gubernatorial elections in Michoacan. Since then, Mexico’s temporary interior secretary said that an unnamed drug cartel “interfered” with the election.
  • The Washington Post profiles migration in Bolivia, where according to government estimates about 20 percent of its population lives outside the country. Even with the global economy in a slump, migrants have shown no signs of returning home from places like Spain, the U.S. or Chile.
  • Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness said he may call elections next month, reports the Associated Press. Holness replaced Bruce Golding, who stepped down October 23 after facing harsh criticism for how his administration handled the extradition of drug trafficker “Dudus” Coke to the U.S. Jamaica currently has one of the highest homicide rates in the region, with 52 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, on an island of just under 3 million people.
  • Reuters examines Mexico’s efforts to diversify its economy and find new trade partners besides the U.S. In counterpoint, an NPR story focuses on U.S-Mexico trade relations at the border. Elsewhere, an editorial in the LA Times surveys the legacy of President Felipe Calderon and concludes that his administration fell short of achieving its security and economic goals.
  • Two weeks after Nicaragua’s presidential, Confidencial argues that obtaining an objective and accurate measure of the alleged fraud which took place may well be impossible. Opposition group the Independent Liberal Party, or PLI, maintains that they had saw between 450,000 and 500,000 votes stolen.
  • The Miami Herald reports on Cuba’s new housing law, enacted November 10. The law is one of the most sweeping reforms yet passed by the Raul Castro administration, and allows Cubans to buy and sell homes at market prices for the first time since the Revolution. The Herald asks how the legislation will be enforced, noting that many details are left unclear. These include how to resolve the issue of Cuba’s illegal housing market, in which many homeowners clandestinely rent out rooms, as well as regulations regarding property titles.
  • Plaza Publica profiles Roxana Baldetti, Guatemala’s first female vice president.
  • The Wall Street Journal predicts it will be tough for Argentina for continue its pace of economic growth. The newspaper asks whether President Christina Kirchner will continue the “interventionist” strategies favored during her last term, or whether her policy makers are confused over what strategy to adopt next. Kirchner’s economic policies have drawn praise for reducing the income gap between the poor and wealthy, and for bringing unemployment down to its lowest levels in 20 years. Other Argentine and foreign consultancy firms and credit agencies have argued that Kircher’s approach is not sustainable over time, while international bodies like the IMF and the World Bank have questioned the government’s official statistics on economic growth.
  • La Silla Vacia reports on the shifting security dynamics in Cauca, the department where government forces killed FARC commander “Alfonso Cano” on November 4. Cano’s replacement, alias “Timochenko,” issued his first public communique Monday, says Colombia Reports.
  • Haiti’s president said he would create a civilian commission to study the government’s proposal to revive the national army, reports the AP. A government defense advisor told the Wall Street Journal that the commission is meant to ensure that the army’s reinstatement is “done properly and according to rules and procedures.”
  • Time profiles the emergence of a “new wave” of center-left presidents across Latin America.
  • An indigenous leader advocating for the return of ancestral land was killed a group of 40 gunmen in Brazil, reports the BBC.