Monday, December 12, 2011

Peru Cabinet Reshuffle Could Signal New Crackdown on Protesters

Less than six months into the presidency of Ollanta Humala, Peru is undergoing a cabinet reshuffle, triggered by the resignation of Prime Minister Salomon Lerner on Saturday, which by law forces every other minister to stand down. The fall of a cabinet such a brief time into a presidential term is relatively unusual in Peru, where governments tend to last longer.

Ten ministers out of 19 have been replaced, and Humala named Interior Minister Oscar Valdes, a former military officer, as prime minister. The appointment may indicate a shift to the right for the government, and a tougher stance against protesters in rural areas of the country who are campaigning against resource extraction projects like mining, often on environmental grounds. As the Associated Press reports, the move has been “widely interpreted as signaling less tolerance for social protests.”

Lerner had been a close associate of Humala’s, and helped him win the election this year by reinventing his image as that of a centrist politician, moving away from his former more left-leaning positions. The prime minister was an advocate of negotiating with protesters, and had been involved in talks with protesters in Cajamarca, north Peru, over the controversial Conga gold and copper mining project. The Wall Street Journal reports that his departure has been linked to his failure to reach a solution to the issue.

The Financial Times profiled Lerner in August, before the eruption of the current conflicts noting that some consider him the “brains” behind Humala. It quoted the prime minister as saying that he was prepared to take a tough line against protesters;“Dialogue is clearly important, but we won’t let anyone take control of the streets.”

Last week Humala declared a state of emergency in several provinces as a response to the Conga protests, in a sign that he had decided to take a more hardline stance against the disturbances. This limits the right of assembly for 60 days, and gives the military the power to make arrests without a warrant. Analysts have warned that it could be used to launch repressive crack downs on protesters.

Former President Alejandro Toledo expressed concern over the appointment of Valdes, saying that it signalled the “militarization” of the government, while the AP quoted a representative of nonprofit environmental group Revenue Watch Institute, who said Valdes “incarnates the most authoritarian voice of the regime.”

Valdes dismissed the concerns, framing it instead as a move towards greater unity for the government. "This isn't a militarization of the government,” he said “There were errors in coordination that will be fixed. This Cabinet will work more and talk less." Hepointed out that ex-military officers (one of them himself) had held the positions of defense and interior minister in the outgoing cabinet, which in the new line-up were taken by civilians. Valdes had some conciliatory words for the protesters, saying that dialogue would be the government’s “main weapon” in ending the conflicts.

The issue of social conflict is becoming a defining one for Humala’s government, as noted in previous posts. He came to power on promises to respect the rights of local communities and share profits from the country’s economic boom more fairly, but has since failed to live up to his promise as a mediator in the ongoing social conflicts, disappointing many supporters.

For newspaper La Republica,
A major lession of all this is that the protest leaders have not managed to push the government towards the left (a purpose that intelligence reports attributed to them), but rather to purge the government of a good part of its figures on the left.
It seems that Humala, forced to choose, may be taking the side of business rather than that of the indigenous groups and those on the left that helped bring him to power.

News Briefs

  • Former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega has returned to his home country after serving prison sentences in the U.S. and France, following his arrest by U.S. forces in 1990. He arrived Sunday night and was taken to a prison near Panama City. He faces three 20-year sentences for crimes committed during his time in power, including murder and embezzlement. TheNew York Times notes that the former dictator is of decreasing relevance for many Panamanians today, ‘Even longtime opponents concede that public rancor has faded, although many who lost loved ones or were tortured under the Noriega dictatorship, from 1983 to 1989, said they would fight for him to face additional trials here and demand his accomplices pay, too.” It remains to be seen whether 77-year-old Noriega will be allowed to serve his time under house arrest. The NYT reports that the ex-leader was displayed briefly to reporters, though did not give any interviews;
    “prison officials, responding to rumors that Mr. Noriega was not really in Panama, wheeled him to a doorway and Mr. Noriega, now in a red long-sleeve shirt and white sweatpants, gestured to reporters kept far away. “
    More from the LA TimesWall Street JournalAssociated Press
  • Another ageing former leader facing punishment for crimes committed several decades ago is Guatemala’s Oscar Mejia, who was president during the 1980s. He is accused of having ordered genocide against indigenous groups during the conflict, while he was in the military before becoming president. The 80-year-old was arrested in October, and placed in jail, but now a judge has ruled that he be put under house arrest.
  • In more news on the horrors that took place in Central America during the 1980s, El Salvador has apologized for the El Mozote massacre, in which more than 1,000 people were slaughtered by the military in 1981 -- almost half of them children. Tim’s El Salvador Blog has a series of pieces on the massacre and its aftermath, to mark the 30th anniversary of the day it took place.
  • The New York Times has an op-ed on New Gingrich’s policy proposals on immigration, which it praises as the best of the Republican presidential hopefuls. It says that his policies acknowledge the complexities of the issue, including the fact that immigration is necessary for the economy, and put the rest of the candidates “to shame.” It neatly describes the challenges facing Republican presidential hopefuls, saying that; “The candidates are trying to compete for the votes of the electrified-fence crowd without completely alienating Latino voters or important business constituents — in construction, agriculture, meatpacking, hospitality — who hunger for cheap, dependable labor.”
  • The Washington Post has a piece to mark the five-year anniversary of President Felipe Calderon’s presidency, and his launching of a full-on assault on drug trafficking groups. It lists the failures of this effort, from the reports of torture and abuse by the armed forces, to the rising death toll, concluding with the fact that some onlookers say the number of Mexicans crossing the U.S. border is falling because they are too scared to make the journey across their own country.
  • Latin America may be in the process of being divided into a Pacific and an Atlantic bloc, according to an article in the Miami Herald, which looks at Washington’s plan to expand the nine-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to include Mexico, amongst other countries.
  • The New York Times has an opinion piece which argues that Latin America serves as a warning for the U.S. on the dangers of inequality. “The lesson is that even after a large middle class emerges, yawning inequities between rich and poor severely strain any society’s cohesion and harmony.”
  • Inhabitants of Para state, in Brazil’s Amazon region, have voted against a proposal to divide its huge area into three separate states, with about 67 percent opposing the idea. As the WSJ reports, the proposal was spurred by an effort to win a greater share of federal funds for the region, as well as by the wish for more power and political autonomy on the part of various areas of the state.
  • Mary O’Grady at the WSJ has a piece on the weaknesses of Colombia’s justice system, which she says has been penetrated by “narco-terrorists.” She criticizes the conviction of Alfonso Plazas Vega, an army general who was finally found guilty last year of the forced disappearance of 11 individuals in 1985 in the Palace of Justice siege. His conviction has been hailed as a triumph for justice by human rights groups. For a more accurate take on the issue than that of O'Grady, see this press release from Amnesty International at the time of Plazas’ conviction, and this piece by the son of one of the victims, at Colombia Reports.

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