Friday, June 29, 2012

Did Venezuela and Ecuador Try to Arrange a Pro-Lugo Military Intervention in Paraguay?

In the wake of widespread regional condemnation of last week’s “golpeachment,” the new Paraguayan government appears to be hitting back at two of its biggest critics: Venezuela and Ecuador. The country’s new Minster of Defense, Maria Liz Garcia de Arnold, caused a stir yesterday when she told reporters that government representatives of Venezuela and Ecuador had met with Paraguayan military leaders in an attempt to convince them to intervene in the impeachment process against ex-president Fernando Lugo.  

According to Garcia, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and Ecuadoran Ambassador Julio Prado met with the heads of the Paraguayan armed forces in the presidential palace on June 22nd, the same day that the Senate voted to remove Lugo from office. Both officials were in the country as part of an Unasur delegation sent to monitor the impeachment. Maduro allegedly urged the officers to come to Lugo’s defense, and promised international support for a military intervention. Garcia said the commanders refused, “opting to respect the decision of Congress.”

The allegations were later backed by President Federico Franco, who admitted to the AP that this was the reason behind his decision on Wednesday to reshuffle the country’s military leadership.  "We will not tolerate military officers who want to become insubordinate or accept the recommendations of foreign countries," Franco told the wire agency in an interview.

For their part, both Ecuadoran and Venezuelan officials have strongly denied these accusations. Madero dismissed the claims as an attempt to distract attention from an illegitimate coup, saying that they lack “any basis in reality.” Similarly, the Ecuadoran government released a statement saying that Garcia’s remarks “do not conform to the truth of what happened.”

News Briefs

  • Brazil’s foreign minister has announced that Paraguay will be suspended from the Mercosur trade bloc as a result of Lugo’s impeachment, but that economic sanctions would not be imposed on the country.
  • In a new podcast from the Washington Office on Latin America, Adam Isaacson speaks with Latin America scholar Greg Weeks of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte about the regional implications of Lugo’s ouster.
  • On the eve of Mexico’s presidential election, all four candidates in the race gathered for a brief ceremony yesterday to sign a pact promising to respect the results of the vote.  The AP rather pointedly notes that Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who some speculate may not recognize a loss on Sunday, signed the document like all the other candidates and left without making remarks to the press. The Economist offers a round-up of the last opinion polls before the election, which confirm Enrique Peña Nieto’s commanding lead.
  • The House of Representatives found Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress yesterday as a result of his refusal to release internal records related to Operation Fast and Furious.  The LA Times reports that this is the first time in US history that a sitting Cabinet member has been held in contempt of Congress.
  • On a related note, a Fortune Magazine investigation offers a defense of the controversial ATF operation, finding that officials lost track of weapons trafficked into Mexico as a result of “prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn.”
  • A new Gallup poll has found that support for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos fell by 16 points over the last two months, and at 48 percent is now at the lowest point in his presidency.
  • The BBC reports that Venezuela’s Supreme Court has frozen $5.7 million in assets belonging to news channel Globovision, as a result of its failure to pay a $2.1 million fine imposed by the government last year over its coverage of prison riots, which regulators say “promoted hatred and intolerance for political aims.”
  • Al Jazeera English profiles Victor Carranza, Colombia’s infamous “emerald czar.” Carranza has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and his imminent death could fuel a bloody conflict in the central province of Boyaca.
  • The LA Times’ World Now blog has the latest on the mining conflict in Peru’s Cajamarca region. Cajamarca President Gregorio Santos, who has been a key figure in protests against a proposed mining project in the area, has rejected the latest offer put forth by President Ollanta Humala and Newmont Mining for the project.
  • The Miami Herald reports that Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, has announced that it will conduct off shore drilling in Cuban waters.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mexico Wraps Up Presidential Campaigns

Mexico’s presidential campaigns ended Wednesday, with a victory by Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) all but ensured for the July 1 election. According to the Mexico Institute’s latest election guide, Peña Nieto is leading by 17 percent, and is predicted to earn 45 percent of the national vote.

Peña Nieto formally ended his campaign in Mexico state, where he formerly served as governor, in a rally that Reuters describes as “subdued.” In an interview published Wednesday in El Universal, he emphasized that he represents the new face of the PRI. “There is a new PRI ... It's the others who have not changed. They are living in the past," he stated.

An op-ed from the New York Times makes a compelling argument that while the young Peña Nieto was selected as the PRI’s candidate in order to represent a break from the party “dinosaurs,” it is worth remembering that the PRI will not rule Mexico so much as the political bureaucracy will:

“[The PRI] ran a skilled vote-gathering (or vote-fixing) operation, but the country was run by a political bureaucracy in league with other power centers, such as banks, labor unions, the army, television magnates and industrial moguls.”

This power structure has remained largely intact, the op-ed asserts, and thus the more important question is “whether a ‘new’ PRI will dare confront the near monopolies — in energy, telecommunications, finance, cement, food and television — that support its return to power and have long profited from the noncompetitive marketplace.”

The most likely outcome is that “Peña Nieto will try to please everyone and will disappoint many,” the op-ed concludes.

More interesting analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, with a report examining gubernatorial races in six states -- the Federal District, Chiapas, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Morelos, Tabasco, and Yucatán -- and what they suggest about the widespread public discontent that is helping bring the PRI back to power.

The AP reports from the Zocalo square in Mexico City, where supporters of leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador congregated. The AP focuses on the question of whether Lopez Obrador will accept the election results, quoting one analyst: "Lopez Obrador is Lopez Obrador and he will not recognize the result no matter what.” The LA Times reports that Lopez Obrador told a business group that in case of a loss, he will retire to his ranch in Chiapas.

According to the AP, Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute is urging candidates to sign a contract promising “civility” whatever the results of the July 1 vote may be. The next few days should also allow for a closer examination of whether Mexico’s vote-counting technology is up to speed. The computers that will be used to tally Sunday’s votes have already been reviewed and tested for glitches, the National Autonomous University of Mexico told EFE.

National Action Party (PAN) candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota rallied in Guadalajara and promised to make current President Felipe Calderon the next Attorney General if elected. New Alliance candidate Gabriel Cuadri ended his campaign in Zacatecas.

News Briefs

  • The Washington Post reports from Tampico, exploring how security dynamics may influence voting results in areas more strongly affected by cartel and gang violence. The port city is based in Tamaulipas state, a particularly visible battleground between the cartels where brutal displays of violence have become all too common. The Post notes that Tampico’s local economy is now debilitated because many citizens are too afraid to to do business there, and this fear may motivate many to cast their votes for the PRI this Sunday. “With the PRI, you have lots of dishonesty, lots of stealing, okay?” one rancher told the Post. “But when I was driving to my ranch under the PRI, I didn’t see bodies without heads. Now I do.” The article is accompanied by a photo gallery.
  • In an interview with the AP, Paraguay’s former President Fernando Lugo compared the events which ousted him from office to the 2009 coup in Honduras. He called the country’s  democratic process “broken,” and added that he did not want sanctions imposed against Paraguay as it would disproportionately affect small farmers. Time magazine notes that all the comparisons between Honduras and Paraguay may actually work to Lugo’s disadvantage: if ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya couldn’t return to power “when he had a legitimate coup to complain about, it’s doubtful Lugo will be able to muster the kind of international sanctions that could make Paraguay bend,” Time concludes. The Organization of American States (OAS) Director Jose Insulza may travel to Paraguay next Sunday on a fact-finding mission, and the US State Department will hold off from releasing an official statement on the Paraguay’s political crisis until Insulza releases his report, reports Mercopress. The Mercosur summit, which begins today in Mendoza, Argentina, will likely decide whether Paraguay faces sanctions or not. In the meantime, new President Federico Franco has already overseen changes in command in the military and police, and has presented his governing plan to Congress, stating that his priority was “organizing the house,” reports Reuters
  • Guatemala handed out prison sentences to 36 alleged members of Mexican criminal group the Zetas. The longest sentences of maximum 158 years were issued to two men charged with kidnapping and killing a businessman, Luis Charcon, in 2011 in the Zetas stronghold of Peten state. The two detainees were also charged with killing Charcon’s wife and father when they met with the Zetas and tried to pay Charcon’s ransom. The deaths of the Charcon family were a precursor to another gruesome massacre in Peten that happened just a few days later, when the Zetas attacked a farm in Peten and killed the 29 workers they found there, mutilating the bodies and writing on the walls in blood. Prensa Libre has more details on the recently issued prison sentences. 
  • The Washington Post reports that some observers are already starting to question the official explanation for why a gunfight broke out between federal police officers in Mexico City’s international airport on Monday, which left three agents dead. The government has said the shooting broke out when the federal police moved to arrest two suspects involved in a drug smuggling ring based out of the airport. According to the Post, some media sources are questioning whether it was actually a shoot-out between co-conspirators. The Post: “If it was an operation to capture traffickers in the act, some said, why did it take 20 minutes for additional police officers to appear after the shooting began? Why were only three police officers sent to arrest two armed fellow officers in a crowded airport?” As the investigation continues, authorities have said that they have cleared the airport director of any involvement in criminal activity, El Universal reports
  • President Rafael Correa announced Wednesday that Ecuador will no longer send military personnel to train at the controversial training base once known as the School of the Americas, after meeting with advocacy group SOA Watch, reports EFE. This makes Ecuador the fifth country in the region to cease sending soldiers to the school, which is based in Fort Benning, Georgia. The institute has trained hundreds of military personnel from Latin America who later went on to commit blatant human rights abuses in their home countries, SOA Watch says. 
  • Buenos Aires saw a massive rally of up to 50,000 people, led by union umbrella organization the CGT, reports Mercopress. The strikers demanded lower income tax levels, and their show of force was a clear challenge to President Cristina Fernandez: according to the AP, Wednesday was the first time that the CGT held a general strike since 2003. It was also another display of the influence wielded by CGT leader Hugo Moyano, a former close ally of Fernandez who has since become one of the government’s strongest critics. Moyano was behind the two-day truckers strike last week, in which the union successfully pressured company bosses to raise drivers’ salaries by 25 percent. 
  • After a seven-day strike, Bolivia’s police have come to an agreement with the government, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. Reuters reports that the police were forced to lift their blockade in La Paz in order to allow another group of protesters -- indigenous groups striking against the TIPNIS highway -- to congregate in front of the presidential palace. 
  • Brazil announced a new economic stimulus package that will inject $4.1 billion in the economy and is aimed at helping the GDP grow at least 2.5 percent this year, reports the Wall Street Journal. Reuters reports that this latest stimulus package highlights Brazil’s tendency towards state-led economic growth. Reuters: “Be it through tax incentives for key industries or increased lending by state-controlled banks, the government plays a leading role in Brazil's economy, which surpassed Britain's last year to become the world's sixth-largest.”
  • The New York Times with a feature on the booming medical tourism business in the Mexican border town of Mexicali, where US citizens flock to receive dental and medical treatment they cannot afford north of the border. The US patients helped contribute more than $8 million to the city’s economy last year. With a slideshow.
  • A new front opened up in the Ecuador versus Chevron legal battle, when plantiffs filed a lawsuit against the oil company in Brazil. This means that the legal case against Chevron, concerning the dumping of oil in Ecuador’s Lago Agrio region, is now being fought in multiple courts and countries, including Ecuador, New York, and an international court. 
  • When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wrapped his week-long tour of South America in Chile this Tuesday, he announced that China would invest an additional $15 billion in development funds for the continent. About $10 billion of these funds would come in the form of loans. 
  • Global Post examines reconstruction projects in post-earthquake Haiti, asking if the money from international donors is being well spent, focusing on a $142 million highway that is supposed to connect Haiti’s capital with the southwest city of Les Cayes.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

UN World Drug Report Shows Cocaine Production Falling

The United Nations has released its annual World Drug Report (pdf) which highlights falling cocaine production worldwide, but says this is offset by a move to develop new synthetic drugs.

The report, which compiles figures that mostly date from 2010, notes a global decline in the production of cocaine, which was driven by a fall in Colombia’s production between 2005 and 2010. In the US, cocaine consumption dropped from 3 percent in 2006 to 2.2 percent in 2010. US consumers were mostly supplied by cocaine from Colombia, while in Europe, where consumption remained stable, there was growing use of cocaine from Bolivia and Peru.

In terms of the area under coca cultivation, this decreased globally by some 18 percent between 2007-2010, says the report. This was due to the decline in Colombia, where the area (adjusted for small fields) dropped from 73,000 hectares in 2009 to 62,000 the following year. Neighboring Bolivia and Peru saw small increases in the period, up to 31,000 and 61,200 respectively.

However, a recent report from Colombian newspaper El Tiempo said that 2011 figures for the country, due to be released by the UN in mid July, would show that the area under coca cultivation rose again slightly last year to 64,000.

According to the UN, reported cocaine seizures remained fairly stable between 2006 and 2010, though declining purity meant that this actually represented a smaller quantity of the drug. Globally some 694 tons was confiscated in 2010. This would represent a large proportion of the 788-1,060 tons of pure cocaine estimated to be produced annually, but the purity of the seized product is unknown. Additionally, as the report points out, there is overreporting, and if two countries collaborate on a seizure they may both report the figure.

Data on heroin cultivation and eradication in 2010 was not available from the Latin American producing countries (Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala). The report notes large jumps in heroin seizures, however, which more than doubled to a record high of 1.7 tons in Colombia, leaped five-fold to 853 kg in Ecuador, and increased about a third to 374 kg in Mexico.

One key trend noted in the report is a shift in drug consumption from developed to developing countries. However, in South America, average cocaine use declined from 0.9 to 0.7 percent of the adult population, driven by Argentina and Chile. Brazil is thought to be seeing increased cocaine use, but there is not yet data on this, according to the UN. Meanwhile, the rate of consumption stands at a slightly lower 0.5 percent in Central America, and 0.7 percent in the Caribbean.

Of South America, the use of cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy is reported to be particularly high among young people in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay. Some countries in the region, including Argentina, El Salvador, Peru and Uruguay have reported the use of horse tranquilizer ketamine.

The report also notes that the fight to cut production of plant-based drugs like heroin and cocaine is offset by increased production of synthetic drugs. It states that “New chemically engineered psychotropic substances designed to remain outside international control are also increasingly being used and identified,” such as mephedrone and MDPV, often sold as bath salts or plant food.

More from the Wall Street JournalLA Times blog.

News Briefs
  • The LA Times looks at the campaign of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is running for Mexico’s presidency in Sunday’s elections, saying that the optimism of the leftist candidate might not match the facts, as the polls show him many points behind front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto. The newspaper notes that Lopez Obrador can often “dip into the sort of vitriolic discourse that turned off many voters in 2006,” calling opposition politicians “pigs” who misuse public funds. More productively, he has criticized the “conspiracy” of television and political propaganda designed to bring Peña Nieto to power, echoing the concerns of student protest movement Yo Soy 132.
  • InSight Crime has published a two-part analysis of how Mexico’s elections are likely to affect the country’s drug policy. The first part looks at the record and policies of the front-runner, but notes that he is inheriting some long term trends that he will not be able to do much to change -- “Peña Nieto’s administration would not be able to swiftly or single-handedly reverse cartels’ move into extortion and kidnapping, nor will it be able to bring back the calmer landscape of the 1980s, when one or two cartels dominated.” Part II asks what we can expect from the next president, saying that he or she will likely stay close to the US and keep the military involved in domestic security.
  • The Economist blog looks at the race for the mayorship of Mexico City, which Miguel Angel Mancera, candidate of Lopez Obrador’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), is expected to win by a large margin. It says that this highlights the divide between the capital and the rest of the country -- “whereas the left is expected to do worse in this year’s presidential contest than it did in 2006, in the capital its share of the vote looks set to leap up, from 47% in 2006 to perhaps somewhere around 65%.”
  • The Associated Press reports that crime and violence is overshadowing the Venezuelan presidential campaign, with opposition candidate Henrique Capriles saying that in the October vote, where he faces incumbent Hugo Chavez “We will have to choose between life or death.” Meanwhile a new report from International Crisis Group says Chavez’s sickness threatens his country’s stability, due to the extremely personalized nature of his rule, which means any handover of power will be difficult. In another sign of the charged atmosphere of the campaign, Capriles has called for the National Electoral Council to stop the president using his position to make lengthy campaign speeches, the AP reports.
  • Ecuador has discovered a semi-submersible vessel designed to transport drugs under the surface of the ocean, which was being constructed in an island in a Gulf on the Pacific coast. It is the second such “drug-sub” discovered in the country, according to the AP. This follows the Colombian Navy’s seizure of a similar vessel on Sunday in the Pacific port of Nariño. These craft can carry many tons of cocaine -- 10 to 15 in the case of the Ecuadorian find -- up to Central America or even Mexico without being detected, as they sit just beneath the surface of the water.
  • Ousted Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo has made a swift about-turn, announcing that he will not attend a Mercosur meeting in Buenos Aires this week, which he says is because he does not want to put pressure on other leaders at the summit, reports the AP. Paraguay has been suspended from the body, and Lugo had said he planned to attend, as part of his campaign to “re-establish the democratic order,” as discussed in previous posts.
  • A UN report on rape cases in Port-au-Prince found massive impunity and failures to prosecute. Of 62 complaints filed in a selection of the city's stations in a three-month period in 2010, none had gone to trial more than a year later, reports the AP. The UN found that “police and judicial authorities lack even the most basic resources to do their jobs, such as computers, vehicles and furniture.”
  • El Faro has an interview with Raul Mijango, one of the mediators of a truce between the country’s two biggest gangs, which has seen murders fall by some 60 percent since March. He discusses his close relationship with Security Minister David Mungia Payes, who hired him as an advisor in 2009, and says that the government should sit down and negotiate with the gang leaders in order to bring about lasting peace.
  • El Nuevo Diaro reports from a small community on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast where locals protest about the constant presence of the military, who they say have unfairly accused some residents of being traffickers.
  • The NYT has a piece on the Cuatro Cienegas desert in Chihuahua, north Mexico, whose harsh conditions allow scientists an insight into what life might have developed on Mars.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lugo Fights Back

Ousted Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo may have been removed from office, but he is not accepting his lot quietly. Vowing to “re-establish the democratic order,” Lugo convened a parallel shadow cabinet yesterday to lay out his next steps in organizing a popular movement designed to restore him to power.

The cabinet consists of several former officials in his government, including the ministers of health, foreign affairs, and communications. It also includes Carlos Filizzola, Lugo’s interior minister who resigned in the wake of a violent land conflict last week. When asked by what means Lugo would pursue a return to office, Filizzola told ABC Digital they would rely on combination of legal measures, international pressure and popular mobilizations.

The first major act of resistance will occur this Friday, at a meeting of the Mercosur trade bloc. Although Paraguay has been temporarily suspended from the organization, Lugo has confirmed that he will attend the summit in a “testimonial” rather than “official” capacity. The New York Times notes that Lugo’s successor, Federico Franco, has dismissed the importance of this move by stressing that Paraguay continues to hold pro-term presidency of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur). However, Mercopress reports that Unasur will be having an extraordinary meeting at Friday’s summit, and Lugo will be expected to hand over leadership of Unasur to Peru.

In spite of the uproar abroad, it is unclear whether Lugo will be able to make any significant advances at home. Protests in his favor have so far been few and far between, so it is unlikely that popular demonstrations alone will be able to return him to power. Meanwhile, the country’s Supreme Court yesterday ruled that he had been ousted in accordance with the constitution, leaving him no legal means to challenge the move.  

News Briefs
  • Americas Quarterly’s Javier El-Hage argues that regional attempts to ostracize Paraguay are misguided, and claims that governments like those in Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador are acting hypocritically by expressing concerns over democracy in Paraguay
  • A shootout broke out inside Mexico City’s International Airport yesterday, resulting in the death of three federal police officers. The victims were attempting to arrest two other police officers suspected of drug trafficking, who apparently escaped after the incident. Reuters notes that the relatively peaceful Mexico City has become more violent of late, with some 300 gang-related murders in 2011. 
  • After the US Supreme Court upheld certain portions of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, the Mexican government has filed a “friend of the court” brief challenging the decision on the grounds that it would violate the human rights of Mexicans visiting or living in Arizona.
  • Bolivian police remain on strike over a pay dispute, having rejected a deal on Sunday with the Evo Morales government. The Andean Information Network offers a detailed look at the crisis, which the group compares to a “mutiny.”
  • The Wall Street Journal profiles changing dynamics in South American coca growth, which could potentially lead to more widespread cocaine production in the region.
  • The government of Ecuador is still weighing Julian Assange’s extradition request. The AP says Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino and has not given any indication of when a decision will be made, although the country’s ambassador to the UK returned to Quito over the weekend to assess the situation with Patino and President Rafael Correa. The Guardian reports that a number of prominent left-wing Americans, including Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg have all signed a letter urging Ecuador to accept the request.
  • The Miami Herald reports that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is on a tour of South America this week, and has announced that China is interested in pursuing a free trade agreement with Mercosur.
  • Colorlines has a summary of the achievements of El Salvador’s gang truce, and suggests that it could be a viable strategy for law enforcement in the US.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Lugo Impeachment Constitutional, But Still a Setback for Democracy

Paraguay’s new president, former vice president Federico Franco, was sworn into office during a procedure that was technically constitutional, but still weakens Paraguay’s democracy, many observers concluded after the swift removal of Fernando Lugo from office last Friday. Lugo only had nine months remaining of his five-year term and was not eligible to run for office again. He is the fourth president in Paraguay’s history to face impeachment. But deep-rooted opposition from the conservative bloc, as well as his own political missteps, allowed Friday’s events to happen as quickly as they did. 

“In this era of globalization, it appears that even impeachment proceedings, which should be measured and deliberate given what is at stake, have become accelerated,” President of the Inter-American Dialogue Michael Shifter told the New York Times. “The Congress may have acted in accordance with the Constitution, but this is a setback for democracy nonetheless.”

"If you apply the criteria of 'poor performance' to Europe, most of the presidents would be impeached today," another political analyst told the Wall Street Journal. “This is politically motivated. And that's why a number of governments are coming out saying this is unconstitutional and we won't recognize it, because the law has obviously been twisted."

A post by the Cato Institute last Friday argued that while removing Lugo from office could be a “premature decision, or an example of bad politics in a country where politicians excel in doing wrong,” it was still a legal and constitutional move, and therefore other countries should avoid imposing sanctions on Paraguay. But as analyst James Bosworth points out, even while the events cannot strictly be described as a “coup” -- doing so could weaken the true meaning of the word -- the process was still a serious setback for democracy in the region. The days of the obvious military coups are long gone, Bosworth argues:
Instead, we get these muddy incremental degradations of democracy in which an elected president (or in this case, a legislature) manipulates the institutions in his or her favor to consolidate power and force the other branches of government into submission.”

Bosworth also provides a helpful summary of the international reaction to Lugo’s impeachment, noting that some of the strongest condemnation came from Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, who called it a “break with democratic order.” Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Affairs later said neither Brazil nor the other core members of MERCOSUR -- Argentina and Uruguay -- could interfere in Paraguay’s internal affairs, as the entire impeachment process was conducted in accordance with the Constitution, reports the AFP.

The region's other most important economic bloc, MERCOSUR, “energetically” condemned the results in Paraguay, describing the results as an “express” impeachment. South American governments, including Uruguay and Brazil, recalled their ambassadors from the country for consultations. Another strong reaction came from Venezuela, after President Hugo Chavez said they would be cutting off oil exports to the Southern Cone country, and Argentina, whose President Cristina Kirchner called the proceedings a coup.

Now it remains to be seen whether Lugo will continue to critique the Franco regime from afar, after he said that he accepted Congress’s decision last Friday in order to avoid a “blood bath.” According to Mercopress, he has said that he plans to attend the MERCOSUR summit on June 29. Many of Lugo’s supporters rallied around a public television station in Asuncion, which was taken over by police Sunday night. Lugo has also said he intends to set up a parallel government that aims to restore him to power.

As the AP’s analysis points out, Friday’s proceedings wouldn’t have happened at all if Lugo hadn’t so thoroughly alienated members of his own party, the Liberals, who adamantly supported the impeachment process. “The failure of Lugo to maintain any sort of significant support from anybody meant that when it happened, it happened incredibly fast, and there was no outpouring of support at all,” political scientist Greg Weeks told the AP. “Basically Lugo made everybody mad,” he added.

News Briefs
  • Saturday, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent shot and killed an armed suspect in Honduras while accompanying local security forces during a drug-smuggling raid. “The agent involved in this incident fired in self-defense, as permitted under DEA rules and those of the host country,” a spokeswoman for the DEA told the New York Times. The AP provides a more detailed look at the agency’s special mission in Honduras, working with police to quickly track suspicious drug flights. In a little over two months, the team has helped intercept more than half the number of drug flights intercepted over the past year and a half. But this latest incident echoes the shooting last month which community leaders say killed four civilians, after Honduran forces, in the presence of the DEA, opened fire on a boat said to be transporting smugglers. The New York Times describes a video of the raid that only adds to the confusion over what actually happened. The video shows a larger boat ramming into the smaller boat carrying the Honduran and US agents, followed by a burst of gunfire. This directly contradicts an account by a witness interviewed by the Times, a woman who says she was shot in the legs and that the larger boat was her river taxi.
  • The conclusion of the Rio+20 conference saw disappointing results, as expected, compared to the first Rio summit meeting which saw the signing of two key treaties on climate change and biodiversity. “In the end, this conference was a conference to decide to have more conferences,” concludes the AP. Global leaders did however commit to a total of $513 billion in pledges to improve accessibility to clean water, sanitation and sustainable energy, reports the LA Times. The New York Times notes that while “The Obama administration offered no grand public gestures here,” the hundreds of environmental groups which attended the meeting did sign plenty of “side agreements” outside of the formal negotiations, which may actually be easier to enforce. An entertaining post at Rio Real describes life in Rio de Janeiro during the giant conference, and concludes that, “All in all, much of Rio + 20 didn’t augur well for the Pope’s visit next year, the 2014 World Cup games in Rio, nor the 2016 Olympics.” Blogger Riogringa also writes that traffic was a major problem in the city during the conference, and highlights the city’s need to expand its public transportation system.
  • The New York Times on the discovery earlier this year of a mass grave in Mexico (see map) containing the bodies of a dozen of dead women and girls. The Times argues that Juarez may be entering a second wave of femicide killings, in which many of the murders are likely related to a variety of reasons: drugs, gangs, domestic violence, or a combination of these factors. Fox News Latino also calls attention to Juarez’s violence, profiling a family of 20 people currently seeking asylum in El Paso.
  • The US plans to expand drone flights into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to fight drug smuggling, reports the LA Times.
  • Global Post with a new special looking at oil production in Brazil, where recently discovered deepwater deposits could make the country one of the world’s top oil producers. The series explores what obstacles stand in the way of Brazil meeting its ambitious targets on oil production, as well as the reaction of the US oil lobby.
  • The New York Times uses the recent killing of a journalist in Veracruz, Mexico, to examine rising violence levels in the state, where nine journalists have been killed in the past year and a half.
  • The Miami Herald looks at several US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, which find no evidence of extensive money laundering in Cuba, but point out that neither the government nor the media releases reliable statistics on this phenomenon.
  • Mexican authorities retracted their announcement last week that they arrested the son of Sinaloa Cartel drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, reports the LA Times
  • The AP uses an international anti-drug conference hosted by Lima, Peru, which will see the attendance of more than 59 countries, as a reason to look at Peru’s national anti-drug strategies.
  • Sunday saw the fourth day of a strike by Bolivian police, who have rejected a deal with the government that would raise their wages to about $224 a month. The police are seeking a monthly salary of $300 on month, about the same amount earned by army sergeants, reports the AP. President Evo Morales said that he suspects the strike was orchestrated for political ends by the opposition, says BBC Mundo.
  • Opinion from Mary Anastasia O’Grady at the Wall Street Journal argues that whoever places second in Mexico’s presidential election next Sunday could influence Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto’s time in office. A second place finish for leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador could harm Peña Nieto’s mandate, while a second place finish for National Action Party (PAN) candidate Josefina Vásquez Mota would confirm the theory that “Mexico's rising middle class is increasingly unconvinced that [Obrador’s] brand of populism is worth pursuing.” Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer concludes that “a Peña Nieto victory would probably not turn Mexico into the ‘perfect dictatorship’ that it was during much of the 20th Century, but it could turn it into a more imperfect democracy than it has been over the past decade.” In other election-related news, the LA Times with analysis on the candidates’ security proposals, concluding that none offer any serious alternatives to the strategies pursued by President Felipe Calderon.
  • While the presidential vote may see the inevitable return of the PRI to power, Mexico City is a different story, where many are expecting another landslide victory for progressive party the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), reports the AP. Such is the PRD’s hold in the capital that Peña Nieto has only hosted one major political rally in the city so far during his campaign.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Paraguay in Political Crisis as Senate Votes on Impeachment

Paraguay’s Senate is set to begin the trial of President Fernando Lugo today, after the House voted 76-1 Thursday to impeach him. At least two-thirds of the 45 members of the Senate would have to vote for removal of the president, and it is likely that the opposition could rally this bloc of support. Vice President Federico Franco, a strong critic of Lugo who reportedly was planning to run for office himself in 2013, would then take over. Lugo has called the process an “express coup attempt.” The secretary general of the presidency said it was “clearly a setup,” reports Reuters.

Paraguay’s largest media organization, ABC, has a timeline for how Friday’s developments should play out. The president will have two hours to defend himself this afternoon.

While the impeachment vote was prompted by last week’s bloody confrontation over land rights in Canindeyu province, which left at least 15 people, Bloggings by Boz points out this is only one of five charges presented against Lugo: “The other four involve using a military base for a political activity in 2009, involvement in a previous land conflict in Ñacunday, the signing of Ushuaia II agreement last year in Montevideo and the general citizen security crisis that the government has failed to fix in the country.”

Lugo’s political allies have been steadily turning against him for years, and the impeachment process is partly indicative of just how much Lugo has fallen out of favor. One issue that the Lugo administration struggled with in particular was security. Despite declaring several “states of emergency” intended to hunt down elusive guerrilla group the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), the government was repeatedly embarrassed when it failed to deliver visible results.

In some ways, the political opposition used the issue of the EPP as a way to attack Lugo and depict him as weak on security. This is even though the EPP is hardly Paraguay’s most serious security threat: the group is thought to have no more than 50 members, and some critics have contested that it doesn’t really exist. The contraband, drugs and weapons smuggling, and presence of international  militias like Hezbollah in Paraguay’s Triple Frontier area is arguably a much bigger concern. But Lugo was possibly under political pressure to make the campaign against the EPP a central tenet of his security policy: as the first president to break decades of rule by the conservative Colorado party, he faced intense scrutiny from the right. As a result, it is debatable whether he prioritized the fight against the EPP over other security issues in order to distance himself from the radical left. But when the government failed to strike any significant blows against the EPP, this opened Lugo up to even further criticism that he failed to fix Paraguay’s security problems, and contributed to his plummeting popularity.

Lugo also faced criticism for failing to carrying out the ambitious land reform project he promised during his campaign, but it appears that peasant and land activist groups still represent a key source of support. “Lugo isn’t fulfilling his main election promise of carrying out agrarian reform but it is not his fault,” one prominent land activist told the AP. “The fault lies with a judicial system that blocks all attempts to expropriate land in the hands of foreigners or to recover formerly state land that was given to supporters of the dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.”

Nevertheless, it bears pointing out that Lugo’s support from this sector has also dropped dramatically. Upside Down World has a translation of an interview with one leader of the Paraguayan Campesino Movement, who states, “We have given up believing in the president; he is not keeping his promises.”

One immediate risk is that Lugo’s removal from office could provoke a strong reaction from the president’s supporters, which still include several land activist groups. 9,000 police have already been deployed in capital Asuncion. “We are not going to escape turbulence, it’s coming,” one political analyst told the AP. “If you were to ask me, I’d tell you to go to the supermarket and buy batteries, buy everything.”

The strongest international reaction came from UNASUR, which convened an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss the latest developments, and which sent a delegation to Paraguay. Bolivian President Evo Morales also condemned the decision.

News Briefs
  • The presumed son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, was arrested Thursday by the Mexican Navy. According to the New York Times, it is possible that Jesus Alfredo Guzman could be extradited to the US, as he was indicted in 2009 by a court in Illinois. Authorities also describe Guzman as the head of a “cartel” in Sinaloa state, says the LA Times. His capture has been taken to mean that President Felipe Calderon remains intent on netting El Chapo before the July 1 presidential elections. Chapo already narrowly avoided an escape an attempt in resort city Los Cabos last March, when Secretary of State Hilary Clinto met there with other officials. His primary associate of the Sinaloa Cartel, “El Azul,” also recently avoided arrest, according to reports. The last time one of El Chapo’s son featured so prominently in media headlines was in 2008, when his son Edgar was killed by the Beltran Leyva Organization, which prompted an all-out war in Mexico’s border states, as the Sinaloa Cartel split into rival factions. 
  • President Rafael Correa said that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could stay “indefinitely” in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Correa added that one point of discussion would have to be whether Assange could be guranteed safe passage, as British authorities have said they will arrest him as soon as he leaves the Embassy. Assange told Australian radio that he does not know whether Ecuador will approve his request for asylum, reports the AP. Elsewhere, Roger Noriega has an opinion piece criticizing Assange’s “breathless hypocrisy” in seeking asylum in a country with a poor record in defending independent journalism. 
  • The Washington Post reports on Mexico’s election oversight officials and their plan to ensure that 2012 avoids the controversy of the 2006 presidential election. The article notes that the main difference may be that this year, there is such a wide margin between the candidates, it is unlikely that any candidate could complain about electoral fraud in the case of a loss by a few percentage points. The Economist reports that, “If the PRI has managed to win its way back into Mexican hearts, that is partly a verdict on its opponents.”
  • The US cut $3 million in aid to Nicaragua, stating that the government has not been transparent about its use of public funds. Global Post reports that this slash in government aid may herald a bad omen for next month, when Washington votes on whether to continue supporting Nicaragua in multilateral lenders, a decision described as crucial for the future of Nicaragua’s economy. 
  • The New York Times looks at Brazil’s many infrastructure projects, some of which are facing delays because there isn’t enough labor to complete them. The government has ordered the projects partly in order to create jobs and stimulate the economy, but some critics say it could make the economy too dependent on the state. 
  • Infosur on the just-approved proposal for a tri-national police force that will patrol the borders between El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. 
  • Argentina’s largest trucker’s union have called off their strike, after reaching a deal that would raise the salary of truck drivers. But union leaders called for another strike next Wednesday demanding lower income taxes, reports the Wall Street Journal. Another protest in the region saw Bolivian police strike for higher pay close to the presidential palace, reports the AP.
  • McClatchy with a report on residents from one Brazilian favela who may have to relocate to make way for new facilities being built for the 2016 Olympics. 
  • A Venezuelan indigenous group is demanding that a large stone, currently being used in Berlin for a park monument to global peace, be returned to their homeland. The German artist behind the park project says that when he removed the stone from Venezuela in 1997, he had permission from the government and that the indigenous community helped him select it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Uruguay Govt Seeks to Sell Marijuana to Registered Buyers

The administration of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has announced that it plans to send Congress a proposal for a bill which would legalize marijuana, but establish the government as the only legitimate provider of the drug.  Under the plan, the state would sell marijuana cigarettes to adults who have signed onto a government registry, a move which would allow officials to monitor purchases over time. People who attempted to purchase more than a specified amount at a time would be required to submit themselves to drug rehabilitation treatment.

According to El Pais, the move has been framed as a part of a larger policy that would make inroads against cocaine consumption in the country. Uruguayan law enforcement have seen a significant rise in the amount of cocaine seized in recent years, usually in the form of cocaine paste, a cheaper and less refined version of the drug. If marijuana is legalized and regulated, authorities hope it will encourage drug users to turn to a less addictive drug.

The proposal is also designed to cut criminal profits, and comes amid growing concern over the influence of organized crime in the historically peaceful South American country, as InSight Crime reported in January. While Uruguay still has the lowest homicide rate in Latin America (6.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants), a May 2011 survey by polling firm Interconsult, 62 percent of Uruguayans believe that their country is becoming more insecure.  The perception is backed by the statistics; according to the country’s Interior Ministry, 133 homicides occurred from January to May, up from 76 in the same period last year.

The AP notes that Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro told reporters yesterday that several details of the plan need to be worked out, but if implemented it could significantly deter the illicit drug trade in the country. "The laws of the market will rule here: whoever sells the best and the cheapest will end with drug trafficking," Fernandez said. "We'll have to regulate farm production so there's no contraband and regulate distribution ... we must make sure we don't affect neighboring countries or be accused of being an international drug production center."

News Briefs
·         WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is still taking refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has been staying since Tuesday. There has been no word on whether Ecuador will accept his request for political asylum, but CNN reports that Deputy Foreign Minister Marco Albuja has promised to make a final decision public in the next 24 hours. The New York Times notes that Assange has put himself in a difficult position: “if Ecuador declines his application for asylum, he will have to leave the embassy to face arrest and probable imprisonment. If it accepts, he will have to make a literal sprint for South America, trying to evade the British police in the vast tract of city between Knightsbridge and any international flight.”

·         The LA Times’ World News Now blog highlights a televised May discussion between Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Assange, which may point to ideological overlaps between the imprisoned transparency activist and Correa’s government.

·         After Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner  criticized Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for minimizing violence by “turning a blind eye to the cartels"  during a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing yesterday, PRI presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto responded harshly. Lamenting the US lawmaker’s “lack of knowledge,” Peña Nieto said that he would continue to pursue drug trafficking organizations as president, according to El Universal and the AP

·         A new poll by the Pew Research Center finds widespread support for the military-led offensive against drug traffickers in Mexico, with 80 percent of respondents supporting the military’s role. However, almost as many (74 percent) voiced concerns over the potential for security forces (military and police) to carry out human rights abuses.

·         While Mexico City is known for its poor environmental record, a local government initiative is seeking to reduce waste by providing locals with food vouchers in exchange for sorted collections of trash. CNN has more on the project.

·         Bolivia has credited several recent seizures of coca processing labs in the country’s east to the help of the Brazilian government, which has provided unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the border. Felipe Caceres, Bolivia’s drug czar, would not comment on the type or capability of the drones other than to say they are Israeli-made and have permission to enter Bolivian airspace.

·         The Miami Herald takes a look at the writings of aged Communist leader Fidel Castro in Granma, which have become shorter in recent years and are now often less than 65 words. The paper reports that Cubans themselves are often puzzled by the communiqués, as they frequently feature the kind of poetic brevity usually reserved for haikus.

·         The Argentine government deployed military police military police to subdue protests by the country’s largest truckers’ union at fuel plants on Wednesday, reports BBC Mundo. In response, the union called for a national strike which could cause pervasive shortages in the country. The administration of President Cristina Fernandez has leveled criminal charges against union head Hugo Moyano, who the Wall Street Journal notes has had a rocky relationship with the government.

·         New details have emerged about the death of ex-Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s father, who died in the aftermath of the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973. El Nuevo Herald reports that Judge Mario Carroza said yesterday that a new forensic investigation into the death of Alberto reveals that he died as a result of torture. Bachelet was a general in the Chilean air force at the time, and refused to support the Pinochet regime.

·         The UK-based New Economics Foundation’s “Happy Planet Index” has ranked Costa Rica the happiest country in the world. Surprisingly, it was not the only Central American country ranked highly, as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Belize and Guatemala all made it to the list’s top ten happiest countries despite the endemic violence in the region.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

WikiLeaks Founder in Legal Limbo as Ecuador Studies Asylum Request

Ecuador is analyzing a request from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for asylum, after Assange spent Tuesday night in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Last week Britain's Supreme Court rejected Assange’s appeal against his extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted on sex crime allegations. Assange’s decision to spend the night in the Ecuadorian Embassy violates the terms of his house arrest, meaning he could be arrested again, Scotland Yard said Wednesday. The Guardian has live coverage of the ongoing saga.

In its official statement, Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry said its evaluation of Assange’s request would “take into account respect for the rules and principles of international law.” Assange has thanked Ecuador for studying his petition. One source told the Telegraph that Assange is in “good spirits” and has received a “generous and welcoming” reception at the Embassy.

Ecuador has never actually formally offered residency to Assange. In 2010, Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister issued a statement that invited Assange to visit Ecuador, and offered to process a request for residency if Assange wanted to do so. Residency would be offered to Assange “without any kind of trouble and without any kind of conditions,” the deputy minister said. But Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ricardo Patiño were both quick to say that this offer had not been approved by the highest levels of government. At the time, Correa described it as a “spontaneous” statement.

Many media outlets have cited the fact that Assange interviewed Correa on his TV talk show last April (the interview was aired in May) as evidence of the “friendly ties” between Assange and the Andean country. Correa was the only Latin American president to appear on the show so far this year. One source told the AP that during this taping, Assange received an offer of asylum, although it is not clear whether it came from Correa himself. At the end of the interview, Correa told Assange, “welcome to the club of the persecuted.”

BBC Mundo notes that while Assange is widely seen as a promoter of press freedom and openness of governments, Correa has fought a bitter battle with the press inside his own country.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald argues that Assange’s main interest is to avoid being extradited to the US, if he ends up in Swedish custody. This likely drove him to take the risk of breaking the terms of his house arrest. The US State Department has issued no formal statement on the afffair, with one spokesperson describing the matter as “a business between Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Ecuador.”

Ecuador was one of the world governments most affected by WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of US State Department cables. Ecuador expelled its US ambassador from the country in response to a July 2009 cable, in which the ambassador described top-level police corruption and wrote that Correa was aware of it yet did nothing.

News Briefs
  • President Hugo Chavez has a sizeable lead over opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles according to the latest numbers released by polling company Datanalisis, with 43.6 percent of voters favoring Chavez, versus 27.7 percent for Capriles. But as Reuters notes, Venezuelan polls have a mixed records of providing accurate numbers, although Datanalisis is considered one of the more reliable ones.
  • In other election news, poll numbers from Mexico’s Reforma newspaper show Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto extending his lead to 42 points; meaning there is now a 12-point gap between him and rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. A previous Reforma poll, from May 31, had only a 4-point difference between the two candidates. Reuters also has some general analysis on why the PRI may soon be back in power, although it is unlikely that the party will win a majority in Congress. During an interview with BBC Mundo, former president and National Action Party (PAN) member Vicente Fox said that he would be supporting the PRI during this election because he “doesn’t want Mexico to turn into Venezuela.”
  • Before traveling to the Rio+20 conference, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stopped briefly in La Paz, Bolivia, and met with President Evo Morales. The AP reports that the two leaders signed a “memo of understanding” in which Iran committed anti-narcotics aid to Bolivia. The AP called it the “first military cooperation” agreement between Bolivia and Iran. After the UN summit in Rio de Janeiro, Ahmadinejad will reportedly meet with President Chavez in Venezuela.
  • British Prime Minister David Cameron approached Argentine President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner during the G20 summit and told her that she should “respect” the wishes of the Falkland Islanders who want to remain under British rule. Fernandez reportedly attempted tried to hand Cameron a pack of documents, consisting of all the UN resolutions issued on the Falkland Islands, which Cameron refused to accept, reports Mercopress.
  • 100 days after the Church reportedly helped negotiate a truce between El Salvador’s warring gangs, gang leaders say they are interested in reaching a “definitive cease-fire,” reports the AP.
  • Just the Facts shares a map made available at a Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing in the House of Representatives, showing the most common routes taken by suspicious sea and air traffic heading to the US from South America.
  • Southern Pulse with a new field report looking at gang dynamics in the conflicted city of Acapulco, arguing that the city represents the future of Mexico’s drug conflict, in which super-power criminal gangs are responsibility for the majority of the violence, rather than the big cartels. The report includes an interactive Google map showing which city neighborhoods are occupied by gangs like the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, and which areas are in dispute.
  • The mayors of Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, as well as a representative from Mexico City, signed an agreement pledging to mutually increase sustainable development projects in their cities, reports EFE. Mayors from 40 of the world’s largest cities are currently meeting in Rio de Janeiro, in an event parallel to Río+20.
  • Latin American News Dispatch has a slideshow of an exhumation being carried out in the military garrison in Coban, Guatemala. A forensic team has discovered the remains of 63 people believed to have been killed in a massacre carried out by the military in the early 1980s.
  • Panana has withdrawn hotly two debated bills that spurred two days of violent protests across the country, reports EFE. One bill included Martinelli’s appointments to the Supreme Court, widely seen as an attempt to ensure that majority of the Court’s 12 judges share Martinelli’s political sympathies. The other controversial bill would have allowed the selling of state shares in utility companies. Critics say this would leave Panama deeply in debt.
  • Reporters Without Borders says that two local radio stations in Bolivia were attacked with explosives, in a town suffering a wave of aggressive protests against a foreign mining company. Several Bolivian journalists this year have been injured or assaulted this year while covering social conflicts, one indication that the government needs to provide better insurance schemes for the media workers who cover high-risk events, Reporters Without Borders states.
  • The Council on Hemispheric Affairs profiles Ecuador’s Intag region, where residents have refused to allow foreign mining companies to develop projects in the area. While the area remains poor, many communities are surviving on small-scale agriculture and tourism projects which have arguably brought greater benefits to locals than a mining company would have, the article argues.
  • The New York Times’ geography blog on the history of Ecuador’s borders, noting that capital city Quito was originally supposed to be the seat of government for an Amazonian territory larger than 500,000 miles.
  • The Council on Foreign Relations’ Shannon O’Neil challenges a recent Foreign Affairs article which argued that Brazil’s rising economic power will soon grind to a halt. O’Neil states that Brazil has invested enough in social programs and other economic reforms, so that its economy is now no longer so vulnerable to hiccups in the global market.