Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Amid Criticism of a Slipping Economy, Fernandez May Face Criminal Fraud Probe

A federal prosecutor in Argentina says there is evidence to support a criminal investigation against President Cristina Fernandez for alleged fraud, reports the AP, noting, “Argentine presidents face formal legal complaints all the time but rarely do they get this far.” It is the first time that Fernandez would be investigated for an alleged crime during her presidency.

The complaint alleges that Fernandez’s use of her emergency decree powers in order to draw funds from Argentina’s central bank, which were then used to pay off foreign debt, are worthy of a legal investigation. The complaint also states that Fernandez committed “irregularities” by banning the purchase of US dollar bonds earlier this year.

Under the new regulations, Argentines can only buy dollars if they can prove that they are traveling abroad, buying property, vehicles or other equipment -- but they can still have their request rejected by the national tax agency. The restrictions sparked protests in Buenos Aires in June. Now, according to the legal complaint, the restrictions control the foreign exchange market in an “arbitrary, unreasonable, and illegal” way, and merit a criminal investigation, reports El Clarin.

The federal prosecutor, Carlos Stornelli, has a history of confronting the most powerful of Argentina’s political elite. He headed the investigation into former president Carlos Menem, who was arrested in 2001 over an arms exports scandal, involving the sale of weapons to Ecuador and Croatia.

Other Fernandez officials, including President of the Central Bank Mercedes Marcó del Pont, Secretary of Commerce Ricardo Echegaray, and Secretary of Domestic Trade Guillermo Moreno, are also named in Stornelli’s complaint, which was originally instigated by an opposition lawmaker.

If there is eventually a criminal investigation against Fernandez, it would be the culmination of the many criticisms that her administration has faced for its economic policy. The controversy dates back to 2010, when Fernandez first tried to use billions of dollars of Central Bank reserves to pay off foreign debt. When the bank president at the time refused, Fernandez forced him out of office by presidential decree. This forms the backbone of Stornelli’s complaint that the government’s maneuverings were in fact illegal.

Stornelli’s announcement follows a poll published August 26 that showed Fernandez’s popularity has sunk to 30 percent, reports Reuters. This is compared to a popularity rating of 64 percent in September 2011. Poll participants cited concerns about rising inflation, unemployment, and crime, and appears to indicate that “most people are not buying Fernandez's argument that external factors are mostly to blame.”


News Briefs
  • A cocaine processing laboratory was discovered in Honduras’ Atlantida department, near the wreckage of a small aircraft, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. This appears to be the second drug lab ever discovered in Honduras; the first was reported found last year, also in Atlantida.
  • According to a notice from the Cuban Health Ministry, the cholera outbreak that infected 417 people and killed three has been eradicated, reports CNN.
  • President Felipe Calderon emphasized that a government probe would fully investigate the circumstances under which two US agents were shot at by Mexico federal police. The probe includes investigating whether the attack was deliberate, according to ReutersInSight Crime reports that the US shooting victims were CIA personnel who were participating in a training program for the Mexican Navy. The New York Times notes that while so far, there is no evidence that the agents were attacked because of their work for the CIA, the attack does suggest that various branches of the Mexican security forces, including the Navy and police, are not communicating as well as they should. Eric Olson of the Mexico Institute blames this lack of communication on "lack of trust" within the security forces.
  • An Ecuadorian judge blocked the extradition of a Belarusian who gained political asylum in Ecuador, although he is wanted for fraud and extortion in his native country, reports the AP. The case of Aliaksandr Barankov has been frequently compared to that of Julian Assange, and this recent ruling may put an end to criticism that Ecuador had unfairly threatened to remove Barankov’s asylum.
  • Bloomberg reports that clashes between police and coca growers may have left up to five people dead and over a dozen injured, although other Peruvian media has reported just three deaths. The Minister of the Interior said that while a confrontation did take place on Tuesday morning and that the police responded with tear gas, he could not confirm any deaths or injuries. The conflict was registered in Huanaco department, which is one of central Peru’s top coca-producing regions, although the Interior Minister said that no coca eradication was scheduled to take place in the district where protesters battled police. Meanwhile, in Peru’s other major coca growing region, known as the VRAEM, police reported rescuing 30 children from a Shining Path encampment, where they were supposedly being indoctrinated by the guerrillas.  Infosur with the story.
  • Colombia arrested five people for suspected involvement in the May bombing that killed two people and injured 50; the target was ex-president Uribe’s former interior minister, Fernando Londoño, reports EFE. The FARC were initially blamed for the attacks, but the guerrillas never claimed responsibility for what would have been the rebels’ first fatal bomb attack in Bogota in nearly 10 years. President Santos described those arrested as common criminals. 
  • The LA Times on the sometimes-anti-Semitic discourse used against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles on state television channels in Venezuela.
  • Foreign Policy in Focus with an interesting piece on Peru’s attempts at reconciliation, in the aftermath of its painful war with the Shining Path guerrillas. Peru is still struggling with issues related to historical memory of the war, including the treatment of political parties reportedly linked to the Shining Path, and how the conflict should be discussed in school textbooks, the article states.
  • For the ninth straight year, Argentina agreed to raise its minimum wage, reports Reuters.
  • A reminder from Amnesty International that August 30 is International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The human rights organization also praised a recent ruling in a Colombian civilian court, which sentenced a junior army officer for  60 years in  prison for the sexual assault and murder of underage civilians. Members of the Colombian security forces are rarely successfully prosecuted and sentenced for sexual violence crimes, making this particular case stand out, Amnesty International stated.
  • According to Infosur, Paraguay’s anti-drug police have seized a record amount of crack so far in 2012, an indication of the drug’s increased availability in the Southern Cone country.