Thursday, August 2, 2012

Amid Slipping Approval Ratings, Santos Embarks on Colombia Tour

Colombia President Juan Manual Santos has set off on a nation-wide tour,  in an attempt to highlight the accomplishments of his presidency as his approval ratings hit an all-time low of 47 percent in July. The president is set to visit some 12 departments in just 15 days, meeting with local officials -- including governors, mayors, and local security forces -- along the way.

Reporting from the southern city of Pasto, the Miami Herald notes that Santos emphasized his administration’s efforts to rebuild ties with neighboring countries like Ecuador, an issue of particular interest to the border city. The visit also had the feel of a “campaign rally,” the newspaper reports, in light of a recent announcement by former President Alvaro Uribe, one of Santos’ most acerbic critics, that Uribe was building a coalition that would run against the president in the 2014 elections.

There are a couple of theories for why Santos has seen a slip in his approval ratings. Universidad de los Andes professor Arlene Tickner to the LA Times: "Uribe has gone out of his way to make Santos' job harder,  and that has affected the president's image for the worse in some sectors.” The LA Times also argues there have been issues in the “execution” of Santos’ policies. Bogota think tank the Political Science Institute director Marcela Prieto: "Santos delegated too much, trusted too much, and he wasn't paying close enough attention to the process.”

Uribe in particular has criticized the execution of Santos’ security strategy. While Santos has said there is a flawed public perception that security is declining far more than it actually is, La Silla Vacia argues that this is not the case. Comparing Ministry of Defense data on guerrilla attacks, homicide, and other security issues, La Silla Vacia finds there have been some significant declines, particularly in terms of attacks on oil infrastructure (up 172 percent compared to the same period last year), and guerrilla attacks, or “hostigamientos,” up 67 percent. Still, the data shows there are still improvements in terms of dropping homicide and kidnapping rates. The Silla Vacia post also includes a useful map showing which departments have seen the most serious security reversals.

As news magazine Semana points out, part of Santos’ nation-wide tour appears intended to remind 2014 voters that his administration represents much more than security issues. In an interview with World Today, via independent analysis organization Chatham House, Santos also stepped out once more as the regional advocate for a “revised” drug policy. Notably, he compared the current approach to “pedaling a stationary bicycle," the same metaphor he employed during the Cartagena Summit of the Americas.  However, Santos avoided giving a detailed answer as to what he believes would be the effects of drug decriminalization, and stated that it is “part of discussions” and that “Colombia cannot and will not act unilaterally.”

News Briefs
  • Honduran Finance Minister Hector Guillen resigned Wednesday after his wife was caught transporting some $57,600 worth of lempiras in her vehicle, reports Reuters. “We haven’t committed any crime,” said Guillen, who said that his wife was transporting the money in order to re-pay several loans related to her bed business. Some aspects of the case highlighted the lifestyle of Honduras’ political elite: local media noted the family’s “luxury” vehicle, driven by a chauffeur. Guillen said that post-retirement, he would re-join Honduras’ Natonal Congress, after petitioning for visas to allow his children to study in the US, according to El Heraldo. Guillen has served as finance minister since February and is the former mayor of Honduras’ most violent city, San Pedro de Sula. His wife has been set free but authorities say they have opened an investigation.
  • The Supreme Court case of 38 people accused of corruption under President Lula da Silva is set to begin today in Brazil, one of the country’s largest ever criminal trials,reports the BBCBloggings by Boz observes that while it is unlikely that the popularity of President Dilma Rousseff will be affected by the trial’s revelations, Lula’s reputation may be at stake: “The potential for his running for president in the future may hinge on the information released at this trial.”
  • New Mexico State University librarian Molly Molloy counts a total of 584 murders so far this year in Juarez, with predictions that the year-end total will approximate over 700 homicides. This continues the downward trend of violence in the city: such a total is somewhat closer to the 320 murder victims in 2007, then a record before the explosion of violence in 2008. Violence in Juarez’s outer areas, however, remains significantly high.
  • The New York Times profiles the battle between one of Peru’s most elite universities, the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, and the Church, which argues that the liberal university should hand over more control of its land holdings and academic operations. Even the Vatican has weighed in, issuing a statement last year that the university should change its name in order to formally disassociate itself from Catholic doctrine. The Times notes that the debate is also partly reflective of Peru’s culture wars, pitting conservatives against the liberal “elite.”
  • Colon department in Honduras voted in favor of banning public possession of weapons, exempting the security forces, reports Reuters. Colon is home to the Bajo Aguan valley, one of the epicenters of Honduras’ land conflict. The ban may have been partly intended to address government concerns that protesting farmers are reportedly carrying and training with weapons, citing their need to protect themselves from hostile interests.
  • Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer argues that Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur will not mask the fact that trade between Mercosur member countries has dropped significantly in recent years. The free trade group risks facing the same fate as now-disbanded organizations, 1960s group Alalc and 1980s group Aladi, Oppenheimer asserts. He identifies two reasons for the decline in trade between Mercosur nations: increased trade with China and the imposition of several rules that actually makes it harder, not easier, for Mercosur’s two biggest economies, Argentina and Brazil, to export goods to one another. Elsewhere,IPS examines what Venezuela’s Mercosur membership means for a country that imports some 60 percet of its food products. According to the minister of science and technology, Venezuela could end up saving some $2.5 billion in imports, although it is not clear what goods Venezuela will be able to competitively export, besides gasoline and other petroleum by-products. Meanwhile, Bloomberg questions whether Venezuela’s “back door” entry into Mercosur could make the trading bloc “less effective.”
  • The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars with a new report by organized crime expert Professor Bruce Bagley, which examines trends in drug trafficking over the past several decades. Bagley names eight major trends and examines their implications, including the fragmentation of criminal groups, the “balloon” effect, and the drug legalization debate.
  • Venezuela opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said that if elected, he would eliminate all preferential oil trading deals with foreign countries, reports Reuters. “Not a single free barrel of oil will leave to other countries,” Capriles said during a campaign stop near an oil refinery. It is one of the most specific policy promises that Capriles has made during his campaign.
  • Via the Mexico Institute, Business Without Borders on why Mexico’s criminal violence has had little impact on cross-border trade. One economist notes that because smaller business are usually targeted for kidnapping and extortion, the larger foreign firms that engage in transnational trade are typically spared.
  • The mother of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange met with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa for several hours Wednesday, arguing that her son should be granted asylum in the country, reports the LA Times. But even this is unlikely to be a dealbreaker for Assange’s legal limbo: Assange has been based in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for five weeks now, petitioning for legal asylum in order to prevent his extradition to Sweden.
  • WOLA’s Border Fact Check blog notes that according to the State Department’s most recent report on international terrorism, “No known international terrorist organization had an operational presence in Mexico and no terrorist group targeted U.S. citizens in or from Mexican territory.”
  • Ex-gang member and activist Luis Rodriguez who formed part of a US delegation that recently visited El Salvador in order to observe the gang truce brokered there, reflects on the visit to Fox News Latino. Rodriguez reports that, in contrast to his previous visits to the country, he found “a more open and caring attitude from everyone we met,” and adds that  “the gang leaders were sincere and quite clear about their commitment to the peace.” But there are still challenges ahead when it comes to making the process sustainable, or even exportable outside of El Salvador, he adds.
  • Both the LA Times and InSight Crime argue that the latest UN and White House numbers on coca and cocaine production in Colombia need more transparency on how they were compiled.
  • Foreign Policy in Focus on Mexico’s “I am 132” movement, asserting that “In questioning the role of media monopolies, publicity and public image, vote buying, campaign spending, and political operators, Mexico’s new movement is raising serious questions about electoral democracy.”

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