Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Guatemalan Protester’s Body Found with 'Signs of Torture'

A man who went missing during protests in west Guatemala, when six other demonstrators were shot dead by the army, has been found dead in a river, amid conflicting reports over the causes of his death.

The body of Domingo Pablo Puac Vasquez, a 49-year-old indigenous man, was discovered in a river in Pasajoc, Totonicapan province, not far from the site of the demonstrations. Mario Itzep of the Indigenous Observatory told Prensa Libre that, according to a preliminary report from forensic institute INACIF, Puac had two bullet wounds, one in his leg and one in his ribs, and had apparently been tortured, reports Prensa Libre. However, elPeriodico reports that INACIF said the body had no bullet wounds nor signs of torture, but was killed by a blow to the head.

According to the account cited by elPeriodico, Puac died between October 13 and 21. This would mean he was alive for at least a week after he went missing during the October 4 protests.

Siglo 21 has further details from Itzep, who said “The body showed signs of torture and had been bound with chains, as used to happen during the internal armed conflict.” Julio Lorenzo, representative of the province's cantons, said that the site where the body was found was close to where the demonstrations had taken place -- “We suppose they went to dump it there.”

The cantons sent an open letter to President Otto Perez, asked him to investigate whether Puac was “another victim of the repression of your government,” and calling on the international community to support them.

Last week, Perez’s Foreign Minister Harold Caballeros sent a letter to the New York Times in response to its article on the shootings, explaining that Perez had “vowed to ensure that practices condemned in the past would not be part of Guatemala’s future.”

Americas Quarterly has a report from Totonicapan, published before Puac’s body was found. The authors visited the site of the killings and spoke to witnesses, who said that the soldiers repeatedly shot aiming to kill during a battle that lasted over two hours. For Anita Isaacs and Rachel Schwartz:

The events of October 4, 2012 cannot be explained away as a mistake, an unfortunate incident, or an accident … What occurred was a massacre waiting to happen -- the product of profound economic, social and political tensions that Guatemalan leadership has ignored and frequently exacerbated since the signing of peace accords in December 1996.
They argue that the military’s violent response to the protests was a logical consequence of the hardline “iron fist” policies promoted by Perez, but said that the arrests of nine soldiers involved, and Perez’s eventual statement that the military would not be deployed against protesters, point to a breaking in the culture of impunity.

News Briefs

  • Hurricane Sandy has caused massive damage in Haiti, destroying 70 percent of crops in the south of the country, according to officials. They warned that many families would go hungry because of the storm, which has left 52 dead so far, reported the Associated Press. Flooding and unsanitary conditions caused by the storm could trigger a rise in cholera cases in the country, according to a report from Al Jazeera. Eleven people were reported dead in Cuba, and mass evacuations were carried out in the Dominican Republic, according to the AP.
  • A Bolivian radio studio was attacked by masked and armed men who threw petrol over the presenter and set him alight while he was live on air, the BBC reports. Journalist Fernando Vidal is an outspoken critic of corruption in the town of Yacuiba, which borders Argentina and is on a major drug smuggling route, according to the AP. His son-in-law said that Vidal knew who was behind the attack, pointing to “political interests.” Amnesty International said the “chilling” attack showed that freedom of expression was under attack in Bolivia.
  • A Mexican man has pleaded guilty to the murder in 2010 of US Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, under a plea bargain that means he will not get the death sentence, reports CBS. Manuel Osorio Arellanes crossed the border into Arizona as part of a plan to steal a drug shipment from a group of traffickers, and exchanged fire with US agents, leaving Terry dead. The case helped trigger the scandal over the US’s Fast and Furious anti-gun trafficking operation, after guns found to the scene were traced back to the program, which allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico in order to track them to major kingpins.
  • Colombian drug lord Henry de Jesus Lopez Londoño, known as “Mi Sangre,” was captured in a Buenos Aires supermarket, reports El Tiempo. A profile of Mi Sangre on InSight Crime says that Colombian authorities had trouble gathering enough evidence against him to issue an arrest warrant, even though he was a major player in the country's drug trade, controlling much of the city of Medellin.
  • The LA Times has a report on US evangelicals who travel to cities hit by Mexico’s drug war to support local churches. It reports that one Monterrey pastor saw these men's return, despite the threat of violence, as “part of an epic spiritual battle for a city, like Babylon, that had fallen into decadence and was in need of salvation.”
  • InSight Crime has published a series of reports on modern slavery in the Americas, with stories on child recruitment, sex trafficking and kidnapping in Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. The Mexican section, authored by Animal Politico, tells the story of young professionals, particularly engineers, who are kidnapped by drug gangs and made to work for them as forced labor, setting up communications systems and technical equipment.
  • The Financial Times reports on the wide public interest being stirred by trials of Brazilian officials in the mensalao corruption case, with the convictions of high-level members of the Lula da Silva government causing excitement amongst a population used to such scandals being brushed over. “You have to keep in mind that in Brazil until recently we have had cases of politicians killing other politicians in public and not going to jail,” a Eurasia Group analyst told the newspaper.
  • Spain has requested the extradition of seven former members of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s secret police, DINA, who are accused of murdering a Spanish diplomat in 1976. One of them is US citizen Michael Townley, who is thought to be living under a US witness protection program, reports the BBC.
  • The AP has a report on the struggles of indigenous people in Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec against wind farming projects, which are championed by Felipe Calderon’s government as a way to cut carbon emissions.
  • The AP reports on Brazil’s deliberations over how to share the profits of newly discovered oil reserves -- how much should go to the federal government, and how much to states close to the oil sites.
  • Argentine media group Clarin has said it will fight the government’s decision to break it up, using all legal means, reports the AP.
  • The Miami Herald reports on court records which show the existence of a migrant smuggling network that took Brazilians to Florida via Paris, London, and the Bahamas.
  • The NYT reports from Mexico City on the plight of the axolotl, an endangered species of salamander, whose loss would “extinguish one of the few natural links Mexicans still have with the city that the Aztecs built.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Venezuela Replaces Controversial Defense Minister

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has appointed the Navy Admiral Diego Molero Bellavia as the country’s new defense minister, replacing General Henry Rangel Silva, according to El Universal. In an address at a rally in the state of Merida delivered by telephone and broadcast yesterday on state television, Chavez announced that Rangel will be stepping down to run for governor in his home state of Trujillo in the December 16th local elections.

The move is primarily an attempt by Chavez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) to better position itself in Trujillo. The AP notes that Rangel is seen a close Chavez ally, an association which may make him more popular in the state. In announcing the official renunciation of his candidacy, incumbent PSUV governor Hugo Cabezas told local press that his withdrawal was linked to local divisions within the party. El  Nacional reports that Cabezas said that groups opposed to his re-election had emerged in the PSUV, and that he “lacks the leadership that Chavez has to hold them all together.”

PSUV head Diosdado Cabello echoed this in his party’s official endorsement of Rangel, expressing his belief that the former defense minister “will unite all the revolutionary forces in the state.”

But the decision may also be an attempt by President Chavez to put some distance between his administration and Rangel, who is a controversial figure. The United States has accused the army general of providing “material assistance” to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC) drug trafficking networks. The government, for its part, has dismissed these allegations as attempts to discredit Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution.

Rangel also raised eyebrows as head of the armed forces in 2010 when he claimed that the Venezuelan military was tied to Chavez’s political future and would not accept an opposition government. As such, Rangel’s resignation could signify that the Venezuelan government is interested in addressing its reputation for reliance on the military for political support, as well as recent reports that drug trafficking in the country has skyrocketed in recent years.

News Briefs
  • O Globo offers some analysis of the results of the October 28th local runoff elections in Brazil, noting that while the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) won 636 mayoral races across the country (including the key cities of São Paulo, Goiânia, João Pessoa, and Rio Branco), it lost support in northeastern state capitals such as Recife, Fortaleza and Salvador. Still the AFP reports that many analysts believe the elections put the PT in a favorable position ahead of the 2014 presidential elections. 
  • Six police were killed in a FARC ambush yesterday in the southwestern Colombian province of Cauca, El Tiempo reports. Although it has entered into peace talks with the rebels, President Juan Manuel Santos has repeatedly refused to accept their offers of a ceasefire, although Caracol notes that a coalition of Colombian peace NGOs has called on the government to recognize a temporary break in fighting from December 15th to January 15th.
  • While former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has become the biggest critic of Santos’ talks with the guerrillas, the President of Uribe’s National Unity Party (Partido de la U) has voiced complete support for the peace process. In an interview with El Tiempo, National Unity president Plinio Olano discusses the tension in his party between those who support the government’s negotiations and those who side with Uribe.
  • Foreign Affairs’ Anne Phillips assesses the necessary conditions for a successful FARC demobilization, noting that the government’s current demobilization program has a mixed record.
  • El Universal reports that a group of economic analysts affiliated with Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) has declared the proposed labor reform law in the country to be “simplistic” and potentially harmful to workers’ interests, especially those in the informal sector. According to former Development Secretary Norma Samaniego Breach, Mexico’s workforce now totals more than 50 million workers. Of these, less than 20 million are formally employed, with 28.8 million in the informal sector.
  • The Global Post profiles U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s extended relatives in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The Post describes them as influential members of Mexico’s Mormon community.
  • Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reports that the government registered 512 cases of femicide so far in 2012. This represents a near 30 percent drop in femicides from the previous year, according to official figures.
  • Paraguayan President Federico Franco released a list of organizations which will monitor the country’s April 2013 presidential elections on Monday. As Americas Quarterly notes, the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) was notably excluded from the list, likely due to tensions between the organization and the Franco government.
  • Harvard researchers have developed a method of mapping the influence drug trafficking organizations in Mexico based on Google searches. InSight Crime points out that the study puts the country’s “drug war” into perspective; the researchers found that the major drug cartels are only active in less than a third of the country's municipalities.
  • Hurricane Sandy brought more than 20 inches of rain on Haiti over the weekend, leaving some 200,000 people homeless in the country. The New York Times reports that this is in addition to the estimated 400,000 Haitians still without a home as a result of the January 2010 earthquake. The hurricane has also left Cuba’s second largest city of Santiago, without power or water, according to the AP.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Leftist parties make gains in Chilean elections

The already unpopular Chilean government of Sebastian Piñera was further weakened this weekend after the leftist opposition made gains in local elections.

Leftist parties took nearly 44 percent of the vote, compared to 37.5 percent for parties from Piñera’s center-right coalition. The results saw pro-government candidates lose control of 23 municipalities across the country and eight in capital Santiago.

Presidential elections are now a year away and with Piñera’s popularity ratings down to 27%, the poor showing could be one of the final nails in the coffin of his presidency if rightist politicians now seek to distance themselves. “This is really bad for Pinera,” political scientist Patricio Navia told Bloomberg. “His government really is now a lame-duck government, and he´s going to have to rush to reshuffle his cabinet because cabinet ministers will run away from him.”   

The elections were marked by a low turnout, with around 60% of voters abstaining. This is widely perceived to be a result of recent electoral reforms, which ended mandatory voting. Previously, while registering to vote was optional, once registered voting was a legal requirement - a system which critics claimed kept the electoral role artificially low. Under the new system, which has increased the number of voters from 8.1 million to 13.4 million, Chileans are automatically registered to vote when they turn 18 but voting is no longer compulsory.

The final reforms represented a compromise between the left, who hoped to benefit from the increased number of voters, and the right, whose voters are considered more likely to still turn out when voting is optional.

Some analysts had speculated that the increased size of the electoral role would boost the left with an influx of new voters influenced by the student movement that has demanded educational reforms in a wave of protests over the last year. However, the strength of the movement seems to have instead fueled absenteeism as its failure to bring about structural reforms on a policy level has led to disillusionment with electoral politics, and some protest leaders urging a boycott of the elections.

The elections also provided a reminder that Chile is still confronting the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship. The elections saw a first victory for Maya Fernandez Allende, the granddaughter of former socialist president Salvador Allende, who was toppled in the 1973 coup, and defeat for retired general Cristian Labbe, Pinochet’s former domestic intelligence chief. Elsewhere, Carolina Toha, the daugther of Allende’s vice-president, secured perhaps the left’s biggest victory of the night, winning in central Santiago. Toha has been a vocal supporter of the student movement, while her opponent had ordered police crackdowns on protests.

A quirk of the electoral reforms also provided a reminder of the dictatorship era, as the automatic voter registration has led to the names of around 1,000 people disappeared under Pinochet reappearing on the electoral role as eligible to vote.

News Briefs
  • Amnesty International reports on the plight of 170 Guarani–Kaiowá indigenous people who are fighting eviction in southern Brazil. The Pyelito Kue/Mbarakay have been involved in a confrontation with soya and sugarcane farmers since they reoccupied ancestral lands after they were forced from their homes by gunmen in 2011. A translation of the letter sent by the community to the Brazilian authorities appears here.
  • Al Jazeera reports on violent clashes between market vendors and Peruvian police in Lima over plans to relocate the La Parada open-air produce market to a new site, which vendors claim has high-rents and is too far removed from their customers. The protests have left four dead, dozens injured and over 100 arrested, according to the Financial Times.
  • CNN reports on the Bolivian government’s plans to regulate social media, focusing on the Vice-President’s curious claim to be personally noting the names of Twitter and Facebook critics of the government.
  • The Washington Office on Latin America analyzes the aerial fumigation of coca crops in Colombia and the impact of the U.S. instigated program on Afro-Colombian communities, who say the fumigations cause health problems, destroy food crops and poison the surrounding environment.
  • Fernando Haddad, a former Brazilian education minister and candidate for the ruling Workers Party, has won the election to become Sao Paulo’s new mayor, reports the L.A. Times. Haddad began the campaign polling on just 2% but emerged victorious with 56% of the vote after receiving heavy backing from ex-President “Lula” Da Silva and current President Dilma Rousseff. 
  • Upside Down World has a feature on an international campaign calling for an end to attacks by paramilitary groups on Zapatista communities in Mexico.
  • The Central American Politics Blog features a short video and comment on the relationship between poverty in Guatemala and immigration to the U.S. According to the blog, the U.S. will have deported approximately 60,000 Guatemalans by the end of the year. 
  • In the Financial Times Beyond Brics blog, Jennifer McCoy argues Hugo Chavez’s reelection owes much to Venezuelan voters who feel Chavez has been the first leader to offer them political and economic inclusion but who, far from being blind followers of the president, are acutely aware of the government’s failings. Meanwhile the International Institute for Strategic Studies looks at the deep challenges facing Chavez’s newly elected government.    

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Brazilian Military Official To be Tried for Abuses Despite Amnesty Law

As Globo reports, a federal judge in Sao Paulo has agreed to open a criminal case against a soldier and two officers accused of kidnapping a dissident during Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship. One of them, ex-colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, was the head of the infamous DOI-CODI state intelligence agency (which has been accused of torturing and disappearing several individuals during this period) from 1970 to 1974.

According to Folha de Sao Paulo, Ustra and the two other suspects are accused of orchestrating the June 1971 kidnapping Edgar de Aquino, a former soldier who was expelled from the army for opposing the 1964 coup which brought the military to power.

This is only the second time that a high-ranking military figure in Brazil has been successfully charged for human rights abuses committed during the dictatorship, as the country’s 1979 amnesty law shields them from prosecution. The first instance occurred in April, when a court in Para state agreed to hear a case against retired Colonel Sebastiao Curio, accused of kidnapping and “disappearing” five suspected guerrillas in the mid-1970s. In 2010 Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld the amnesty, blocking a reinterpretation of the law that would limit its applicability to human rights abuses.

If convicted, Ustra and the other accused could be sentenced to between two and eight years in prison, and it could also clear the way for prosecutors around the country to get around the amnesty in bringing human rights abusers to justice. The prosecutors in Para and São Paulo argue that kidnapping is not protected under the amnesty, and base their reasoning on a September Supreme Court ruling which upheld the extradition of Claudio Vallejos, an ex-Argentine military official accused of kidnapping, torture and murder. In the case, the court ruled that Vallejos could only be extradited on the kidnapping charges, and stipulated that if convicted he must face a maximum sentence of 30 years in keeping with Brazilian law.

News Briefs
  • Brazil has arrested Octavio Indio da Costa, the former chief executive of a Cruzeiro do Sul bank, which has been accused of engaging in money laundering and fraud. The New York Times reports that the banker’s arrest signals a shift in Brazil’s attitude towards financial crimes in much the same way that the mensalão scandal demonstrated a change in the way the country sees political corruption.
  • The government of Ecuador has announced that it is “very concerned” about the health of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been staying at the Ecuadoran embassy in London for more than four months now.  Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño told Voice of Russia that Assange has grown “noticeably thinner,” and has requested a meeting with British officials to ensure that he will not be arrested should he require hospitalization.
  • The Associated Press looks at the increasing pattern of incumbent presidents staying in power for multiple terms in Latin America, questioning whether it could have negative impacts on democracy in the region. As the news agency points out, 15 out of 17 incumbent presidents in Latin America seeking re-election since 1985 have won.
  • A joint report by Mexico's Colegio de la Frontera Norte and the University of Southern California's Tomas Rivera Policy Institute found that undocumented immigration to the U.S. rose slightly in the first half of 2012, and that the number of migrants returning to Mexico has fallen. The report’s authors believe this is a sign that a drop in undocumented immigration linked to the 2008 financial crisis is coming to an end.
  •  The L.A. Times´ World News Now blog profiles plans for new talk show in Mexico which will feature several members of the student movement known #YoSoy132. The show, which is called "Without Filters," is set to air every Sunday night and will feature roundtable discussions among university students. May #YoSoy132 activists have expressed outrage over the show, which they believe could distract from their political aims.
  • EFE reports that the FARC are urging the Colombian government to remove its outstanding arrest warrants against Dutch rebel Tanja Nijmeijer, a last-minute addition to their negotiating team, in order for her to travel from Oslo to Havana for the next round of peace talks.
  • As massive demonstrations continue in Colon, Panama over a government initiative which would sell state-owned land to private companies in the city’s free trade zone, the UN Commission on Human Rights has called on the Panamanian government to limit its use of force against protesters and begin dialogue with demonstrators, reports Telesur.
  • The BBC reports that the crew of the Argentine naval ship Libertad, which was seized in Ghana at the behest of U.S. creditors, has returned to the country. President Cristina Fernandez has condemned the ship’s seizure as "blackmail by vulture funds," and on Tuesday rejected any negotiation with NML Capital, which requested the ship’s seizure.
  • In contrast to the dismay voiced by some Latin America analysts upon hearing little mention of the region in Monday’s U.S. presidential candidate debate, WOLA’s Geoff Thale suggests that the fact that Cuba was barely discussed is a positive sign. In an opinion piece for the Christian Science Monitor, Thale writes that this “suggests that, over time, we might be able to have a more rational discussion about US interests, the changes that are occurring in Cuba itself, and how the United States might play a constructive role in improving the climate for human rights and democracy in Cuba.”
  • After leaving at least one person dead and flooding parts of Jamaica, Hurricane Sandy has strengthened into a strong category two hurricane and is approaching Cuba, where the government has evacuated thousands of residents and tourists from vulnerable areas in what the BBC notes are “well-rehearsed hurricane evacuation procedures.” 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

After Deadly Protests, Panama’s President Cancels Land Sale

On Tuesday the government of Panama suspended a bid to sell state-owned land to private companies in the duty-free zone of Colon, in response to widespread clashes with police in the city that have left at least three people dead. In a statement to the press issued late Tuesday night, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said that the land sales would be put on hold temporarily.

After a law allowing the government to sell the land was passed on Friday, trade unions, student groups and business associations in Colon launched massive demonstrations against the measure. These organizations maintain that selling the land will result in a loss of jobs and revenue, and have called on the government to raise rent in the duty-free zone in order to invest more in Colon, which as the BBC notes is plagued by high rates of crime and poverty.

Since the protests began on Friday, at least three people have died in confrontations with police. According to Panama’s La Prensa, two demonstrators died yesterday of gunshot wounds, and a nine year-old boy was killed on Friday.

President Martinelli also offered to modify the land sales proposal to ensure that 100 percent of its profits were invested in Colon. Protesters rejected the offer on principle, however. Felipe Cabezas, a leader of the Colon demonstrations, told RPC radio that locals demand the repeal of the law. “We do not want 100 percent of the profits, but the removal of our land from the market," Cabezas said. As such, Cabezas and other movement leaders have warned that the protests will continue.

News Briefs
  • Mexico’s Senate approved a version of a controversial labor reform bill on Tuesday, bringing the country closer to what Reuters refers to as “the biggest shake-up of the country's job market in more than four decades.” The news agency reports that the bill passed with support from both the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and the powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), despite concerns that the latter has vested interests in preserving the political clout of labor unions in the country. El Universal notes, however, that PRI senators remained opposed to certain key elements of the bill, including a requirement that union leaders be elected by secret ballot. Nonetheless, this provision was successfully added by PAN senators and a coalition of leftist parties. The bill will now return to Mexico’s lower house, where congressmen will vote on the changes made to it in the Senate. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports on this weekend’s re-election of the country’s most powerful union leaders: Carlos Romero Deschamps of the Oil Workers Union and Elba Esther Gordillo of Mexico’s largest teachers’ union. The AP claims that the uncontested re-election of these two “throws into doubt whether the country can really democratize its autocratic, corrupt union groups.”
  • La Razon reports that Bolivia’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled yesterday that the country’s “desacato” law, which criminalizes defamation of public officials, is unconstitutional and violates free speech guarantees. As Human Rights Watch noted in its 2012 World Report, under Bolivia’s strict desacato law an individual convicted of insulting a government official could be sentenced to three years in prison.
  • El Pais reports that Uruguayan President Jose Mujica signed a controversial abortion decriminalization bill into law on Monday. When it takes effect in 30 days, Uruguay will officially be the second country in Latin America (after Cuba) to allow abortions nationwide.
  • Venezuela’s Minister of Finance, Jorge Giordani, presented the government’s budget proposal for 2013 to the Venezuelan Congress yesterday. According to El Universal, the 396.4 billion bolivar ($92 billion) budget amounts to a 33 percent increase from this year’s budget. Benedict Mander of the Financial Times’ Beyond BRICS Blog takes a look at Giordani’s decision to base the budget on an average oil price of $55 per barrel, compared to this year’s average price of $104.94 a barrel. Mander claims that this dramatically low price estimate was set in order to guarantee the existence of “surplus income,” which the Chavez administration can spend with little or no oversight.
  • Brazil’s Supreme Court handed down the first punishment in the landmark "mensalão" corruption trial yesterday, sentencing businessman Marcos Valerio to 11 years in prison. Both the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg suggest that Valerio’s sentence is an indication that the rest of the 25 defendants found guilty in the case, like Silva Jose Dirceu, former chief of staff under ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, will likely face similarly harsh sentences.
  • A 6.5 magnitude earthquake hit Costa Rica’s Pacific coast yesterday, causing some residents of the capital city of San Jose to run out of buildings for fear that they would collapse. The AP reports that there were no immediate reports of major damage or casualties, however.
  • The Guardian profiles the discoveries of archaeologists studying the remains of Brazil’s Valongo wharf in Rio de Janeiro, where the largest number of slaves were brought to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries.
  • Adam Isaacson takes on a recent statement made by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, who told reporters last week that she took issue with “the notion that [the United States] financed the war [in Colombia], or the problem.”
  • On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, The Guardian’s Simon Reid-Henry offers a clear-headed look at the event, stripping it of the familiar “self-serving myths” that are common among U.S. historians. According to Reid-Henry, “framing the crisis as set in motion by an act of Soviet irrationality and Cuban hotheadedness obscures the significant role that American interventionism and Chinese belligerence also played in precipitating events.”
  • The Christian Science Monitor has the latest on the government-facilitated truce between El Salvador’s two largest street gangs, and on its potential to last.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Is Industrial Park the Answer for Haiti?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the opening of a much-vaunted US-funded industrial park in north Haiti, amid concerns that it could cause environmental damage without bringing lasting economic development.

The $300 million industrial park in the town of Caracol, on Haiti’s northern coast, was funded by the US government and the Inter-American Development Bank. It is meant to create some 65,000 new jobs for local people. Hillary Clinton said that the park represented a “new model for how the international community practices development,” working “with Haiti, not just in Haiti,” and investing in infrastructure and the economy.

President Michel Martelly joined in the celebratory rhetoric, declaring that “Haiti is open for business,” and pledging that his government would do anything it reasonably could to make things easier for investors in the country, as the BBC reports.

The Miami Herald reports that the park was planned under the administration of former President Rene Preval, who was also there at the ceremony and was publicly thanked by current President Michel Martelly. Former US President Bill Clinton, who serves as the UN’s special envoy to Haiti, was in attendance, along with various celebrities, including British entrepreneur Richard Branson and actor Sean Penn.

However, there are serious concerns about the park’s ability to create jobs and bring about a sustainable improvement to the local economy. In June, the Miami Herald reported from the construction site, saying that there was worry that the development would bring slums to the “bucolic but impoverished fishing village” of Caracol, as people in search of work flooded into the area. It said that the government, desperate to show progress, had signed off on the project without making preparations for its long-term development, like zoning plans or environmentla impact assessments. Some 300,000 people are expected to move to the area.

Meanwhile the New York Times reported in July on the 366 farmers who were evicted from their land in order for the park to be built, and on the park's possible threat to the fragile ecosystem of the bay, which has mangrove trees and a coral reef.

Academic Alex Dupuy told the Associated Press that "This is not a strategy that is meant to provide Haiti with any measure of sustainable development ... The only reason those industries come to Haiti is because the country has the lowest wages in the region." Korean clothing manufacturer Sae-A, the anchor tenant of the park, will pay workers $5 for eight hours of work. The NYT notes that Sae-A closed down a key factory in Guatemala last year over disputes with a labor union, and was accused of using violence and repressive tactics against unionists.

Hillary Clinton helped broker the Sae-A deal, which includes tax exemptions, and the AP notes that “The stakes are high in large part because the Clintons have been so heavily involved,” with Hillary’s chief of staff making near-monthly visits to the site.

News Briefs

  • Retired Colombian General Jorge Enrique Mora, who is on the government’s team for talks with the FARC rebels, has said that no cuts to the armed forces or their budget will be agreed during the negotiations. “The powerful army that Colombia has today will continue,” he declared, reports El Nuevo Herald. Colombia’s large military budget, and the exploitation of its natural resources by multinational corporations, were both criticized by the head of the FARC’s negotiation team, alias “Ivan Marquez,” in a press conference on Thursday. La Silla Vacia has a map of the FARC’s illicit mining interests, and notes that this is thought to make up 20 percent of their income, and could become more important to the rebels than drug trafficking.
  • Also in Colombia, Vice President Angelino Garzon has announced that he is suffering from prostate cancer, and said that he would not “cling” to his job, reports the Miami Herald. The news comes weeks after President Juan Manuel Santos announced that he had prostate cancer, and months after Garzon suffered a stroke.
  • The Center for Economic and Policy Research has a sarcastic take on the US media’s response to the Honduran Supreme Court’s decision that the “model cities” project was unconstitutional, noting that “apparently the Honduran constitution and Honduras’ post-coup institutions are not as freedom-loving as they seemed during the military coup.” Honduras Culture and Politics has more on MGK Group, the company which was set to invest in the project, saying “It is not a fully formed business entity, but rather is said to be part of a newly formed Nevada limited partnership that is not fully set up under the laws of Nevada.”
  • Venezuelan authorities shut down a prison in the west of the country, transferring the inmates to other facilities, and found some 56 guns and more than 11,000 rounds of ammunition inside, reports the AP. Prison Minister Iris Varela declared that the operation had been a success, and said the government had “made history” by shutting down Coro -- two dead bodies were found in the prison on Thursday, one of which had died 48 hours before, reports Noticias 24.
  • A free trade agreement between the US and Panama is set to go into effect on October 31, reports the Miami Herald, meaning that more than 86 percent of US products will enter the country tariff-free.
  • The Mexican government has extracted tissue samples from the exhumed corpse of the father of Zetas boss Heriberto Lazcano, reports Milenio. The drug lord was allegedly killed by the Mexican Navy earlier this month, but the body was stolen before the authorities had realized his identity, and they are now trying to prove that it was indeed him by comparing DNA samples with those of Lazcano’s dead relatives.
  • Guatemala and Belize have called for support from the international community to help them solve a long-running territorial dispute over the location of their land border, reports elPeriodico.
  • The Economist looks at ex-Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s campaign to be pardoned and released from prison, where he is serving a sentence for creating a death squad. The newspaper notes that the decision will be a politically costly one for President Ollanta Humala. Some 70 percent of the public support either giving the cancer-stricken ex-leader a pardon, or placing him under house arrest.
  • The NYT’s Taking Notes blog says that Mitt Romney’s Spanish language campaign ads mislead viewers about the candidate’s position on migrant issues, such as the fact that he had promised to veto the federal Dream Act.
  • IPS looks at the gang truce in El Salvador, and says that more should be done to stop young people joining gangs, in order to make its gains sustainable.
  • The LA Times reports that evangelical churches in Brazil are “rewriting the rules of politics” with their growing political muscle, and pushing a conservative agenda.

Monday, October 22, 2012

No, Fidel Castro is Not Brain Dead

Once again, rumors that Cuban leader Fidel Castro is on his deathbed or in a “neurovegetative state” have proven to be false.  After a letter he had written that was published in state-run newspaper Granma on Thursday failed to stop the rumor mill, the Cuban leader responded directly to the claims in another Granma article published early this morning.

In it, he criticizes the mainstream media for repeating the claims of Venezuelan Doctor Jose Rafael Marquina, the source of the latest round of rumors, and claimed to be doing well despite his advanced age, saying “I don't even remember what a headache feels like.” He also compared the false claims to those made by the Western press during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, when news agencies erroneously reported that the U.S.-backed invasion force was on the verge of reaching Havana when in fact the operation was a massive failure.

The article is accompanied by photos taken by Fidel’s son Alex Castro, which show the former Cuban leader standing with a cane outside in a colorful shirt and straw hat, holding up Friday’s issue of Granma as proof of their date.

Rumors of the retired president’s ailing health were further dispelled yesterday when former Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua told reporters he had met with him for five hours on Sunday, and showed pictures to prove it.

Fidel’s dismissive response contrasts significantly to the reaction of state media website Cubadebate during the most recent round of health rumors in January, when the site accused Twitter itself as having a role in spreading the gossip, because it allowed “#fidelcastro” to become a trending topic.

With any luck this will discourage U.S. media from repeating claims made by Dr. Marquina (who was also one of the most widely-cited sources of “inside information” that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was close to death back in April) and others regarding the imminent death of leftist leaders, but the fact that these rumors circulate on such a regular basis suggests this may be too much to hope for.

News Briefs
  • Millions of Cubans (including Fidel) voted in the country’s municipal elections yesterday, electing members to the municipal assemblies in charge of local governments. As the AP notes, the island generally sees near 100 percent participation in these elections, and they foster “heated debate and criticisms about local problems such as slow police response, poor water supply and garbage pickup or unauthorized vending stands that block sidewalks.” Critics, however, argue that the fact that citizens cannot vote to remove the Communist Party from power makes these local elections little more than a sham.
  • The New York Times takes a look at the controversy surrounding the recent death of several indigenous protestors by members of the military in Guatemala. The incident caused the administration of President Otto Perez to reevaluate its reliance on the army for internal security, a pillar of Perez’s “mano dura” security policies. In a timely op-ed for Al Jazeera English, Lauren Carasik, Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University School of Law, argues that the deaths are an indication that the Central American country has not yet grappled with the legacy of its bloody 1960-1996 civil war. Still, as the AP reports, the arrest of nine members of the military charged with the shooting is a positive step forward for Guatemala’s rickety judicial system.
  • The New York Times highlights a developing corruption case in the popular Guatemalan tourist destination of Antigua, in which ten government officials have been accused of fraud ad money laundering.
  • In their first attack on security forces since peace talks formally began last Thursday in Oslo, FARC guerrillas killed five Colombian soldiers near the border with Ecuador on Friday night, reports El Tiempo. The rebels have repeatedly called on the government to agree to a ceasefire, which President Juan Manuel Santos has rejected.
  • New evidence has emerged to support the theory that Haiti’s devastating cholera outbreak was introduced by UN peacekeeping troops from Nepal. According to U.S. cholera specialist Dr. Daniele Lantagne, who has studied the molecular composition of the cholera strain in Haiti, the disease corresponds directly to a strain common in Nepal.
  • Clarin reports that the government of Argentina has ordered the evacuation of more than 300 sailors who had been manning the naval training ship Libertad when it was seized on October 2nd by the government of Ghana at the behest of U.S.-based creditors. BBC notes that sailors from Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and South Africa are also reportedly on board.
  • Panama City has been hit by a wave of protests against a new law which will allow the Panamanian government to sell state-held land to foreign companies in a duty-free zone on the Panama Canal. La Estrella reports that demonstrations organized by unions and student groups have nearly paralyzed the port city of Colon, despite the government’s attempts at holding a dialogue with protestors. EFE claims that a 10 year-old child was killed during riots on Friday following the law’s passage, and 13 others were injured.
  • With Brazil’s municipal elections out of the way and the “mensalão scandal” drawing to a close, the Wilson Center’s Paulo Sotero offers a summary of the state of Brazilian politics for FT’s Beyond BRICS Blog, offering an optimistic but measured forecast for democracy in the country.
  • The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights has criticized U.S. Border Patrol officers for demonstrating “excessive use of force” last Thursday after agents shot and killed a teen who allegedly threw rocks at them near the Arizona border town of Nogales last week. Mexican officials say they are planning on filing a lawsuit against the U.S. government in response to the killing.
  • Although Uruguay has a reputation as a bastion of liberalism in Latin America -- which has seemingly been bolstered in recent weeks by the passage of a bill decriminalizing abortion the government’s proposal to legalize marijuana sales -- BBC Mundo’s Gerardo Lissardy questions the country’s record on other liberal issues such as gay rights and drug consumption laws. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Colombia-FARC Peace Talks Begin

The Colombian government and FARC guerrillas marked the official beginning of the first peace talks in a decade yesterday with a joint press conference in Oslo, Norway. The Associated Press aptly describes the Oslo talks as “brief, symbolic and largely perfunctory,” noting that more substantive dialogue will begin on November 15th in Havana, Cuba, when the two parties will address the issue of “comprehensive agrarian development.”

The brevity of the talks did not entirely preclude political drama from playing out in the news conference, however. As El Tiempo reports, the most notable aspect of the event was probably the scorching rhetoric espoused by Ivan Marquez, the leader of the FARC’s negotiation team.  In his remarks to the press, Marquez asserted that peace in Colombia did not mean “the silence of rifles, but rather structural changes,” and proceeded to rail against the major multinational mining and agribusiness companies operating in the country, as well as the recently-signed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

Semana reports that Ivan Marquez’s words caused some journalists present to wonder, and later to ask, if he was going back on the initial five-point agreement the rebel group had previously signed in Havana, which focused solely on land reform, political participation, the FARC's involvement in the drug trade, victims’ rights and ending the conflict.

In reponse, the Colombian government’s lead negotiator, former Vice President Humberto de la Calle, coolly stated that neither the country’s economic model nor the issue of foreign investment were on the negotiating table. De la Calle added that “if talks do not progress, the government will not be held hostage to this process.”

Despite Marquez’s harsh tone, there is still reason to view the talks with optimism, as the Washington Office on Latin America’s Adam Isaacson told Bloomberg. “Though Marquez’s rhetoric was bellicose -- and it will continue to be, no doubt -- the launch of the talks was carried out with seriousness and discipline,” Isaacson said. He also pointed out that the FARC did not announce any “new obstacle” to the negotiations, and that the talks were devoid of a “circus atmosphere.”

La Silla Vacia notes that the grievances brought up by Marquez are not all that different from the current demands of many Colombian social movements, and suggests that his remarks could be a sign of the guerrilla movement’s attempts at making common cause with the more mainstream Colombian left. 

In an opinion piece for Semana, journalist and researcher Juan Diego Restrepo asks whether journalists are up to the task of covering the peace process objectively. Restrepo is critical of the decision by the two most-watched television channels in Colombia to cut their live coverage of the Oslo talks right before FARC representatives were about to address the press, and says that errors in questions asked to guerrillas and government officials alike demonstrate that Colombian reporters need to refresh themselves on the history of past talks.

News Briefs
  • The New York Times profiles Mexico’s participants in the Homeless World Cup, an organization which seeks to address the problem of homelessness through competitive soccer. According to the Times, Mexico’s teams “reflected a struggle less tied to living on the streets than to the dangers they produce. They represented the particular pain of this country in this moment: drug violence.”
  • The Economist takes a look at the progress Mexican officials have made in capturing high-level cartel kingpins, which has unfortunately not led to a reduction in violent crime.
  • El Universal and the AP report that Mexican law enforcement have arrested the leader of a religious movement in Michoacan known as “Nuevo Jerusalem” on charges related to the destruction of a public school.
  • The Argentine government has arrested former General Mario Benjamin Menendez, who served as the military governor of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands during the country’s brief occupation there in 1982. According to Clarin, Menendez helped oversee “La Escuelita,” the first and most infamous torture center of the Argentine dictatorship located in Tucuman province.
  • The New York Times has the latest on Ghana’s seizure of an Argentine naval ship at the behest of U.S. creditors, reporting that the head of Argentina’s military intelligence is the most recent official to resign in the aftermath of the incident.
  • The L.A. Times reports on objections to the recent erection of a statue of Azerbaijani dictator Heydar Aliyev in the upper class Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco. The government of Azerbaijan reportedly paid millions to have the statue built there, but many locals see it as both an eyesore and an affront to democratic values.
  • According to a Venezuelan doctor cited by The Miami Herald, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has suffered a stroke and is in a “neurovegetative state.” This same doctor apparently claimed that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was close to death back in April, however, so the report should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was forced to postpone an appearance at a rally with Sao Paulo mayoral candidate Fernando Haddad today because it would clash with the finale of popular telenovela “Avenida Brasil,” The Guardian reports.
  • Ecuador’s electoral court yesterday officially set the date for the country's next presidential election on February 17, 2013. Reuters notes that President Rafael Correa would likely win re-election should he run, although he has not yet declared his candidacy.
  • The Wall Street Journal highlights the developing spat between the governments of Colombia and Argentina, sparked by Colombia’s claims that the country’s economy has surpassed that of Argentina's in size. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Opponents, Supporters Alike Voice Criticism of Abortion Decriminalization in Uruguay

Yesterday the Uruguayan Senate voted to set the country on the path to become the second nation in Latin America -- after Cuba -- to decriminalize abortions, although both pro-choice and pro-life groups have expressed discontent with the move.  In a 17 to 14 vote on Wednesday evening, the Senate approved a bill allowing abortions during the first trimester, revising a previous bill on abortion as The New York Times reports.

The bill was approved by the country’s lower house in September, and President Jose Mujica has already said he would sign the bill into law, making it a near certainty that it will come into effect sometime in mid-November, according to Telesur. A similar bill had been passed by the legislature in 2008, but was vetoed by Mujica’s predecessor, President Tabare Vazquez.

As Reuters notes, the move has been vehemently rejected by members of the opposition, who have vowed to overturn the law. Uruguay’s El Pais reports that members of the conservative National Party are planning on organizing a nationwide referendum on the issue. The majority of Uruguayans, however, support the law. According to a recent survey conducted by Cifra polling firm, 52 percent of the country believes abortion should be legalized, while only 34 percent are opposed.

Inter Press Service points out that the bill has also been criticized by several pro-choice groups in the country, who are unhappy with the final version. Before being able to obtain an abortion, the bill calls for woman to first explain to a doctor the “economic, social, family or age difficulties that in her view stand in the way of continuing the pregnancy.” After that, she must then present herself to a three-member inter-disciplinary panel composed of  a gynecologist, a psychologist and a social worker.

Womens’ rights groups in the country argue that this puts unfair pressure on those considering abortion. As Martha Aguñin, spokeswoman for Mujer y Salud en Uruguay, told IPS: “We see this law as minimal; it is not what we were hoping for,” adding that “When women make a decision of this kind, we don’t need to be instructed to reflect on it, because we already do that in a conscious, adult, responsible manner.”

News Briefs

  • The New York Times profiles the initial phase of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group, which began yesterday in Oslo, Norway. Little is known about the first face to face meetings between rebels and government officials, although both parties are expected to give a press conference today to discuss the prospect for peace, according to the AFP. Colombia’s El Tiempo refers to today as “D Day” for peace in the country, and notes that there has been some confusion about whether the conference will be head jointly or not, a possible sign that negotiations are off to a bad start.
  • Colombian legislators have reformed the controversial Justice and Peace law, which helped bring about the partial demobilization of thousands of right-wing paramilitary members in the country in 2005. Under the reform, imprisoned paramilitary members who do not comply with reparation requirements will face penalties of up to 30 to 40 years in prison, according to El Tiempo. Those who do follow the requirements, and have served at least eight years in prison, will be considered for release.
  • Despite growing speculation over the state of Fidel Castro’s health, the Cuban leader has penned another letter in the state-run Granma newspaper. In it, Castro congratulates a Cuban medical institute on its 50th anniversary. AP notes that this is the first communication from Castro to be made public since July.
  • Spain’s El Pais (with a superb English translation in The Guardian) looks at the difference between the way Latin America and Europe responded to the 2008 financial crisis, highlighting the skepticism Latin American leaders at Europe’s relatively unanimous embrace of austerity measures.  Along those lines, Bolivian President Evo Morales raised eyebrows yesterday when he remarked to reporters that one of the reasons for the crisis’ heavy impact on Europe and North America is the fact that countries in these regions “no longer steal, or extract” resources from Latin American countries.
  • The Atlantic profiles a recent surge in youth activism in Argentina, where more than 50 public high schools in Buenos Aires have been taken over by students in protest of changes to the curriculum that they say were made without consulting them. While the takeovers are slated to end this week, the magazine notes that it has given unprecedented political say to the nearly 30,000 high school students in the country who participated in them.
  • Coincidentally, the Argentine Senate voted on Wednesday to lower the voting age from 18, in order to allow 16 and 17 year olds to participate in elections. While proponents say the move would empower Argentine youth, critics say it is an attempt by the opposition (which is more popular among youth) to gain votes. The bill will now go the Chamber of Deputies to be debated.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez met with the ousted ex-president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo , in the presidential residence in Buenos Aires yesterday, along with the former interior minister and members of Lugo’s party in the Senate, according to Telesur.
  • Venezuela’s government announced on Wednesday that it would expel the remaining Paraguayan diplomats in the country, effectively severing diplomatic ties with the country. Both nations withdrew their ambassadors in July over the fallout from Lugo’s removal of office.
  • In an illustration of the wide ranging influence of drug trafficking organizations in the country, the AP reports that Mexico’s Attorney General announced that seven federal officials had been arrested on suspicion of links to the powerful Sinaloa Cartel. According to Milenio, these included officials in the Attorney General’s own Office of Special Investigations into Organized Crime.
  • Chilean student movement leaders Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman, who have organized some of the largest protests in Chile since the Pinochet era, received the 2012 International Letelier-Moffit Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies on Wednesday.  Democracy NOW! was able to interview both activists earlier this week, in which they spoke about the poor state of public education in their country and the future of their movement.