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.