Friday, November 30, 2012

Assessing Calderon’s Presidency on his Last Day in Power

Mexican President Felipe Calderon prepares to leave office tomorrow after six years in which he battled drug cartels, unleashing a tide of violence which may only now be on the point of receding.

His presidency was defined above all by security, as he launched a head-on attack on the organized criminal groups that had been able to operate relatively unmolested under his predecessors. Calderon sent more than 50,000 troops onto the streets of Mexico to fight drug gangs, starting in his first month in office. The resulting violence left some 60,000 dead in killings linked to the drug war, with an estimated total of 101,000 murders during his term, about a third higher than in the previous administration, reports the Associated PressInSight Crime quotesofficial statistics which show that the number of murders nearly doubled from 10,300 in 2007, Calderon's first year in power, to 22,500 this year.

The real figure may be even higher, as some 25,000 people have gone missing in the last six years, according to figures from Mexico's Attorney General’s Office, as the Washington Post reports.

The drug war did have some successes, taking down many of the country’s biggest crime lords. With the death of Zetas boss Heriberto Lazcano in October, Calderon pointed out that the government had captured or killed 25 on a list of 37 cartel leaders which it published early in his term. A notable absence is Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” perhaps the world's biggest trafficker, who remains at liberty as Calderon leaves power.

The chaos and violence has failed to have a significant impact on the supply of drugs passing through Mexico to the US, and decapitated criminal groups have splintered to from a larger number of smaller and often more aggressive organizations.

Incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto is expected to take a different tack in fighting cartels, focusing not on pursuing capos or intercepting drugs but on bringing down the levels of violence.

There are signs that the tide may be starting to turn, and that the violence may be slowing. Places like Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city in the world at one point in Calderon’s presidency, have seen a dramatic security improvement in the last year and a half. Security analyst Alejandro Hope, who closely follows the phenomenon, wrote recently that 2012 was on course to be the first year to see an annual drop in homicides since 2007, while reports of large-scale massacres and dismembered bodies seemed to have slowed. If his analysis is correct and the turning point has already been reached, then Peña Nieto will be the one to reap most of the political benefits.

InSight Crime’s Patrick Corcoran points to some errors of the Calderon era that Peña Nieto should avoid, including showy efforts to reorganize government institutions or create new police bodies which are “typically little more than a distraction; the efforts needed to pass legislation and then create the new force would be better spent investing in the existing police bodies and addressing their specific shortcomings.” The new president has revealed plans for a security force modeled on the French National Gendarmerie, and to disband the Security Ministry, putting police and security bodies under the control of the Interior Ministry. The Miami Herald points to possible risks of this, noting that the Interior Ministry was long used by Peña Nieto’s PRI party “to co-opt or pressure opponents, rig elections and strong-arm the media.”

For Corcoran, however, “many of Calderon's initiatives were philosophically sound, and simply require more patience or persistence,” including police vetting, targeting kingpins, and justice reform.

The reforms to justice institutions in particular have not been carried out in full, with the oral trial system still mostly unimplemented four years after it was approved, as the AP comments. And, as the Washington Post notes, “not one of the dozen top cartel leaders captured alive has been put on trial and convicted in Mexico using police-gathered evidence or witness testimony,” pointing to deep weaknesses in the justice system.

Calderon had more success when it comes to the economy. The AP sums up his term as having saved Mexico from collapsing during the global financial crisis by ensuring fiscal stability, though it left the country with no improvement to poverty levels, and insufficient job growth. Calderon saw out his term by passing a labor reform law on Thursday.

Peña Nieto is promising to bring in free market reforms, including opening up the state-run oil industry.

For the Washington Post, during Calderon's term, “modest gains were made, but his center-right government was consumed by the drug war,” which has now reached a stalemate.

The LA Times highlights Calderon’s openness to cooperation with the US, saying that he “essentially rewrote the rules under which foreign forces could act here in matters of national security.”

Now, Calderon is planning to go to Harvard University as the first Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, as the New York Times reports, following a tradition of ex-presidents leaving the country.

News Briefs

  • After Colombia's stated its intention to pull out of the International Court of Justice in the Hague in protest over a ruling giving sea territory to Nicaragua, Bloggings by Boz comments that the withdrawal of Colombia’s Navy would leave the waters open to drug traffickers, as Nicaragua’s force doesn’t have the same capacity. For Boz, the idea of excluding either country is at fault; “When the hemisphere starts dividing up the ocean and fighting over who controls which area, especially when most countries do not have the resources or capabilities to do so, that's a scenario in which the criminal groups prosper.” The Economist’s Americas View blog also looks at the issue, noting that disputes with Nicaragua could hurt the FARC peace process, as Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is facilitating the negotiations.
    La Silla Vacia says that the withdrawal from the Hague will hurt President Juan Manuel Santos’ prospects of asserting himself as a regional leader, undermining his ambition to become a mediator between the US and leftist Latin American countries.
  • The trial of politicians involved in the “mensalao” corruption scandal has come to an end in Brazil, with the court handing down sentences for the final three of 25 defendants on Wednesday, as the NYT reports. The Federal Supreme Court will meet next week to decide questions including whether the sitting politicians convicted in the case should lose their seats, reports O Globo
  • Meanwhile the NYT reports that a new political corruption scandal is breaking in the country, with officials in the government of previous President Lula da Silva again accused of bribery. Rosemary Noronha, a chief of staff to da Silva, is accused of acting as a coordinator for those who wanted to buy favors from officials. Another Lula chief of staff, Jose Dirceu, was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison as part of the mensalao case. As the WSJ reports, government supporters are painting the latest case as a sign of President Dilma Rousseff’s determination to bring corruption in the country to light.
  • Human Rights Watch called on Brazil to act against extrajudicial killings by police, and implement a resolution issued on Wednesday by the country’s Human Rights Defense Council on steps that should be implemented to to properly investigate these deaths.
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights told Guatemala’s government to improve conditions in a mental health facility in Guatemala City, following reports that it is controlled by gangs who enter from a nearby prison, abuse the patients and subject them to commercial sexual exploitation, reports the NYT.
  • The Economist reports on hold-ups in Venezuelan ports, which it links to inefficient management and poor infrastructure maintenance since they were nationalized nearly four years ago
  • IPS reports from Veracruz, on Mexico’s Pacific, painting a dark picture of a state it calls a “black hole” because of organized criminal violence, with women, migrants and journalists all targeted. One in every three migrants who go missing in the country reported last seen in Veracruz, according to the report.
  • InSight Crime has a three-part special on how migrants are targeted by organized crime in the Americas, where they are  “especially vulnerable as they move north through what is a veritable gauntlet of gangs, large criminal groups and corrupt officials.”
  • Negotiators from the FARC rebel group and Colombia’s government are taking a week-long break in peace talks held in Havana in order to consult with their respective leaderships, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The Guardian has a report on Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, winner of the Artes Mundi prize, who creates work related to drug violence in her country, including one piece using bloody floor tiles from the house where a friend was murdered.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Argentina Granted Breathing Space in Debt Default Crisis

Argentina has been saved from a “technical default” after a U.S. appeals court indefinitely suspended a federal judge's ruling on paying holdout creditors in the latest installment in the country’s ongoing debt saga.

The previous ruling had given Argentina a December 15th deadline to pay $1.3 billion to creditors who had refused to swap their debts for new government bonds, which Argentina has paid reliably since 2005. The ruling would have stopped Argentina’s payments to other bondholders, sparking a new fiscal crisis.

The holdout creditors represent a small minority of bondholders after 93% of creditors accepted debt swaps in 2005 and 2010, which restructured the $100 billion of debt on which Argentina defaulted in 2001 when in the midst of an economic collapse.

Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, has declared the country will continue to meet its agreed to financial obligations in the meantime and has defended her hardline stance against the holdouts. “We constitute the counter model of a world where the financial capital has become king and master and wants to punish us,” she said.

Since the original ruling, Argentina has threatened to annul 59 bilateral investment treaties signed by the country, which have the World Bank’s International Center Settlement of Investment Disputes as the arbitral tribunal for disputes between the State and multinationals.

Comparing Argentina to debt-ridden Greece in a Guardian opinion column, Cambridge economics professor Ha-Joon Chang argues that the case, which pits the interests of a small number of investors against the welfare of a country, demonstrates the need for countries to be able to declare themselves bankrupt in the manner of a business.

In the Financial Times though, Jude Webber details Argentina’s long and turbulent debt history, arguing “Argentina has struggled to manage its money throughout its two centuries as an independent nation.”

Despite the ruling, on Tuesday Fitch Ratings slashed Argentina’s sovereign credit rating five steps to CC from B on “increased probability” of a default.

The appeals court has set a February 27th deadline for oral arguments in the case.

News Briefs
  • Venezuelan judge Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni is being tried in absentia after refusing to enter the courtroom, alleging violations of her rights, the AP reports. Afiuni was charged with corruption after she angered President Hugo Chavez when she she granted bail to Eligio Cedeño, a businessman and banker with ties to the Venezuelan opposition. Cedeño had been jailed on charges that he had evaded currency controls and, on release, fled to the United States. Her cause has gained international attention, even from prominent leftists usually more supportive of Chavez. Her trial began amid a scandal generated by her revelation in a new book that she was raped while imprisoned in 2009 - a claim that has been disputed by the authorities.
  • Honduras Culture and Politics reports on the ruling by the Constitutional Branch of the Honduran Supreme Court declaring a law for cleaning up corruption in the police is unconstitutional. The law calls for an examination of every police officer, requiring them to pass a confidence check that involves a psychological exam, a lie detector test, an examination of their finances, and a drug test.Those that fail face immediate dismissal, although of the 233 officers that have failed the tests, so far, only 33 have been dismissed. The decision, which came on the same day that  Lobo Sosa government sought to extend the bill for another six months, was ruled unconstitutional because it removed the police officers' right to due process and their presumption of innocence.
  • Colombia has withdrawn from a treaty that binds it to the UN International Court of Justice in protest over last week’s ruling that handed control of some of its resource-rich waters to Nicaragua, the Miami Herald reports. President Juan Manuel Santos said the Hague-based court had used “undefined” and subjective criteria and its ruling was full of “mistakes” and “omissions.”
  • The Costa Rican Supreme Court has temporarily suspended parts of a recently enacted cybercrime law, which provide for prison sentences of between four and eight years for anyone publishing “secret political information,” Reporters Without Borders reports. The law is not confined to national security but could also be applied to information “from national police bodies or security concerning defense matters or foreign relations” or which affects “the fight against drug trafficking or organized crime “.
  • Indigenous Ecuadorians protested against the auction of exploration rights for 13 oil blocks covering nearly eight million acres of rainforest in the Amazonian region, Upside Down World reports. The story follows news that the Ecuadorian government’s much praised initiative to get the world to pay it to not exploit oil in the Yasuni national park has so far raised $300 million.
  • The New York Times has more on the plight of Alan Gross, the American contractor imprisoned in Cuba for illegally supplying internet connections. Gross’ lawyers claim he should be considered for early release as he has cancer, a claim denied by Cuban doctors and a prominent New York rabbi and physician, who recently visited Gross and concluded  the 1 1/2-inch growth on Gross’ right shoulder appeared to be a noncancerous hematoma that should clear up by itself.
  • The Guardian features an opinion piece from Luis Hernandez Navarro, the opinion editor of Mexico's La Jornada. Describing a series of protests planned to mark the inauguration of Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, Navarro concludes “a mixture of discontent and scepticism towards his government is palpable throughout the country.” 
  • The Council on Hemispheric Affairs looks at the candidates to take over from Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and their attitudes towards Latin America. COHA looks at favourite John Kerry’s work highlighting the Contra scandal in Nicaragua, his mixed voting record on Free Trade Agreements and his attitude towards Cuba, and another strong candidate, Susan Rice, and her so far rocky relationship with the region after clashes with Brazil and hardline policy towards Cuba.
  • The Inter Press Service looks at the history and current state of feminism in Cuba to mark  the centennial of the birth of the local feminist movement.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Peña Nieto Gears Up for Office as Mexican Parties Announce ‘Grand Agreement’

With just days to go until Enrique Peña Nieto assumes Mexico’s presidency on December 1st, the president-elect met with U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office yesterday. As expected, the Mexican leader focused the dialogue on economic rather than security issues, promoting plans to boost commerce with the United States and “modernize” trade deals between the two countries, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, the meeting provided Peña Nieto with an opportunity to push a “different side” of Mexico, offering a fresh narrative of the country to its largest trading partner. 

As Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Christopher Wilson told the paper, “The way to change the narrative is to talk about other things that are going well, and the economy is a good story now.” Despite the violence that has plagued Mexico in recent years, its economy grew by 3.9 percent last year, ahead of Brazil’s growth of 2.7 percent. 

Reuters notes that Peña Nieto also offered support for Obama’s long-awaited overhaul of immigration, saying: "We want to contribute, we really want to participate…in the betterment and the well-being of so many millions of people who live in your country."

Meanwhile, the country’s three main political parties have laid out the framework for a “grand agreement,” intended to guide policy debates during the next six years of Peña Nieto’s term. El Universal reports that the president-elect’s own Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) have agreed to a broad common agenda. 

According to PAN party head Gustavo Madero, the agreement consists of five general goals: strengthening civil society, promoting economic development, bringing about security and justice, increasing transparency and cracking down on corruption. While the agreement is non-binding and its wording is vague, the mere fact that the PRD and PAN agreed to such a pact with the PRI is significant. The move marks a significant departure from the opposition parties’ initial rejection of Peña Nieto’s victory in the July presidential elections, after which the two accused the PRI of corruption and vote-buying

News Briefs

  • In keeping with his reputation as a political iconoclast, Mexican leftist politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has rejected the PAN/PRI/PRD agreement. Proceso reports that the former presidential candidate, who recently created a new political party known as the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), has also vowed not to recognize Peña Nieto as the country’s legitimate president.
  • A new report by Mexican think tank Mexico Evalua has found that homicides in the country jumped 36 percent under the administration of outgoing President Felipe Calderon, a figure which tarnishes Calderon’s claims that he has made significant progress against crime in the country.
  • Writing for progressive online magazine Toward Freedom, Pan-American Post contributor James Bargent takes a look at the potential for a successful outcome in the ongoing peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government in light of previous guerrilla demobilizations in the country. He compares the experiences of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), the 19th of April Movement (M-19) and a subset of the National Liberation Army (ELN) in various peace processes during the late 1980s and 1990s, noting that in all cases ex-rebels faced enormous obstacles in reintegrating into society. While the former guerrillas that Bargent interviewed expressed optimism about the current peace talks (an opinion apparently shared by FARC leaders), all agreed that demobilization alone will not secure lasting peace in Colombia, and that stronger guarantees for ex-combatants are needed in the country.
  • The United Nations General Assembly has backed a proposal put forth by several Latin American countries to debate alternative approaches to the war on drugs, a move which could raise international support for drug law reform and legalization. The motion was initially put forward in October by Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Belize and Honduras, and has steadily gained support since then.
  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has flown to Cuba for yet another cancer-related treatment, raising questions about his health once again. In a letter sent to the National Assembly yesterday, Chavez said doctors recommended he "begin special treatment consisting of various sessions of hyperbaric oxygenation" and physical therapy to continue "consolidating the process of strengthening health." This latest announcement, along with the fact that Chavez has significantly scaled back his public appearances since winning the October 7th election is likely to rekindle claims that the Venezuelan president is gravely ill and potentially near death
  • The Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean has released a new report on poverty reduction in the region, finding that the poverty level is at its lowest in three decades. Despite this, some 167 million people (29 percent of the population) in the region are considered poor.
  • Reuters reports on the efforts of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to contain fallout from the latest corruption scandal in the country, in which a number of top officials were dismissed after having been linked to an influence-peddling ring.  
  • The largest-ever trial of crimes committed during Argentina’s “Dirty War” has begun, with 68 former military officers facing some 800 charges of kidnapping, torture and murder, reports the BBC.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Is U.S. Influence in Latin America on the Decline?

By now it has become a familiar and widely accepted narrative: whether it is evidenced by increasing Chinese investment, the inability to isolate Cuba or growing opposition to U.S. drug policy, the United States’ influence on governments in the hemisphere is on the decline. But as senior policy advisor to the Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs William McIlhenny argues in Americas Quarterly, there is reason to question these claims. 

According to McIlhenny, rather than becoming weaker, U.S. foreign policy towards the region has simply adjusted to trends of the past several decades, namely the end of the Cold War and increased democratization. He writes: 
“Today, U.S. diplomacy in Latin America and the Caribbean is focused on being relevant to practical needs widely felt by other peoples—the way it should be. (The reverse is also true: governments should expect their influence in Washington to be in some proportion to their relevance to priorities we share.)  Decades of   domestic reforms, development, and diplomacy—and a particularly favorable external environment—have sparked socioeconomic and political changes that have transformed Latin America for the better.”
As a result, he claims that the U.S. has seen the rise of capable regional partners like Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, which serve U.S. interests far better than the “string of weak client states” that Washington previously supported in the Americas. While McIlhenny acknowledges “a divide down the hemisphere,” as illustrated by countries like Argentina and the ALBA bloc increasingly rejecting trade deals with the United States, he sees this as an unfortunate minority position.

Ultimately -- and rather optimistically -- McIlhenny argues that the U.S. has embraced a new, more equal relationship with Latin America, and that this is beneficial to all parties involved:
“Some will always prefer to wax nostalgic for an era of nominal influence on elites and dysfunctional relationships with undeveloped societies.  But that time is gone for good, to our resounding advantage.”
The full piece can be read over at the Americas Quarterly website.

News Briefs

  • Argentine media giant Grupo Clarin is under criticism in the country for allegedly filing a lawsuit against three journalists it accuses of “inciting violence and aggravated coercion," Pagina 12 reports. According to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, the journalists had reported on links between Clarin and the recent anti-government protests that took place in late September. AFP notes that various civil society organizations in the country have denounced the lawsuit as political maneuvering and a violation of the freedom of the press. The lawsuit coincides with an ongoing battle between Grupo Clarin and the Argentine government, which has given the media conglomerate until December 7th to sell of some of its assets in accordance with a2009 anti-media monopoly law.
  • Some 200,000 demonstrators mobilized in Rio de Janeiro on Monday to protest against a bill which aims to share oil revenue more equally between oil-producing states like Rio and other states. The protesters are calling on President Dilma Rousseff to veto the bill, which has already passed Congress. According to the New York Times, officials and residents in Rio argue that if it is signed into law, the bill could drastically cut much needed funds in the state, potentially putting the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics at risk.
  • O Globo reports that Brazilian Defense Ministry has for the first time promoted a woman to Rear Admiral, one of the highest ranks in the navy and the highest military rank ever obtained by a woman in the country. 
  • For the first time in history, Paraguay has discovered untapped oil in its territory. According to ABC Digital, the oil field was discovered near the Argentine border. While no details of the size of the find have been released, President Federico Franco claimed that it is of “the best quality,” and will fund economic development in the country. 
  • Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington today in order to lay out a blueprint for bilateral relations between the two countries in the coming years. While addressing organized crime and drug policy are doubtlessly on the agenda, the two will likely talk immigration and trade as well.  In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Friday, Peña Nieto writes that "It is a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns. Our mutual interests are too vast and complex to be restricted in this short-sighted way."
  • El Universal reports that officials in Mexico have uncovered yet another mass grave along the border, about 40 kilometers south of Ciudad Juarez. Authorities have unearthed 20  bodies at the site, all of which appear to have been buried around two years ago, at the height of drug-related violence in the city.
  • Despite the fact that Colombia’s FARC rebels have consistently called for the release of imprisoned FARC commander Simon Trinidad (who is currently held in the U.S.) as a condition in peace negotiations with the Colombian government, U.S. officials have officially rejected this demand. The AP reports that Ricardo Zuniga, the head of Latin America policy on the National Security Council, said on Monday that releasing Trinidad is not an option. “This person is in prison for very serious crimes and is going to remain imprisoned,” Zuniga said.
  • The New York Times profiles new claims made by Maria Lourdes Afiuni, a former Venezuelan judge who is facing corruption charges after freeing a businessman from prison because he had awaited trial for more than three years.  Aifuni, who was imprisoned in December 2009, claims that she was tortured and raped while in prison, eventually having an abortion after becoming pregnant.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Colombia Peace Talks Produce First Results but Tensions Continue

The first week of formal talks between the Colombian government and guerrilla insurgents the FARC has yielded plans for a public forum on agrarian reform - the first of the five points up for negotiation.

“The objective of the forum will be to receive useful input and proposals from the participation of civil society,” according to a statement issued from negotiations in Havana. It will be held in Bogota over three days on December 17th, 18th and 19th,

The government and the guerrillas have invited the UN and the National University investigative group to organize the forum and report back on its conclusions, which will be handed to negotiators on January 8th.

However, despite the progress from Havana, the situation in Colombia remains tense.  On Sunday, the FARC responded to allegations they have broken their own unilateral ceasefire  by accusing the army of faking combats in a “a dangerous pantomime” of “media shows” and “televised false flag operations.” They also  accused Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon of “trying to sabotage efforts to make peace in the country.”

However, the rebels did admit to blowing up two electricity pylons in the  municipality of Campamento, but claimed the order to halt operations had not reached local commanders in time and blamed the incident on the media for not publicising the ceasefire widely enough.

After pausing for a break today, negotiations will resume Tuesday and the next announcement on progress is expected Thursday, after the end of the second phase of talks is completed.

News Briefs
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has dismissed a number of senior officials after six people were arrested for allegedly running an influence-peddling ring selling government permits to businesses in return for bribes, reports the BBC.
  • Colombia has has sent a letter to the United Nations and will send another to the Organization of American States to protest a recent ruling by the International Court of Justice granting almost 30,000 square miles of disputed maritime territory to Nicaragua, Colombia Reports reports. The court ruled in favor of Colombian sovereignty of the disputed islands of San Andres and Providencia and surrounding waters but granted remaining territory in the western Caribbean sea to Nicaragua.
  • The owner and editor of Brazilian news website Ultima Hora News,Eduardo Carvalho, has been murdered by unknown gunmen, the Global Post reports. Carvalho, who specialized in publishing stories critical of politicians and police in his home state of Mato Grosso do Sul, had been receiving death threats since last year. He is the 11th journalist to be murdered in Brazil this year, according to Reporters Without Borders. In three of the cases a definite link with their work has been established.
  • The Washington Post reports on the small community of Jewish converts in Bello, a small town on the outskirts of Medellin in Colombia. The converts believe they are descended from Jewish families that fled the Spanish inquisition and lived incognito in Catholic Colombia. Historical records and anecdotal evidence suggest Jewish refugees played a central role in founding many towns in the state of Antioquia, where Medellin is located.
  • The New York Times has a feature and slide show examining the population explosion in cities in the Amazon region of Brazil. The region now has a population of close to 25 million after growing 23 percent from 2000 to 2010, a boom fueled by high birth rates and economic opportunities and one which could have serious environmental implications.
  • Argentina will today appeal for US judges to suspend an order for it to pay $1.3 billion to holders of defaulted debt, the Financial Times reports. If the ruling is not overturned and Argentina refuses to pay the bonds, which are unpaid since the country’s $100 billion default in 2001, then it could mean the country heading for a technical default.
  • The L.A. Times looks at the mixed responses to Rio de Janeiro’s slum pacification program, in which specialist police units have militarized several of the city’s favelas after driving out the drug gangs that had run them. While many of the favela’s residents were glad to see the back of the gangs they now complain of police abuse and corruption and some believe behind the true motives for the program lie more with real estate speculation and preparations for the World Cup and Olympics than concern for their welfare. The BBC contrasts the situation in Rio with that of Sao Paulo, where the crime rate is on the rise and the city has been hit by an ongoing conflict between the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) gang and the police, which has left 95 police officers dead.
  • The Havana Note blog analyses the decision by the family of Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor imprisoned on spying charges in Cuba, to sue the US government and Development Alternatives Incorporated for their role in his imprisonment. The blog concludes that for the U.S. government, it will now be “harder to sustain a self-righteous stance of injured innocence about Alan given what he has put on the record and could expand in a public trial. But an out of court settlement for a more reasonable amount of damages can only be achieved if coupled with Alan's release. And that can't happen until Washington accepts Havana's offer of serious bilateral negotiations.”
  • Nineteen bodies were found in a mass grave near Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, the AP reports. Eleven of them were apparently long-dead men and eight others were tortured and killed in recent days.
  • The Miami Herald has a feature looking at Ranmase - a weekly Haitian radio program that pits politicians and other guests against each other in a no-holds-barred debate and is, according to one former guest, where culture, politics, and social conflicts burst open.”
  • The BBC looks at the growing number of young Mexican entrepreneurs using start-up businesses in an effort to create positive social changes within the country.
  • In the fourth part of the it’s series on the Panama Canal, the Miami Herald looks at the role of Afro-Caribbean workers in construction of the canal and the campaign to keep alive the memories of their suffering and labor.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Buenos Aires Paralyzed by Union Strikes

Anti-government strikes by labor unions shut down much of BuenosAires and other Argentine cities on Tuesday, closing public transport, roads and businesses, and grounding flights.

In the capital, most of the metro lines and trains were suspended, while unionists picketed the main roads in and out of the city so there was little traffic. Flights were canceled, and many banks and schools closed their doors, as the Associated Press reported.

The shut-down marked the first general strike in Argentina for a decade. It was called by two main unions, the General Labor Confederation (CGT) and the Argentine Workers Association (CTA), with support from the Argentine Agrarian Federation, bringing together bus drivers, train conductors and workers at ports, banks and airlines, reports Reuters. The unions are demanding pay rises and lower income taxes for workers, who have been hit hard by inflation.

One of the most prominent union leaders behind the strike is Hugo Moyano, a one-time ally of the Kirchners who is now a fierce opponent of President Cristina Kirchner, and is described by Reuters as “gruff former truck driver.” As well as his economic demands, Moyano has also criticized Kirchner's authoritarian attitudes, telling press that her team “can’t manage the country in the way that it does, without providing answers, with authoritarian attitudes, imposing everything and defying all the world,” reports the AP. He comes from a different branch of Kirchner’s Peronist Party: “While Mr. Moyano represents Peronism's traditional union roots, Mrs. Kirchner is firmly aligned with the party's left,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Kirchner’s approval ratings have plummeted to 32 percent since her re-election in October last year, amid concerns about rising crime and a faltering economy. The government claims inflation stands at 10 percent, though independent economists say it might have reached 27 percent. The economy is likely to grow by less than 3 percent this year, after averaging over 7 percent a year since 2003, reports the WSJ. Unemployment stands at 7.6 percent

The president won re-election promising wage hikes, and wages have gone up by an average 25 percent this year, but this has brought many more workers into a bracket where they must pay income tax, causing discontent.

The general strike follows protests by some 2 million people on November 8, many of them members of the middle classes who are angry over Kirchner’s leadership.

The union bosses hailed the action as a success. CTA head Pablo Micheli said "Thousands joined us to protest a government that doesn't want to listen to us," as the Buenos Aires Herald reports.

Kirchner responded with defiance, telling a crowd at a Sovereignty Day event, “No one is going to pressure me, especially with threats, bullying or thugs,” reports MercoPress, while her ministers described the strike as “extortion.”

Meanwhile, Kirchner’s office has revealed details of her salary in response to controversy over an alleged pay hike -- she grossed some $13,600 this month, compared to $10,000 in January, reports EFE.

News Briefs

  • Inmates in a prison outside Guatemala City rioted on Monday, taking eight guards hostage and demanding better conditions in the facility, before setting the guards free the following day after negotiations with the authorities, as InSight Crime reportedAccording to El Faro, the police have blamed the MS-13 gang for the disturbances, while the government has said it is the fault of the Mexican Zetas, who have a strong presence in the country.
  • Brazilian authorities have managed to get back stolen public money hidden abroad for the first time, after a Channel Islands court found that funds belonging to congressman Paulo Maluf should be returned to the government. The Financial Times calls the case, which comes in the wake of prison sentences for politicians involved in the mensalao scandal, “one more chink in the armour of impunity traditionally enjoyed by corrupt and powerful politicians in Brazil.”
  • El Faro has an interview with Salvadoran priest Antonio Rodriguez, who has strong criticism for the government-negotiated truce between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, despite having been an advocate for such a deal in the past.
  • Marine General John Kelly has taken up leadership of the Southern Command (Southcom), which carries out US military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, replacing Air Force General Douglas Fraser, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The Washington Post has an opinion piece calling on President Barack Obama to end the “inhumane, irrational — and ineffective” war on drugs, in the light of votes to legalize marijuana in Washington and Colorado. NPR hosted a debate on the same issue (available in audio format).
  • Latin America’s Moment blog at the Council on Foreign Relations looks at economic ties between the European Union and Latin American countries, noting that, taken as a whole, EU direct investment in the region is more than double that from the United States.
  • The Mexican and US governments have signed a deal to redefine the terms of how they share water from the Colorado River, reports the NYT.
  • Venezuela’s economy expanded for the eighth consecutive quarter, growing 5.2 percent in the third quarter of 2012, reports Reuters.
  • IPS reports on the struggle of families in Mexico to fund the search for their missing female relatives, which averages $23,000 per case.
  • The Guardian has an interview with Chilean student protest leader Camila Vallejo.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

FARC Announce Unilateral Ceasefire

The second round of peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) officially began in Havana, Cuba yesterday with a surprising announcement from Ivan Marquez, the FARC’s second-in-command and leader of the group’s negotiation team. In a press conference, Marquez said that the FARC’s leadership had “order[ed] its guerrilla units throughout the country to halt all types of offensive military operations against government forces as well as all acts of sabotage against public or private infrastructure" beginning at midnight on November 20th and ending at midnight on January 20th

The unilateral ceasefire is the first such declaration made by the FARC since the last attempted peace negotiations, which ended in 2002. According to a statement published on the rebel group’s website, the move is meant to "strengthen the climate of understanding necessary for starting the dialogue to achieve the purpose desired by all Colombians."

Despite the declaration, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has vowed to continue military operations against the guerrillas. In a brief statement in Bogota yesterday, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said that the announced ceasefire was simply not credible. "It's very hard to believe they are able to stop murdering children and launching attacks against civilians like the ones we have seen in recent weeks," he said. Caracol Radio reports that the guerrillas have carried out a total of 48 attacks since peace talks were first announced in August, killing 30 members of the security forces and 17 civilians.

The ceasefire is a potential game-changer in the peace negotiations. La Silla Vacia notes that it amounts to a test of the strength of the FARC’s command structure, as it puts the group’s top leadership in conflict with its forces on the ground. If a rogue element in the guerrilla group disobeys orders and launches an attack, it could call into question the credibility of the FARC’s top negotiators to speak for their organization as a whole.

According to Ariel Avila of the Nuevo Arco Iris Foundation, however, the mere fact that the FARC has announced the ceasefire is proof that it has the organizational capacity to enforce it. As Avila told Semana magazine, "The announcement shows that they are completely organized, and it will be obeyed at every rank."

The FARC’s unilateral cessation of hostilities also puts the government in a difficult position. While Santos has repeatedly maintained that a ceasefire is not on the table, waging an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign over the next two months could create a public relations disaster, painting the government as unnecessary aggressors in the conflict. Considering the fact that more than 70 percent of Colombians support the peace process, this would not be a smart move. Ultimately, if the FARC are able to maintain internal discipline enough to hold the temporary ceasefire, it may force Santos to suspend the government’s campaign against the guerrillas whether he wants to or not.

News Briefs

  • In long-awaited decision, the International Court of Justice on Monday upheld Colombia's sovereignty over a cluster of seven Caribbean islands, rejecting Nicaragua’s claim to the archipelago. At the same time, however, the court ordered the expansion of Nicaragua’s maritime boundary, granting the Central American country increased fishing grounds and the rights to reported underwater oil reserves in the area. Semana reports that in response, President Santos “emphatically rejected” the ruling, saying it is inconsistent with previous treaties signed by the two countries. El Tiempo has more on what the decision means for the two countries’ maritime borders.
  • La Tercera reports that on Sunday, three former leaders of Chile’s student movement announced their intentions to run for office as representatives in next year’s legislative elections, submitting their “pre-candidacy” to the country’s Communist Party. Among them is Camila Vallejo, the geography student and former president of the University of Chile Student Federation who became the international face of Chile’s student movement earlier this year. Meanwhile, El Ciudadano offers a comprehensive outline of what is next in store for the movement as it continues to fight for more affordable education in the country.
  • Mexican leftist politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is launching a new political party in the country, according to El Universal. On Monday, Lopez Obrador kicked off the first convention of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), which initially began in 2011 as an offshoot of his own presidential campaign. MORENA, which aims to be an alternative leftist voice in Mexican politics, elected its state delegates yesterday and is set to vote on its national leader today.
  • A new poll conducted by Peru’s El Comercio puts the approval rating of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala at 43 percent, marking a five month high. The survey found that those who approve of Humala said they backed him because of his increased focus on economic development and social programs, while his critics cited insecurity and rising prices as their chief reasons for disliking him.
  • Plaza Publica has an in-depth investigation on the damage that the November 7th earthquake caused in the western Guatemalan province of San Marcos, where a lack of state presence has ensured that hundreds of impoverished residents are still without homes.
  • Ecuador’s National Assembly will vote today on President Rafael Correa’s proposed tax hike on the banking sector, which is intended to help pay for increased welfare payments in the country.  BBC Mundo reports that the measure is likely to pass, although it sets the stage for a larger showdown between Correa and the Ecuadoran financial sector in the near future, a view shared by the Financial Times’ Beyond Brics blog.
  • The New York Times reports on support for ending the U.S. government’s 50-year-old trade embargo on Cuba, which is growing among the Cuban exile community and in Washington policy circles alike.
  • The Miami Herald compares New York’s attempts to find shelter for some 40,000 people affected by Hurricane Sandy to the Venezuelan government’s response to mass flooding in late 2010 and early 2011, in which an estimated 30,000 families were relocated to government offices, shopping malls, and (in some cases) luxury hotels. According to the country’s hotel owners association, nearly half of these “five star evacuees” are still living in hotels rent free, awaiting reassignment to subsidized housing.
  • Analyst James Bosworth takes a look at the message that President Obama’s weekend diplomatic visit to Asia sends to Latin American leaders, pointing out that the U.S. holds Asian governments to different (and notably lower) standards than governments in the Americas when it comes to issues like human rights and democracy promotion.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Honduras Primaries See Return to Politics for Deposed President Manuel Zelaya

Hondurans voted on Sunday to decide on candidates for next year’s presidential and general elections - the first since 2009 when current president Porfirio Lobo won an election of disputed legitimacy following the coup earlier in the year that ousted previous president Manuel Zelaya.

Sunday’s vote marked a return to politics for Zelaya, who will stand for a seat in congress, while his wife Xiomara Castro, will be the presidential candidate for leftist Liberty and Refoundation party - known as Libre - after running unopposed.

Libre was founded after Zelaya, then a member of the Liberal party, was toppled in 2009 over plans to hold a referendum on constitutional reforms. "Libre will break the bi-party system," said Zelaya on the eve of the primaries. "Libre is peaceful, revolutionary, socialist and the hope for this country."

The ruling National Party elected Juan Orlando Hernandez, a former lawyer and current President of Congress. Hernadez’s victory was tainted by the arrest of an activist from his Movimiento Azules Unidos faction on suspicion of electoral fraud after, who was found in possession of 236 ID cards on Monday morning.

The Liberal Party prompted for Mauricio Villeda. Villeda is the son of  Ramón Villeda Morales, the first president to take power after the end of military rule in the 1950s and a commercial law lawyer who has also worked in the fields of education and human rights.

The elections were observed by a mission of 40 Organization of American States observers, who said the voting process had been "normal."

With the candidates for the main parties decided, a long electoral campaign will now get underway, with the vote not to be held until November 2013.

News Briefs

The AP reports on contradictory explanations for the attack on a car carrying two CIA officers by 14 federal police officers in Mexico. The police have claimed the attack was a case of mistaken identity since the officers were investigating a kidnapping of a government official in the area. However, the attorney general’s office have said although there was a kidnapping, "objectively it is unrelated to the investigation." Instead, they believe it was an intentional attack, perhaps ordered by a drug cartel. The investigation showed all the gunfire came from the gunmen, discounting versions that the embassy vehicle fired first. Arrest orders were issued for four commanding officers for allegedly planning the attack and ordering agents to lie, but they have sought legal protections and remain free. A fifth commanding officer accused of covering up evidence has given his declaration to a judge and been released on bail.

A group of Latin American leaders used the weekend’s Ibero-American Summit to criticize Europe’s austerity measures, claiming the harsh budget cuts will act as a drag on growth in the world economy, the Wall Street Journal reports. The Spanish prime minister meanwhile, used the summit to solicit investment from Latin American countries, according to the New York Times.

Argentina’s long-running dispute with bondholders seeking $1.45 billion for their piece of defaulted debt continues, the AP reports. A U.S. judge gave Argentina a midnight Friday deadline to say whether it would accept his remedy and begin paying the holdouts next month. However, Argentina's government said it was not giving up its appeals, arguing that the funds used to pay sovereign debt are immune from U.S. court judgments and that the judge's remedy threatens the value of trillions of dollars in debt issued by governments around the world.

Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor jailed in Cuba for illegally supplying internet equipment is suing the U.S. government and his former employer Development Alternatives Inc., the BBC reports. The complaint claims they "failed to take adequate measures" to train and protect him during his travels to Cuba and accuses them of ignoring "Mr Gross's repeated security concerns so that DAI could continue to generate significant revenue and the Government could continue to use Mr Gross as a pawn in its overall Cuba policy initiatives".

Colombian negotiators have arrived in Havana for the peace talks with the FARC, which are set to begin this week after being postponed for four days to allow both sides to work on "technical details to ensure the participation of civil society," the BBC reports. La Silla Vacia looks at the mechanics of the talks, which will see both sides operate with teams of 30, although only 10 will be allowed to enter the negotiating room and only five have the power to make legal commitments.

The Venezuelan government has announced that it will hold an assembly with the Yukpa indigenous group in order to resolve an ongoing conflict over land rights, which has already claimed the lives of 7 Yukpa this year, Venezuela Analysis reports. The government was supposed to pay compensation to the cattle ranchers currently occupying the land so they would transfer it to the Yukpa, but has so far taken no action.  ,

The L.A. Times features an article examining the failures of Brazil’s education system, which it argues, “has serious implications for Brazil's hope of becoming a global power.” According to the article, the system is plagued by underinvestment and under-trained teachers with high absenteeism rates.

The Miami Herald has a four-part series of reports looking at plans to double the capacity of the Panama Canal in a $5.25 billion dollar expansion. The articles look at what the expansion means for Panama, and also examines competition among U.S. ports in Miami, the Southeast, and Baltimore and Norfolk to handle the increased trade.

Also in The Miami Herald is a feature looking at the Cuban exile community, which often sees former members of or collaborators with the Cuban state security forces living side by side with the people they persecuted.

The UN International Court of Justice is set to rule on the long-running maritime border dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua, El Pais reports. The judges will decide on the future of the cays of Roncador, Quitasueño, Serrana y Serranilla - all currently in the hands of Colombia but claimed by Nicaragua.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs features analysis on Puerto Rico’s recent vote on its future and where the island may turn to next in the wake of the referendum, which, the article states, “provide a muddled message for Puerto Ricans regarding their future status.”

The AP reports on the election of Adela Hernandez, who recently became the first transgender person to hold public office in Cuba.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Colombia Mercenary Scandal Draws in Ex-president Alvaro Uribe

Israeli mercenary Yair Klein has implicated former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in the training of paramilitary death squads.

In the late 80s, Klein was paid tens of thousands of dollars to go to Colombia and train paramilitaries who would go on to form the backbone of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia - the AUC.

Giving testimony via video link in the trial of former paramilitary chief “Ramon Isaza,” Klein had sparked a wave of speculation  on Tuesday by stating a landowner who went on to be president had funded the trainings but “I’m not saying the name because you know perfectly well who it is.” However, the next day when pressed on the issue he testified that he “was told” that Uribe had contributed to the training, although he never met him or received money from him personally.

According to Klein, Uribe was one of a group of landowners and cattle ranchers who had paid for the trainings along with Victor Carranza - the “Emerald Tzar” - who has long been linked to the paramilitary movement and organized crime and infamous drug trafficker and ally of Pablo Escobar Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha - “the Mexican.”

Klein also said the Colombian army was aware of and approved of the trainings and even provided arms and lent one of its bases for use in the sessions. The mercenary added that Colombia’s now defunct security agency the DAS (Department of Administrative Security) also approved the trainings, a claim supported by the testimony of ex-paramilitary Alonso de Jesus Baquero, alias ‘Vladimir,’ who claimed 5 men from the DAS were among the first to receive training.

Uribe has fiercely denied the claims, taking to Twitter to denounce Klein as “bandit” and a “coward.” Over the years, the former president has had to defend himself against a series of allegations of paramilitary connections and numerous scandals have taken down some of his closest allies and family members.

Klein was tried in absentia in the Colombian city of Manizales in 2001 for training the paramilitaries and received a sentence of 10 years, 8 months in prison. The Colombian  authorities subsequently made several failed attempts to have Klein extradited to Colombia. However, he is now free to enter the country again after the penalty officially expired earlier this year.

News Briefs
  • The Cuban government has submitted a “draft agenda” for negotiations to improve relations with the U.S., reports the Miami Herald. While the document is mostly a reiteration of previous positions taken by Cuba, with such points as lifting all U.S. sanctions and removing Cuba from the U.S. list of countries with links to international terrorism, the agenda also hinted at a possible swap of five Cuban spies imprisoned in the U.S. for Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba for  illegally setting up Internet networks in Cuba.
  • InSight Crime analyzses the plans of Mexico’s President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto to reorganize the country’s security agencies. The proposed reforms would eliminate the Secretariat of Public Security (SSP) and place the functions of internal security -- including crime prevention, the penitentiary system, and the Federal Police -- under the control of the Interior Ministry - a move back to the system in place under the last PRI government, which ended in 2000. While some have speculated the reforms represent a change in direction from current President Felipe Calderon, InSight argues “it is too early to tell to what degree Peña Nieto will break with his predecessor's policies.”
  • Colombian police have arrested three men in connection with last week’s massacre of 10 farmers in Santa Rosa de Osos, Colombia Reports reports. One of the suspects is alleged to have been actively involved in the murder, while the other two are accused of indirect involvement. Yesterday, the authorities accused a former commander of the Rastrojos known as “Jorge 18” - whose real name was not given - as having ordered the assault. Jorge 18 was arrested several weeks ago and allegedly heads a breakaway group of former Rastrojos known as the Renacentistas.
  • The AP reports on Jamaica’s plans to abolish colonial era statutes on flogging. Dating from British rule, when most of the population were slaves, the law currently allows punishment whippings with a tamarind-tree switch or a cat o'nine tails, although the last person to receive such a punishment was in 1997.
  • Proposals to legalize cannabis in Uruguay have taken a step closer to becoming reality after a bill detailing how legalization would work was submitted to the Uruguayan Congress, the New York Times reports. If passed, the bill would allow citizens to grow up to six marijuana plants and to buy 1.4 ounces of marijuana every month. It would also allow for the licensing of marijuana clubs with up to 15 members, 90 plants and an annual production limit of nearly 16 pounds. Advertising and exports would be banned, and a regulatory institute would be created to control the drug’s production and distribution. The AP compares the legislation with new laws approved by voters earlier this week legalizing cannabis in Colorado and Washington state. 
  • The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has a report examining the latest developments in the case of the 1989 massacre of  of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her teenage daughter at the Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador.  With it looking increasingly likely that a high ranking army officer will be charged for the killing, the report argues “ it could begin to balance the dialectic between impunity and accountability to the side of accountability.”
  • The Guardian features an article and short video looking at the Brazilian government’s efforts to stop deforestation caused by the rapid expansion of soy farming through the deployment of 1,400 “high-tech environmental cops.” Any progress, the article it notes, is likely to be hampered by proposed new legislation loosening Amazon protection measures. 
  • Also from Brazil, The Inter Press Service has the latest on theGuarani–Kaiowá indigenous people and their land rights struggle against soy and sugar cane farmers. A statement from a Guarani-Kaiowa community occupying ancestral lands that are being used for agribusiness said that removing them would result in a “collective death.” This was widely reported as the threat of a mass suicide, the article reports, prompting the government to revoke an eviction notice. 
  • Amnesty International reports on the efforts of a Guatemalan forensic anthropologist, who conducts genetic studies aimed at identifying the remains of the victims of the disappearances and massacres that took place during the armed conflict that rocked the Central American country from 1960 to 1996. 
  • Venezuela Analysis reports on a series of labor disputes that have hit Venezuela over the last week. The protests have targeted food processing giant Polar, a Pepsi affiliate and several companies in the  central state of Carabobo. In some cases, workers have accused the local government of siding with the companies.