Friday, December 21, 2012

Honduran Congress Continues Assault on Judiciary

On Tuesday, the Honduran Congress passed a new law outlining the procedures for a controversial police reform push in the country, requiring members of the police force to submit to confidence tests but giving them access to due process in accordance with a recent Supreme Court ruling on the matter. 

While Reuters reported that the law’s passage was a “victory for the ruling party and President Porfirio Lobo after a recent conflict with the Central American country's highest court,” the wire service fails to touch on the move’s negative implications for judicial independence in Honduras.
Much of the Honduran press has characterized the law as Congress agreeing with a Supreme Court ruling, but it comes after lawmakers voted to remove the court’s four justices who ruled the government’s police clean-up law unconstitutional. This means that the law paradoxically adopts the same position that Congress dismissed four justices for defending.

As Honduras Culture and Politics notes, this appears to be part of a concerted effort by both the administration of President Porfirio Lobo and his congressional allies to establish Congress as the dominant branch of government in the country. 

Following the passage of the police reform law, pro-government legislators submitted a bill which would grant the legislature the authority to remove government officials, a power that it already claimed in dismissing the four Supreme Court justices. The bill, titled the Law of Political Judgement, allows Congress to dismiss any government official (elected or not) on the grounds of incompetence, negligence, corruption or actions lawmakers deem unconstitutional. These allegations would go before a congressionally-appointed commission, which would assess the merits of the case before making the final decision on removal.

If passed, the bill would amount to a major extension of legislative authority, solidifying the legitimacy of Congress’s dismissal of the Supreme Court judges and permanently weakening judicial independence in the country. 

As the Honduran Congress has gone on recess for the holidays, the bill will not be voted on until lawmakers resume their posts in early January. In the meantime, El Heraldo reports that the Honduran Lawyers’ Association (CAH) has joined with anti-corruption groups in backing a legal appeal of the judges’ dismissal, a sign that the apparent expansion of congressional authority will at least face some legal hurdles moving forward. 

News Briefs

  • The L.A. Times was granted a rare interview with powerful Honduran landowner Miguel Facusse Barjum, who has been accused of backing the country’s 2009 coup and ordering the murder of a Honduran human rights lawyer in September. Facusse denies the allegations, and says he is being scapegoated for his high political and economic profile.
  • Reuters takes a look at what the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez could mean for his allies around the world. The news agency points out that with Chavez out of power, Latin American leftists as well as anti-Western governments around the globe would likely lose an important source of both symbolic and economic support.
  • Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas told reporters on Thursday that Chavez is recovering from a recent operation in Cuba, and that a respiratory infection that was detected earlier this week is “under control.” Maduro did not say whether the president would be well enough to attend the inauguration planned for January 10th, although members of Chavez’s party have raised the possibility of postponing the ceremony to accommodate his health.
  • Ricardo Alarcon, who has been president of Cuba’s legislature for the past 20 years, will be leaving his post in February. Although the Cuban government has made no officials comment on his departure, Alarcon’s name was not among the list of 612 candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections published in the state-run Granma newspaper yesterday. The AP reports that Alarcon has been the point man for Cuba’s dealings with the US over the last two decades, and speculates that his removal may be an attempt to bring fresh blood to the country’s foreign relations.
  • Peruvian Interior Minister Wilfredo Peraza announced yesterday that the country had eradicated a record number of illicit coca cultivations -- 14,171 hectares -- in the course of this year.  According to La Republica, this is up from 10,275 hectares the year before. Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has drastically increased coca eradication efforts this year, likely influenced by a controversial White House report which found that Peru had surpassed Colombia to become the world’s top cocaine producer.
  • On the 11th anniversary of the riots which led to the ouster of Argentine President Fernando de la Rua in 2001, leftist groups held a protest in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Maya yesterday, burning tires and effectively stopping traffic in the capital city, the AFP reports.
  • Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa sent a request to Congress yesterday that he be temporarily relieved from office in order to focus on his campaign in the upcoming February 17th elections. According to Telesur, Correa has asked that Vice President Lenin Moreno fill his shoes from January 15th to February 14th.
  • La Silla Vacia has published an overview of the six main ways in which Colombia’s political landscape changed in 2012. As the news site points out, the launch of the peace process has significantly altered the public debate on security policy, and the split between President Juan Manuel Santos and his predecessor Alvaro Uribe has for the first time in decades resulted in an opposition that comes mostly from the right.
  • A new Gallup poll has found that while 71 percent of Colombians support the government’s peace talks with FARC guerrillas, just 43 percent believe it will end in success.
  • This week’s issue of the Economist features an interesting piece on how a 140-year-old conflict, the 1865 War of the Triple Alliance, continues to haunt Paraguay today. Paraguay lost an estimated 60 percent of its population in the war against the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, and its legacy remains an important contributing factor to Paraguayan nationalism. The magazine also offers a look back at Brazil’s historic mensalão trial, and an appraisal of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s first few days in office.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Peru Puts Shining Path Leader on Trial

The trial of captured Shining Path leader “Comrade Artemio” has begun in Peru, with the guerrilla commander denying links to drug trafficking or terrorism.

Florindo Eleuterio Flores, known by the alias “Comrade Artemio,” is standing trial at Callao naval base outside Lima. The first hearing was on Wednesday, and the next is scheduled for December 26. It is expected to last about six months.

Artemio appeared before the court, but did not speak. Via his lawyer, he denied any links to terrorism, drug trafficking, or money laundering, as RPP reports. Artemio’s lawyer Mario Paico stated that the guerrilla leader “is a politician, not a terrorist,” and argued that the solution to the “political violence” of the Shining Path should be “legal, not political.”

He also stated that the case against Artemio was based on the testimony of witnesses who had an interest in incriminating him in order to win reduced sentences. Paico said, however, that Artemio was the leader of the Huallaga-based faction of the Shining Path, and that he took responsibility for what had taken place there. 

Artemio is accused of some 500 terrorist acts, according to RPP, including the murder of 60 police, a prosecutor, and a number of civilians. Counterterrorism prosecutor Julio Galindo told the press that the trial would show Artemio’s involvement in drug trafficking.

Former Congress members Nancy Obregon and Elsa Malpartida will testify. They are both leaders of the coca-growers’ movement, and have been accused of working closely with the Shining Path to build their careers in politics and the in the coca movement.

Shining Path commander Oscar Ramirez Durand, alias "Feliciano," who was captured in 1999, will also be called to testify on the subject of Artemio’s links to the drug trade, reports Diario Correo.

The prosecution is seeking life imprisonment, and wants Artemio to be ordered to pay 13.8 billion soles ($5.3 billion), as Andina reports.

Artemio was captured by the security forces in February. He was the leader of one of the remaining branches of the Shining Path rebel group, which was active in the Huallaga region of northern Peru. That branch is thought to be severely weakened, while the faction in the VRAE region, further south, appears to be gaining strength and has carried out a series of high-impact actions this year, including the kidnap of more than 30 gas workers.

The Washington Post points out that Artemio’s trial comes at a time when some members of the rebel group locked up 20 years ago are due for release, and when a political movement linked to the rebel group is trying to register itself as a party, stirring up painful memories of the conflict.

The political solution that Artemio's lawyer called for is not likely to become a reality. As the Post states:

Unlike neighboring Colombia, which is considering granting political representation to the ... FARC, to end the 50-year armed conflict, the idea of incorporating former insurgents into legitimate political life appears unthinkable in Peru.

News Briefs
  • A Chavez ally has raised raised the possibility that the Venezuelan president’s inauguration for a fourth term could be delayed from January 10 while he recovers from surgery. Congress president Diosdado Cabello declared “You can't tie the will of the people to one date,” and said that the Congress might ask the Supreme Court to allow a postponement, reports Reuters.
    The Wall Street Journal notes that Nicolas Maduro, the man Chavez has told his supporters to back if he has to step down, lacks the same “direct, emotional connection” with Venezuela's poor, in part because  the president’s intense charisma and personal ruling style have made it hard for his allies to build an independent support base. A survey earlier this year by Datanalisis put Maduro at 23.3 percent support against 33.7 for the opposition’s candidate in October’s elections, Henrique Capriles.
    The Miami Herald has an editorial which criticizes this monopolization of power by Chavez as “irresponsible,” because it means that his departure could cause instability.
  • Andres Oppenheimer at the Miami Herald says that if John Kerry is named as secretary of state US foreign policy might focus more on Latin America, because Cuban-American Senator Bob Menendez would likely take Kerry’s place on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Representative Eliot Engel would become a ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He reports that Menendez is likely to push for a hemisphere-wide anti-narcotics strategy, replacing current fragmented efforts. Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas has a piece in the Huffington Post arguing that the appointment of Kerry as secretary of state and former Senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense could help liberalize Cuba policy, as both men are “seasoned figures with long histories as Cuba policy reformers,” though she notes that Menendez is against liberalization.
  • Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva will face an investigation into his role in the “mensalao” vote-buying scandal, announced the country’s attorney general. The popular ex-leader had managed to stay clear of the case, which resulted in jail sentences for some of his close allies in a trial which ended last month. Lula said the allegations that he used funds from the scheme were lies, as Bloomberg reportsThe Economist notes that Lula is also facing questions about corrupt appointments to public office during his presidency.
  • A women thought to be the daughter of Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has been deported to Mexico from the US after using a false passport. Alejandrina Gisselle Guzman Salazar, who is pregnant, was detained at a Tijuana border crossing in October, telling officials she wanted to give birth in Los Angeles. US officials confirmed to Reuters that she was the daughter of El Chapo.
  • The Argentine government has launched a bid to have the Supreme Court force media company Clarin to comply with a law that would oblige it to sell off many of its assets. The latest move in the case follows Clarin's win of a reprieve from the measure on Tuesday, when a federal judge allowed the company to appeal against a ruling that the law was constitutional.
  • Thousands of people protested against the government’s economic policies in Buenos Aires in a demonstration organized by Hugo Moyano, leader of the General Labor Confederation union and a former ally of President Cristina Kirchner, reports the AP.
  • In brighter news for the Kirchner government, a naval ship held by Ghana authorities since October over unpaid Argentine government debt has now set sail after a UN court ordered its release, reports the Financial Times
  • IPS reports on a new law in Argentina which establishes a team to make surprise visits to prisons, in order to discourage torture and mistreatment of prisoners.
  • A group of 18 Mexicans detained in Nicaragua have been found guilty of drug trafficking and money laundering. The group entered the country presenting themselves as journalists for Mexican TV station Televisa, and were caught with some $9.2 million in cash which the authorities say they were trying to smuggle to Costa Rica, reports the BBC.
  • The Washington Post has a report on downward social mobility in Mexico, where many of the 17 percent of the population who joined the middle classes between 2000 and 2010 face the prospect of falling back down again, their prospects threatened by crime or by employers who dodge social security programs. With slideshow.
  • Authorities removed all inmates from a prison in Durango state, north Mexico, where some 24 people died in an attempted jailbreak on Wednesday, reports the BBC.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Argentine Media Group Clarin Wins Reprieve Over Asset Break-up

Argentina’s biggest media group, Clarin, has won a reprieve from the government’s attempts to break up its holdings for the second time in two weeks.

On Tuesday morning, Federal Judge Horacio Alfonso accepted Clarin's request to appeal his decision on Friday that a controversial law limiting concentration of ownership in the media was constitutional.

The government reacted to the ruling by sending officials to Clarin’s headquarters on Monday with a public notary to notify the group that a transfer of licences and sale of assets must begin immediately.

However, Clarin had already lodged an appeal, which means the case will once again pass to the appeals court that granted the group its first reprieve in early December.

Clarin is by and far and away the biggest and most powerful media conglomerate in Argentina. The government claims the law is designed to promote media plurality, while Clarin say it is being used as a political tool to silence its most ardent and powerful critic - Clarin.

According to the government, Clarin has 237 media licences, while the law only permits one company to own 24 cable licenses and 10 free-to-air licenses for radio and TV, and to cover no more than 35 percent of the pay-per-view population.

Clarin says it has seven radio licenses and four open-TV ones but its TV cable operator Cablevision owns 158 local licenses and the law’s 24 licence limit would restrict their market.

News Briefs
  • Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has asked legislators to “put the brakes” on plans to legalize and regulate cannabis sales after a national opinion showed over 60% of Uruguayans opposed the plans, the BBC reports. Mujica is proposing to stall the plans until he can win skeptics over through a public debate.
  • Government sources say Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is suffering from a respiratory infection after undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba and must have "complete rest," the Miami Herald reports.
  • The BBC reports on Chilean journalists investigating human rights abuses from the Pinochet era, who have been victims of break ins and threats. One journalist says says his house has been broken into three times over the past days and research about crimes carried out under General Augusto Pinochet taken.
  • Mexico’s new Attorney General claims there are over 80 small and medium sized drug trafficking organizations operating in the country - a figure far higher than the previous governments estimate, the AP reports. New President Enrique Peña Nieto said the proliferation of these smaller organizations has been fueled by the fracturing of bigger organizations such as the Zetas and the Familia Michoacana.
  • The New York Times reports from Oaxaca, Mexico where a team of 20 police-trained deaf people have been recruited to monitor the city’s new CCTV surveillance system. Police looked to recruit deaf people for their lip-reading skills and because “their heightened visual attention had enabled the deaf officers to see trouble developing on the screens faster than other officers who can hear and speak but are frequently distracted by the buzzing of phones, police scanners and chatter in the command center.”
  • The AP reports on the case of Jacob Ostreicher, a 53-year-old American who has just been released to house arrest by a Bolivian judge after spending 18 months in prison without charge. Ostriecher is accused of money laundering but, according to the AP, there is strong evidence he was “fleeced and extorted by corrupt prosecutors.”
  • 17 people were killed in an attempted prison break at Durango, Mexico, the AP reports. After guards tried to stop inmates climbing the back prison wall a firefight ensued, which left 11 inmates and 6 guards dead. 
  • The Washington Post profiles Katia Abreu, a politician and landowner, who is a fierce advocate for the large-scale agribusiness that has helped drive Brazil’s economic growth but is heavily criticized by environmentalists, who Abreu dismisses as “‘ideologically committed’ foes dedicated to seeing Brazilian agriculture founder.”
  • The Guardian looks at economic growth in Mexico and in particular, Tijuana, which has become a hub for manufacturing high-tech goods such as flat screen TVs. The improving economy has led to strong consumer confidence, even though there has been little “trickle-down effect” and half the population remain below the poverty line.
  • The LA Times reports from Mexico’s Yucutan peninsula, where locals are marking the end of the 13th Baktun Mayan long count by celebrating their Mayan culture and history, “mak[ing] mystically minded calls for renewal and rebirth” and trying to boost tourism. Few, if any, are preparing for the apocalypse. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mexico’s President Unveils 'New' Security Strategy

On Monday, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the framework for his young administration’s national security strategy, as El Universal reports.  After acknowledging that the country’s approach to organized crime over the past several years has not been successful, the president said he would be "opening a new path, a new route and a new way to address the security of the Mexican people." 

Unfortunately, as the AP points out, the outline of Peña Nieto’s security strategy bears a strong resemblance to that of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.  While it includes several provisions that may appeal to human rights advocates, it maintains the most controversial element of Calderon’s policies: a reliance on the military for internal security.

According to El Universal, two of the plan’s six pillars specifically involve civil society: one calls for respect for human rights and accountability and another requires “citizen participation” in security policy. The inclusion of this language appears to be largely the work of lobbying by leftist lawmakers. In an interview with Milenio, president of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) Jesus Zambrano said that the plan “carries the flag of the left,” and that it will also likely involve an emphasis on drug treatment programs. 

Peña Nieto’s strategy also seeks to create a new federal law enforcement body, named the National Gendarmerie. The president said that the new force will start off with 10,000 members, although he did not give a timeline for its creation. 

As the L.A. Times notes, the move is likely an effort to de-emphasize the role of the federal police, and comes after the embarrassing incident in which federal police agents fired on CIA agents in August. 

While Peña Nieto’s intention to establish the Gendarmerie is nothing new (he first proposed it while on the campaign trail), it is not without controversy. Some analysts, like Mexican security expert Alejandro Hope, argue that the country would be better served by reforming its current security forces than by creating a new one.

New Briefs

  • A New York Times investigation profiles Wal-Mart’s questionable business practices in Mexico, where the paper claims that the corporation “was not the reluctant victim of a corrupt culture that insisted on bribes as the cost of doing business….[but] an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited.”
  • Chile’s Minister of Justice, Teodoro Ribera, resigned yesterday amid a scandal over his alleged ties to a former education official accused of illegally accrediting a number of universities in the country. Ribera made the announcement in a televised address on Monday, in which he also denied any wrongdoing.
  • The BBC reports on the conclusion of the historic mensalão corruption trial in Brazil, which came to an end yesterday after the Supreme Court ruled to strip three congressmen linked to the scandal of their seats. A total of 25 people were convicted in the course of the trial.
  • The AP has a summary of the state of the political crisis in Honduras, which was temporarily put on hold after government offices closed yesterday. The showdown between the executive, legislative and judicial branches is set to begin again on January 3, when the government resumes activity.
  • Bolivia’s Catholic Church and the country’s main human rights organization have come out against the Bolivian government’s planned highway through the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory National Park (TIPNIS), saying that the initiative violates the sovereignty of indigenous communities in the area. La Razon reports that the two issued the statement after a process of consultation with locals, in which 30 of 36 communities in the TIPNIS rejected the project.
  • A brutal attack on an Afro-Uruguayan woman in Montevideo on Monday sparked a wave of condemnation from citizens and authorities in Uruguay, and has the country assessing the pervasiveness of racism there, the AFP reports.
  • Analyst James Bosworth offers a tidy overview of the main takeaway points from Sunday’s gubernatorial elections in Venezuela, noting that while opposition figure Henrique Capriles Radonski won reelection in Miranda state, the vote was by and large a disaster for the opposition.
  • El Espectador reports that a civil society-led conference on rural development facilitated by the United Nations is underway in Bogota, Colombia. According to Semana, the 1,200 delegates gathered at the event hope to submit an agrarian reform proposal to the government to supplement the ongoing peace talks with FARC rebels.  
  • Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund assesses the implications of Colombia’s recently-approved military justice reform bill, noting that it could mean total impunity for military officers accused of human rights abuses in the country.
  • After receiving the approval of a judge on Friday, the administration of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner announced yesterday that it has begun the process of breaking up the Clarin media group, and is preparing to auction off its media licenses. According to the AP, the process is expected to last some 100 days, during which time Clarin will be required to sort out its remaining holdings and keep all of its current employees.
  • The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) takes a look at a bill recently passed in the US Congress which aims to limit the influence of Iran in the Western Hemisphere.  The CEPR makes a compelling comparison between the bill and the Monroe Doctrine, arguing that it will only serve to further isolate the US from Latin America.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Chavez Party Wins Big in Venezuela State Elections

Pro-Chavez candidates won 20 of Venezuela’s 23 governorships in elections on Sunday, taking five states from an opposition which gained none, though opposition candidate Henrique Capriles crucially held on to Miranda state.

Capriles’ win in Miranda against former Vice President Elias Jaua confirmed his position as the leader of the opposition coalition MUD, and “will help maintain unity among the historically fractured opposition” according to Reuters. Despite the defeats across the country, the election pointed to Capriles as the main viable opposition leader, as he won where most others lost, including his most viable rival, Pablo Perez, Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights points out. However, his margin was a lower-than-expected 4 points, short of the heavy win that could have given fresh momentum to his presidential chances.

The Capriles re-election was the main bright spot for the opposition, which lost five of the eight states it had held before the election, holding only Lara, Amazonas, and Miranda, and gaining none.

Capriles’ vice presidential choice for October’s presidential vote, Henry Falcon, held the governorship in Lara state. He brought in 14 percent more of the vote than the opposition did in Lara in the presidential elections, as Caracas Chronicles points out, giving him extra credibility as a vote-winner.

The five states Chavez’s PSUV won from the opposition included Zulia, the country’s most populous state, which had been held by opposition governors for the last 12 years.

The ruling party also gained Tachira and held Merida, despite opposition wins in both states in the presidential elections. It also held Bolivar, despite protests from the opposition candidate, who claimed irregularities. The Devil’s Excrement blog comments that gaining Tachira is a significant achievement for Jose Vielma Mora, who managed to win where many of the other PSUV heavyweights did not -- “Jaua has never won an election, Arias lost one, Maduro has never run for anything but Head of the subway union and Diosdado lost to Capriles once.”

Recently removed Defense Minister General Henry Rangel Silva, who is accused by US authorities of links to drug trafficking and the Colombian FARC rebel group, won in Trujillo after being named as candidate in October. As the Devil’s Excrement points out, with Rodriguez Chacin elected in Guarico state, Venezuela now has two governors blacklisted by the US Treasury for drug trafficking.

The results were a resounding victory for the ruling party, in an election which had been “widely seen as a referendum on whether his socialist-inspired Bolivarian Revolution movement has enough momentum to outlive him,” according to the AP. Capriles acknowledged the lack of national success, telling supporters “it’s difficult to come here and show a smile,” and that our candidates “have lost some ground,” addressing the crowd while dressed in a tracksuit in the colors of the national flag.

Turnout stood at only 54 percent, compared to 80 percent in October’s presidential elections. Opposition campaign manager Antonio Ledezma said it was the intention of the government to get a low turnout, by scheduling elections at a time when many are leaving for Christmas holidays. Capriles also accused the ruling party of exploiting Chavez’s illness for electoral purposes, with the president’s anointed successor Nicolas Maduro calling on voters not to fail the president, who last week announced the recurrence of his cancer and said that his supporters should back Maduro.

For the Caracas Chronicles, Sunday’s elections could be decisive, and may be “remembered as the meteorite strike that finally drove the opposition dinocracy to extinction.” The NYT said that Venezuelans “showed overwhelming support” for Chavez’s party in the elections, while Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights said that the vote demonstrated that “Chavez’s charisma can indeed carry-over to other politicians in his coalition, at least in the short term.”

The Wall Street Journal, however, had a more positive take for the opposition, running its coverage with the headline “Venezuela's Capriles Solidifies Threat to Chavez.”

The LA Times has an op-ed on the prospects for a transition of power, which states that Maduro is “viscerally anti-American, opposes the checks and balances of liberal democracy and distrusts free markets.”

It could be better for the governing party if any new presidential elections happen sooner rather than later, before the government carries out painful economic adjustments following last year’s pre-election spending binge. Reuters notes that Chavez’s illness seems to have put a currency devaluation on hold, perhaps until after a new presidential election early in 2013. It is likely that Maduro would win an election that takes place in the next two months, according to Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, while the Devil’s Excrement points out that “Time works against Chavismo.”

News Briefs

  • The AP reports that peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels are going well, with trust growing between the two sides who are holding talks in Cuba. The news agency gives a cosy description of the negotiations, gained from interviews with participants, saying that they “kibbutz about the latest soccer results and tease the unofficial timekeeper of the talks,” sharing “cigarettes and aromatic Cuban cigars.” A forum opens in Bogota today for civil society groups to present their proposals for rural development, one of the items on the negotiating table, as El Espectador reports. Indigenous organizations in Cauca have declared that their agendas are not up for negotiation by others, and said the the government and the FARC must hold talks directly with them, according to El Espectador.
  • Retired Colombian General Mauricio Santoyo has been sentenced to 13 years in prison by a US court after pleading guilty to taking bribes from paramilitary army the AUC in exchange for handing them information, including while he was security chief to then-President Alvaro Uribe, reports the BBC. His defense claimed that part of his motivation was to help the paramilitaries fight rebel groups like the FARC, reports the AP.
  • An Argentine judge ruled Friday that the law requiring media group Clarin to sell off many of its assets is constitutional, and ordered an end to the injunction preventing the law taking effect, reports Reuters. Clarin had won a last-minute extension to this injunction the day before it was due to end on December 6. Today, the company launched an appeal against Friday’s ruling, reports La Nacion. The NYT Latitude blog comments that Argentine President Cristina Kirchner’s battle against Clarin media group “has taken on a symbolic significance, raising serious questions about judicial independence,” despite the fact that Clarin shouldn’t be viewed as a mere “sympathetic victim.”
  • A UN court has ordered Ghana to release an Argentine ship seized in October over the country’s failure to pay debts. The court found that the ship, held at the request of a US hedge fund, is immune because it is a military vessel, reports the AP. The Financial Times notes that the ruling could be hard to enforce, and an appeal is currently underway.
  • In Paraguay, prosecutors have brought charges against 14 campesinos involved in June land occupations that ended with 11 protesters and six police officers dead, claiming that the campesinos opened fire first, reports the BBC. The protesters were occupying land that they say was stolen by a senator in the 1960s. The scandal over the deaths in June helped bring down President Fernando Lugo, who has said that the shooting was a setup organized by powerful businessmen to stop his land redistribution schemes, as the AP reports.
  • Julia Michaels at Rio Real presents 13 questions on development schemes in Rio de Janeiro, including on the costs and future budget of the favela pacification program, plans to bring sewage to all the city’s neighborhoods, and the Morar Carioca program, which aims to improve infrastructure.
  • Honduras Culture and Politics has more on the developing crisis in Honduras, where Congress president Juan Orlando Hernandez is accused of trying to subjugate the Supreme Court as part of a bid to win power in 2013 and extend term limits.
  • Reporters Without Borders called on Chilean authorities to fully investigate a break-in to the home of journalist Mauricio Weibel, where intruders stole a computer containing research for his book on the role of military intelligence in during the dictatorship.
  • Fidel Castro has been nominated for a seat in Cuba’s parliament, which he was also named to in 2008. The AP says its not clear if he has played an active role in the body since he stepped down as president in that year.
  • The NYT reports from Brazil’s Amazon, where a iron ore mining project threatens to destroy a series of caves with archeological evidence of humans who lived there 8,000 years ago.
  • The Washington Post profiles Katia Abreu, a powerful Brazilian landowner and senator who advocates for the interests of agribusiness, making the argument that the industry provides jobs and feeds millions, and can be developed while protecting the environment.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Venezuelans Prepare to Elect New Governors

While Hugo Chavez’s ongoing health issues have been hogging the headlines in Venezuela, the country is also gearing up for regional elections that could have a major impact on the country’s political future.

On Sunday, December 16th, Venezuelans will vote for new governors in the country’s 23 states. Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), will be hoping to build on the president’s decisive victory in October’s presidential elections, while the opposition parties that make up the Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD) will look to capitalize on the lower popularity of regional PSUV leaders compared to the president.

While there remains little reliable polling data, the Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog has identified 10 states as likely to vote for PSUV candidates, three that are likely to opt for opposition candidates and ten that look like they could go either way.Of those ten, five are currently in the hands of the PSUV and five are ruled by opposition parties.

One of the most intriguing battles will be in the state of Miranda, where defeated presidential candidate and current governor Henrique Capriles will face off against former Vice President Elias Jaua. Chavez narrowly won the vote in the state in the presidential elections, and some polls put Jaua ahead by as much as five points.

Most analysts, however, believe Capriles is likely to hold his post, even against a relatively strong PSUV candidate. Even so, the government will be hoping to damage Capriles’ political standing by running him close, making him seem a weaker candidate on the national stage.

Miguel Octavio at the The Devil’s Excrement blog writes that Capriles may have made a mistake in standing, as “he needs to win there big, very big, or he will look weak to be the Presidential candidate.” Octavio believes Capriles should have instead campaigned throughout the country as the unofficial head of the opposition and future presidential candidate rather than pursuing the “low risk, low reward” strategy of running for governor.

The Caracas Chronicles blog speculates that this may mean the elections become a de facto primary for opposition candidates. If, as seems increasingly likely, new presidential elections are called because of Chavez’s failing health, then the opposition will only have 30 days to prepare - leaving no time for primaries. While Capriles remains in prime position for another shot at the presidency, a poor showing on Sunday may pave the way for a candidate who polls strongly, such as former PSUV and now opposition governor of the state of Lara,  Henry Falcon. Falcon was previously Capriles’ choice for vice president.

News Briefs
  • InSight Crime reports on  Mexico's new Interior Minister, Miguel Osorio Chon, and allegations he has ties with drug cartel the Zetas. In 2010, the Mexican Attorney General's Office (PGR) opened a preliminary investigation into claims that Osorio Chong, along with several members of his administration and other political elites in Hidalgo, had received payments from Zetas leader and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, alias "Z-3." However, no formal charges have been filed against the minister.  
  • The Miami Herald looks at the plight of a former US marine in prison on weapons charges in Mexico. Jon Hammar, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran with PTSD, was arrested after crossing the border with a 60-year-old shotgun in his truck. He has spent nearly 4 months in prison, much of it in solitary confinement after his family refused to make extortion payments demanded by Mexican gang members. 
  • The AP has a detailed article that puts the current institutional crisis in Honduras in a broader context, concluding that “by many grim measures the troubled Central American republic is barely clinging to its status as a functioning country.” 
  • The BBC reports on the controversial end to the Copa Sudamericana soccer championship, where Brazilian team Sao Paulo were left winners by default after players from Argentine club Tigre refused to finish the game. According to the Tigre players, they were attacked by about 20 men and threatened with guns following scuffles involving players and officials as the teams left the pitch at half time.
  • The New York Times reports on the complications suffered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez while undergoing surgery in Cuba. The Wall Street Journal meanwhile, speaks to doctors about the prognosis for Chavez, concluding that while a full recovery cannot be ruled out, from the information available, it seems likely his cancer is terminal.
  • The Council on Hemispheric Affairs looks at the lack of representation of women in the Colombian peace process, concluding that “[it] achieves only the stagnation of the social advancement of Colombian women.”
  • The LA Times has a feature looking at plans to trial a new Alzheimer's drug in the small Colombian town of Yarumal, where large numbers of the population have a rare genetic disposition to the disease.
  • The Economist reports on Colombia’s controversial judicial reforms, passed earlier this week (see Wednesday’s briefing), and what they might mean in the prosecution of “false positive” cases - extra-judicial murders carried out by the military, who dressed up victims as guerrillas to boost their kill counts.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Chavez May Miss Inauguration: Venezuela Government

Chavez May Miss Inauguration: Venezuela Government
The Venezuelan Information Minister has hinted that ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may not be well enough to swear-in for his new presidential term, which is scheduled to begin on January 10th.

Although he expressed hope that Chavez would return from Cuba in time, Ernesto Villegas said in a written message on a government website that if Chavez doesn't make it, "our people should be prepared to understand it,” adding it would be irresponsible to hide news about the "delicateness of the current moment and the days to come."

According to the Venezuelan constitution, presidents should be sworn in before the National Assembly, and if that's not possible then before the Supreme Court.

Former Supreme Court magistrate Roman Duque Corredor told the AP that  a president cannot delegate the swearing-in to anyone else and cannot take the oath of office outside Venezuela. However, a president could still be sworn in even if temporarily incapacitated, but would need to be conscious and in Venezuela.

If Chavez is declared incapacitated and is unable to be sworn in then the National Assembly president would temporarily take charge of the government and a new presidential vote must be held within 30 days, Duque said.

Some have speculated that this may spark a power struggle, as Chavez has named Vice President Nicolas Maduro his prefered successor, not National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello. However, the two appeared side by side in a television appearance in which Maduro said the party was “more united than ever.”

The latest developments come just days before gubernatorial elections throughout the country, sparking speculation they could provide PSUV candidates a boost through widespread sympathy for Chavez or, they could play into the hands of the opposition who are stronger against the party than they are against the president.

News Briefs
  • Protests have broken out throughout Argentina against the acquittal of 13 men in a case that has become a symbol of the country’s struggle against sex-trafficking, reports Pagina 12. . Thousands took to the streets in a number of Argentine cities, in what were mostly peaceful process - although in Buenos Aires, hundreds of protesters clashed with police. The Inter Press Service has more on the fallout of the case, which, it says, has provoked “outrage” around the country.
  • The Honduran Congress has voted to remove the four Supreme Court justices who ruled the government’s police clean-up law unconstitutional, reports Americas Quarterly. However, The Bar Association of Anti-Corruption Lawyers in Honduras has brought a legal appeal of Congress's decision, reports Honduras Politics and Culture. On Tuesday, Congress passed the reforms despite the Supreme Court ruling. 
  • The Guardian reports on the rise of brutal vigilante justice in El Alto, the poverty wracked Altiplano city in the mountains outside La Paz. There, residents, mostly indigenous migrants from the rural highlands, have begun to fill the gap left by Bolivia’s weak judicial system by taking the law into their own hands, with lynchings increasingly common.
  • The Cuban Triangle blog analyses Cuba’s new cooperative law, concluding, “The pace will satisfy no one, the process will be influenced by officials with more orthodox views, and it will surely have positive and negative notes. But there’s no denying that this law breaks new ground, with potentially large consequences.”
  • A new ruling means that officers can be expelled from the Peruvian police force for “having sexual relations with people of the same gender, which cause scandal or damage the image of the institution,” the BBC reports. The ruling means open homosexuality is now ranked alongside torture and belonging to criminal gangs for Peruvian police officers.
  • The the so-called “mensalão” corruption scandal is edging closer to former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Wall Street Journal reports. Several Supreme Court Justices are calling for a new investigation, following the leaking of the testimony of key mensalão defendant, Marcos Valério, which states he paid some of da Silva's personal expenses from a slush account funded by embezzlement. 
  • Upside Down World looks at the impact of climate change on indigenous Bolivians from the perspective of traditional  Kallawaya healers.  
  • Runaway tech-pioneer John McAfee has been deported from Guatemala and is currently in Miami, the Miami Herald reports.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Colombian Congress Passes Controversial Military Justice Reform Bill

On Tuesday night, Colombia’s Congress approved a constitutional amendment granting military courts increased jurisdiction over crimes committed by members of the country’s armed forces. As El Tiempo reports, the bill passed the Senate with a 57-7 vote, and is expected to be signed into law by President Juan Manuel Santos later this week. 

While Human Rights Watch’s Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco has condemned the final version of the bill as “an unnecessary and premeditated blow to human rights,” El Espectador reports that lobbying by non-governmental organizations like HRW and leftist lawmakers resulted in drastic changes to its language.

As a result of these efforts, the bill ensures that cases of crimes against humanity or violations of international humanitarian law such as forced disappearances, sexual violence, torture, forced displacement and extra-judicial executions can only be tried in civilian courts. When jurisdiction over a case is in doubt, it will be decided by a special committee made up of both military and civilian legal officials.

Concerns that the constitutional amendment will result in impunity for human rights abuses persist, however, as the bill does not include language equating "extra-judicial executions" with existing crimes in the country’s legal code, like homicide and aggravated homicide. According to the Associated Press, because "extra-judicial execution" is not specifically defined as a crime in Colombia, the bill’s opponents worry that the more than 1,700 cases of extra-judicial execution currently being prosecuted in civilian courts could be shifted to military jurisdiction. 

As La Silla Vacia points out, the vote is a major victory for Colombia’s armed forces, which have long claimed that civilian oversight hampers their ability to carry out operations effectively. The fact that the bill’s passage coincides with the government’s ongoing peace talks with FARC guerrillas is no coincidence, and likely amounts to an effort by President Santos to gain support for the peace process among the military command.

News Briefs

  • After Argentina’s Supreme Court on Monday rejected the government’s attempts to bypass federal appeals courts and take its case against the Clarin media group -- which it accuses of violating anti-media monopoly laws -- to the Supreme Court, the administration of President Cristina Fernandez has continued its legal battle against the media giant, filing an extraordinary appeal against the ruling. While most major media outlets have framed the case as a matter of freedom of the press, analyst James Bosworth points out that it has worrisome implications for judicial independence in the country.
  • An Argentine court yesterday found 13 individuals charged with the 2002 kidnapping and disappearance of Marita Veron innocent of wrongdoing. The case had become a symbol of the country’s fight against sex trafficking, and Veron’s mother Susana Trimarco has earned a reputation as the premier champion of the cause, having rescued hundreds of women from sex trafficking through her nonprofit.
  • The government of Cuba formally allowed for the creation of non-agricultural collectives yesterday, a move which was first announced last summer and is expected to contribute to economic growth on the island, the New York Times and AP report.
  • El Salvador’s El Faro takes a look at the government’s recently-announced poverty statistics, which show that the poverty rate in the country has risen to levels not seen since 2000. Even still, the news site claims that the official figures drastically underestimate the number of Salvadorans living in poverty.
  • The government of El Salvador has accepted the Inter-American Court of Human Right’s ruling calling for a full investigation into the 1981 El Mozote massacre, according to La Prensa Grafica. In response to the decision, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying that the government takes full responsibility for the incident, and will comply with the Court’s ruling.
  • Brazil’s O Estado de São Paulo reports that an ex-consultant to the ruling Workers' Party claims that former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva knew about the so-called “mensalão” vote-buying scheme, and pressured him to keep quiet about his links to the scandal when it began to receive media attention.
  • Milenio reports that the secretary general of Mexico’s powerful SNTE teacher’s union, Juan Diaz, has said that the union will support the education reform initiative recently announced by newly-elected President Enrique Peña Nieto. The announcement comes a surprise, as the SNTE was thought to be the biggest opponent to the proposed reforms, which would establish an independent body tasked with monitoring teachers’ performance.
  • Continuing the country’s trend of progressive lawmaking, Uruguay’s Chamber of Deputies voted in favor of a bill which would legalize gay marriage.  Infobae reports that the bill will now move to the Senate, where the ruling coalition is expected to pass it early next year. As the AP notes, the bill would establish a single law regulating both straight and gay marriages, and breaks with tradition in that it would allow all couples in the country to decide whose surname goes first in naming their children.
  • Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro  announced via state television that President Hugo Chavez’s cancer surgery in Cuba yesterday was a success and that the president is recovering, although he gave no further details of the operation.
  • The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has released its annual assessment of economic progress in the region, which predicts that the region’s economic output will likely grow by 3.8 percent in 2013.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Judicial Independence Under Fire in Honduras

The conflict between Honduras’ Supreme Court and the executive and legislative branches heated up yesterday after the Honduran Congress voted to create a special commission charged with investigating the “administrative conduct” of federal judges in the country. El Heraldo reports that the initiative, which was passed late yesterday afternoon by the ruling majority of President Porfirio Lobo’s conservative National Party, will focus mainly on the five-member Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court. 

This comes after the Constitutional Branch ruled on November 26 that a law aimed at cleaning up the country's notoriously corrupt police force was unconstitutional, as the associated vetting process called for the immediate removal of any officer who failed background checks and lie detector tests, and did not allow for an appeal. The ruling was made on the very same day that the anti-police corruption law expired, and the legislature was set to renew its mandate. 

In response Lobo lashed out at the court, calling it an “enemy of Honduras” and accusing its members of “betting against the country.” Tiempo reports that the president has continued his attacks on the court over the past week, sending “little love notes” to its members via his official Twitter account in which he accuses the court of siding with criminals. He has vowed to move forward with a purge of the police force with or without the support of the judiciary, pressuring Congress to pass an amendment to the constitution and calling for a public referendum on the matter. 

Lobo’s aggressive response to the court ruling raises serious questions about the state of separation of powers in Honduras. Because the Constitutional Branch’s decision was not unanimous, the final ruling on the police cleanup law will go to the whole Supreme Court. The president’s verbal assault, as well as his party’s creation of a congressional investigatory committee, amount to an attempt to intimidate the court into making a favorable decision. As Honduras Culture and Politics notes, Lobo’s proposal to hold a public referendum on the law despite the court’s ruling bears an ironic resemblance to the situation which led to the coup against former President Jose Manuel Zelaya in 2009, in which Zelaya attempted to circumvent the law by carrying out a vote on whether or not to hold a constitutional convention.

News Briefs
  • After announcing that his cancer had returned and endorsing Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his successor should he be unable to complete his term, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returned to Cuba to resume treatment early Monday, according to the New York Times. The AFP reports that before leaving, Chavez left a statement to the military command to be vigilant against plans to destabilize the country in his absence.
  • The Washington Post features an in-depth look at the unlikely political career of Maduro, a former bus driver whose relatively low profile and outsider status may leave him vulnerable to attacks from the traditional leadership of the ruling Socialist Party.
  • Meanwhile, David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz of WOLA’s Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog  evaluate the constitutional implications of Chavez’s death, pointing out that his return to Venezuela was a transparent attempt to shore up support for Maduro among his base. As they note, the timing of his announcement is a likely indicator that he fears he will be unable to assume office on January 10th. The Economist has an overview of Venezuela’s current political climate, and the Miami Herald questions whether the leader hid the extent of his illness during the recent presidential election.
  • The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday that the government of El Salvador must investigate the 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which as many as 800 people were killed by soldiers. The court held that the country’s 1993 amnesty law does not apply to the case, and ordered the government to punish those responsible for the incident. La Prensa Grafica reports that the court’s binding ruling requires the state to pay $35,000 in damages to the families of the massacre’s 440 confirmed victims and $20,000 to each of the 48 known survivors.
  • El Universal reports that Enrique Peña Nieto announced a project aimed at reforming the country’s education system, which would establish an independent body charged with evaluating Mexican teachers. As the L.A. Times notes, the initiative also seeks to weaken the powerful teachers’ union in the country.
  • In an interview with the AP, Peña Nieto expressed optimism about the potential to pass several key reforms during his term, and vowed to continue the fight against drug trafficking despite recent marijuana legalization initiatives in the US.
  • Jacob Ostreicher, an American citizen imprisoned in Bolivia on money laundering charges, will face an appellate court today which he hopes will result in the dismissal of all charges against him. Ostreicher says that he is the victim of an extortion racket headed by legal officials in the country, and has named the Bolivian Interior Minister as one of them. AP profiles Ostreicher’s case, calling it “the biggest scandal yet” for Bolivian President Evo Morales.
  • La Nacion reports that Brazil will replace its ambassador to Argentina with Everto Vieira Vargas, currently serving as the country’s top envoy to Germany. The announcement was made after a meeting last Friday between Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, and comes a time of tense relations between the two countries, marked by objection to Argentine tariffs on Brazilian imports.
  • Colombia’s Caracol Radio reports that the Colombian Supreme Court has called for a criminal investigation into 12 congressmen and two former ministers over their support for a controversial justice reform bill earlier this year. The Court found that the officials altered the bill to grant themselves unconstitutional legal benefits.
  • The European Union is set to ratify free trade agreements with Peru and Colombia after three years of negotiations, AFP reports.