Reports suggest that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is considering claiming political asylum in Cuba, Ecuador or Venezuela, a move that could drive a wedge between the international community and leftist governments in the region. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, when Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad met with the governments of these three countries last week, he brought with him personal letters from Assad in which the leader raised the possibility of seeking asylum. Although a source in Caracas confirmed to Haaretz that al-Miqdad delivered a letter to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez shortly before the he left for cancer treatment in Cuba last Wednesday, he could not speak to its content or Venezuela’s official response to a potential asylum bid.
An attempt by Assad to obtain political asylum in Venezuela would not come as a total surprise, considering that Chavez has remained an outspoken ally of the embattled leader despite the uprising underway in Syria. Venezuela has sent numerous shipments of diesel fuel to Syria this year, and Chavez has maintained that the Assad regime is the “legitimate government” of the Middle Eastern country, blaming unrest on meddling by the US government.
The governments of Cuba and Ecuador have voiced similar support for Assad, and the latter country has already demonstrated a willingness to shelter controversial figures with its August decision to grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Harboring Assad could seriously damage the international standing of any of these countries, however. In an interview with the Associated Press earlier today, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opposed an asylum deal as a means of ending Syria’s civil war, saying the UN “does not allow impunity” to anyone.
The revelation that Syria has been moving its chemical weapons stockpiles and preparing nerve gas adds a further element of gravity to support for Assad. The United States has said that the use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels would be a “red line,” prompting a harsh response. As analyst James Bosworth notes, while the US has been relatively silent on the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) bloc’s backing of Assad, if Syria employs chemical weapons it could cause the US government to employ sanctions against countries which support the regime.
For the moment the potential for Assad to seek political asylum remains a remote possibility, as the ruler has adamantly refused to step down and vowed to "live and die" in Syria. But if rebels continue to make headway against the army in the country, he may be left with no other choice.
- Argentina scored a temporary victory yesterday in its ongoing debt saga, after a US appeals court ruled that the country was not required to make a preliminary payment of $250 million to creditors who had refused to swap their debts for government bonds. The next hearing in the case, an appeal of a November ruling ordering Argentina to pay back $1.3 billion to defaulted creditors, will proceed on February 27th.
- Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa met with his Argentine counterpart Cristina Fernandez in Buenos Aires yesterday to discuss relations between the two countries. AP reports that Correa spoke with Fernandez about his country’s lawsuit against US-based oil giant Chevron in Argentina, which requests that the Argentine government seize Chevron’s assets, oil sales income and bank accounts in the country as payment for contaminating Ecuador’s southern Lago Agrio region from 1964 to 1992. Correa also voiced support for Argentina’s struggle with foreign creditors, backing Fernandez’s proposal for UNASUR to take a stand against such instances of “judicial colonialism.” Telesur reports that while in Argentina, the Ecuadoran president accepted the Rodolfo Walsh Press Freedom Award from the National University of La Plata for his contributions to “popular communication.” As the AFP notes, this comes at a time when Correa is under fire from press freedom advocates for his combative stance against mainstream media outlets in Ecuador.
- After meeting with congressmen as part of a visit to Colombia on Tuesday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a statement expressing concern over a proposed constitutional reform which would expand the military’s jurisdiction over cases of reported human rights abuses. El Tiempo reports that the Commission believes elements of the proposal break with Inter-American human rights standards and could afford impunity to military officials.
- Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that the country’s tradition of granting diplomatic passports to congressmen is unconstitutional and amounts to a violation of the principle of equality before the law, according to El Colombiano. The practice has been abused by legislators in the past, most notably by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, who upon being elected as an alternate representative in 1982 used his diplomatic passport to travel freely to the United States.
- Venezuela’s National Assembly yesterday approved the Chavez administration’s budget proposal for 2013, which according to El Universal calls for a 33 percent increase in government spending from this year’s budget.
- The New York Times profiles the trend among poor Haitian parents to turn over their children to orphanages as a means of ensuring a better future for them. According to the government of Haiti, the vast majority (some 80 percent) of children in orphanages there have at least one living parent. To combat the trend, officials are implementing stricter adoption regulations and reducing the number of orphanages in the country, although some analysts say the move is premature.
- While Alan Gross, the contractor jailed in Cuba on espionage charges, is suing the US government in an effort to pressure the Obama administration into negotiating his release, US officials remain adamant that they will not accept Cuba’s proposal to trade Gross for five Cuban intelligence officials being held in the United States. According to an unnamed State Department official cited by the Miami Herald, the US rejects “the notion of linkage” between the two cases.
- The L.A. Times takes a look at the United States’ expanded role in promoting security in Central America, as well as concerns that the US is repeating its Cold War-era strategy of allying itself with corrupt governments at the expense of human rights.
- The Inter Press Service has an in-depth report on growing opposition in Guatemala to mining ventures headed by multinational corporations. Although mining companies are attempting to downplay anti-mining protests, they are becoming increasingly frequent in the country’s rural areas. In the latest incident, which took place on November 19th, residents of the southeastern town of Mataquescuintla set fire to five cars belonging to a subsidiary of a Canadian mining firm.
- Honduras’ La Prensa reports that the mayor of the western Honduran town of Dolores Meredon was killed by gunmen wearing military uniforms yesterday while the official was driving with his family. The motive behind the murder of the mayor, who was elected in 2009 on the ticket of the ruling National Party, is still unknown.
- Anti-corruption advocacy NGO Transparency International has released its 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the perceived level of corruption in countries around the world. According to the report, Haiti and Venezuela are tied as the most corrupt countries in the region and are among the most corrupt in the world, coming in at 165th in the 176 countries surveyed.