Friday, December 13, 2013

Bogota Mayor Sees Surge in Support

(Note: this will be my last daily news briefing until January 2. Happy holidays!)

While opinion polls have not been kind to Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro since he took office, the inspector general’s recent decision to order him out of office and banned from politics has unleashed a wave of fresh support for the former guerrilla. Petro has attempted to build off of this support base by calling for the “biggest mobilization in history” today in the capital, but whether or not this will have an impact on his appeal of the decision remains to be seen. 

According to a new Datexco poll released by W Radio, the mayor now has his highest positive image since taking office in January 2011, with 50.6 percent of Bogota residents polled saying they hold a positive opinion of his administration. That’s up from 28.71 percent in an April survey conducted by the same pollster. Some 60 percent of respondents say they disagree with Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez’s decision to ban him from office due to allegations that he mishandled a dispute with garbage collectors last year.

Semana magazine reports that the mayor has received support from the FARC -- who warned that they saw his destitution as proof of the legitimacy of armed struggle -- to U.S. Ambassador-Designate to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, who told El Tiempo that he felt Petro’s removal could “erode” the peace process.

Meanwhile Petro has invited his supporters, thousands of whom filled Bogota’s central square on Monday and Tuesday nights, to participate in a massive demonstration this evening. According to El Espectador, Petro described his call to action as about more than just him. “The protagonist stops being the mayor and starts to be the people,” his statement reads, “ if we can show the world anything it is that there is a larger consensus today to stop trampling on the rights of the people.”

Given the large crowds that have turned out to support him earlier this week, it is likely that a fair number of Bogota residents will participate in today’s rally. However, it is not clear if popular anger will be sufficient to keep him in office.  Petro has the right to appeal the decision directly to the inspector general again, but the long list of politicians that Ordoñez has toppled in recent years suggests his mind is not easily changed. 
But this is not his only recourse. Semana magazine reports that Petro’s lawyers have also filed a suit with the administrative tribunal of Cundinamarca department, alleging that his right to due process and right to defend himself have been violated.

Still, his best option, and current strategy, appears to be seeking help from the international community. He has appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to request that the government take precautionary measures to defend his right to political participation, and the UN High Commission on Human Rights has requested an audience with the inspector general to review the decision.

News Briefs
  • The recent criticism of Uruguay’s marijuana law by the president of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), Raymond Yans, has gotten considerable press recently. According to Yans, the drug could have the “perverse effect of encouraging early experimentation” and lowering the age of first use. he has also characterized Uruguay's attitude towards legalization as that of "pirates." However, these remarks are out of step with the Uruguayan government’s initial implementation of the measure. Last week officials launched a nationwide education campaign aimed at spreading awareness of the risks associated with all drug use, spearheaded by the office of the president and the National Drug Council.  Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi has attempted to frame the measure as a kind of public health initiative, telling the press that it is based on “harm reduction policy and separating the market” for the drug from more harmful substances. Former President -- and likely winner of October 2014 presidential elections -- Tabare Vazquez has also endorsed the law from a health/education-based narrative, telling local reporters that he felt that the country’s schools should teach children to "know not to take drugs, except those ordered by a physician.” According to President Jose Mujica’s chief of staff Diego Canepa, the president is expected to sign the bill into law today.
  • Mujica has pushed back against these remarks. Radio Espectador reports that the Uruguayan president called on the INCB head’s to “stop lying,” referring to Yans’in his lamentations that Uruguayan officials would not meet with him. “Anyone can meet me in the street,” he said. “He should come to Uruguay and come meet me anytime. He doesn’t have to speak to the crowd.”
  • In a continuation of its extremely interesting “super poderosos” series, Colombian news site La Silla Vacia maps out the most influential actors concerning drug policy in the country. On the list are former President Alvaro Uribe, the U.S. embassy, the FARC, the government negotiating team in Havana, and the Open Society Foundations. Previous installments in the series have looked at the super poderosos of civil society networks, the financial sectorsocial movements and the Colombian Congress.
  • The government of Haiti has taken a step towards organizing long-overdue elections. On Tuesday, the office of President Michel Martelly annoued that an electoral law had been ratified which reportedly clarifies the hotly contested issue of term limits for certain Senate seats. As the AP reports, the opposition claims that the terms of 10 senators expire January 2015, while Martelly allegedly argues that they expire next month.
  • Ahead of Chile’s presidential runoff election this Sunday, even conservative candidate Evelyn Matthei has admitted that it would require a “miracle” for her to beat out Michelle Bachelet, according to El Mostrador.  La Tercera has an analysis of the top differences between the first and second rounds of their campaigns, noting that both candidates have relied on different imagery and selected new figures in their campaigns to present to teh public since the first election.
  • Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes has backed off from his January 2012 order for the armed forces to cease honoring members of the armed forces who have been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. El Faro reports that on the 32nd anniversary of the El Mozote massacre, Funes told a journalist that he “never promised to remove the names from the military regiments” named after some of those responsible for the massacre, despite the fact that he in fact called on the military to do just that.
  • It’s official: for the first time in 75 years, Mexico is set to open up its oil industry to foreign investment after the lower house passed a historic energy reform bill yesterday. The Financial Times reports that the vote was relocated after opposition lawmakers padlocked the doors to the Senate chamber. According to El Universal, the bill will now have to be approved by a majority of state legislatures, but the New York Times points out the PRI controls most of them, and the measure is expected to pass.
  • The AP reports on widespread the reaction to planned rival to the Panama canal in Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega’s announcement of the $40 billion project has fueled widespread optimism.
  • On the 10th anniversary of the release of Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (CVR) report on the country’s armed conflict, the International Center for Transitional Justice has published an analysis of the report’s impact, noting that true reconciliation in Peru is still a long way off.
  • The Washington Post features a color piece on La Barca, the central Mexican town where authorities discovered over 60 bodies in a series of mass graves last month. The article does a splendid job of capturing the effect that the country’s drug-fueled violence has had on small town life.
  • In an interview with CNN en Español yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry called on the Maduro administration to “stop using our relationship as an excuse to not do other things internally.”
  • Venezuelan Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres told members of the press yesterday that violent crime has fallen drastically under the administration of President Nicolas Maduro. According to Rodriguez, the year is set to end with an official homicide rate of around 39 52 per 100,000, compared to 52 per 100,000 last year.  If true, this would mean that Venezuela saw its lowest number of homicides in the past four years.
  • Some 2,0000 people have been displaced and at least three have been killed by heavy rainfall in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro, according to O Globo.
  • Yesterday, the Washington Post published an editorial criticizing U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro. Obama, according to the paper’s editorial  board, “ought to follow his handshake with a loud and unambiguous salute to the real champions of human rights — those fighting for it on the streets of Cuba.” The New York Times, meanwhile, has published an editorial calling on President Obama to lift the Cuban embargo.
  • According to the Miami Herald, Cuban authorities have freed the last of the more than 150 opposition activists detained International Human Rights Day.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Police Strikes Linger in Argentina

Ten days have passed since riots first broke out in the Argentine province of Cordoba following a police strike to demand higher pay. Since then, police strikes and subsequent looting spread across 20 of Argentina’s 23 provinces before dying down yesterday, according to La Nacion. The Buenos Aires-based daily notes that a total of 12 people have died in the resulting violence, and that the conflict persists in four provinces and in parts of the Buenos Aires metropolitan area.

As The Guardian reports, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez first blamed the police strikes as a ploy by her political opponents, but as violence continued to spread it became clear that provincial police have real grievances related to their base pay. Several governors have struck deals with police, while others are still negotiating. At least four governors have refused to negotiate as long as the strikes continue, however.

In some areas, the public has lost patience with provincial authorities and security forces alike. According to local press, some 15,000 residents of the northwestern province of Tucuman took to the streets of the provincial capital last night to counter protest the police strike. Demonstrators also gathered in the central plaza to demand the resignation of Tucuman Governor Jose Alperovich, a member of Fernandez’s party.

The national government, for its part, has remained critical of the protests. Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich told the press yesterday that President Fernandez was in contact with governors of the affected provinces, and that the situation was under control. He also defended the government’s decision to continue with planned celebrations of the 30th anniversary of Argentina's return to democracy, and blamed the security crisis on police “extortion.”

This sentiment has been echoed by elements of civil society. The Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), for instance, issued a statement on Tuesday denouncing the police strikes as “extortive actions” and calling on law enforcement authorities to adopt negotiating methods that do not endanger citizen security. According to the human rights group, “these episodes show that the design and practices of the institutions responsible for the security of our country are still not in keeping with the rule of law.”

News Briefs
  • After Mexico’s historic energy reform bill was passed in the Senate early Wendesday, lawmakers in the lower house held a marathon session on the bill, eventually giving it a vote of general approval late yesterday. An article-by-article debate on the bill is ongoing, having been delayed by opposition congressmen who have raised objections over each of its provisions.
  • El Heraldo reports that Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has re- declared National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez the official winner of the country’s presidential election, rejecting the complaints filed by the opposition LIBRE and Anti-Corruption parties.
  • In a ruling with clear consequences for the future of natural resource conflicts in Guatemala, El Periodico and the AP report that the Guatemalan Constitutional Court this week ruled that municipal governments must honor the results of local referendums before approving mining projects.
  • The UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) weighed in on Uruguay’s marijuana law once again. According to Reuters, INCB President Raymond Yans told the press he was “surprised” that Uruguay “knowingly decided to break the universally agreed and internationally endorsed legal provisions” of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
  • Meanwhile, noting that crime in Uruguay is “likely to be a focal point for the international community” in the wake of the country’s marijuana legalization initiative, InSight Crime has an overview of the latest crime statistics in the South American country. According to the Ministry of the Interior, violent and non-violent robberies decreased last month in comparison to the same period last year, while the number homicides in Uruguay are stable.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that the coalition of environmental groups opposed to President Rafael Correa’s plan to open up the Yasuni Amazon Reserve to oil drilling have obtained about half of the necessary signatures to force a referendum on the move. In January, the coalition plans to submit half of the 680,000 signatures needed to trigger a vote, and give the rest to election officials before an April deadline.
  • Reuters offers an in-depth analysis of the failure of Brazil’s opposition to successfully capitalize on this year’s mass demonstrations, as evidenced by polls giving President Dilma Rouseff a comfortable lead ahead of the October 2014 elections.
  • Colombian news site La Silla Vacia takes a look at the impact that the destitution of Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro by Colombia’s inspector general has had on peace talks with FARC rebels in Havana. In a statement released earlier this week, the FARC Secretariat maintained that the ruling breeds mistrust in the Colombian government, saying: “We have always stated that it is precisely the intolerance, the absence of guarantees for the exercise of political opposition and the recurrent state violence which fuel the long armed conflict being waged in our country. The ruling by the inspector general simply confirms this.”
  • A new poll on voter intention conducted by El Salvador’s University of Jose Simeon Cañas gives the ruling FMLN party a seven-point lead over the opposition ARENA party ahead of the February 2014 presidential election there, La Pagina reports. Still, Mike Allison of Central American Politics points out that the winner must take over half of the votes, and polls actually give ARENA a slight advantage in a subsequent runoff election.
  • Writing for the New Yorker blog, Jon Lee Anderson argues that “there was more at work than mere politeness between heads of state” in U.S. President Barack Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. This despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent attempts to minimize the incident.
  • IPS features an interesting column by acclaimed Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, who offers a somber take on the recent economic reforms on the island. While Padura sees the shift as positive, he also cautions that they have fueled uncertainty among those who live on the island. He argues: “Cubans continue to see it as impossible, despite the planning, to create their own life projects because each time they must modify them, reformulate them, or forget about them depending on what comes down to them from the heights of political decision-making, and on the form and intensity with which the planners of the updates decide, with their lofty macroeconomic or macrosocial scrutiny, on these plans or variations that often arrive without Cubans having the chance to make their own updates and new plans.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How to Evaluate Uruguay's Marijuana 'Experiment'

(Note: the following has been adapted from an analysis piece I wrote for InSight Crime on the main short- and long-term obstacles Uruguay faces in implementing the law.)

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has made it clear in recent interviews that he views his country’s regulation bill as an “experiment.” Now that it has cleared Congress, the government will face the difficult task of justifying this experiment as a success to a skeptical public.

Last night, the Frente Amplio (FA) majority in the Uruguayan Senate passed the bill to regulate marijuana in a 16-13 vote. President Mujica will likely sign it into law before the end of the year, and authorities have said that its implementation could begin as soon as April 2014.

For the FA coalition, the political climate surrounding marijuana regulation is still far from ideal. Polls suggest the majority (61 percent) of the population remains against the law, and opposition politicians have vowed to repeal it. As such, Mujica has sought to reassure the public in recent remarks to the press.

In an interview with Argentine news agency Telam this week, Mujica said he would not hesitate to “turn back” from the plan “in case the reality shows us that we were wrong.” National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada, who heads the administration’s drug policy agency, echoed this in a December 9 interview with EFE, although he added that future changes would not necessarily require “returning to the path” of marijuana prohibition.

So if the law is an experiment, on what grounds will its success or failure be measured?

The problem with this is that there have been a variety of discourses being used to justify marijuana regulation in the lead-up to the law’s passage. Ever since Mujica first proposed legalizing the drug in June 2012, the government has framed the measure as a part of a strategy to reverse rising insecurity and criminal activity in the country. While local human rights groups and drug policy reform advocates like the Regulacion Responsable coalition have also stressed the health and education benefits of marijuana regulation, the administration has stuck to its security-based narrative. Regulating the most widely-consumed illicit substance in the country, according to officials, would undercut a $20-40 million per year black market, and the criminal groups profiting from it would take a big hit.  

But the public remains unconvinced by this argument. A July survey by polling firm Cifra found that just 27 percent of Uruguayans believe the bill would reduce the country’s drug trafficking problem, compared to 33 percent who said it would stay the same and 31 percent who said it would increase.  

This means that if the government continues to frame the law as a blow to drug trafficking and crime, it will need the statistics to back it up. Homicides, which saw a record high in 2012, will need to fall. “Ajustes de cuentas,” or revenge killings linked to drug trafficking, will have to drop as well, along with other indices of violent crime. If they do not, the Uruguayan government will be left vulnerable to criticism from the opposition.

An easier option for officials in Uruguay may be to embrace the arguments for marijuana regulation being used by civil society. The government could, for instance, tout the fact that less people will be arrested for non-violent crimes, or that those who use the drug can now access it safely without being offered other, more dangerous substances. Unfortunately for drug policy reform advocates, Mujica has proven less willing to use these kinds of justifications for the law. This is a shame, as polls have shown they have greater resonance with the public. An October survey by local pollster Factum, for instance, found that the vast majority -- 78 percent -- of Uruguayans say they prefer users of marijuana to have access to the drug through the state, compared to just 5 percent who say they would prefer it to be sold on the illegal market if given the choice. 

There is still a chance that the government’s narrative may change under the next administration, however. Former President Tabare Vazquez is slated to run for office -- and win -- again ahead of the October 2014 election. Vazquez is a physician by training, and may be more comfortable approaching the issue from a health and harm reduction perspective.

News Briefs
  • U.S. press coverage of Uruguay’s marijuana initiative has been largely positive. The L.A. Times notes that the law is aimed at “helping social and health professionals better observe and respond to those who develop addictions.” The New York Times points out that despite widespread skepticism of the marijuana regulation, the FA is “popular enough to expose itself to disapproval over the law.” Today’s Wall Street Journal puts the law’s passage in a regional context, drawing comparisons legalization measures being proposed by lawmakers in Puerto Rico, Chile, Belize, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago.
  • For the second night in a row, Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro called his supporters to protest his removal in the city’s central plaza. He has refused to follow the inspector general’s order for his removal, and warned that his ouster would lead to a “crisis of governability.” Semana magazine has an interview with Carlos Rodriguez Mejia, who is part of the group of human rights lawyers who has appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on his behalf. El Espectador reports that the UN High Commission on Human Rights has requested an audience with the inspector general, which reportedly does not sit well with the Santos administration.
  • A commission created by the Caribbean Community to seek some form of reparations from European countries for the impact of the Atlantic slave trade has expanded the number of countries it intends to target. According to the AP, the commission has expanded the initial list of Britain, France and the Netherlands to include Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
  • Last night, Mexican Senators voted to approve a plan that would open up the country’s state oil monopoly to foreign investment, meaning that it will now go to the lower house for approval. Animal Politico reports that the voting was disrupted at several points by members of the left-wing PRD, who accused their counterparts of selling out to foreign interests and unfurled a banner reading “No to Privatization.” The Houston Chronicles’ Baker Institute Blog highlights several of the obstacles that lie ahead before the reform plan can be put into place.
  • El Nuevo Diario reports that yesterday, Nicaraguan lawmakers approved a constitutional reform to remove presidential term limits, in effect validating a Supreme Court ruling that allowed President Daniel Ortega to run for re-election in 2011. The measure must still be ratified by a vote in the National Assembly next year, which Reuters reports is likely to take place in January or February.
  • U.S. President Barack Obama is catching flak from conservatives -- with Senator John McCain leading the charge -- for shaking Raul Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service yesterday. The AP notes that the administration claims that the handshake was unplanned, with White House adviser Ben Rhodes telling the press that the president “didn't see this as a venue to do business.” Still, this has not ended speculation over whether the gesture was a harbinger of thawed relations with Cuba (see the New York Times ).
  • In other Cuba news, several members of the dissident Ladies in White group were detained yesterday in Havana ahead of a march to commemorate International Human Rights Day. According to the Miami Herald, the group’s leader and around 20 other members were detained, along with over a dozen others around the country in a crackdown the paper describes as “one of the broadest in years.”
  • The looting which began in response to a police strike in northern Argentina earlier this week continued to spread yesterday. La Nacion reports that 11 people have died as a result of the violence, and has an updated map of the riots.
  • According to O Globo, the head of the São Paulo Truth Commission has announced that the organization has uncovered evidence that ex-President Juscelino Kubitschek, who died in a suspicious car wreck in 1976, was killed as part of a plot by the military regime.  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bogota Mayor Banned From Office on Dubious Grounds

Colombia’s inspector general has dismissed leftist Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro and banned him from office for 15 years due to allegations that he abused his authority during a dispute with garbage collectors last year. Petro and his supporters have denounced the move as an undemocratic coup, sparking a national debate over the inspector general’s constitutionally-mandated authority to remove elected officials.

Yesterday afternoon, Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez announced his decision on the grounds that Petro’s attempt to replace private garbage contractors with an inexperienced municipal service during a dispute last December “violated constitutional principles of commercial competition and freedom.”

The announcement was immediately met with criticism. Petro described it as a “coup against the progressive government of Bogota” and called on supporters to protest his removal peacefully in Bogota's central Bolivar Square. El Tiempo reports that Petro told the thousands who gathered there that he was refusing to leave office, calling Ordoñez’s decision a political power play orchestrated by the extreme right to send “a message of war” to rebel peace negotiators in Havana.

The Miami Herald notes that Petro’s removal could have national implications, as the former M-19 guerrilla is “seen as a model for other rebel leaders who might want to lay down arms and participate in politics.”

Petro was not alone in criticizing the move. Immediately after Ordoñez’s announcement, Justice Minister Alfonso Gomez Mendez condemned the decision and said he supported limiting the inspector general’s ability to remove elected officials.

Semana reports that the decision was technically constitutional, but that it highlights an alarming concentration of power in the inspector general’s office. According to the magazine, in Ordoñez’s first term he dismissed 828 mayors, 622 city councilors and 49 governors. That’s an average of four mayors a week. He also engineered the controversial impeachment of Senator Piedad Cordoba, due to allegations that she had links with FARC rebels.  

 La Silla Vacia has an analysis of the public figures deposed by Ordoñez, pointing out that even in cases involving deeply entrenched corruption, the officials concerned were stripped of their position due to relatively minor infractions. The news site also calls attention to an apparent lack of proportion in Ordoñez’s pronouncements. Bogota city councilman Hipolito Moreno, for instance, was banned from office for only 11 years despite admitting to receiving some $30 million in bribes. Meanwhile, Ciro Ramirez and Luis Humberto Gomez Gallo, two congressmen convicted of paramilitary ties by the Supreme Court, were cleared of administrative wrongdoing by Ordoñez in May.

Petro has said he will appeal the decision, but it is unlikely that the inspector general will change his mind. Ordoñez reportedly has between 30 and 40 days to consider the appeal. After that, the mayor’s political future is unclear. He has called for continued rallies in Bolivar Square, but it is doubtful that popular outrage alone will keep him in office. The Bogota mayor’s only hope may be an appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). EFE reports that Petro has said he will ask the IACHR to request precautionary measures to protect his rights to political participation, which he claims have been violated without just cause.

News Briefs
  • After months of delay, Uruguay is finally on the verge of becoming the first country on the planet to fully regulate the black market for marijuana. The Uruguayan Senate has taken up debate on the controversial marijuana regulation bill this morning, and because the ruling Frente Amplio coalition controls 16 of 30 seats in the upper house, the measure is expected to pass with ease. President Jose Mujica will likely sign it into law before the end of the year, and El Pais reports that authorities have said that its implementation could begin as soon as April 2014.
  • The AP reports that riots have broken out in cities in at least 19 of Argentina's 23 provinces, sparked by opportunistic looters taking advantage of a police strike in Cordoba. La Nacion has a map of the cities where violence has broken out, and reports that 8 people have died so far.
  • A new Consulta Mitofsky poll released on Monday shows that the approval rating of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has dropped four percentage points in his first year in office, to 50 percent. The most frequently cited complaints of those polled involved Peña Nieto’s handling of the economy and security. Analyst James Bosworth of Bloggings by Boz recently pointed out that Peña Nieto’s approval after his first year stands in contrast to that of his predecessor Felipe Calederon, who polled at around 60 percent after one year in office.
  • A court in Honduras has sentenced four police officers to extremely long prison terms (one to 66 years and the others to 58) in connection with the 2011 killing of the son of National Autonomous University President Julieta Castellanos. Since then, Castellanos has led the campaign to clean up the country’s notoriously corrupt police force. El Heraldo reports that, on Sunday, she denounced the murder of another university student, also apparently at the hands of police.
  • O Globo paints an alarming picture of criminal influence on the outskirts of Rio: according to a study by researchers of the University of Rio de Janeiro State, militias have a presence in 45 percent of the city’s favelas, and 37 percent are controlled by drug trafficking groups.
  • A day after brutal riots broke out in the stands on Sunday during a soccer game in Santa Catarina, Brazil, World Cup organizers on Monday attempted to reassure the public that similar incidents would not occur in 2014. However, the AP points out that security at the Santa Catarina game was being handled by private guards rather than police, which is the current plan for World Cup matches.
  • El Universal reports that Mexico’s controversial energy reform bill was passed in a committee yesterday with the support of lawmakers of the PAN and PRI, and Animal Politico reports that a full Senate vote could take place today.
  • The memorial service for Nelson Mandela today in Johannesburg has united many of the hemisphere’s leaders across the ideological spectrum. U.S. President Barack Obama, Cuban President Raul Castro and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff were all slated to speak today at Mandela’s Funeral. According to the NYT, “At one point, Mr. Obama was seen shaking hands with the Cuban leader.”
  • Salvadoran news site El Faro has an update on the ceasefire between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs in the country, noting that it has continued in place despite tension between the negotiators and Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo, as well as the fact that the government has sought to distance itself from the truce.
  • Foreign Policy has an interesting column by Evelyn Krache Morris, who dispels some of the popular misconceptions about the drug trade, taking U.S. policymakers to task for conceptualizing drug trafficking in Mexico as a foreign policy issue. She also criticizes drug policy reform advocates for promoting drug legalization as an end to drug trafficking-linked violence, because drug cartels receive funding from other sources than drug money.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Maduro Declares Victory in Venezuela's Municipal Elections

While the opposition won several key races in yesterday’s municipal elections in Venezuela, candidates allied with the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) won a majority of the total ballots cast, allowing President Nicolas Maduro to spin the vote as an electoral victory.

With 97 percent of the votes counted, Venezuelan election officials announced last night that the PSUV and allied parties won 49.24 percent of ballots, whereas the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) and its allies won 42.72 percent. According to the National Electoral Council, turnout was around 58 percent.

El Nacional reports that the MUD won mayoral races in the cities of Maracaibo, Valencia and Barinas (the capital of Hugo Chavez’s home state). It also won the Metropolitan District of Caracas, giving it control over a total of five of the six municipal seats that govern the capital city. The PSUV held on to Libertador, the largest of Caracas’ five municipalities.

Despite losing several high-profile contests, the government is touting the fact that the PSUV maintained a majority of municipal seats. According to the state-run Correo del Orinoco, the PSUV now controls 210 of the country’s 337 mayoralties.  

In a triumphant speech following the release of preliminary results, Maduro described the election as a “grand victory.”  He also called on Capriles to “recognize that he has been defeated once again” and resign from his position as the head of the MUD.  The forceful tone of Maduro’s speech stood in stark contrast to his gloomy address following his narrow win in elections last April, in which he and supporters appeared somber and almost bewildered by his lack of a clear electoral mandate. Capriles, meanwhile, gave a less celebratory speech, remarking that the results showed that Venezuelans “have a divided country, and this divided country belongs to all of us.”

At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde offers this concise take on the municipal elections:
This result clearly gives Maduro some breathing room. Compared to where he was two months ago, with a government in a tail spin, he now looks like he is in control, having gotten past a major hurdle. The opposition clearly did not get the big plebiscite win that it sought. But it is in reasonable shape with a good showing in popular vote despite all of the campaign inequities. They gained ground in number of mayors and control many important capitals. This will give them space to provide an alternative model of governance and maintain their public profile. Maduro has gained some breathing room but 2014 is guaranteed to be a difficult year.
More analysis from the Wall Street Journal and The Economist’s Intelligence Unit, the latter of which notes that Maduro  “now seems more firmly entrenched as president,” and is thus “more likely than not to complete his six-year term.”

News Briefs
  • On Sunday, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced they would implement a unilateral, 30-day ceasefire starting on December 15. Semana and the BBC note that the announcement came one day after a bomb attack on a police station in Cauca province, killing nine. In their statement, the FARC called on the government to honor the truce as well, but El Colombiano  reports that President Juan Manuel Santos said in the wake of the Cauca bombing that the military would continue to go after the rebels. 
  • Former Honduran President and head of the LIBRE Party Manuel Zelaya officially requested that the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) nullify the results of the recent general elections, La Prensa reports. Zelaya said that his party found clear evidence of irregularities in the electoral process, calling the vote a “transparent fraud.”
  • The New York Times looks at changing attitudes towards criticism of the Cuban government in state media and at official venues, which has become increasingly common on the island. Still, the paper notes that the there are consequences for those who “cross the line between loyal criticism and dissent,” with human rights groups claiming 761 short-term arrests of dissidents in November alone.
  • During a visit to Brazil over the weekend, Bill Clinton gave an interesting interview to leading daily O Globo. In addition to endorsing Brazil’s bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat, the ex-president expressed criticism of the recent revelations about the NSA’s surveillance activity in the South American country. In reference to the NSA’s alleged monitoring of Petrobras, Clinton remarked: “We should not obtain economyic information under the pretext of security. Not with an ally.”
  • InSight Crime features a post on public perception of Rio de Janeiro's Police Pacification Units (UPPs) by Robson Rodrigues, an consultant to the Rio-based Igarape Institute. Despite recent protests against police abuses in the city, Rodrigues cites polls which show that the UPPs are generally well-received among favela inhabitants. Still, he argues that it is time for the police units to adopt a more specific mandate and tighter operating procedures.
  • On Friday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released a report detailing its preliminary observations during its visit to the Dominican Republic last week to observe the effects of the  recent ruling on nationality. The IACHR determined that an “undetermined but very significant number” of Dominicans had been “arbitrarily deprived of their nationality,” and called on Dominican officials to take measures to safeguard the rights of those affected.  The Listin Diario reports that the Dominican Foreign Ministry rejected the IACHR’s findings, issuing a press statement describing the commission’s report as a “subjective, partial and unilateral version of the reality in our country.”
  • As Uruguay’s Senate gears prepares to vote on a landmark marijuana regulation bill in its session tomorrow, the Financial Times has an overview of the details of the bill and profiles excitement for the measure among marijuana enthusiasts in the country. As a refresher: the bill was approved in the Senate Health Committee earlier this month exactly as it passed in the lower house, with no amendments. It will authorize cultivation for personal consumption of up to 6 plants per household, and commercial production of marijuana will be carried out by private entities that are licensed by the state. The commercially-grown marijuana will be sold in pharmacies to Uruguayan citizens only, who can purchase up to 40 grams per month. The AFP reports that the bill has neighboring Argentina and Brazil concerned about the potential for cross-border spillover of the drug. Still, the news agency notes that the possibility of Uruguay becoming a marijuana exporting nation is remote, as the black market is dominated by Paraguayan cannabis.
  • In other drug policy news, Mexico’s El Universal has obtained the details of a proposed bill by local lawmakers of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) to decriminalize consumption of small amounts of marijuana in Mexico City. According to the paper, the bill would set up dispensaries around the city which would provide users with safe access to the drug, as well as information about the associated risks and how to seek treatment for addiction.
  • Mexican authorities detained six men suspected of stealing a shipment of hazardous radioactive material last week. Only one tested positive for signs of radiation poisoning, and officials in Hidalgo say he is in good health. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Latin America Mourns Mandela’s Passing

The news that former South African President Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday was met with solemn reactions by Latin American leaders, all of whom praised his leadership and legacy as a freedom fighter.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos celebrated Mandela as a “symbol of freedom and tolerance,” and called upon his country to honor the South African leader by following his example and working towards peace and post-conflict reconciliation. “Let's push together, build together an environment of coexistence, dialogue and reconciliation… where we never kill the children of the same nation only for thinking differently,” Santos said in a public address, according to El Espectador.

In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro compared Mandela’s death to that of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, calling them both “Giants of the People” and declaring three national days of mourning. El Nacional notes that opposition leader Henrique Capriles also commemorated the loss, taking to social media to call Mandela an “example for the world.”

El Nuevo Diario reports that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega also declared three days of national mourning yesterday.

Reuters reports that Mandela’s death united Latin American leaders across the political spectrum, with conservative and left-leaning heads of state alike praising his legacy. The leaders of Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Argentina and Ecuador all commemorated the former South American president’s death yesterday.

While Nelson Mandela is seen as a hero and a symbol of human rights across the region, Spain’s El Pais points out that his closest ally in Latin America was Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Cuba's military involvement in Angola provided a major boost to the African National Congress (ANC) during the apartheid years, granting exiled leaders as well as the ANC’s armed wing a territorial support base.  The paper notes that Mandela remained a staunch supporter of Castro throughout his presidency, even as his government pursued closer ties with the United States.

In a statement released yesterday, Cuban President Raul Castro expressed his “most heartfelt condolences” to Mandela’s relatives, South African President Jacob Zuma, the ANC and the country as a whole. In Castro’s words, “We will never be able to speak about Mandela in the past tense.”

 News Briefs
  • According to El Universo, the Pachamama Foundation -- the Ecuadorean environmental NGO which was closed by the government after being accused of fueling violence -- will take its case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
  • Ultimas Noticias reports that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced that he is considering granting a humanitarian pardon to Ivan Simonovis, an ex-security minister of Caracas who was jailed for allegedly participating in the failed 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. Simonovis has been hailed by some members of the opposition as a political prisoner, and his lawyers are arguing for his release on health grounds.
  • El Nacional has a follow-up on the recent AP piece on Venezuela’s rundown healthcare system, reporting that human rights groups PROVEA and a number of healthcare professional associations have demanded an official explanation for the shortage of medical equipment in the country. The groups argue that the lack of sufficient chemotherapy treatment and testing equipment in public hospitals violates Venezuela’s constitutionally guaranteed right to health.
  • Mexico’s lower house has passed a modified version of the ambitious reform bill approved by the Senate earlier this week; it will now return to the upper house for renewed debate. Among the changes to the bill, according to El Universal, is a provision which would delay the authorization of lawmakers’ re-election to 2018, so that current legislators could not benefit from the reform.
  • Ten people were killed in a shootout between an armed group and police in northern Nicaragua on Wednesday. While the federal government characterized the incident to the press as an attempted robbery, the AP notes that locals say the gunmen ares part of a growing armed resistance movement in the area. InSight Crime recently featured a detailed profile of the emerging group, noting that they trace their roots to Nicaragua’s Contra insurgency.
  • Brazilian news site Agencia Publica has a series on the lack of oversight of the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) funding projects. According to the site, some 40 percent of BNDES’ finance activity has not been accounted for to the public. After filing a freedom of information request, Agencia Publica has obtained 43 contracts supported by the BNDES in the Amazon region, many of which show evidence of irregularities or a lack of oversight over BNDES activity  in the region. Agencia Publica found that the contracts contain only superficial human rights guarantees, and include funding for the controversial Belo Monte dam project even after a court ordered the project’s temporary suspension in October.  
  • Agencia Publica also provides a critical look at Brazil’s approach to drug treatment, which involves a heavy reliance on privately-run “therapeutic communities.”  The majority of the centers are religious in nature, and their treatment regimens are often unregulated by the state. As a result, patients are frequently subject to a range of abuses. The news site cites a 2011 Federal Council of Psychology (CFP) report on therapeutic communities which found evidence of human rights violations in all 68 of the treatment centers that the authors visited. While the report was passed on to health and drug policy officials, at least three of the centers named by the CFP still receive state funding, according to Agencia Publica.
  • Also on the issue of drug treatment, the Christian Science Monitor features an excellent article by Miriam Wells on the Ecuadorean government’s recent effort to close down unregulated clinics. Last month, officials announced that some 500 people had been freed from unlicensed facilities in the country, many of which were accused of sponsoring abuse and torture.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ecuador Shuts Down Environmental NGO

In the latest incident to raise questions about the state of freedom of speech in Ecuador, Ecuadorean officials have forced an environmental NGO to close its doors after holding it responsible for acts of violence against foreign participants in a recent auction of oil contracts. The organization, the Pachamama Foundation of Ecuador, has operated in the country for 16 years and claims the closure is an arbitrary violation of the right to dissent.

Following the end of the 11th Oil-Licensing Round in Quito last week, environmental and indigenous rights protestors gathered outside the hotel where the auction took place and confronted several international participants. Among those who were swarmed by protestors were Juan Pablo Lira, Chile’s ambassador to Ecuador, and a Belarusian businessman. In his November 30 Enlace Ciudadano television address, President Rafael Correa apologized to the Chilean government for the incident, and placed partial blame on a lack of proper security. He also aired footage showing Lira being harassed by demonstrators (see the 3:18:00 mark in this video), and of the Belarussian businessman being hit with a pole before fleeing on the back of a police motorcycle.  Correa claimed that the protest had been organized online by the Pachamama Foundation and other indigenous rights groups, and promised to prosecute those responsible.

In the days that followed, the Pachamama Foundation released a statement defending the protest as an exercise of its democratic right to free speech. The group also lamented that the government continued “fostering exploration and exploitation in the Amazon without having adequately implemented free, prior and informed consultation processes with indigenous nationalities,” allegedly in violation of the constitution.

On Wednesday afternoon, the full extent of the government’s response to the protest became clear. El Comercio reports that police and a number of Interior Ministry and other officials arrived at the Pachamama Foundation’s headquarters and informed the office that its operating permit had been revoked. Images posted to Twitter from the Ministry’s official account showed that two signs had been posted to the office doors, reading:  “Dissolved due to deviation from statutory purposes and objectives.”

Pachamama Foundation President Belen Paez told the AFP that her organization was not responsible for any of the acts of violence, and said she was meeting with lawyers to determine a response. A statement posted to its website yesterday announced that the organization intended to challenge the closure using “all legal means.” The Pachamama Foundation will be holding a press conference later this morning to address the allegations against it.

The closure is in keeping with Correa’s notoriously combative approach to criticism of his administration. In recent years, he has famously gone so far as to pursue a multi-million dollar libel suit against two of his leading critics in the press. Although he later pardoned them the issue has haunted his administration since, and a new communications law passed in June was criticized by international press freedom advocates as an attempt to muzzle the media. The closure of the Pachamama Foundation is sure to fuel similar criticism, as well as his government’s mixed reputation on tolerating dissent.

News Briefs
  • One day after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and characterizing current U.S.-Colombia relations as at their warmest point in history, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos took a surprising jab at U.S. foreign policy in the region. In remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Santos said he believed it was time for a new U.S. approach to Cuba, remarking : “I think Cuba would be willing to change, and both sides have to give in some way.” He also described what he saw as a growing amount of young people in the U.S. who believe the Cuban embargo is “obsolete.” Interestingly, the AP points out that Santos used the loaded term “bloqueo” to describe the embargo.
  • Indigenous Mexican teacher Alberto Patishtan, who was recently pardoned by President Enrique Peña Nieto after serving 13 years in jail on dubious murder charges, met with the president yesterday for over an hour, Milenio reports. Following the meeting, Patishtan told reporters that he called on the government to guarantee due process of those accused of crimes, saying: “There are many people in jail, indigenous and not indigenous, who suffer from  [a lack of] procedure.”
  • The UN's atomic energy watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), announced yesterday that a group of thieves hijacked a truck in Mexico carrying “extremely dangerous” radioactive materials. While the IAEA refrained from pointing this out, a number of media outlets (Reuters, El Universal) have noted that the material could potentially be used to make a dirty bomb. Fortunately, the AFP is reporting this morning that the cargo has been found. The Washington Post notes that officials say those stole the material will likely die of radiation poisoning.
  • Ahead of Venezuela’s December 8 local elections, El Nacional looks at the campaign strategies of President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles to support candidates affiliated with their parties. According to the paper, Capriles visited 117 different municipalities in recent months to stump for opposition candidates, five times more than Maduro, who visited 21. However, the report notes that Maduro benefited from live media coverage of each of his visits.
  • Semana magazine reports that former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who is running for a Senate seat ahead of March elections, is facing over 100 different lawsuits, and is the Senate candidate with the greatest number of ongoing judicial investigations against him.
  • Brazilian Guarani leader Ambrosio Vilhalba, who was known internationally as an advocate for indigenous rights and for appearing in the award-winning film “Birdwatchers,” was killed on December 2 in the western state of Mato Grosso do Sul. O Globo reports that officials do not believe the murder was related to land conflicts, and was instead linked to a family dispute.  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mexican Senators Pass Political Reform Bill

Yesterday, Mexico’s Senate passed a political reform bill designed to loosen the hold of political parties on the country’s democratic institutions. While it still must be passed in the lower house, it has the potential to dramatically alter the country’s political landscape.

 The AP calls the bill “the most dramatic political reform attempt in decades,” noting that it would allow senators and congressmen to run for re-election and remain in office for up to 12 years (two consecutive terms for senators and four consecutive terms for congressmen). Supporters say this, along with a provision which would let independents run for political office, would reduce the influence of party bosses in Mexican politics. The measure would not go into effect until 2018, and presidents would still be limited to one six-year term.

The bill would also create a new National Electoral Institute to replace the Federal Electoral Institute, and grants it the authority to name the members of state electoral institutes, which are currently appointed by state legislatures.

El Informador provides more details about the reform, including that it would replace the Procuraduria General de la Republica (Attorney General's office) with a Fiscalia General, granting it greater autonomy from the executive branch. Milenio reports, however, that the president would still have the power to dismiss the attorney general under special circumstances.

While the bill has received praise from those who view it as a step towards more democratic politics in Mexico, it has also been criticized for some significant omissions. Last week a group of 14 leading pro-transparency organizations sent a public letter to senators calling on them to add a provision to the bill which would regulate the use of public advertising. The article did not make it into the version passed yesterday.

Reuters notes that with the bill’s passage, the Senate is now set to take up debate over a controversial initiative to reform the state monopoly over oil production in the country. The energy reform package is expected to pass later this month with the support of the PRI and PAN parties, as the center-left PRD withdrew from the Pact for Mexico over what its leaders claimed was a disproportionate emphasis on privatizing the oil sector.

News Briefs
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met with U.S. President Barack Obama yesterday for two and a half hours in the White House. Reuters reports that the environment was cheerful; Obama expressed continued support for the ongoing peace talks in Havana, and the two presidents joked about a potential U.S.-Colombia match in the upcoming World Cup. Just the Facts has a useful roundup of news and analysis related to the meeting, and asserts that the fact that both leaders stressed economic ties is a sign of a changing relationship between the two countries. El Tiempo claims that the meeting benefited Obama as well as Santos, as the recent revelations about NSA espionage have strained relations with governments across the region.
  • A year after being convicted of corruption and conspiracy charges resulting from his participation in the mensalão scandal, and weeks after being jailed, O Globo reports that Brazilian Congressman Jose Genoino has officially submitted his resignation. The Wall Street Journal notes that he has claimed he is too ill to serve his sentence in jail, and has been moved to home detention. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of the move in the coming days.
  • Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam has announced that his office received a letter from drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero, who was released in August after a court overturned his conviction for killing a U.S. anti-drug agent in 1998. Following his release Mexican and U.S. judicial authorities issued warrants for his arrest, but he has been missing ever since. According to Milenio, Karam said the letter was addressed to President Enrique Peña Nieto and asked him not to give into U.S. pressure to continue searching for him.
  • Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes has ordered state prosecutors to investigate a $10 million donation that Taiwan gave to the Central American country ten years ago during the administration of ex-President Francisco Flores. While the money was intended to go to a land registering agency for small farmers, Funes claimed that the U.S. Treasury detected irregularities in the transaction and the funds never made it to the agency. Interestingly, an El Faro investigation recently cast suspicion on Funes himself for accepting a $3 million donation from a businessman to his election campaign in 2009. Funes has dodged questions about the money ever since, claiming at various times that it was a personal gift, a loan or a donation to his political party.
  • Guatemalan authorities have arrested some 21 people linked to a money laundering scheme for the Sinaloa Cartel of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. Prensa Libre has more on the operation, which took place in four provinces across the country and involved the laundering of millions of dollars in 2009 and 2010, according to Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz.
  • In Costa Rica, a new poll commissioned by La Nacion ahead of the presidential race in February shows that neither of the top three candidates has an overwhelming lead, although Jose Maria Villalta of the left-wing Frente Amplio is a few points ahead of his competitors.  The AFP points out that this is the first time in Costa Rican history where a left wing candidate as a real shot at the presidency.
  • Hugo Perez Hernaiz and David Smilde of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights offer a sobering look at the efforts of President Nicolas Maduro to expand and cement its control over public media, highlighting several incidents in which individuals and outlets have been closed after expressing criticism of the government.  Interestingly, they point to the left-wing as the only major source of criticism of the Maduro administration from the left. 
  • The Inter-Press Service profiles opposition to U.S. biotechnology corporation Monsanto in the Argentine farm belt, where locals in Cordoba have occupied property meant for the construction of a transgenic seed factory since September. The article provides some complementary statistics to the recent AP report on the health effects that rampant use of the chemical herbicide glyphosate has had on the area.
  • Last week, Reuters published an fascinating in-depth investigation of Chinese involvement in Ecuador’s oil industry. The news agency found that China has obtained a near-monopoly on Ecuador’s crude oil exports since mid-2009, a development which critics say could fuel corruption in an industry that already lacks transparency.