Thursday, January 31, 2013

Too Sick for Imprisonment? Video of Fujimori Challenges Calls for Presidential Pardon

The emergence of new footage of Peruvian ex-president Alberto Fujimori, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for authorizing death squad killings during his 1990-2000 rule, has dealt a major blow to the movement to pardon the former leader on humanitarian grounds.  The video, which was obtained by La Republica and released yesterday, was recorded in July 2012 and seems to show Fujimori in good health.

In the video, the ex-president speaks with prison officials about a whitefly infestation in the garden he tends to in the facility. He appears to be in good spirits, and is seen laughing and chatting comfortably with his prison guards. At one point Fujimori orders them to buy a liter of insecticide to combat the pests.

The footage clashes with the image of Fujimori presented by members of his family and his legal team, which has filed a formal appeal asking President Ollanta Humala for his release on health grounds. The former leader has undergone three surgeries for tongue cancer since he was jailed in 2007, and his relatives say that he suffers from depression and low blood pressure. In October pictures emerged of the ex-president lying in bed, looking pale and sickly, and served to boost the case for his pardon.

Humala, for his part, has maintained that the question of pardoning Fujimori on humanitarian grounds is a purely legal issue, and a special commission has been tasked with investigating the merit of Fujimori’s request. Still, the fact that polls have shown that some 70 percent of the Peruvian public supports a pardon no doubt influences his position on the matter.

On the other hand, pardoning Fujimori may be a political liability for Humala. Considering how much support he has lost from his base on the left (and among members of his own party in Congress) for embracing the mining industry, he may not be able to afford the hit to his leftist credentials that a pardon for the former leader would bring. And now that clear reason to doubt reports of Fujimori’s ill health has emerged, the backlash would be even stronger.

News Briefs
  • As talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) begin again today in Havana after a one-week break, Semana reports that the two parties are clashing over the rebel group’s recent capture of two policemen, and the FARC’s announcement that it reserves the right to detain what it refers to as “prisoners of war.” Colombia’s head negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, characterized the detention of the two police officers as reason to question the FARC’s willingness to end the conflict, and made it clear that the government views the incident as a kidnapping.
  • After controversially voting last week not to fine Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s PRI party over allegations that it bought votes during last year’s presidential election, Mexico’s electoral commission met yesterday to discuss whether to fine the leftist alliance that backed candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for financial irregularities in its campaign. Milenio reports that the while commission has signaled that it is in favor of fining Lopez Obrador’s progressive coalition, it voted yesterday to postpone making a final decision on the matter.
  • Taking a break from its coverage of President Hugo Chavez’s battle with cancer, the Associated Press looks at what may be a much more pressing issue for Venezuelans: the worst food shortages the country has seen in years. The AP reports that shortages have become so problematic that some bakeries are simply unable to make bread due to a lack of wheat flour.
  • Bolivia’s El Deber reports that diplomatic tensions between Bolivia and Chile have been heightened after the arrest of three Bolivian soldiers in Chile who allegedly crossed the border without authorization. Following the arrest, the two countries’ governments have traded barbs on security policy and their long-running border dispute.
  • An Argentine court yesterday dismissed an appeal by oil giant Chevron, clearing the way for the company’s assets to be seized in order to pay damages to plaintiffs in Ecuador, where Chevron has been convicted of polluting the southern Lago Agrio region from 1964 to 1992, affecting 30,000 inhabitants.
  • On Tuesday, the deputy mayor of the Honduran port city of La Ceiba was assassinated by unknown gunmen, according to La Prensa. HRN Radio reports that at least six sitting mayors, deputy mayors and mayoral candidates have been killed in the country in the past year alone.
  • Police say that the owner of the Brazilian nightclub where at least 230 died in a fire over the weekend attempted suicide while in custody. According to CNN, club owner Elissandro Spohr attempted to hang himself in the Santa Maria hospital where he is being treated for smoke inhalation.
  • Meanwhile, Spanish news agency EFE reports that at least 20 municipalities in Rio Grande do Sul, the state where the tragedy took place, have canceled Carnaval celebrations this week as a sign of respect for the victims of the fire.
  • The New York Times reports that Yoani Sanchez, the leading dissident blogger in Cuba, has received a passport from the government, a demonstration that anti-Castro activists in the country will be allowed to travel under new visa regulations despite concerns. However, the Miami Herald notes that another dissident, Angel Moya, was denied a passport amid charges that he did not serve the full extent of a 20-year prison sentence.
  • Human Rights Watch released its annual World Report (.pdf) this morning, detailing the state of human rights recognition in 14 countries in the region. The report’s most in-depth analyses focus on rights abuses in Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba, which HRW refers to as “the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

El Salvador's Maras Accuse U.S. of 'Obstructing' Gang Truce

On Monday afternoon, the leaders of the most powerful Salvadoran “maras,” or street gangs, released a statement in which they sharply condemned the U.S. State Department’s recently-released travel warning for El Salvador as an attempt to hinder the gangs’ historic ceasefire in the country. The statement, which was given to local media at a press conference held by leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 at La Esperanza prison in San Salvador, criticized the data cited in the travel warning as “outdated.”

In its notice, the State Department acknowledged that while the truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18 has dramatically reduced the number of homicides in the country, crime and violence remain serious threats to security. It warned U.S. citizens traveling there to “exercise caution” in order to reduce their risk of falling prey to robbery or extortion. Salvador However, the warning only cited crime statistics from 2010 and 2011, when violent crime levels in El Salvador had reached an all-time high. 

As the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ Linda Garrett notes, the timing of the announcement is extremely odd. Although it cited data from 2010 and 2011, the State Department did not issue a single travel warning during those years. The decision to release the warning now, when the homicide rate is at its lowest since 2003, seems suspiciously like an attempt to cast doubt on the efficacy of the gang truce, which is credited with reducing murders by two-thirds since it was first negotiated in March 2012.

The gang leaders pointed this out as well. In surprisingly flowery language, the MS-13 and Barrio 18 said that they respect the United States’ “indifferent attitude” towards the truce. But they also stressed that if the U.S. was not going to facilitate the truce (which has progressed to a second stage involving the creation of “peace zones” throughout the country), it should at least not attempt to “obstruct” it.

This is not the first U.S. action which could be seen as an attempt to discredit the gang truce. In October, the U.S. Treasury added the MS-13 to its list of dangerous transnational criminal organizations, ranking it with Mexico’s Zetas cartel and the Russian mafia despite the objections of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes.

Whether or not the gangs’ objection to the travel warning is justified, such polished press statements point to a larger issue in El Salvador: the question of whether the government’s recognition of the truce has afforded the gangs a dangerously high profile. As the International Assessment and Strategy Center’s Doug Farah has argued, this could allow them to use new-found political clout as a means of increasing their overall criminal influence in the country.

News Briefs

  • Brazilian investigators have determined that the nightclub fire which killed more than 230 over the weekend was caused  by the kinds of flares used by the band for its onstage pyrotechnics display, which were for outdoor use only. The AP reports that the use of these flares was an attempt by the band to save money. Other media outlets and Brazil analysts have focused on the impact that Brazilian culture may have played on both the fire and its aftermath. The New York Times, for instance, reports that Brazil is confronting a “fatalistic” society, and cites an O Globo editorial which asserts that the fire and loss of in general in the country could be partially explained by “administrative ineptitude, corruption, omission of public authorities and conformity of the common citizen.” Meanwhile, Reuters says that the fire has caused many Brazilians to worry that their “culture of haphazard regulation and lax accountability” could impede the country’s development.
  • Colombia's Justice Minister Ruth Stella Correa announced yesterday that the Colombian government will present a bill to congress which would legalize the possession of small amounts of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and ecstasy. According to El Pais and El Tiempo, the new law would allow Colombians to possess 200 milligrams or "three pills" of these substances.
  • The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have acknowledged that they have captured two Colombian policemen in the southwest province of Valle del Cauca, El Tiempo reports. In a statement, the FARC said it considers the two to be prisoners of war, and said it has offered to organize a prisoner swap with the government.
  • Colombian human rights monitoring group Nuevo Arco Iris has an interesting piece on the accommodations of the FARC negotiating team in Havana, Cuba, where the guerrilla leaders are staying in mansions formerly belonging to sugar plantation owners.
  • In the wake of the disastrous fire in Brazil, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega ordered the National Police to ban indoor pyrotechnic displays in the Central American country on Tuesday, according to El Nuevo Diario.
  • After the discovery of several bodies of kidnapped musicians in a well in northern Mexico earlier this week, officials say that all of the victims’ bodies have now been located in the well. Mexican police say they are still looking into the motives behind the murder of the group, which is popular in the northern state of Nuevo Leon.
  • Writing for the Global Post, Girish Gupta takes a look at optimism among Chavistas in Venezuela in response to news that Hugo Chavez’s health is improving. As he notes, many in the pro-Chavez camp are hopeful that the Venezuelan president will make a return to the country on February 4th, the 21st anniversary of his failed coup against President Carlos Andres Perez. Some among the opposition suspect this as well, and believe that this is why opposition leader Henrique Capriles has been surprisingly muted in his criticism of the vice president ruling in Chavez’s absence.
  • Although the upcoming presidential elections in Honduras are still ten months away, La Prensa has released the results of an opinion poll on the presumed candidates’ favorability. The poll shows the left-wing Xiomara Castro, wife of deposed president Manuel Zelaya, virtually tied with current congressional president Juan Hernandez, at 25 percent and 22 percent. 
  • The Israeli government on Tuesday conveyed “astonishment and disappointment” in response to the announcement that Argentina would work with Iran to establish an independent commission charged with investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the New York Times reports.
  • La Nacion reports that Argentina is overjoyed at the news that the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix will be abdicating the throne in favor of her son Prince Willem-Alexander, because it means that his wife Maxima, an Argentine, will become the “world’s first Argentine queen.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Former Guatemalan Dictator to Face Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity Charges

It's official: Guatemala's Efrain Rios Montt will be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity, making him the first ex-dictator in the region to face charges of crimes against humanity, and Guatemala the first country in the world to prosecute a former leader for genocide in its own court system. On Monday a Guatemalan federal judge ordered Rios Montt and his former intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, to be tried in connection with the massacre of some 1,700 indigenous Guatemalans, as well as the forced displacement of 29,000 people during the most violent period of the country’s bloody civil war.

According to Prensa Libre, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez based the ruling on the Guatemalan military code, which maintains that the army’s high command is responsible for the actions of its soldiers on the ground. "The Army cannot be divided; it does not work like other institutions. In its hierarchy decisions are made vertically, so that each of the orders given to subordinates is also the responsibility of the military command,” the judge said at yesterday’s hearing.

The ruling is a major triumph for justice and accountability in Guatemala, but the weakness of the Guatemalan justice system may present obstacles to the trial moving forward.  While intrepid Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has won praise for her willingness to take on powerful political figures and the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) has made significant progress in going after dirty judges in the country, the courts are still plagued by widespread corruption and impunity. Guatemala has one of the lowest conviction rates in the region, with less than ten percent of cases filed resulting in convictions.

One of the biggest threats to a fair trial for Rios Montt is the influence that the military exercises on Guatemala’s democratic institutions. President Otto Perez Molina is himself a former general, and has been quite vocal in his denial that genocide occurred during the Guatemalan Civil War, despite the UN Truth Commission’s finding that the military carried out several acts of genocide” under Rios Montt’s 1982-1983 rule.

Earlier this month, Perez angered human rights activists by issuing a decree stating that the government would nolonger recognize rulings made by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on cases of crimes against humanity and genocide that occurred before 1987. He later suspended the decree in response to criticism, but the move still illustrated a worrisome lack of respect for human rights norms and fueled concerns that Perez would seek to pressure the courts into dropping the case against Rios Montt.

As analyst James Bosworth points out, the charges of genocide may be the hardest for prosecutors to prove. As such, the case will likely focus more on the crimes against humanity charges and Rios Montt’s infamous “scorched earth” counterinsurgency campaign, where the case against the former dictator is much stronger.

Of course, the simple fact that a former Guatemalan dictator could be made to answer for his abuses is amazing. As Human Rights Watch’s Jose Miguel Vivanco notes, “Until recently, the idea of a Guatemalan general being tried for these heinous crimes seemed utterly impossible.” But while Judge Galvez threw out 13 appeals presented by Rios Montt’s defense team and ordered him to appear at a January 31 hearing of the evidence, elPeriodico reports that his defense team has vowed that they will present yet another appeal to the judge. Because the former dictator’s lawyers have been successfully delaying proceedings against him for nearly a year, there is reason to refrain from celebrating just yet.

News Briefs
  • Brazil arrested four people on Monday in connection with the deadly nightclub fire in Rio de Janeiro that killed more than 230 people over the weekend. While officials have not identified the suspects, CNN reports that two of them are owners of the club and the other two are members of the band which played on Saturday night and is suspected of starting the fire with a pyrotechnic show.
  • In a move which may complicate ongoing peace talks with the Colombian government, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have allegedly taken two police officers prisoner in the southwest province of Valle del Cauca, El Espectador reports. The FARC had previously freed all of their uniformed captives before peace talks began as a gesture of goodwill.
  • The Wilson Center and Migration Policy Institute have released a new study (.pdf) on the US response to crime and violence in Mexico and Central America analyzing the successes and failures of the Merida Initiative and the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), as well as taking a look at other ways in which the US has addressed insecurity in the region. 
  • Writing for elPeriodico, Guatemalan journalists Claudia Mendez Arriaza and Carlos Mendoza attempt to put Guatemala’s violent reputation in perspective. The two take on the seven biggest misconceptions about homicides in the country, arguing that violence and insecurity are not as widespread as many claim.
  • Mexican police believe they have found the bodies of several members of a large, popular band known as Kombo Kolombia in a well in Nuevo Leon state. The band went missing after a performance on Thursday night, and police say they were abducted by gunmen for unknown reasons, El Universal and the New York Times report
  • Over at Venezuela Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde offers a thoughtful critique of the Venezuelan government’s handling of the recent prison riot which killed 55 people on Friday. He notes that “as with previous cases of prison violence, the government has pointed the finger at the media,” choosing to criticize the coverage of the riot rather than its underlying causes.
  • The AP has an overview of the significance of Cuban President Raul Castro becoming head of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) on Monday. The wire agency claims it represents a “demonstration of regional unity against U.S. efforts to isolate the communist government through a 50-year-old economic embargo.
  • After leaving the CELAC summit in Chile, yesterday Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto met with Uruguayan President Jose Mujica in Montevideo. The two discussed bilateral ties between Mexico and Uruguay, with Peña Nieto praising a successful “one laptop per child” program in Uruguay and saying he planned to implement a similar program in Mexico. According to Milenio, the two also discussed drug policy, an issue on which both leaders share very little in common in their positions. While Mujica is a supporter for marijuana legalization, Peña Nieto has rejected decriminalization proposals
  • In an initiative which may have drawn inspiration from Mexico City’s successful cash-for-weapons exchange, Clarin reports that the Uruguayan government has unveiled a new plan to exchange guns for bicycles and computers.

Monday, January 28, 2013

CELAC Summit Ends With Ambitious 'Santiago Declaration'

The bi-regional summit between the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the European Union came to a close on Sunday in Santiago, Chile with leaders from both regions making ambitious calls for increased cooperation. The two-day summit resulted in the heads of states and representatives from all 60 Latin American, Caribbean and European countries in attendance signing the Santiago Declaration, a 48-point document addressing a wide array of economic, social and environmental issues.

The full text of the declaration is available via El Heraldo, while the AFP offers a brief overview of its main points. Among these are agreements to strengthen cooperation on drug policy between CELAC and the EU, develop a “strategic partnership” to promote sustainable development, defend human rights and increase bi-regional trade and investment. On this last front, the declaration included a promise to “avoid protectionism in all its forms,” which as Bloomberg notes, is surprising considering that some of Latin America’s trade giants (namely Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela) have increased trade barriers of late.

The declaration also included an explicit critique of the United States embargo against Cuba, as well as a wider condemnation of “all unilateral coercive measures with extraterritorial effects.” The timing of the criticism is appropriate, as Cuban President Raul Castro becomes CELAC’s new president pro tempore today, the most high-profile international leadership role that Cuba has held in decades.

Despite the ambitious tone in the declaration, which is not legally binding, some of the CELAC-EU summit participants expressed dissatisfaction with the meeting. As Telesur reports, both Bolivian President Evo Morales and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that the summit was marked by a lack of transparency and dialogue among member states.

News Briefs
  • Perhaps the most surprising part of the close of the CELAC summit was the warm praise that Chilean President Sebastian Piñera voiced for Hugo Chavez on Sunday. According to the AP, the conservative Chilean leader credited Chavez’s "vision, tenacity and strength" for the creation of CELAC, and expressed hope that he would recover his health soon.
  • The head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, has said that he plans to make yet another trip to Cuba this week to meet with Chavez, who has entered into a “new phase” of treatment, according to officials.
  • Argentina and Iran have signed an agreement to create an independent truth commission charged with investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 84 people, which was widely believed to have been carried out by Hezbollah. As Pagina 12 and the BBC report, if the agreement is ratified by both countries’ legislatures, this is the first time that investigators will be allowed to interview suspects of the bombing in Iran.
  • In addition to presenting a proposal for land reform last week to the Colombian government, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) proposed that officials consider legalizing coca cultivation for traditional uses in the country. La Silla Vacia offers six reasons why the suggestion should be taken seriously by the government.              
  • After more than 60 people died in a prison riot in Venezuela on Friday, Venezuelan Prisons Minister Iris Varela announced the closure of the facility, although El Universal notes that the relatives of the inmates have not been told where they have been relocated to. According to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, more than 300 inmates were killed in Venezuelan prisons in the first half of 2012 alone.
  • Violence broke out at a Sunday meeting of the Dominican Republic’s main opposition party, the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), resulting in six people being treated for gunshot wounds.  Video of the incident, obtained by the BBC, shows party members throwing chairs and exchanging blows with each other, ostensibly over the rejection of former PRD leader Hipolito Mejia.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cut short her stay in Santiago over the weekend after a fire broke out in a crowded nightclub in the city of Porto Alegre broke out early Sunday morning, killing at least 231, The New York Times and the AP report
  • A leader of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), Cicero Guedes was killed on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro state, near a sugar plantation where he led an MST-backed occupation. Citing statistics by the Brazilian Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), EFE reports that the number of land conflicts in the country is on the rise, and that the number of threats against activists rose from 125 to 347 between 2010 and 2011.
  • The Washington Post profiles Brazil’s struggle against drug trafficking and the rise of cocaine smuggling networks along the country’s porous borders with Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. While a border security plan is costing Brazil millions of dollars, the government says it sees this as a necessary security investment ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
  • The first major mining conflict of the year in Peru broke out last week in the northern state of Lambayeque, where demonstrators clashed with police in an attempt to occupy the site of a Canadian-owned copper mine.  El Comercio reports that the protestors have set up roadblocks on the road leading to the site, effectively preventing any access to the mine.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Progress in Peace Talks Permits Cautious Optimism in Colombia

As the latest round of talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) comes to a close in Havana, Cuba, some apparent overlap between the two parties’ positions offers hope for a sustainable peace in the country. Before breaking for a weeklong recess on Thursday, both the guerrilla and government negotiating teams admitted that they had found some common ground on the issue of land reform, one of the main disputes being addressed at the talks.

El Tiempo reports that the FARC published a message, available on their website, to their Chilean and Venezuelan facilitators in which they thanked them for serving as intermediaries in the negotiations, and recognized “fortunate coincidence” between the group’s position on land reform and inequality and that of the Colombian government. Rebel spokesman Jesus Santrich confirmed this to members of the press in Havana yesterday, and said that the talks are moving forward at an accelerated pace, or as he put it, "in the rhythm of mambo."

The government has agreed that it shares a similar attitude towards land reform with the FARC, according to former vice president Humberto de la Calle, head of the official negotiating team. Yet De la Calle also told reporters yesterday that “notable differences remain,” signaling that the two still had a great deal of ground to cover before reaching a deal.

The chief negotiator also reiterated the government’s official rejection of a ceasefire with FARC rebels. "We want peace, but not at any cost. Not if as a result of the conversations the guerrillas are able to get stronger and continue to wage war," De la Calle told reporters, an allusion to the previous series of peace talks a decade earlier, in which the FARC took advantage of a ceasefire to strengthen their control over rural areas.

While the guerrillas so far appear to be engaging in the latest peace process much more earnestly, some fear there is a risk that history will repeat itself. An Ecuadoran general, for instance, announced last week that he had reason to believe that the FARC have been stepping up arms purchases in Ecuador during peace talks, although the guerrillas have denied the allegation.

Ultimately, however, there appears to be reason to believe that the latest round of dialogue may actually end the decades-long conflict in the South American country. Even President Juan Manuel Santos, who has previously voiced only measured optimism about the prospects for peace, seemed to express increased hopefulness in a tribute to the conflict’s diplomatic facilitators yesterday, asking: "If today we are a growing country that is an example to many, what could Colombia be without this conflict?”

News Briefs
  • Chile will host a Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Summit in Santiago tomorrow, and both the Financial Times and El Universal have in-depth coverage of the issues to be discussed at the conference. The latter notes that the only Latin American government absent from the meeting is that of Paraguay, which the Chilean government apparently “asked not to come.”
  • Santos’ statement may have been a reference to remarks made by US Secretary of State nominee John Kerry yesterday at a senate confirmation hearing, in which he called Colombia a “model for the region” and “an example to the rest of Latin America about what awaits them if we can convince people to make better decisions," according to El Tiempo. President Santos also announced yesterday that Colombia is among the first in a list of countries poised to be admitted into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). If accepted, Colombia would become the third Latin American member in the organization, after Mexico and Chile.
  • The Santos administration unveiled two ambitious decrees yesterday designed to support women who have been victims of domestic violence. According to the AFP, one provides a tax cut to businesses which hire women who have suffered from any kind of domestic abuse, and the other lays out the conditions under which victims are eligible for temporary government assistance in the form of food, housing and medical care.
  • In response to the Honduran Congress’ passage of a controversial bill allowing for the establishment of “model cities” on Wednesday, La Prensa reports that the Honduran Association of Jurists will present a legal challenge to the law, an earlier version of which had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Honduras Culture and Politics, however, argues that the new law is nothing like the previous legislation, and amounts to “a law designed to benefit the monied class in Honduras … the class that sees the government of Honduras as its reliable income stream.”
  • The model cities law was not the only controversial law passed by the Honduran Congress this week.  Lawmakers also passed a law granting themselves the authority to remove any government official (a power that it already claimed by dismissing four Supreme Court justices in December), and a law on mining which critics claim is designed to keep royalties low and limit restrictions on harmful practices like strip mining, according to La Tribuna and La Prensa.
  • After Guatemalan President Otto Perez announced yesterday at the World Economic Forum that he is in favor of decriminalizing illegal drugs, he also told reporters that that he would not be opposed to facilitating a kind of truce with street gangs in order to reduce violence, following El Salvador’s example. El Periodico reports that Perez later said that his comments were taken out of context, however, and that a gang truce would not be implemented in Guatemala.
  • The Mexican government has announced that it will end its practice of parading criminal suspects before TV cameras and members of the press before putting them on trial, and will no longer refer to suspects by their group affiliation or alias. InSight Crime suggests that this is part of President Enrique Peña Nieto's attempts to differentiate his criminal policies from those of his predecessor.
  • In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Human Rights Watch’s Juan Miguel Vivanco criticizes the United States government’s recent praise of Mexico’s human rights performance, calling this a “celebration of failed policies.”
  • This week's issue of The Economist offers coverage of the progress made by Guatemala’s President Otto Perez, as well as the case of a Venezuelan family which claims it is being targeted for murder by state police and a critical piece on Cuba’s failure to replace its aging leadership with younger faces.
  • Spanish newspaper El Pais’ decision to publish a doctored image that its editors falsely believed to depict Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lying in a hospital bed continues to cause controversy. According to EFE and the Wall Street Journal, the Venezuelan government has announced that it intends to take legal action against the newspaper.  Meanwhile, FT’s Beyond Brics blog reports that Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez has also expressed outrage at the photo’s publication, likening El Pais to her adversaries in the Argentine media group Clarin.
  • Brazil’s Truth Commission, charges with investigating abuses committed under the military dictatorship, announced on Wednesday that it has begun an investigation into the death of former president Juscelino Kubitschek. Kubitchek supposedly died in a 1976 car accident, but many suspect that his death was ordered by the military regime, the AP reports.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Guatemala’s Perez Brings Drug Policy Debate to Davos

As the World Economic Forum kicked off yesterday in Davos, Switzerland, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina made good on his pledge to spark a debate on drug policy reform at the summit, staging a press conference in which he called for a new approach towards regulating drugs, implemented “on a scientific basis” and geared at making real progress against the harms associated with the drug trade.

"Prohibition, this war on drugs, has seen cartels grow and the results are not what we looked for," said Perez. "There is a new trend towards drugs now – not war, but a new perspective and a different way of dealing with the problem."  The president has previously spoken in favor of a regulatory approach to drugs as an alternative to the “extremes” of prohibition and full-blown legalization, and has pushed for the decriminalization of marijuana in his own country. 

According to Prensa Libre, Perez also said that regulating the flow of illicit drugs could reduce violence in his country “by 50 percent,” although the source of this figure is unclear. The announcement comes amid new reports that Mexican drug cartels are deepening their operations in Central America and contributing to violent crime in the region, as the AFP notes.

The Guardian reports that the retired right-wing army general was joined in Davos by an unlikely ally: liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros. A major advocate for drug policy reform, Soros appeared next to Perez at his press conference and backed the president’s words, stressing the illegal drug trade’s harmful effects on developing democracies.  "Drug policy has endangered political stability and security in many countries, and not just in Latin America," Soros said.

Perez also announced that Guatemala would host a summit for world leaders and policy organizations on alternative drug control proposals sometime in the middle of this year. According to the president’s official press release, the summit will be held in Tikal National Park, and organized in coordination with Soros’ foundation.

Perez is the first Guatemalan president to be invited as a speaker to the Davos Forum, and his decision to take the drug debate to the forum is significant. While Perez has joined other Latin American leaders in lobbying the United Nations and the Organization of American States for a shift in anti-drug policy, addressing the issue at Davos could open up a new strategy in the push for drug policy reform, based on engaging the business community. As The Observer’s John Mulholland noted in his recent profile of the Guatemalan president, Perez has several potential allies in the private sector, as a surprising number of companies have voiced support for a regulated drugs market.

News Briefs

  • Mexico’s Supreme Court yesterday ordered the release of French citizen Florence Cassez, who was arrested in 2005 on kidnapping charges and sentenced to 60 years in prison, El Universal and the BBC report. The case had contributed to heightened tensions between France and Mexico ever since. Cassez denied the charges against her and the case was riddled with irregularities, including a televised police raid which was used as evidence against her. It was revealed yesterday that the raid, which had been billed as a live broadcast, was actually a reenactment carried out for the benefit of the Mexican media.  
  • After months of investigation, Mexico’s electoral commission (IFE) voted not to fine the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) over allegations that the PRI bought votes during the July presidential elections by handing out $10 gift cards, although the IFE found evidence linking the party to the gift card purchases. The opposition PAN and PRD parties expressed indignation at the decision, and have vowed to push for reforms against such schemes in the future, El Universal reports.
  • The New York Times profiles the recently-built memorial to victims of the drug war in Mexico City, the construction of which was fast-tracked under the Caldron administration. While it has not yet been opened to the public, there has been much debate in the country over its significance as well as the appropriateness of building a memorial to a conflict which is still raging.
  • Spanish newspaper El Pais sparked controversy after publishing a front page photo in its Thursday edition which supposedly showed a very sick Hugo Chavez lying in a hospital bed with a feeding tube in his mouth, under the title “the secret of Chavez's illness.” The photo was subsequently found to be fake, and El Pais immediately apologized and withdrew the image from its website, but not before the Venezuelan government criticized it as “grotesque” and shameful.
  • Meanwhile, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro again visited Chavez in Havana yesterday evening in order to receive instructions from the president ahead of the upcoming Community of Latin American and Caribbean States summit in Chile.  
  • La Razon reports that Bolivia’s Supreme Court has ruled that human rights cases against the military must be tried only in civilian courts, a decision which was hailed by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • The Honduran Congress has once again passed a controversial law allowing for the creation of “model cities” in the country, after the Supreme Court ruled last year that the establishment of areas outside of the law was unconstitutional, El Heraldo reports. Lawmakers say that the latest version has been amended with the ruling in mind, and it is likely that Congress’ decision to fire four out of five Supreme Court justices last December has made the new Court more amenable to the controversial project.
  • Writing for Upside Down World, Rosemary Joyce and Russell Sheptak argue that the current conflict between the Honduran Supreme Court and the executive is an example of just how much the rule of law and respect for the constitution have deteriorated in the country since the 2009 coup which overthrew President Manuel Zelaya.
  • Following the announcement that he might face a challenge to his re-election from the Urubista right in 2014, a new poll by Datexco shows that 40 percent of Colombians are currently willing to re-elect President Juan Manuel Santos, a 30 percent lead over his closest rival.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Haiti Announces Cabinet Shake-Up

The government of Haitian President Michel Martelly on Tuesday evening announced the third cabinet reshuffle of his administration thus far, which is the second round of changes to the cabinet in the past five months. The move came just hours after President Martelly left the country for a “complete medical check-up” in Miami, after which he is slated to attend this weekend’s Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) meeting in Chile.

In his stead, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe first announced the reshuffle via his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon, tweeting, “After the resignation of several government ministers, the Head of State and I will announce a reshuffle of the ministerial Cabinet tonight.” A total of seven cabinet ministers were named following their predecessors’ resignation, although the positions of secretary of state for foreign affairs and communications minister have apparently been left open.

According to the Miami Herald, many in the country have questioned the government’s logic behind dismissing some cabinet officials and keeping others. Ralph Theano, for instance, who was widely criticized last week for comparing opposition lawmakers to “suicide bombers” after they heckled the prime minister at a parliamentary meeting, will stay on as the minister responsible for overseeing relations between the parliament and the executive branch.

The Herald also notes that the shake-up comes after months of speculation about the stability of the Haitian government. Protests over rising food prices and corruption have become increasingly common in recent months, and many Haitians believe President Martelly is spending too much time abroad and not focusing enough on domestic issues.

The government has also come under fire from the international community. As noted in Monday’s Post, the government’s failure to hold long-overdue elections for local politicians and a third of its Senate have been criticized by the head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country. While Martelly and lawmakers have agreed to charge a semi-permanent council with overseeing the elections, the council has yet to be established.

News Briefs

  • Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) took responsibility for the recent kidnapping five foreign mining employees yesterday, but in a statement on its website the guerrilla group justified the move by saying they were acting to “defend natural resources” from foreign companies. The statement was promptly criticized by the Colombian government, which is working towards rescuing the hostages, Caracol Radio reports.
  • Meanwhile, the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) released proposals for land redistribution and rural development projects yesterday, two issues which are currently being discussed in peace talks with the government. Among the guerrillas’ proposals, which are available on the FARC’s peace process blog, is the creation of a national fund for land redistribution, which would take land from armed groups or drug traffickers and turn it over to small farmers, with a particular emphasis on minorities and women.
  • On the Hugo Chavez health front, the government continues to say that he is improving despite not providing many details. The AP reports that Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said yesterday that officials had received a "very encouraging" update on the president’s recovery from Jorge Arreaza, Chavez's son-in-law and the country’s science minister. In a speech before Congress, Bolivian President Evo Morales said that he spoke with Chavez over the phone, and that his Venezuelan counterpart is doing well and is “undergoing physiotherapy in order to return to his country.”
  • Venezuelan human rights NGOs Provea and Homo Et Natura have received court summonses for their involvement in a series of protests in June 2010 by Yukpa indigenous people in front of the Venezuelan Supreme Court. Both NGOs endorsed the protesters’ demands that they be allowed to exercise their constitutional right to enforce tribal justice on their land, and issued press releases supporting the cause. Because some protesters brought their children with them, according to Provea’s press release, the NGOs are being tried as accomplices to a violation of children’s rights.  As Provea director Marino Alvarado points out, this sets a dangerous precedent in the country, as working -- and protesting -- as a family is a fundamental part of Yukpa and other indigenous cultures in Venezuela.
  • In his state of the union address yesterday Bolivian President Evo Morales laid out 13 goals for his country to meet ahead of its bicentennial on August 6, 2025. According to La Razon, these include the eradication of extreme poverty, expanding and access to health and education, and improving economic growth.
  • The AP reports that local Bolivian lawmaker Domingo Alcibia has been arrested after video emerged which appeared to show the man having nonconsensual sex with an inebriated service employee in the capital building of Sucre, in Chuquisaca province. After the scandal surfaced last week, was kicked out of President Morales’ ruling MAS party.
  • Rio Real Blog’s Julia Michaels highlights a recent investigation published in Piauí magazine which reveals delays and a lack of transparency about the relocation process in Rio de Janeiro as the city prepares for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Although the Piauí article is subscription only, Michales pulls out its most interesting findings, including that many favela residents are being forced to leave their homes while government-provided replacement residences have not yet been built, and have no information about when they will be finished.
  • Although an investigation into six Mexican military officers for allegedly working with the Beltran Leyva Cartel has gained a high media profile in recent months, internal court documents obtained by the Mexican press suggest that prosecutors believe they do not have enough information to back the initial charges, Excelsior and the LA Times report.
  • Chile's El Mostrador reports that Santiago's water supply is being restored after contamination caused by flash flooding along the Maipo River left millions in the capital city without water yesterday.
  • The Americas Quarterly blog has an interesting post on Brazil’s evolving relationship with Cuba. According to Eduardo J. Gomez, Brazil is fast replacing Venezuela as the island’s main foreign benefactor.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Colombia's Uribe to Launch New Political Party

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has announced that he has officially broken with the country’s ruling National Unity Party, and will be starting a new political party, called the Democratic Center. While Uribe had previously formed a “Pure Democratic Center” movement in July as a coalition of the few National Unity Party members who continued to support him over current President Juan Manuel Santos, he originally stated that he had no desire to convert it into a political party. However it seems that the escalating conflict between Uribe and Santos, his former defense minister, may have changed his mind.

The announcement was made on Monday following a Bogota meeting between Uribe and several of his longtime conservative allies, which El Espectador describes as a conference of “pure-blood” Uribistas. According to a press statement, the Democratic Center will be based on a “participatory, inclusive and impartial" platform, and will field candidates in the upcoming 2014 congressional and presidential elections.

Uribe himself is widely expected to run for a senate seat in 2014, but has not yet officially declared his intent. The Democratic Center will be holding a party rally on January 31 in the northern city of Santa Marta, and his supporters are hoping that Uribe will announce his candidacy then.

Despite the new party’s ostensibly centrist ambitions, Caracol Radio reports that the leaders of the other major Colombian political parties distrust the Democratic Center, and have ruled out the possibility of joining it in a coalition. Colombian Green Party President Alfonso Prada told reporters that he believed the party’s name was misleading, and said he viewed it as an attempt by conservative Uribistas to fool voters.

Still, polls indicate that the former president remains popular among moderate Colombians, and a presidential candidate backed by Uribe could represent a serious threat to Santos’ re-election bid in 2014. Silla Vacia notes that while Santos currently has the advantage over a potential Uribista challenger in terms of funding, name recognition and support from the media, it will be difficult for him to beat Uribe’s populist charisma.

Should Santos lose to an Uribista in 2014, it may present an obstacle to the country’s peace process. Even though Santos has set a November 2013 deadline for FARC guerrillas to reach an accord with his government, some rebels would doubtlessly find it difficult to believe that an Uribe-backed government would fully honor a treaty signed by the previous administration (especially considering Uribe’s criticism of peace talks and his alleged paramilitary links).

News Briefs
  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s health seems to be improving steadily, at least according to the government. Newly-appointed Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, who visited Chavez in Havana on Monday, said that the president was in good spirits, and that two “shared laughter and jokes.” The Associated Press interviewed the president’s younger brother, Argenis Chavez, and quoted him as saying that Chavez would be returning to Venezuela “in the coming days,” although Argenis has publicly denied making the claim, as El Nacional reports.
  • Inter-American Dialogue Program Director Margaret Myers offers an interesting look at China’s response to Venezuela’s uncertain political future, arguing that it demonstrates how the Asian nation has developed a more cautious, measured approach to “risky” investments in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto unveiled plans to eradicate extreme poverty in Mexico yesterday, launching a “national crusade against hunger” in the country. La Jornada reports that the campaign will focus on 400 of the poorest municipalities in Mexico, and is based partially on the success of anti-poverty initiatives in Brazil in recent years. El Universal notes that Peña Nieto’s choice to make the announcement in Las Margaritas, Chiapas -- a strong support base of the Zapatista movement -- was not a coincidence.
  • More than 150 local police in the northern Mexico state of Durango were detained in a January 18 operation for ties to organized crime, the AFP reports. Among those arrested were the public security heads of Gomez Palacio and Lerdo, effectively leaving both cities without a law enforcement presence, according to Animal Politico.
  • The LA Times reports on the discovery of an underground aquifer beneath the eastern Mexico City neighborhood of Iztapalapa, which has the potential to ease a water shortage affecting much of the city.
  • El Salvador’s El Faro reports that a second phase of the government-facilitated truce between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs has received official endorsement. On Friday, the mayors of four cities belonging to both the FMLN and ARENA political parties announced that they will participate in a plan to create “peace zones” in the country, in which the gangs would agree to cease criminal activity and cooperate with official gang prevention, reinsertion and job training programs.
  • In a move likely intended to improve his record on supporting press freedom, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa has announced that the government will help subsidize a pay hike for journalists working for small scale media outlets. According to El Comercio, the president (who is currently running for re-election) made the announcement after mandating a minimum wage increase  for journalists in December which forced some media outlets to cut the size of their staff.
  • Although the country is generally known for having some of the most permissive immigration policies due to a constitutional guarantee of “universal citizenship,” the country is now requiring Cuban citizens to present a “letter of invitation” to enter the country. EFE reports that 25 Cubans who sought to take advantage of the government’s recently-announced travel reforms were denied entry into the country on Monday because of the new regulation.
  • An analysis of internet speeds in Cuba suggests that a fiber-optic cable linking the island to Venezuela has finally been connected, after months of reports suggesting that corruption had delayed construction on the project. Still, according to the Miami Herald, Cuba’s internet speed pales in comparison with other countries in the region.  
  • Siglo21 reports that a Guatemalan tribunal meets today to make a final decision on whether or not former dictator Efrain Rios Montt can be successfully tried on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.