As the number of suspects involved in an alleged plot by Bolivian officials to extort U.S. businessman Jacob Ostreicher continues to grow, the Bolivian government has accused the United States of using the case to delegitimize President Evo Morales. On January 4th, Bolivian prosecutors accused a judge and Santa Cruz court official of taking part in an attempt to extort Ostreicher, who has been imprisoned in the country for the past year and a half.
Ostreicher was arrested in June 2011 after officials accused him of buying land from a Brazilian drug trafficker, although he has yet to be formally charged with a crime. The Brooklyn-born entrepreneur has maintained his innocence, and accused the Bolivian prosecution of trying to extract millions of dollars in payments from him in exchange for his release. As the case began to attract international attention, so did Ostreicher’s allegations against prosecutors, eventually resulting in the arrest of at least twelve suspects, including judges, lawyers and an Interior Ministry official.
The case has shone a spotlight on government corruption in Bolivia, especially within the country’s rickety judicial sector. As the New York Times reported in its recent profile of the case, Ostreicher’s treatment is not unusual “by Bolivian standards.” Fleecing wealthy prisoners is a relatively common practice in the country, and some two-thirds of inmates in Bolivian prisons are still awaiting trials.
In his initial response to Ostreicher’s allegations, President Evo Morales called for a full investigation, although his administration insisted that the American’s arrest was lawful and necessary. But now, Morales has adopted a shift in rhetoric. La Razon reports that on Sunday Morales accused the U.S. embassy in La Paz of meddling in the Ostreicher case in order to delegitimize his government. Minister for the Presidency Juan Ramon Quintana told reporters that Bolivia has “irrefutable” proof that the embassy is working to “damage the image” of the Morales administration, and said that the evidence will be turned over to U.S. President Barack Obama.
While diplomatic relations between the United States and Bolivia have been tense ever since Morales expelled Ambassador Philip Goldberg and all DEA agents from the country in 2008, they seemed to be improving of late. The two countries had pledged to exchange ambassadors once again, and in November Morales publicly congratulated Obama on his re-election. The Bolivian government’s accusations, however, may indicate a return to chilly relations between the two countries.
- On Saturday, Venezuela’s National Assembly re-elected Diosdado Cabello as president of the legislative body, meaning that he is now poised to become temporary head of state if President Hugo Chavez dies or is otherwise unable to take office, at least until elections can be held. While some analysts and members of the Venezuelan opposition continue to describe Cabello as a political rival of Vice President Nicolas Maduro, publicly the two have shown no sign of tension and have vowed to work together if Chavez dies. Meanwhile, with the January 10th inauguration date fast approaching and Chavez seemingly still unfit to be sworn in, the Wall Street Journal reports that uncertainty is growing in Venezuela over the constitutionality of Chavez staying in power without taking an oath of office. According to Vice President Maduro, however, this is not a problem. Maduro told reporters on Saturday that Chavez will continue in office after January 10th, saying “the formality of being sworn in can be resolved later by the Supreme Court."
- The New York Times’ Elisabeth Rosenthal takes on the National Rifle Association’s recent call for gun-toting security guards in schools across the United States by making a comparison to several Latin American countries where armed guards are a ubiquitous sight and yet crime is rampant.
- The New York Times also offers an in-depth look at Uruguayan president and former Tupamaro guerrilla Jose Mujica, praising him for his modern “low-key radicalism” and austere lifestyle. Asked if he was worried by a recent drop in his popularity, Mujica responded by saying “I don’t give a damn,” and insisted that he considers running for re-election (which is illegal in Uruguay) to be “monarchic.”
- La Republica reports on opposition in Peru to the Peruvian Congress’ recent decision to double the minimum salary of representatives; the figure now stands at 41 times the minimum wage in the country.
- Also published in the Times over the weekend is a profile of the Peruvian mining town of Morococha, which is slated to be razed by a Chinese mining firm interested in building a copper mine. While the company has built a new town six miles away and already helped 700 residents relocate, many locals are resisting the move, demanding more compensation from the company.
- Bolivia has announced the opening of its first lithium plant, on the edge of the Uyuni salt flats in the southwest of the country. According to Pagina Siete, the plant is expected to produce 40 tons of lithium carbonate annually, just a fraction of the amount that the country hopes to export in the coming years. The Uyuni salt flats are believed to be the site of the largest untapped lithium reserves in the country.
- The government of Honduras has dismissed its ambassador to Colombia, after a scandal in which the ambassador’s personal aide threw an alleged “sex party” in the country’s embassy in Bogota on December 20th, which ultimately resulted in the facilities being trashed and two computers being stolen. Instead of firing the employee, Ambassador Carlos Humberto Rodriguez attempted to hide the incident from the press, El Heraldo reports.
- A new report in Foreign Affairs magazine claims that Secretary of State nominee John Kerry held a series of secret meetings with Cuba’s foreign minister in 2010 in an effort to ensure the release of imprisoned U.S. government contractor Alan Gross. Writing for Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog, former USAID official and conservative commentator Jose Cardenas criticized the attempt as a “lesson on the folly of attempting to appease dictators.”
- A voluntary disarmament program in Mexico City which allows locals to hand over illegal weapons in exchange for cash and with no questions asked has proved to be immensely popular. According to El Universal, the program has collected 866 weapons since it began on December 24th, including a dozen assault rifles and six hand grenades.
- The L.A. Times conducted an interview with Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, in which the official spoke candidly about her struggle with organized crime, corrupt judges, and the legacy of the 1961-1996 civil war.