Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Chile Invokes Pinochet-Era Anti-Terrorism Law in Wake of Arson Attacks

A string of arson attacks in southern Chile in recent days has sparked a national debate over the escalating conflict there between wealthy landowners and Mapuche indigenous groups, as well as over the government’s use of controversial anti-terrorism legislation.

On Friday, an elderly couple was burned alive while trying to defend their home in the southern region of Araucania. While no group has publicly claimed responsibility for the murders, the couple had long clashed local Mapuches who claim the land as their own by ancestral right. Other attacks in Araucania in recent days include the burning of logging equipment and the destruction of a barn. 

In response, President Sebastian Piñera flew to Araucania, where he announced that the number of police officers in the region would be doubled, and that the perpetrators would be prosecuted under the country’s harsh dictatorship-era terrorism law. The administration also signaled that it was considering declaring a “state of emergency” in the area, and officials told local media that the group responsible for the attacks had links to Colombia’s FARC guerrillas.

The anti-terrorism law, which was passed in 1984 and has since been heavily criticized by human rights groups, allows for suspects to be detained indefinitely and tried in military courts, in which evidence from anonymous witnesses is allowed. As Human Rights Watch has noted, successive Chilean governments have used the law to prosecute Mapuches accused of low-level crimes like land occupations or property destruction, prompting allegations of discrimination. 

The Associated Press quotes a letter to the president from Mapuche leader Juana Calfunao Paillaef, who condemned the violent attack, but also criticized the government for ignoring Mapuche demands and for the way the conflict was being framed. 

"My community, family and I have suffered attacks of this nature; unknown elements torched my house three times and the remains of my uncle were found after," Calfunao said. "But in my case there were no visits by the Chilean president, a state of emergency was not declared and the perpetrators are not punished under the anti-terror law."


News Briefs
  • Although Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez remains unlikely to attend an inauguration ceremony scheduled for this Thursday, the government has scheduled a massive rally in Caracas on the day, urging Chavez devotees to come and show their support for the ailing president, El Universal reports. According to National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello, a number of heads of state are also slated to attend the rally, including Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who confirmed the trip to local press yesterday. Telesur reports that the Venezuelan Communications Minister has announced that Chavez is now in “stable condition” after receiving treatment for his severe respiratory infection.
  • The New York Times profiles the Venezuelan government’s use of Chavez’s image in his absence, largely through televised montages combining “elements of campaign ads and music videos, sometimes with the feel of a religious revival broadcast.”
  • In an investigative piece for In These Times, James Bargent reveals ties between Chiquita Banana, which made payments to armed groups in Colombia in the early 2000s, and a Colombia-based multinational corporation known as Banacol. According to Bargent, Banacol has continued to have shady dealings with local neo-paramilitary organizations in northern Colombia in order to displace locals from their land.
  • Colombia’s Deputy Attorney General has announced that the leaders of armed groups in the country can now be charged with sex crimes committed under their command, including rape and forced abortion. The decision marks an important shift for human rights advocates in Colombia. According to Uno Noticias, up until now only the direct perpetrator of such crimes could be held legally responsible.
  • When the changes recently made to Cuba’s migration policies take effect next week, they will also extend to doctors and other medical professionals, the AP reports. Previously doctors were not allowed to travel without first undergoing a complicated bureaucratic process, a policy which was intended to prevent brain drain. Now, however, they will have the same freedom to travel as other Cubans.
  • The Washington Post has a piece on newly-approved regulations in Cuba against broadcasting songs with racy lyrics, which many see as an attempt to crack down on the reggaeton music genre.
  • After being held for more than two months by port authorities in Ghana at the behest of international creditors, the Argentine ship La Libertad has finally returned to Argentina’s national waters. According to La Nacion, it will be docking in the port city of Mar del Plata this afternoon, where President Cristina Fernandez is expected to make a speech marking the occasion.
  • Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that President Fernandez will be traveling via private jet during a tour of Asia and the Middle East scheduled for later this month. Fernandez will not be using the presidential plane out of fear that creditors may seize her aircraft, which the government said in a statement was “highly probable.”
  • After a year in office, Guatemalan President Otto Perez is shifting his cabinet. El Periodico reports that Foreign Minister Harold Caballeros and Agriculture Minister Efrain Medina will be stepping down on January 14th. Caballeros will be replaced by former Soros Foundation director Fernando Carrera. 
  • The New York Times highlights the effect that the emerging market for biofuels in the United States has had on farmers and poor families in Guatemala. With more and more land being used for fuel rather than food crops, and the price of corn doubling over the past three years, low-income Guatemalans are having difficulty purchasing what has long been a staple of their diet.