Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Is Peña Nieto Taking on Mexico's Old School Political Bosses?

Just one day after Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a new education reform bill into law, police arrested Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of Mexico’s largest teachers’ union and a vocal critic of the reform package.  For now, it remains unclear whether her arrest was an isolated case or a sign that the administration is setting its sights on the corrupt political bosses that have traditionally been “untouchable” in the country.

El Universal reports that Gordillo, commonly known as “La Maestra,” was arrested at an airport outside Mexico City yesterday on charges that she embezzled more than $153 million in union funds. According to Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam, she used some of the money to pay for lavish personal expenses including a private jet, plastic surgery, designer clothing and two houses in California. Prosecutors say they have evidence that Gordillo embezzled the funds in a 2008-2012 money laundering scheme involving banks in Switzerland and the United States.

As the Associated Press notes, Gordillo was initially seen as a voice of democratic reform in the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) when she first became its president in 1989. But over time she transformed the union into a political juggernaut, an essential block of votes that the country’s two major parties fought to win over in every election.  She also established herself as the SNTE’s ultimate leader, winning every single union election virtually unopposed.

Gordillo’s arrest could be a sign that Peña Nieto is interested in taking on the kind of old-style union bosses that were once major political operators in his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) during its 71 years in power. The president has attempted to distance himself from his party’s old ways, and during his campaign promised voters that the PRI had turned the page on its legacy of cronyism.

On the other hand, the arrest may be a simple case of Peña Nieto taking a shot at a political opponent. Gordillo fought the education reform bill tooth and nail, and the Financial Times points out that she organized a series of major demonstrations in recent days in a last ditch attempt to derail the law. By authorizing her arrest, the government is sending a strong signal to its critics in the SNTE.

The true test of Peña Nieto’s motives will be whether the government goes after other high-level union bosses in the country, like Carlos Romero Deschamps of the oil workers’ union. Like Gordillo, Romero has sat comfortably at the head of his union since the early 1990s, and has a reputation as a political kingmaker  in Mexico.  Proceso reports that leaders of the National Action Party (PAN) released a statement urging Peña Nieto to pursue Romero and other longtime union bosses as well, but the president has made no comment on their request so far.


News Briefs
  • Animal Politico and El Universal report that the Mexican government released an official database of missing people yesterday, putting the total number of people who have disappeared from December 2006 to November 2012 at 26,121. The list’s release comes after Human Rights Watch published a highly critical report on the government’s handling of disappearances in the country last week. It is unclear how many of the individuals included in the database are victims of forced disappearance, however. According to Deputy Secretary for Legal Affairs and Human Rights Lia Limon, the list includes people who have gone missing for “diverse reasons, not necessarily related to criminal acts.”  The full database can be accessed online via the National Public Security System’s website.
  • The AP profiles the ongoing debate over the legitimacy of Mexico’s rapidly growing self-defense movement, which the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has loudly criticized. Raul Plascencia, the CNDH’s president, recently warned that “there is a fine line between self-defense organizations and paramilitary groups.” Meanwhile, El Informador reports that self-defense groups in western Guerrero state -- where the movement has been especially active in recent weeks -- have announced that they will unify into a single coalition in an attempt to gain recognition from the government.
  • In London on Monday in his first official overseas visit as U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry responded to reporters’ questions about the United States’ stance on the Falkland Islands conflict by restating U.S. policy, EFE reports. “Our position on the Falklands has not changed,” Kerry said. “The United States recognizes de facto UK administration of the islands but takes no position on the question of parties’ sovereignty claims thereto.” Much of the British press has interpreted the statement as an attempt to avoid addressing the Islands’ upcoming referendum on sovereignty, with the Telegraph accusing him of “ducking the issue” and the London Evening Standard running the headline “Visiting John Kerry refuses to back Falklands vote.”
  • Argentina is set to appeal a U.S. court ruling that orders the country to pay $1.3 billion to holders of its defaulted debt this week. According to Reuters, the trial begins today in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, and will be presided over by a three-judge panel. Interestingly, Bloomberg reports that the trial will feature a “courtroom rematch” between the two lawyers who faced each other in the proceedings that ultimately decided the 2000 U.S. presidential election, David Boies and Theodore Olson.
  • La Nacion reports that after several hours of heated debate, the Foreign Relations Committee of the Argentine Chamber of Deputies has finally approved a draft of the controversial agreement with Iran to set up a "truth commission" tasked with investigating the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires. The bill is expected to pass in the lower house this week, and was approved by the Senate last Thursday.
  • According to El Pais, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica is at odds with his ruling Broad Front coalition over how to institute a proposed marijuana legalization measure. While lawmakers favor taking advantage of their congressional majority and passing the bill as soon as possible, Mujica supports holding a series of public forums around the country to raise awareness of the issue over the course of three to four months.  
  • A new Gallup poll released on Tuesday shows that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ approval rating has fallen to its lowest level yet since he took office in 2010. The poll indicates that, for the first time, more Colombians hold a negative opinion (47 percent of respondents) of Santos than a positive one (44 percent). The Cali-based El Pais has released the full results of Gallup’s bimonthly opinion poll in Colombia, which shows that support for the president has been hit hard by increasing skepticism of the ongoing peace talks with FARC guerrillas.
  • La Silla Vacia looks at a recent pledge by the largest mining firms operating in Colombia to help reduce poverty in their areas of operations,  which the according to the news site amounts to a tacit admission that the mining sector drastically needs to improve its image with local communities in the country.
  • The AFP reports that the Venezuelan opposition has begun to consider naming a candidate in the event that President Hugo Chavez dies or is declared unfit to govern, triggering special elections. While members of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) have told the press that several names are being considered, analysts and pollsters say the only opposition figure that could successfully oppose a Chavista candidate is Henrique Capriles.
  • Another opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez of the Justice First Party (PPJ), quelled rumors yesterday that he is planning on leaving the country in the face of corruption allegations. Earlier this month government prosecutors accused Lopez of accepting campaign donations from state oil company PDVSA in 1998, when his mother worked there as head of public relations.
  • Officials in Bolivia claim that an EU-funded program which encouraged certain coca-growing communities to police cultivation limits themselves has contributed to a 12 percent drop in coca cultivation in these areas, La Razon and InSight Crime report. The five year program ended on February 21, but the government is pointing to its success as reason to institute the self-policing model elsewhere in the country. 
  • The Miami Herald analyzes the many obstacles in the Helms Burton Act which prevent the United States from normalizing relations with Cuba. While Raul Castro’s recent announcement that he will retire in 2018 satisfies one of the law’s requirements, the conditions calling for the legalization of opposition parties and holding free and fair elections do not look like they will be met any time soon. 
  • Following the Obama administration’s strong denial of reports that it is considering removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, Foreign Policy contributor Jose Cardenas argues in favor of keeping Cuba on the list. According to him, the lack of evidence that the Cuban government aids terrorist groups is irrelevant, so long as it does not publicly repent for supporting such groups in the past. As Greg Weeks points out, “this is the very definition of moving goal posts.”
  • Government prosecutors in Peru have called on a court to order the arrest of Cajamarca regional president Gregorio Santos, La Republica reports. According to officials, Santos has failed to comply with the court-ordered terms of an investigation into his participation in paramilitary “rondas campesinas” during the country’s armed conflict. But the move has political undertones as well, as Santos has been a key figure in anti-mining protests in the country, and recently weighed in on the ongoing conflict over a proposed copper mine in the Lambayeque region.
  • After a Hague tribunal ruled in early February that Ecuador should be responsible for the costs associated with a battle with Chevron over $19 billion in contamination damage in the Amazon basin, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has called on the Unasur and ALBA regional organizations to reject the decision, the AP reports. Ecuadorean prosecutors are currently pursuing lawsuits against Chevron in Colombia, Argentina and Brazil in order to collect the damages, and in January an Argentine court upheld a freeze of Chevron’s assets in the country.