Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Guatemala's Rios Montt Trial Resumes

The Guatemalan tribunal overseeing the trial of former de facto leader Efrain Rios Montt and his former intelligence chief Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity is set to reconvene today, after a week of uncertainty initiated by a first instance judge who ruled in favor of annulling recent proceedings. Last week the Constitutional Court ordered the judge to return the case file to the tribunal by yesterday afternoon, and she has apparently done so.

Although there was talk of restarting the trial at an earlier point (the judge suggested winding it back to November 2011, to the pre-trial phase), it appears this will not happen. Hector Reyes, a lawyer who represents the human rights group prosecuting the case, told Reuters that he believed the trial would restart where it left off on April 18. The news agency claims that sources in the attorney general's office also said they expected the trial to resume from this point.

If true, this may mean that the trial is nearing its end, as the tribunal’s chief judge instructed the lawyers to begin preparing their closing arguments before it was suspended. However, last week the Constitutional Court accepted that some rights of the defendants had been violated. The Court left it to the tribunal to remedy this, so the trial’s timeframe may change somewhat as the necessary adjustments are made.

El Periodico reports that the defense team is arguing that resuming the trial today is illegal, as they have made several other appeals to the Constitutional Court on behalf of their clients which have not yet been settled.  Considering the drama that unfolded in court on April 18 -- when Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez’s lawyers walked out after reading a prepared statement to the press in which they characterized the trial as a sham -- it seems likely that a similar spectacle could be in store for today.

Another variable is the fact that the head of the tribunal, Judge Jazmin Barrios, will be investigated for abuse of authority due to her dismissal of Rios Montt’s defense attorney on the first day of the trial.

News Briefs
  • La Razon reports that the Bolivian Constitutional Court has ruled that President Evo Morales can legally run for a third term, despite the fact that the constitution restricts presidents to just two consecutive terms. Morales and his Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party argue that because the constitution was changed by a national referendum before he was re-elected in 2009, another term in office would technically be his second under the new constitution. A February poll found that 54 percent of Bolivians support Morales’ re-election, meaning that he will likely stay in power until 2020.
  • Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) has begun its audit of the April 14 elections, despite the fact that opposition leader Henrique Capriles characterized it as a “joke” last week because the election monitoring body refused to assess voter registries and fingerprint data.
  • El Universal and Animal Politico report that Mexico’s National Action Party (PAN) has threatened to end its participation in the Pact for Mexico (a December agreement among all three major parties to follow a common agenda) unless charges are brought against 57 members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the state of Veracruz who they accuse of using social programs to promote their party ahead of local elections in July. Video surfaced earlier this month of the officials discussing how to use the programs to their benefit, and seven local authorities have since been fired as a result of the scandal.
  • Peruvian Vice President Marisol Espinoza has publicly called on the country’s Foreign Ministry to request the expulsion of Ecuadorean Ambassador Rodrigo Riofrio, who has been accused of assaulting two women in a Lima supermarket. The women claim that Riofrio became enraged at not being attended to before them, and angrily said "That’s just like these Peruvians: they’re ignorant, that's why this country is not progressing, because it is full of Indians.” They say the altercation became physical, and the ambassador allegedly kicked them after they fell to the floor.
  • As neighboring Uruguay debates the merits of regulating cannabis cultivation, academics in Argentina have organized a roundtable discussion of relaxing marijuana laws in the country. Pagina12 reports that sociologists and legal experts have organized a two-day forum on the issue at the National University of Quilmes, south of Buenos Aires.
  • Colombian prosecutors have called on the country’s deputy director of intelligence to respond to allegations made by two journalists from Caracol Radio who say another high-level official informed them that they were being illegally monitored, El Espectador reports. The allegations have renewed a controversy over illegal wiretappings, a tactic employed by intelligence officials during the administration of previous President Alvaro Uribe.
  • With the Havana talks between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) seemingly approaching a negotiated peace, El Tiempo has an interesting piece featuring interviews from ex-guerrillas elsewhere in Latin America on the benefits of participation in traditional politics.
  • Writing for Time magazine, Miami-based journalist Tim Padgett discusses homophobia and anti-gay discrimination among Latin American leaders. Padgett points out that the trend is not exclusive to the left or right, as recent remarks by Paraguay’s Horacio Cartes and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro have shown.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mexico Weighs Violent Crime Prevention Over Kingpin Strategy

Sunday’s Washington Post featured a front-page article on Mexico’s apparent shift from going after drug kingpins in favor of emphasizing violent crime prevention under the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the consequences for U.S.-Mexico relations. The piece claims that the new president’s top security ministers were “stone-faced” when first told of the extent of United States involvement in the hunt for high-level cartel leaders, and asserts that Peña Nieto recently presented a security strategy to his U.S. partners that is a major departure from the policies of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. From the article:
In a visit to Washington two weeks ago, Mexico’s top security team shared the broad outlines of the plan with U.S. agencies, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. It contains many changes.
The president will not be nearly as directly involved in counterdrug efforts as Calderon was, the officials said. The interior minister will coordinate the relationships between various Mexican and U.S. agencies and other Mexican units. The director of the Mexican intelligence agency will decide which Mexican agency should receive and act on sensitive U.S. information.
 Additionally, Mexican officials have reportedly signaled that American citizens will no longer be permitted to work inside intelligence fusion centers in the country. This means that many DEA, CIA and military employees/contractors who have played key roles in the arrest and killing of drug kingpins over the past six years will be forced to take a back seat.

Meanwhile the government has apparently tweaked its approach to the drug war. In March the Peña Nieto administration unveiled a new crime prevention program which is meant to focus on 250 at-risk areas across the country, and earlier this month the president proposed a new security budget for 2014, over a third of would go towards prevention programs.

Despite these announcements, the extent to which Peña Nieto’s security strategy represents a major break from the past is unclear. As Steven Dudley of InSight Crime pointed out last month, the military is still at the forefront of the government’s security push, with troops deployed in roughly the same areas as they were under Calderon. Federal police continue to fill in for poorly-vetted local law enforcement, and the government is still struggling to implement important reforms to the justice system. One of the best indications of a change in tactics, Dudley writes, is that the number of arrests for “crimes against health” (drug-related crimes) has fallen to its lowest point in years, which could mean that the administration is consciously moving to target violent actors in the drug trade over low-level dealers. Nevertheless, the fact that the Peña Nieto administration is still relatively young means that it is difficult to predict whether this trend will hold.

The Washington Post article ends on a similarly ambiguous note for the future of U.S. involvement in Mexican security:
Several senior U.S. officials say U.S. agencies stand ready to help in any way the new administration allows.

They anxiously await further details.
Again, it is still too early to tell whether Peña Nieto’s stated emphasis on prevention will translate into a major policy shift. If it does, however, one potential method of U.S. assistance may be helping Mexican officials plan law enforcement strategies based on successful experiments with violence prevention in the United States. Examples include Boston’s Operation Ceasefire and the deterrence model adopted by police in High Point, North Carolina, both of which have been praised for drastically reducing gang violence and firearm deaths.

News Briefs
  • For the first time, The New York Times has simultaneously published an investigative piece on its web site in English and in Spanish. The article looks at the story of Mexican police chief Luis Octavio Lopez Vega, who served as an informant to the DEA on the activities of General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, a former drug czar who was arrested in 1997 on charges of colluding with cartels. Lopez, whose story inspired the 2000 crime film Traffic, now lives in the United States and fears retribution for his testimony. General Gutierrez was released from prison earlier this month, and Mexican officials are seeking Lopez’s arrest on corruption charges related to the case.
  • The L.A. Times reports on the foreign policy differences between Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. While both leaders have sought to increase Brazil’s influence in the region and the world, Rousseff has been more restrained in guiding Brazil’s international relations, particularly towards traditional U.S. adversaries like Iran and Venezuela.
  • While Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) has agreed to carry out an audit of the past elections, on Saturday night CNE president Tibisay Lucena announced via a nationwide mandatory cadena broadcast that the conditions for the audit demanded by the opposition were “impossible.” These conditions included voter registries and fingerprint data, which the opposition claims were necessary to determine how many people voted multiple times. The announcement will likely deepen Capriles’ resolve to challenge the elections in domestic courts, and, failing this, in the Inter-American human rights system. More from El Universal and the BBC.
  • Writing for The National Interest, Jennifer McCoy and Michael McCarthy of the Carter Center provide further context for both the opposition and CNE’s positions on the audit, noting the government’s argument that “opposition technical experts have participated in sixteen different audits of the voting system before and after each election, and have repeatedly declared the automated machines to be secure and accurate, and the vote secret.”
  • After announcing the arrest of U.S. citizen Timothy Tracy last week, the Venezuelan government has brought formal criminal charges against him for allegedly fomenting anti-government violence. Bloomberg reports that according to Tracy’s lawyers, he is a documentary filmmaker who received accreditation from the CNE to observe the recent elections.
  • As the U.S. Senate debates an immigration reform bill presented earlier this month, The Migration Policy Institute has a useful side-by-side comparison of the bill to two recent immigration bills discussed in the Senate, in 2006 and 2007.
  • Guatemala’s elPeriodico reports that the first-instance judge who recently ruled in favor of annulling the proceedings in the war crimes case against former de facto head of state Efrain Rios Montt, Judge Carol Patricia Flores, has been ordered by the Constitutional Court to return the case to the tribunal overseeing the case by this afternoon.  The Open Society Justice Initiative has more on this development, which is a sign that the trial may resume this week.
  • Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has drawn criticism from human rights groups in recent months for statements he has made about the Rios Montt trial. More specifically, he has denied that genocide took place in the country’s armed conflict and lashed out against a witness in the case who mentioned his name while listing the state’s alleged war crimes. In interview with EFE over the weekend, he appeared to moderate these past remarks, potentially in a bid to distance himself from allegations of meddling in the trial. He told the Spanish news agency that he believed the trial is “historic,” and characterized it as part of Guatemala’s struggle with impunity. “What we hope is that justice is done. This has truly become an emblematic case that has polarized Guatemalan society and revived the climate of the armed conflict we had," he said.
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released its annual report on Colombia on Friday, in which it documented ongoing displacement and disappearances related to the country’s armed conflict. El Espectador reports that ICRC country director Jordi Raich cautioned in his presentation of the report that the group does not expect the current peace process with FARC rebels to have an immediate effect on levels of violence in Colombia.
  • The Inter Press Service looks at the judicial reform debate in Argentina, providing an overview of the government’s rationale for the reform push as well as the opposition’s concerns that it will politicize the judiciary.
  • As mentioned in Friday’s post, sources within the World Trade Organization (WTO) say that the two top candidates for its next managing director are Brazil’s Roberto de Carvalho Azevedo and Mexico’s Herminio Blanco, meaning that the next head of the organization will definitely come from Latin America. The Guardian and the Financial Times offer analyses of what this means for the region as well and global south as a whole.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Will Obama Address Human Rights Concerns in Mexico?

As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares for a May 2-4 trip to Mexico and Central America, EFE reports that a group of 23 lawmakers have called on the president to raise the issue of human rights violations by Mexican security forces during his visit. The letter (available in .pdf via the Latin America Working Group) notes an increase in reported abuses in recent years, and asserts that Peña Nieto’s December inauguration provides an opportunity to improve the human rights situation in Mexico. It claims:
“Since assuming office on December 1, 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto affirmed that Mexico’s biggest challenge is to make sure that ‘rights established on paper become reality.’ President Nieto’s expressed commitment to human rights comes at a critical time in Mexico. During the administration of former President Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) saw a five-fold increase in complaints -- from 534 in 2007 to 2,723 in 2012 – of human rights violations by Mexican soldiers and federal police, including torture, rape, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, as well as other abuses. Unfortunately, a majority of these abuses go uninvestigated, and as a consequence, unpunished.”
The Obama administration has not been particularly vocal on rights abuses in Mexico, although the State Department did withhold $26 million in military aid in 2010, citing an inability to certify that military and police rights violators were being properly investigated and tried.

As such the president may not directly address reports of human rights violations while in Mexico. If he does, he will likely do so in the context of applauding the Peña Nieto government’s response to victims of the violence. In January Peña Nieto signed a popular victims’ compensation law into effect that his predecessor had opposed. In February, the Mexican government released an official database of missing individuals after Human Rights Watch published a highly critical report on the government’s handling of disappearances. It would not be entirely surprising if Obama touched on these during his visit, thus encouraging his Mexican counterpart to take further action.

News Briefs

  • A week after agreeing to a full recount of votes overseen by the National Electoral Council (CNE), Reuters reports that Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles has said that the audit so far risks becoming “a joke,” and that he plans to challenge the recent elections in court. According to El Nacional, Capriles says he will take his case to the Venezuelan Supreme Court, and, if that fails, to an international body. This would be difficult for him in the Inter-American system, as Venezuela announced its withdrawal from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IAHRC) last year.
  • On Thursday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced the arrest of American filmmaker Timothy Tracy, a 35 year-old Georgetown University graduate who was reportedly in the country to make a movie about the country’s political divisions. The Washington Post reports that Maduro accuses Tracy of backing the opposition, referring to him on state television as “the gringo who financed the violent groups.”
  • The Wall Street Journal reports that the battle over the next managing director of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is pitting the region’s two largest economies against each other. Brazilian diplomat Roberto de Carvalho Azevedo and former Mexican trade minister Herminio Blanco are the top contenders for the job, according to people familiar with the situation.
  • The U.S. State Department has refused to give LGBT rights advocate Mariela Castro (daughter of Cuban leader Raul Castro) permission to attend a conference next week in Philadelphia, where she was to receive an award. The event’s organizers claim to have been “shocked,” the State Department has given no explanation for the denial.
  • BBC Mundo has a report on public transportation in Rio de Janeiro, questioning whether the “City of Marvels” has the necessary transportation system in place to be able to deal with the increased traffic of next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
  • While the Colombian Senate voted against gay marriage this week, a 2011 Constitutional Court ruling allowing civil unions will go into effect on June 21, and many same-sex couples are expected to register for civil unions and then challenge their legality in the country’s court system, El Tiempo reports.
  • The New York Times reports on Wednesday’s violent protest against education reforms by a teachers’ union in Guerrero, in which demonstrators firebombed the offices of the country’s four main political parties in the state capital. The paper notes that yesterday brought further signs of tension, after protesting teachers closed down Mexico City’s main boulevard.  
  • The Economist looks at last Sunday’s elections in Paraguay, asserting that one possible conclusion from the victory of Horacio Cartes of the long-ruling Colorado Party is that Parguayans “have tried alternation of power, and found it over-rated.” Another is that the Liberal Party does not have the votes to oppose the Colorados on its own, and shot itself in the foot by supporting the ouster of leftist President Fernando Lugo last year.
  • In The Atlantic, drug policy expert Robert Muggah and security analyst Jerry McDermott assess the case of Peru, which has become the world’s leading producer of cocaine but has not been hit by the high levels of drug-linked violence seen in Mexico and Colombia. The authors claim there are at least two possibilities for this, suggesting that the violence is underreported or there is complicity with drug trafficking at top levels of government.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Venezuelan Government Hardens Anti-Opposition Stance

As Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro fights to solidify his legitimacy after winning elections by a razor-thin lead, his administration has become increasingly hostile towards members of the opposition and NGOs which are critical of the government.

The focus of this criticism has been on Capriles’ role in the wave of violence that broke out in the country after the April 14 election. One of the government’s main accusations is that Capriles supporters attacked and burned local health clinics in poor neighborhoods across the country. However, photos of clinics that the government claims were attacked suggest that the official reports are exaggerated, and in some cases may be entirely fabricated.

Meanwhile, several administration officials have made extremely hostile remarks in recent days concerning Capriles and his supporters. On Monday Prisons Minister Iris Varela referred to Capriles as the “intellectual author” of the post-election violence, claiming she was “preparing a cell for him.” A video circulating social media in Venezuela shows Housing Minister Ricardo Molina telling his employees that he would fire any who were supporters of an opposition party, regardless of labor laws in the country. “If he doesn’t quit, I personally will throw him out,” he can be heard saying in the video. The Associated Press reports that the opposition claims to have received complaints from over 300 government employees who said they were fired for being suspected Capriles supporters.

This antagonism extends to civil society groups which question the official narrative of opposition violence, like Caracas-based human rights organization PROVEA. As Venezuela analyst David Smilde notes, PROVEA was one of the first groups to cast doubt on the alleged clinic attacks, which drew the ire of Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas. Villegas accused the respected rights group of ignoring testimony from victims of the attacks, thus “acting as the rearguard of fascism.” When PROVEA followed up with a post on their website which identified a supposed casualty of opposition violence as an opposition supporter who is apparently alive and well, the government stepped up its criticism.

On April 20, Venezuelan Ombudsman Gabriela Ramirez denounced the group as politically biased, accusing PROVEA of “going against their own principles as a human rights organization.” These allegations were repeated in a nationwide state message broadcast on all radio and television channels on April 23. The Ombudsman’s Office has since released an image purporting to show fire damage in a clinic in the western state of Barinas, and accused opposition protesters of looting medical equipment and firebombing the building.

Yesterday, the United Socialist Party (PSUV)-controlled National Assembly launched an inquiry into Capriles’ hand in the violence. National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello announced that a congressional committee had been created to investigate reports of nine deaths and several dozen injuries that the government says were the result of opposition protests. PSUV Congressman Pedro Carreño, a member of the committee, told local press that it would begin studying the situation on Monday.

News Briefs
  • A major demonstration against education reforms broke out yesterday in the Mexican state of Guerrero, as an education workers’ union raided the offices of the country’s main political parties in the state capital. El Universal reports that the group ransacked the offices one by one before descending on the office of the ruling PRI party and setting it on fire. The AP has images of the demonstration, showing protesters burning images of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
  • The “Pact for Mexico,” the inter-party agreement which has helped Peña Nieto’s administration accomplish a number of ambitious reforms so far in his young administration, appears to be holding despite the emergence of a damning video showing members of the ruling PRI party allegedly plotting to use money from government social programs to fund campaigns in upcoming local elections in July. The Financial Times reports that the interior ministry has released a statement saying that Mexico’s main parties have “reaffirmed their conviction that the reform agenda laid out in the Pact comes before party interests.”
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero profiles economic inequality in Paraguay, which remains persistent despite the massive economic growth underway in the country.
  • The Open Society Justice Initiative has the latest on the state of the genocide case against former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt. While the Constitutional Court has issued no new rulings on the legality of annulling the recent hearings, an appeals court heard arguments related to the case yesterday.
  • Honduras Culture and Politics looks at the high level of voter dissatisfaction in Honduras, where a recent opinion poll shows that “None of the above” is currently more popular than the five major candidates running in November’s presidential election.
  • El Espectador reports that the Colombian Senate voted 51-17 against a bill to legalize same sex marriage yesterday, presented by U Party Senator Armando Benedetti. Benedetti accused his fellow lawmakers of homophobia, and said that in response a movement was being organized by same-sex couples to request to be married at government registries across the country on June 21. According to the senator, the only way for same sex marriage to pass is through the court battle that will likely ensue.
  • As International Workers’ Day approaches on May 1, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles have announced competing labor rights marches to be held to mark the occasion, EFE reports. While the former hopes to use the day to "demonstrate working class power to the fascist bourgeoisie," the latter is organizing a protest against the government’s announced wage hikes, which he claims is contributing to rising inflation.
  • The Miami Herald reports that the U.S. government has released a statement calling on Cuban authorities to release a former Granma reporter who wrote an article alleging government mismanagement of funds and who has been accused of spying.
  • The Ombudsmen (Defensores del Pueblo) of 14 countries will meet in a summit in Lima, Peru today and tomorrow to discuss the right of indigenous peoples to prior consultation before government projects are carried out on their land. The conference is organized by the Ibero-American Ombudsman Federation and will include the ombudsmen of Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, El Salvador, Panama, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela.
  • Argentina’s La Nacion reports that proposed changes to the Magistrates Council (the body responsible for appointing and impeaching judges) have passed in the country’s lower house after a marathon 18-hour debate over the measures.
  • The Bolivian government officially took its long-running border dispute with the Chile to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague yesterday, through which the landlocked country hopes to reclaim maritime access that it lost after the 1879-1883 Pacific War. Telesur reports that Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca and former President Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze presented the country’s case to the court.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

With Future of Rios Montt Trial Uncertain, U.S. Sends War Crimes Diplomat to Guatemala

After Guatemala’s Constitutional Court declared it would pass the genocide case against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt to a judge who has pushed for its annulment yesterday, the U.S. Department of State announced it will send its chief war crimes expert to the country, seemingly giving its implicit backing to the trial.

Yesterday afternoon the Court held a press conference to announce its decision on a controversial ruling by a lower judge who called for all recent testimony in the case against Rios Montt to be annulled.

The judge, Carol Patricia Flores, announced last Thursday that the recent hearings had been held in spite of unresolved technicalities in the case, and ordered all proceedings since November 2011 to be declared void. Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz publicly condemned the ruling, and vowed that her office would challenge it in court. Judge Yasmin Barrios, the head of the tribunal overseeing the case, convened the court briefly on Friday to announce that the trial would be put on hold pending a Constitutional Court ruling on its future.

Yesterday’s press conference stopped short of giving a final verdict on the matter. According to Prensa Libre and elPeriodico, the Court declared it had reached a decision on six of twelve total petitions related to the case. One of these ordered Judge Barrios to hand over the record of the witness testimony of the past several weeks to Judge Flores. The latter now has 24-48 hours to resolve the issue of whether the proceedings were legal with regards to the rights of the defendants.

The decision to send the case back to Judge Flores may revert its progress to an earlier date, but the Constitutional Court has not yet ruled on the issue of annulment. The Court did, however, find that Rios Montt’s right to defense had been violated, and reinstated Francisco Garcia Gudiel, who was expelled from court on March 19, the first day of the trial, as his defense attorney. His defense team has appealed to the Court to invalidate all proceedings since that date, but it has not ruled on this matter either.

Meanwhile, the United States has sent what seems to be a clear message of support for the trial. Yesterday evening the State Department announced it would be sending Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp to the country. According to the press release, Rapp will arrive in Guatemala today for a two-day visit in which he will “attend meetings and consultations related to the trial.” This will put him in the country for Flores’ pending announcement, suggesting the timing of his visit is a calculated move by the State Department to tacitly endorse the case against Rios Montt.

News Briefs
  • Human Rights Watch has released a statement on the judicial reform package being debated today in the Argentine Congress, calling for lawmakers to reject the proposals because they undermine judicial independence. As noted in yesterday’s post, the changes would make it more difficult to challenge laws and executive orders, as well as subject top judges to popular elections.
  • Pope Francis met today with a delegation from the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which advocates on behalf of the relatives of children of those disappeared in the Dirty War. According to Clarin, the meeting was brief and occurred near the end of his scheduled public meeting time. The paper also reports that he accepted a letter from the group’s president requesting that the Church provide information it may have about the whereabouts of children stolen from dissidents during the dictatorship.
  • On Friday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that he would consider running for office in next year’s elections for a shortened term of only two years. He also suggested that presidential terms should be extended to six years and re-elections (legalized by a constitutional amendment passed in 2005 during the popular government of Alvaro Uribe) should be scrapped. However, Reuters reports that Santos backed away from this statement on Monday, due to a lack of support in Congress.
  • Colombia presented a report on its progress on meeting human rights goals yesterday in its Universal Periodic Review before the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. WRadio reports that some 80 UN member states voiced support for Colombia’s ongoing peace talks with FARC rebels, but some expressed reservations about failure to prosecute military abuses and extrajudicial killings.
  • About 1,800 police officers in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa have gone on strike to demand better working conditions and pay, according to the AP.
  • The L.A. Times reports that the highly-regarded Pact for Mexico, an agreement among the country’s major parties to follow a certain legislative agenda, is on the verge of collapse after fresh evidence that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) participated in vote-buying in order to ensure the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
  • While Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been sworn in and assumed office without waiting for the results of an audit of the recent elections, opposition leader Henrique Capriles declared on Monday that there is enough evidence to suggest that vote should be voided and new elections should be held. Opposition blog Caracas Chronicles notes that the opposition is now more united than it has been in years, and a consensus supporting new elections appears to be forming.
  • A U.S. federal judge has ruled that the Obama administration must release the names of all graduates of Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) -- formerly known as the School of the Americas -- a program used to train members of Latin America militaries at Fort Benning, Georgia. According to The Hill, the judge ruled that the government “has not established that the privacy interests advanced are substantial, and has not shown through admissible evidence that the release of this information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Argentina Pushes Forward Judicial Reforms, Despite Resistance

In spite of the massive protests last week against Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s proposed changes to the justice system, the government continues to promote the reform package as the Argentine Congress gears up for a debate of the measure.

April 18 saw one of the biggest anti-government rallies that Argentina has seen in years, with over a million people taking to the streets of Buenos Aires to protest against the Fernandez administration. As Reuters noted, it underlined widespread rejection of not only the president’s attempts to reform the courts, but her economic policies and combative stance against opposition media as well. It was also an illustration of the fact that her popularity has fallen since she was re-elected in October 2011 by a 54 percent majority, with a record 35-point lead over her closest opponent. According to a Management & Fit poll cited by the Wall Street Journal, just 34 percent of respondents approved of Fernandez’s government last month.

The protest failed to slow the advance of the government-backed judicial reform package, however.  La Nacion reports that both of Argentina’s legislative houses are set to begin debating different segments of the proposed law tomorrow, and both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are expected to eventually pass it.

Spain’s El Pais has a rundown of the six bills that make up the judicial reform package, and the effects they would have on the current system in Argentina if passed into law. In addition to increasing the size of the Magistrates Council (the body responsible for appointing and impeaching judges), it would subject the membership of the Council to popular elections. The measure would also make it more difficult to challenge laws and presidential decrees in court, a particularly pressing issue for the government as the Clarin media group has repeatedly defied a 2009 anti-media monopoly law by bringing claims against the Fernandez administration.

The Argentine opposition claims that this project amounts to reckless politicization of the judicial system, and has vowed to bring the law before the Supreme Court if passed. According to InfoBAE, opposition congressmen announced yesterday that they would erect a “white tent” outside of Argentina’s lower house in protest of the measure, a symbol which was used in high-profile education protests of the late 1990s.

News Briefs
  • As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the election of Horacio Cartes as Paraguay’s next president has brought the South American nation back into the regional fold, and it appears that it will likely rejoin Mercosur and UNASUR after Cartes takes office. However, its Mercosur membership may come at a cost. Folha de Sao Paulo reports that the Brazilian government support readmitting Paraguay into Mercosur, but only if it accepts Venezuela’s entrance into the bloc, citing foreign ministry officials. Cartes’ Colorado Party withheld ratification of Venezuela’s full membership in the Paraguayan Senate since 2009, which grew into a major sticking point for the trade bloc. When the country was removed from Mercosur after former President Fernando Lugo’s ouster last year, the organization took advantage of its absence to grant Venezuela full membership. According to the AP, Cartes has said he will urge Congress to accept Venezuela’s entry into the regional bloc upon taking office.
  • Cartes has publicly apologized for homophobic statements he made in the days leading up to Sunday’s election, in which he compared gay men to monkeys and likened legalizing gay marriage to the end of the world.
  • The head of Colombia’s armed forces, Alejandro Navas, has announced that the military is close to finding out who leaked sensitive intelligence information to former President Alvaro Uribe, which he then revealed in a public critique of the government’s peace talks with FARC guerrillas. Caracol reports that Navas claims the individual responsible for the leak will likely be identified in some days’ time.
  • The Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) bloc has announced that it will create an “international observatory” dedicated to tracking abuses committed by multinational corporations in the region. The AFP reports that the plan was announced at an ALBA ministers’ meeting in Ecuador yesterday, and while the exact nature of this organization’s responsibilities remain undefined, it will follow complaints filed against foreign companies for alleged violation of terms of investment.
  • The Financial Times takes a look at another cause of discontent among the Argentine opposition: the perception of widespread corruption in all levels of government. The latest incident to fuel this grievance was the revelation that U.S. fashion company Ralph Lauren may have repeatedly bribed customs officials from 2005 to 2009, for which it has been forced to pay a $1.6 million settlement to U.S. authorities.  While cases like this are likely to deepen the opposition’s antagonism towards the government, the FT suggests that Argentines are so accustomed to such incidents that it will not have much impact on Fernandez’s image.
  • The Washington Post has a long and fascinating profile of Ana Montes, a high-level American intelligence officer who was arrested in September 2001 for serving as a Cuban spy. Montes passed on extremely sensitive information to the Cuban government for 17 years, and U.S. intelligence experts consider her the most damaging mole in recent memory.
  • A week after the Chilean Congress voted to impeach Education Minister Harald Beyer, President Sebastian Piñera has announced that she will be replaced by Carolina Schmidt, Minister of Women’s Affairs, who is currently the most popular member of his cabinet, according to Telesur.
  • Honduran Congressional President Juan Hernandez has announced that police in the Central American country have uncovered evidence of a plot to kill several high-profile figures in the country, including a journalist, a police officer and a congressman.  
  • The Miami Herald reports that for the first time since Haiti was hit by several major storms five years ago, the UN’s food program and other humanitarian groups in the country lack sufficient supplies due to a reduction in international aid.
  • A Vatican official has announced that Archbishop Oscar Romero’s pathway to sainthood has been “unblocked,” according to the National Catholic Reporter. According to the NCR, the announcement suggests that the revered Salvadoran figure could be beatified in the near future, an intermediate step before being considered a saint.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Colorado Party Returns: Horacio Cartes Wins Paraguay Elections

On Sunday, Colorado Party candidate Horacio Cartes was elected president of Paraguay with 45.8 percent of the vote, while his closest competitor Efrain Alegre of the Liberal Party received 36.94 percent. Cartes’ win is a major triumph for his conservative party, and marks its return to power after former President Fernando Lugo interrupted 60 years of Colorado rule in 2008.

When Cartes takes office in August, it will restore democratically-elected rule in the country, which was halted last June when Lugo was impeached and subsequently replaced by Vice President Federico Franco, a Liberal. This will likely cause the Mercosur trading bloc and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to reestablish Paraguay’s full membership in both organizations. According to MercoPress, the presidents of Uruguay and Argentina have already congratulated Cartes and invited him to attend the next Mercosur summit in June.

But while Cartes’ election is set bring an end to Paraguay’s regional isolation caused by Lugo’s controversial overthrow, it raises new concerns about the state of democracy within the South American nation.

One of these is the restoration of the Colorado Party’s political dominance. The leftist-Liberal coalition that brought Lugo to power in 2008 crumbled last June when the Liberal Party turned on the president and backed his impeachment. Yet Cartes’ wide margin of victory in this election suggests that the Liberals do not have enough votes to take the presidency without the support of smaller leftist parties.

As political analyst Alfredo Boccia told Reuters, “The big defeat today was for the Liberal Party, they must be asking themselves why they backed the impeachment.”

With the Colorado Party in power once again and the main opposition party reluctant to ally itself with more progressive factions, some on the Paraguayan left may feel marginalized from traditional politics, a factor that could fuel support for the small insurgent group in the north of the country, the Paraguayan People's Army (EPP). The EPP is tiny (officials say it has less than 50 fighters) but committed, and its members have proven difficult to capture despite repeated military operations in their area of influence. Noticias ABC Digital reports that the group’s most recent attack came on Sunday, in an assault on a police station in which one officer and a rebel were killed.

Another reason to be concerned for the political climate in Paraguay is Cartes’ allegedly criminal past. In recent weeks evidence has emerged to suggest he may have taken part in a money laundering scheme, and he also faces persistent allegations of links to drug trafficking groups. As InSight Crime points out, a 2010 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks claims that the DEA identified him as the head of a transnational criminal organization.

News Briefs
  • After he was officially sworn in on Friday, President Nicolas Maduro has announced a cabinet reshuffle. The AP reports that Maduro is appointing 16 new ministers, replacing nearly half of the administration officials who had been put in place by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. By and large the most well-known cabinet members -- like Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, Defense Minister Diego Molero and Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas -- will remain. Among the newcomers is Nelson Merentes, who will serve in the newly-created office of the “Economic Vice-president.” The responsibilities of the office appear similar to the function of a finance minister, a position Merentes has held several times under Chavez. He is believed to be a more pragmatic member of the administration, and foreign financial analysts see as a positive move, according to Reuters.
  • Pope Francis has released a statement urging an end to the escalated political division in the country. "I invite the dear Venezuelan people, and in particular its institutional and political leaders, to establish a dialogue based on the truth, mutual recognition in the search for the common good and out of love for the nation," the first Latin American pope said.
  • The U.S. State Department released its annual Human Rights Report for 2012, which is highly critical of the Venezuelan government for alleged politicization of the judicial system and restrictions on freedom of expression.
  • On Friday, the tribunal overseeing the trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt convened briefly and announced that it would refuse to honor a ruling by a separate judge who ordered the court to annul its proceedings. Judge Yazmín Barrios, head of the tribunal, announced that the court “not obliged to comply with an order that violates our jurisdiction.” However, Plaza Publica reports that she did recognize that the Rios Montt trial would have to be suspended in order to allow for the Consitutional Court to resolve the issue.
  • Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca is in The Hague today to help prepare the country’s official complaint concerning its border dispute with Chile, which will be delivered to the International Court of Justice on Wednesday. If successful, Bolivia stands to gain access to the Pacific Ocean for the first time since 1883. La Tercera reports that one of the lawyers Bolivia has hired to argue its case is Alan Vaughan Lowe, a British national who is currently representing Peru in a similar border dispute with Chile.
  • The Miami Herald reports that a Florida judge has granted asylum to the family of a Mexican union leader who was targeted for his political activity, and notes that there has been a marked rise in the number of Mexican immigrants being granted asylum status over the past decade.
  • The BBC looks at the town of La Nahuaterique, which was originally in El Salvador but became part of Honduras as part of the a 1992 border treaty. Locals mostly identify as Salvadorans, although they complain that their town’s needs are ignored by the governments of both countries.
  • El Heraldo reports that poll numbers in Honduras suggest that leftist candidate Xiomara Castro has a slight advantage over her rival Salvador Nasralla ahead of November’s presidential elections, although both candidates are disputing poll data to claim the upper hand.
  • On Friday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced publicly that he is considering running for re-election, the Wall Street Journal reports. However, his flagging level of support may make this difficult. Polls show that two-thirds of Colombians oppose his re-election, and about half of the population views him in a negative light.