Friday, June 28, 2013

Ecuador Pulls out of Trade Pact, Offers Human Rights Training to U.S.

In yet another act of defiance to the United States, Ecuador has announced that it will pull out of a preferential trade pact in response to alleged pressure from the U.S. not to grant asylum to former CIA contractor Edward Snowden. Government spokesman Fernando Alvarado announced the decision yesterday morning, saying “Ecuador does not accept pressure or threats from anyone, and does not negotiate its principles or submit them to mercantile interests, as important as they are.”

But the administration of President Rafael Correa did not stop there. Reuters reports:

In a cheeky jab at the U.S. spying program that Snowden unveiled through leaks to the media, the South American nation offered $23 million per year to finance human rights training. 
The funding would be destined to help “avoid violations of privacy, torture and other actions that are denigrating to humanity,” Alvarado said. He said the amount was the equivalent of what Ecuador gained each year from the trade benefits. 
“Ecuador gives up, unilaterally and irrevocably, the said customs benefits,” he said.
President Correa himself later addressed the decision in a speech, in which he accused the U.S. of using renewal of the Andean Trade Promotion with and Drug Enforcement Act (ATPDEA) to blackmail Ecuador into denying Snowden asylum. “Our dignity is priceless,” the Ecuadorean leader said. El Telegrafo reports that he pledged to submit a bill to Congress that will make up for the loss in commerce.

The Washington Post notes that the announcement comes one day after the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), promised to do all he could to block the renewal of ATPDEA. Still, the extent to which Snowden was the determining factor for the trade deal’s demise is unclear, as it was unlikely to be renewed anyway. On June 21, before news of Snowden’s asylum request broke, El Universo reported that a U.S. Embassy official in Quito believed the deal’s renewal seemed “less and less probable.”

The AP reports that yesterday also saw the Ecuadorean government “scrambling” to explain the emergence of a single-page, unsigned letter dated June 22 which claimed to give Snowden the right to travel to Ecuador for political asylum, and asked other countries to allow him safe passage. The letter was leaked by Univision on Wednesday night. According to officials in Ecuador, it was issued by the country’s diplomatic mission in London without the approval of the Foreign Ministry, and is thus invalid.

News Briefs

  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appears to have won broader support for a series of political reforms meant to address protesters demands, and more details have emerged about a proposed referendum on the changes. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Rousseff administration is seeking to hold the vote in mid-August, and is expected to meet with opposition leaders in the coming days to discuss the nature of referendum questions on the ballot.
  • On Wednesday, the Venezuelan government released a recording of an alleged onversation between opposition legislator Maria Corina Machado and Venezuelan academic Germán Carrera Damas, in which Machado claims the head of the Venezuelan opposition called for a coup in a meeting with U.S. diplomats in Washington. David Smilde of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights notes that the tape could have serious implications for U.S.-Venezuelan relations, and illustrates divisions in the opposition much like the release of a tape in May showed divisions in the ruling PSUV.
  • Mexico’s Foreign Ministry released a statement yesterday welcoming the passage of the immigration bill in the U.S. Senate, though it expressed concern that some of the provisions on border security “move away from the principles of shared responsibility and neighborliness.”
  • The New York Times examines the rising public outrage against a longstanding culture of corruption and impunity for congressmen in Brazil, which has become one of the primary targets of recent demonstrations. The paper notes that, according to watchdog group Congresso em Foco, nearly 200 legislators -- a third of Brazil’s Congress -- are facing charges in trials overseen by the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, the Court upheld the conviction of a former congressman found guilty of corruption and sentenced him to prison for 13 years. According to O Globo, this the conviction of Natan Donadon is the first time an ex-congressman has been imprisoned since the new constitution was approved in 1988.
  • The Americas Quarterly blog profiles protests in Venezuela organized by professors and students upset with a lack of funding for public universities in the country. The demonstrators argue that universities have had the same budget they did in 2006, with no adjustment for inflation. The government has also refused to recognize the right of university professors’ unions to strike, as rights group PROVEA has denounced.
  • The Economist’s Cuba correspondent looks at the country’s plan to open the first privately-run wholesale market on the island in fifty years on July 1, which farmers are eagerly awaiting as an opportunity to sell produce in bulk.
  • Chilean police arrested some 120 young people yesterday in a series of pre-dawn raids on more than 20 secondary schools that had been taken over by students. The BBC reports that the schools were intended to be used as polling stations in Sunday’s primary elections. El Mostrador has photos of the raids, in which many students clashed with authorities.
  • According to Bloomberg, the U.S. State Department has presented a congressionally-mandated report on Iranian influence in Latin America. The report found it is in decline due to “diplomatic outreach, strengthening of allies’ capacity, international nonproliferation efforts, a strong sanctions policy, and Iran’s poor management of its foreign relations.” Its findings contradict a October 2011 paper by Roger Noriega and Jose Cardenas written for the American Enterprise Institute, which generated alarm in Washington about Iran’s activities in the region.
  • A leader of Mexico’s leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in southern Oaxaca state, missing since June 15, was found dead on Thursday with three gunshot wounds to the head, Reuters and El Universal report. Jesus Zambrano, the PRD's national president, has called for a full investigation into the murder. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Honduran Attorney General Resigns After Congress Recommends Impeachment

Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubí, whose office has been run by Congressionally-appointed oversight committee since April, resigned yesterday after Honduran lawmakers moved to impeach him for mismanagement and corruption.

El Heraldo reports that Rubí presented a letter of resignation yesterday, in which he said he was proud of his “tireless struggle for the preservation of the rule of law, democratic institutions, the independence and autonomy of the attorney general’s office.” The resignation came hours after a congressional committee on security recommended that both Rubí and the deputy attorney general, Roy Urtecho, be impeached over a lack of accountability in the office during their tenure.

Back when Congress first turned over temporary management of the attorney general’s office to a three-person oversight committee in April, Rubí himself acknowledged that there had been major failures. In congressional testimony, Rubí admitted that only 20 percent of murders are ever investigated by public prosecutors. Some of this is due to simple case overload. A January report by the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) found that 7,172 murders were committed last year, a record year for violence the country.

But mismanagement appears to be at the heart of the problem as well. The oversight committee found evidence of wasted funding, a lack of commitment to procedure, and substandard levels of coordination with police, resulting in higher acquittal rates.

There may also be deeper political interests at stake. Rubí is not the only Honduran official to temporarily relieved of duty by an oversight committee appointed by Congress (a new power granted to lawmakers by the passage of a controversial law in December, as explained by Honduras Culture and Politics). Health Minister Roxana Araujo resigned earlier this month after President Porfirio Lobo appointed a commission to investigate the ministry. But while the government claims she is guilty of administrative negligence, transparency NGO Transformemos Honduras claims she was forced out of office because of her denunciation of corrupt deals between the government and pharmaceutical providers.

Tiempo reports that President Lobo announced yesterday that he intends to name a new attorney general soon. Hopefully the replacement will be more successful than his predecessor at improving criminal investigations in the crime-plagued country, but there is little room for optimism on this front. An AP investigation published earlier this month found that only seven police officers were fired as a result of a police cleanup effort launched last year, and some of these have since been reinstated, illustrating an alarming lack of political will to seriously root out corruption in the police force.

News Briefs

  • On Wednesday, Ecuador’s Deputy Foreign Minister Galo Galarza told reporters that the country had not given a temporary travel document to former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, whose U.S. passport has reportedly been revoked. Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, who is currently on an official tour in Asia, told reporters that it could take weeks for Ecuador to decide whether to grant asylum to Snowden, claiming that the decision to shelter Julian Assange took two months to reach.
  • While Ecuador was reportedly be weighing granting asylum to Snowden against the potential damage caused by the U.S. not renewing trade preferences with the country, it appears that is no longer a factor for President Rafael Correa. El Comercio reports that the administration’s communications secretary announced this morning that it is pulling out of the ATPDEA trade agreement unilaterally, because "Ecuador does not accept pressure or threats from anyone, and does not negotiate its principles or submit them to the mercantile interests, as important as they.”
  • The Associated Press profiles an average middle class Rio de Janeiro family which has been swept up in the recent protests in Brazil against corruption and government mismanagement. While the head of the family, Paolo Cavalcante, says he campaigned for President Dilma Rousseff, now he is disillusioned in the ruling party. “We're killing ourselves to provide our kids with what the government doesn't,” he told the news service.
  • La Republica reports on a growing scandal in Peru involving former President President Alan Garcia, who allegedly made backroom deals to pardon jailed drug traffickers during his administration. The attorney general’s office has now opened a preliminary investigation against former justice minister Aurelio Pastor Valdivieso, who denies that such deals were made.
  • Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo told reporters yesterday that Costa Rica has “doubts” about Nicaragua’s plan build a massive rival to the Panama Canal. According to Castillo one of the proposed routes for the canal includes Lake Nicaragua, the country’s primary source of fresh water.
  • A major student demonstration was held in Santiago yesterday, in which over 100,000 students marched to demand education reform. The protests, which were timed to coincide with Sunday's presidential primaries, soon turned violent. According to El Pais and The Guardian. Small groups of “encapuchados” clashed with police, hurling Molotov cocktails and looting a restaurant to set up barricades.
  • The Avenida América blog hosts an interesting bar graph comparing murder rates per 100,000 residents in the biggest cities in the Western Hemisphere in 2011. As it turns out, a number of Latin American cities generally perceived as unsafe have lower homicide rates than many U.S. cities. Washington DC, for instance, registered a higher murder rate than Mexico City, and Sao Paulo saw a lower murder rate than either Indianapolis or Dallas.
  • The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has posted a thought-provoking video interview by Adam Isaacson of Ariel Ávila, a Colombian conflict analyst with the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación. Ávila discusses some interesting findings of his research in the course of the interview, including an assertion that -- contrary to popular opinion -- there is little hard evidence of fragmentation or internal division within the FARC at the moment. The bigger issue, according to Ávila, is the state’s inability to force large landowners and rural power networks to implement agrarian reform measures likely to be included in an ultimate peace agreement.
  • Latin America analyst James Bosworth looks at the ongoing conflict in the Mercosur bloc over the admission of Venezuela after Paraguay’s suspension last year. Although at first it appeared as though Paraguayan President-elect Horacio Cartes was open to Venezuela’s membership, pressure from lawmakers in his country has forced him to reject it. On Tuesday, ABC reported that Cartes announced that the rotating presidency of the trade bloc should go to him after a meeting in Montevideo next month rather than Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and said Paraguay will remain outside of Mercosur if it goes to Venezuela. Cartes also interested in gaining full membership for his country in the Pacific Alliance, though Bosworth notes that Paraguay’s reliance on Brazil and Argentina makes Mercosur membership strategically valuable.
  • Yesterday’s New York Times featured an opinion piece by Elio Gaspari, a columnist for the O Globo and Folha de São Paulo, in which the Brazilian journalist puts the demonstrations in perspective. Gaspari contrasts the price of public transportation in his country to the “lavish lifestyles” of public officials According to him, the cost of public transportation for a family in Rio or São Paulo is “proportionally, higher than in New York or Paris.”  He also compares the fact that none of the 25 high-level officials convicted of corruption in the mensalão case are behind bars to the Watergate scandal, writing: “To grasp the significance of this, Americans need only contemplate their rage if the Watergate scandal had dragged on, enabling Richard M. Nixon to finish his second term, help elect a handpicked successor from his own party in 1976 and then watch all those indicted, tried and convicted walk free eight years later.”

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On Snowden: Why Ecuador? Why Latin America?

While Edward Snowden did not follow through on a rumored trip to Ecuador via Cuba on Monday, this has not stopped many observers from offering commentary on the appropriateness of the former CIA contractor seeking refuge in these countries to avoid extradition to the United States.

The government of Ecuador, which claims it has received an asylum request from Snowden, has been quite vocal in implying support for his cause. At a press conference on Monday Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño compared Snowden’s case with the “persecution” of U.S. Private Bradley Manning. And though a final decision on the matter had not yet made, Patiño declared that Ecuador “will act on the basis of principles of human rights written in our constitution, not on the interests of others.” 

Almost as soon as it was confirmed, news of Ecuador’s openness to the asylum request was criticized in the U.S., largely by those who claimed it stands in stark contrast to a new media law passed in the country. The law criminalizes defamatory or libelous content, and has been condemned by free press advocacy groups. The Washington Post editorial board claimed that applying for asylum poses a moral challenge to Snowden, as the law includes restrictions on publishing material sensitive to state security. Other outlets have also characterized Ecuador taking in Snowden as hypocrisy, and many have pointed that it could cause the U.S. not to renew trade preferences with Ecuador, as the New York Times reports.

But not everyone has been so quick to criticize Ecuador. Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research told the Christian Science Monitor that allegations of media restriction are overstated. “I'm not defending everything Correa has done but there are criminal libel laws just as strict in France and Germany; if I accused France of trying to suppress dissent no one would take me seriously," he said.

In an op-ed for CNN, Latin America scholar Steve Striffler argues that Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s popularity meant he had relatively little to gain from sheltering WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange last year, and Snowden now. He writes:
Correa's stance is best seen as a principled one. In broad terms, Correa's openness to Assange and Snowden, as well as his decision to close a U.S. military base in Ecuador, is part of an effort to deepen Ecuadorian sovereignty while strengthening Latin America's ability to limit the influence of the United States in the region. 
This is perfectly within the rights of an independent nation, even one that has historically followed the U.S. lead. More immediately, Correa's willingness to take on Snowden should be seen for what it is, as a refreshingly principled stand by a small country against a powerful nation engaged in what many see as the political persecution of one of its own citizens.
Some have even taken Ecuador’s willingness to harbor Snowden a step further, extending it to the entire region. Stephen Kinzer of The Guardian, argues:
In fact, not just a handful of leaders but huge populations in Latin America have decided that they wish for more independence from Washington. This is vital for Snowden because it reduces the chances that a sudden change of government could mean his extradition. If he can make it to Latin America, he will never lack for friends or supporters.
It is true that the region is becoming increasingly sovereign. And doubtless Assange’s recent advice for Snowden to “go to Latin America” is related to the fact that, according to a recent Open Society Institute study, it is the only region in the world where no country has participated in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. However, this does not mean that Latin American leaders are not taking their national interests into account in weighing their stance on the Snowden affair.

On The Havana Note blog, Anya Landau French suggests that one of the reasons Snowden didn’t make it to Cuba on Monday is the Cuban government’s recent attempts to improve relations with the United States. Granting Snowden safe passage would show a “break of faith” with recent assurances that Cuban authorities have given that they would no longer accept U.S. fugitives, even if their crimes were considered political. This implicit agreement was first cited in a 2006 State Department report on Cuba’s continued listing as a state sponsor of terrorism.

In all likelihood, officials in Venezuela are currently making the same calculation. Yesterday President Nicolas Maduro announced that his government “would evaulate” an asylum request from Snowden if he presented one, but doing so would likely undo whatever progress in bilateral relations has been made since a brief meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua earlier this month. 

News Briefs
  • After Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff opened up a dialogue on a plebliscite to reform the country’s constitution, it was met by criticism from opposition politicians, The Wall Street Journal reports. In response, her administration appears to have walked her statement back somewhat. Justice Minister  José Eduardo Cardoso told reporters yesterday that the president had only endorsed a constituent assembly “in general terms” and that she planned on implementing political reforms by way of a referendum, which under Brazilian law would have to take place by this October, a year ahead of the next election, according to Spain’s El Pais.  
  • It appears the protests in Brazil are having an immediate impact. A bill under discussion in Congress that would have limited federal prosecutors’ ability to carry out investigations, which had been specifically targeted by demonstrators last week, was taken off the table yesterday.
  • The AP looks at some of the young organizers in Brazil’s Free Fare Movement, a consensus-based horizontal organization. While representatives of the group are uncomfortable with taking credit for the demonstrations, this week will be a key test of their ability to make themselves stand for more than the bus fare hike.
  • Over three years after the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, a new report by the Government Accountability Office claims that the U.S. Agency for International Development has spent just 31 percent -- $204 million -- of the money allocated in aid. Although UASAID initially planned on building 15,000 homes for 75,000 to 90,000 people, its latest target was lowered to 2,649 homes for up to 15,900 people. The GAO also cited a serious lack of available information for congressional oversight, as requirements on the State Department’s reporting of spending ended last September, the New York Times reports.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro visited Haiti yesterday, after canceling a planned visit in April. At a joint press conference yesterday, Haitian President Michel Martelly told reporters that 94 percent of “the current infrastructure, agriculture and education projects are being done in Haiti are being done through the PetroCaribe fund,” according to the AP.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s proposed overhaul of Mexico’s state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos and the rest of its energy sector has been challenged by center-left PRD party. Yesterday PRD chairman Jesus Zambrano presented an alternative to Peña Nieto’s plan, wchi would require changes to the country’s constitution. The party’s stance sits with the results of a recent CIDE poll, which found that 65 percent of Mexicans oppose foreign investment in PEMEX, according to Animal Politico.
  • On Tuesday the Mexican government weighed in on the immigration debate in the United States, saying that proposed spending on border fencing and other security measures would harm bilateral relations and reduce trade. El Universal reports that in a press conference, Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade told reporters: “Fences do not unite us. They are not the solution to the migratory phenomenon and are not consistent with a secure and modern border. They do not contribute to the development of a competitive region.”
  • Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, whose opponents presented the required number of signatures to trigger a special election to recall him in April, has welcomed a recall vote and will request it from electoral officials, RCN Radio reports. La Silla Vacia notes that this is an unusual 180 for the mayor, who just 20 days ago fought the recall initiative tooth and nail and accused its backers of fraud.
  • Ecuador is the latest country in Latin America to make progress on decriminalizing drug use. Although its 2008 constitution established that drug use is a public health issue, it did not specify the difference between amounts used for personal use and for trafficking, which contributed to one of the harshest anti-drug regimes in Latin America. El Diario and El Comercio reported last week that the Ministry of Justice implemented new regulations on drug possession, on the recommendation of the country’s drug council, CONSEP. In a recent interview with El Telegrafo, legal specialist Fernando Puedmag Castro discusses the importance of the move as it relates to prison overcrowding and stigmatization of drug users in the country.
  • In another trend on substance abuse regulation, Jamaica is set to become the latest country in the Caribbean to ban public smoking, following the initiative of the Cayman Islands, Dominican Republic, Suriname and Grenada.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rousseff Calls for Vote on Constitutional Reforms

As protests in Brazil began to wind down, on Monday President Dilma Rousseff met with some of the main organizers of the demonstrations and made a surprising call for a vote on whether to alter the country's constitution.

According to Folha de São Paulo, Rousseff met with leaders of the Free Fare Movement (MPL) yesterday afternoon in the presidential palace, where she attempted to flesh out some of the promises made last week in an attempt to quel demonstrations. She later held an emergency meeting with Brazil’s governors and mayors of 26 capital cities to repeat these proposals, which the AP reports fall into five categories: public transportation, fiscal responsibility, political reform, health care and education.

While MPL leaders later told reporters that the president “made no concrete offer,” Al Jazeera English reports that Rousseff proposed to set aside roughly $25 billion for public transportation.  She also announced a bill to make political corruption a felony instead of a minor offense, as well as new funding for teachers and medical professionals. Folha reports that this included a promise to create 4000 positions for doctors and construct new hospitals around the country.

But the most surprising element of Rousseff’s remarks yesterday was her proposal to hold a plebiscite on whether to convene an assembly to amend 1988 constitution. According to the New York Times, the referendum would be aimed at tackling campaign finance law and corruption in Congress, a nod to a central demand of the protests. The paper also notes that the announcement appears to be a smart tactical move by Rousseff, as the reforms are all part of a proposal that her Workers’ Party has made before. By floating the idea of a referendum, she is giving the appearance of conceding to protesters’ demands while simultaneously pushing her party’s agenda, which BBC Executive Editor in São Paulo Gary Duffy calls “either a bold move or a very clever one.”

Paul Sotero, director of Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute, characterizes it as the latter. “This could release enormous political energy and, if done right, could be a way for her to come out on top,” Sotero told the Wall Street Journal “Every Brazilian knows the political structure is completely messed up, and though the initiative to change it is coming from the street, she is showing she is listening and understands it.”

There are still questions about the constitutionality of a plebiscite, however. O Globo reports that many jurists and legal specialists argue that calling a vote would be illegal and unnecessary. This includes newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barros, who in 2011 gave an interview in which he implied that a referendum would threaten the integrity of the constitution.

News Briefs
  • Former CIA contractor Edward Snowden did not board a plane to Cuba yesterday as rumors suggested he would, raising questions about whether his application for asylum in Ecuador was a ruse to mask other travel plans. Ecuadorean Foreign Ricardo Patiño said yesterday that he couldn’t provide any information on Snowden’s whereabouts, although his country is still considering his request. “We will act on the basis of principles of human rights written in our constitution, not on whatever interests of others,” Patiño announced at a press conference in Hanoi, where he is making an official visit.  The Washington Post reports on the story under the headline “Through Snowden, Ecuador seeks fight with U.S.,” characterizing Ecuador’s President Correa as actively trying to put himself in a more antagonistic relationship with the United States.  
  • Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero has announced that a meeting is in the works with his Ecuadorean counterpart to discuss “addressing indigenous tensions,” El Comercio reports. The idea, according to Romero, is for him to share the Bolivian government’s recent experiences with protests by indigenous groups to help authorities in Ecuador shape their approach to similar demonstrations. There is no mention of representatives from indigenous groups being invited to this meeting.
  • Federal prosecutors in Mexico have charged former Tabasco Governor Andres Granier with money laundering and embezzling millions of dollars, according to El Universal. Granier, who is currently seeking treatment for chest pain, recently made headlines after a recording of him bragging about owning hundreds of expensive suits and pairs of shoes and shopping at luxury stores was released.
  • An anti-crime group in Mexico known as the Citizen Council for Public Safety yesterday announced a $750,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of 12 young people who were kidnapped from a Mexico City bar last month, the AP and Milenio report. The case has fueled concern that the capital city is no longer the oasis from violent crime that it once was.
  • A new poll by Mexican research institute CIDE found some surprising attitudes towards Mexican nationalism. According to the survey, some 60 percent of Mexicans would prefer it if the U.S. and Mexico were one country.
  • Panama’s foreign minister, Fernando Nuñez Fabrega, yesterday delivered a speech in which he claimed “it is time to open up to Cuba, to mend fences and animosity” against the country. Nuñez then echoed his country’s position that Cuba should be invited to the 7th Summit of the Americas in 2015, to be hosted in Panama City.
  • Colombia has signed a controversial security cooperation agreement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an agreement which Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and other leaders of the ALBA bloc, vehemently oppose.
  • Rafael Uzcátegui of PROVEA, a Caracas-based human rights group, offers some alarming statistics on impunity in the country. Out of every 100 murders in Venezuela, 91 go unsolved, a factor which Uzcátegui claims fuels insecurity and violent crime.
  • Maduro is set to arrive in Haiti today for a meeting with Haitian President Michel Martelly. The two are set to hold a joint press conference this afternoon, according to Ultimas Noticias.
  • El Tiempo reports that alias “Timochenko,” head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Ivan Marquez, the guerrilla group’s top negotiator in Havana, have been sentenced to 40 years in jail by a Colombian court. They were found guilty, along with 22 others, of rebellion, homicide and terrorism, all as a result of the 2003 bombing of a boat traveling on the Ariari river in Meta province. Prosecuting alleged FARC crimes is a major point of contention in the country, as the current peace talks are likely to include a kind of amnesty for some rebel leaders.
  • Spanish news agency EFE reports on a conference in Bogota being sponsored by the World Bank and the Colombian government, which will bring together some 40 international experts on crime and violence prevention as well as mayors from around Latin America and the Caribbean. According to the organizers, “Chicago, Colombia and Rio de Janeiro” have become the new models for violence prevention policy in the region.
  • The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have launched a useful new database of citizen security assistance to Central America which tracks and documents international aid from actors around the world. While it is still being updated, the database documents over 600 projects, totaling around $2 billion, financed by more than 30 multilateral and bilateral donors and agencies, as well as private foundations.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Ecuador Weighs Ex-CIA Contractor's Asylum Request

While no one knows with certainty where fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden is heading after leaving Hong Kong on Sunday, Ecuador appears to be his most likely destination.

Yesterday morning, the South China Morning Post reported that Snowden had left Hong Kong after the United States government requested his extradition on espionage charges. The Hong Kong based newspaper claimed the former CIA contractor had boarded a plane headed to Moscow, although this was not his final destination. Officials in the Chinese territory told the Morning Post that Snowden had left “of his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel.”

Reuters followed up the news by reporting that a source at the Russian airline Aeroflot had said Edward Snowden would fly from Moscow to Cuba on Monday. From there, he allegedly planned to go to Venezuela, according to the source.

Upon his arrival in Moscow, journalists at the scene noted the presence of Ecuadorean diplomatic cars, and there were reports that Snowden received a medical checkup from an Ecuadorean doctor.  

Finally, yesterday afternoon Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño announced that his country had received a request for asylum from Snowden, though it has not yet made a decision on the matter.

From Snowden’s perspective, there are several advantages to this move. The country has already demonstrated a willingness to stand up to world powers by granting asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks (which reportedly aided his departure from Hong Kong) in its London embassy. And because Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has more international legitimacy than Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Cuba’s Raul Castro, holing up in Ecuador is more beneficial to Snowden’s image. Also Correa just won re-election, and is set to remain in office until at least 2017.

At the same time, however, a recently-passed media regulation law and Correa’s history of confrontation with private media leave Ecuador vulnerable to criticism from press freedom groups. Observers have already attacked Assange for his support for Correa, and the decision to grant asylum to the WikiLeaks director was widely framed as an attempt to boost the administration’s credibility.

From Ecuador’s perspective, accepting Snowden’s request would also have significant drawbacks. The AP points out that while Ecuador’s president “embraces his role as a thorn in Washington’s side…nothing Correa has done to rankle the United States is likely to infuriate as much as granting the asylum being sought by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.” The decision comes just as Ecuador is pressuring the U.S. to renew the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), a trade preference agreement which is set to expire on July 31. While its renewal was already unlikely, granting asylum would likely be the last straw.

Ultimately, however, Snowden’s plans are unknown. The New York Times reports that Snowden’s flight to  Havana departed without him earlier this morning, raising questions about “alternate travel plans.”

News Briefs

  • After Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff held an emergency cabinet meeting on Friday to discuss the massive protests that broke out last week across the country, she announced a series of reforms aimed at satisfying demonstrators’ demands. In a televised address, Rousseff promised to draft a new plan to sort out public transportation costs, and urged lawmakers to support her recent proposal to earmark oil royalties for public education. She also said she would bring in more foreign doctors to support the demand for health care in rural areas. It is unclear how much of these reform proposals were new, however as her government announced in May it was in talks with Cuba to accept some 6,000 doctors. Meanwhile, protests continued over the weekend in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Fortaleza, though the BBC reports they were far smaller than last week’s demonstrations.
  • A preliminary ballot measure to strike down the law that legalized abortion in Uruguay last year has failed. The proposal needed support from 25 percent of the voting populace to force a mandatory vote on the issue, and El Pais reports that less than 10 percent participated. Among those that turned out was former President Tabare Vazquez, who is widely expected to run for the office next year.  
  • The New York Times profiles recent gains in transparency and accountability in Mexico, spurred by the efforts of watchdog groups, opposition parties, and news media to hold officials accountable for corrupt acts which were once considered the status quo.
  • A new poll shows that support for Peruvian President Ollanta Humala fell five points from May to June, to 39 percent. Among those who expressed criticism for the president, rising crime was the most popular reason, according to RPP Noticias.
  • On Friday Colombian negotiators and their FARC counterparts in Havana released a joint report on their progress so far, which offers more detail about the landmark land reform agreement signed roughly a month earlier. The 12-page report has provisions outlining the specifics land redistribution and formalization of land titles, as well as the promotion of rural development. As Virginia Bouvier notes, the report highlights the parties’ divergent attitudes toward the subject. While the government announced that agrarian reform would “contribute to reversing the damaging effects of the conflict,” the FARC suggested it would “contribute to solving the historic causes of the conflict.
  • The dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands/Malvinas hit a bump on Thursday, when the UK rejected an Argentine proposal for Pope Francis I (an Argentine) to mediate, the NYT reports.
  • Because Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has spent much of the last year pushing for a judicial reform law, last week’s Supreme Court ruling which found the law’s provision allowing for public election of judges to be unconstitutional came as a major blow. The Economist argues that in order to avoid becoming a lame duck president her party needs to perform well in October’s legislative elections, “a prospect that has seemed unlikely for months and is even less likely now.”
  • The State Department has issued a new travel warning for Honduras, advising U.S. citizens that “crime and violence levels in Honduras remain critically high.” The announce comes as a group of twenty-one Senators urged Secretary of State John Kerry to review aid to Honduran security forces. The CEPR Americas Blog provides an overview of the press coverage of the letter, noting it is rare for so many -- around 40 percent of the Senate Democratic caucus -- to take a unified position on Latin America policy. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Rousseff Calls Emergency Cabinet Meeting as Protests Widen

After the biggest wave of demonstrations yet broke out last night in over 80 cities across the country, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has scheduled an emergency cabinet meeting this morning to address protesters’ demands.

The AP and NYT report that more than 1 million people took to the streets last night in at least 80 cities in Brazil, the largest demonstrations yet. According to this map by Folha de São Paulo, the number of cities in which demonstrations were planned is closer to 90.

Last nights’ protests seem to have been more violent than previous ones, with dozens injured across the county in clashes with police and at least one person killed in Sao Paulo state after a car rammed into a crowd of demonstrators.

In Brasilia, police were able to block protesters from accessing the Congress building like they had on Monday, but many headed on to the iconic Itamaraty Palace, which houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where they set fire to the entrance and smashed windows, O Estadão reports. O Globo has some striking photos of the marches throughout the country last night.

Meanwhile, hackers sympathetic to the protests have apparently taken over the World Cup website for the city of Cuiabá, using it to broadcast a message imploring foreigners not to come to the World Cup in protest of the government’s focus on the football championship, allegedly at the expense of social issues like education and health.

As Brazilian news site Agência Pública (available in Spanish at IDL-Reporteros) notes, the Cup has become a central point of contention for protesters. In addition to the government’s controversial and often heavy-handed police operations to “clean up” favelas close to Cup events, Brazilians are angry at the fact that the tournament will only be accessible to largely foreign elites.

Aside from sympathizing with the message of protests on Tuesday, Rousseff has kept a low profile so far this week, likely waiting for them to die down on their own accord. Now that they have only picked up steam, she is unable to ignore them any longer. At the last minute, she canceled a planned trip to Japan to hold the emergency cabinet meeting today.

News Briefs
  • For more on the political significance of the protests in Brazil, see this Democracy Now interview with Lucia Nader, executive director of the São Paulo-based rights group Conectas, in which she expresses concern that the protests are “taking a path that can weaken democratic institutions and the several achievements that Brazil had in the last decade.” Also worth listening to is the latest WOLA podcast, featuring the input of Brazil specialist Joe Bateman, who suggests that the protests reached a tipping point when police began to target journalists at demonstrations.
  • Gay and lesbian couples across Colombia went to public notaries yesterday in the hopes of entering into a civil marriage, after Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2011 that same-sex couples could legally register their relationships on June 20 of this year if the country’s legislative branch failed to pass legislation on the matter, as it did in April. The legal status of these relationships remain unclear, however, as the Court has yet to weigh in on the current status of gay marriage in the country. Still, the Santos administration appears to be backing them. While some prosecutors have said they would investigate notaries who approve gay marriages, the Attorney General has announced these individuals would be charged with abuse of authority, Caracol reports.
  • A U.S. DEA official was reportedly stabbed to death last night in Bogota, according to U.S. ambassador to Colombia Michael McKinley. McKinley told Caracol Radio that the official had been the victim of a robbery after leaving a Bogota restaurant on Thursday night and entering a taxi.
  • BBC Mundo takes a look at recent protests in Nicaragua by senior citizens demanding that the country’s pension system be widened to include those who have worked less than the mandatory 750 weeks of required pay-in. According to Nicaragua Dispatch, the headquarters of the National Social Security Institute (INSS) has been closed since Tuesday after around 100 elderly demonstrators occupied the building. Their call for partial pension access was picked up by student groups, and the occupation gained momentum before police stormed the building yesterday morning and arrested those present.
  • The Economist features a critical look at Ecuador’s new media law, which proponents claim will allow for a more inclusive media landscape. Critics, however, say it will encourage self-censorship and allow the Correa administration to stifle opposition of his administration.
  • The AP reports on recent improvements in U.S. Cuba relations, which have come in the form of recent talks on held talks on resuming direct mail service, as well as a planned discussion on migration issues next month. While at face value these talks appear insignificant, the wire service claims that “under the radar, diplomats on both sides describe a sea change in the tone of their dealings.”
  • It appears that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who last week announced he intended to launch a new anti-corruption unit, may be serious about combating corruption within the ranks of his PSUV.  Or he at least wants to give that impression. In televised remarks yesterday, Maduro said that a top official in Venezuela’s tax collection agency (SENIAT) had been arrested, and that officials found the equivalent of $630,000 in cash in his luxury apartment, El Nacional and the AP report.
  • Americas Quarterly reports on Maduro’s visit with French President François Hollande on Wednesday, the second stop on his official tour of Europe. While Maduro appears to have succeeded at shoring up his claim to the presidency in spite of the protests of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the latter is still pressing on with an international campaign against Maduro. Yesterday the opposition claimed that a Capriles visit to Washington “is on the horizon,” though a date has not yet been announced.
  • A Nicaraguan army helicopter crashed yesterday over the western edge of Lake Managua, killing nine military personnel. According to Nicaragua’s La Prensa, a top air force colonel is among the victims. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Protests Pose Unique Challenge to Brazil's PT

The recent protests in Brazil represent a new threat to the ruling Workers’ Party (PT), which until now has never found itself on the receiving end of mass popular uprisings. As the New York Times’ Simon Romero notes, the PT was “born of protests,” a product of the country’s strong history of organized labor.

But as University of Campinas Professor Marcos Nobre pointed out to the NYT, the party’s hold on the discourse of popular struggle is slipping. “The Workers Party thinks it represents all of the progressive elements in the country, but they’ve been power now for a decade. They’ve done a lot, but they’re now the establishment,” Nobre said.

Romero writes that this growing “disconnect between a growing segment of the population” and the PT was showcased by the decision of Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad -- a rising star in the ruling party -- to refuse to meet with protesters after the first wave of demonstrations on Monday. While Haddad announced yesterday that he would join other mayors in canceling a hike in bus fares, his initial reluctance is a sign that he and others in the PT are becoming out of touch with the populace.

In many ways this is a regional trend. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and others on the Latin American left have, upon taking power, had to confront demonstrations from traditionally friendly sectors like trade unions, students and indigenous groups.

Their relative success may provide a model to President Dilma Rousseff, as a recent dip in her popularity suggests this is certain to play a role in next year’s presidential elections. While she remains largely popular in the country with a 71 percent personal approval rating, this figure fell eight points from last March, and is significantly higher than approval for her administration (55 percent), according to a just-released Ibope poll.

News Briefs

  • In spite of the failure of a gay marriage bill to pass in Colombia’s congress last month, same-sex couples may be able to legally marry as soon as tomorrow, as today marks the deadline set by the Colombian Supreme Court for Congress to come up with necessary legislation on the issue of same sex marriage. It is unclear whether the failure to meet this deadline means that judges and notaries will be compelled to recognize same-sex marriages, however, and the Court is expected to issue a statement clarifying this today. El Tiempo has a copy of a document sent out by gay rights organization Colombia Diversa, which lays out the legal arguments same-sex couples can submit when seeking legal recognition for marriage in public notaries around the country tomorrow.
  • The L.A. Times reports that Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera has come under increasing criticism for his handling of the recent disappearance of 12 youths at a bar in the city’s center. Mancera, himself a former prosecutor, is facing allegations that he is not tough enough on crime and city residents are wondering if its status as an oasis from drug violence has changed.
  • Yesterday Argentine President Cristina Fernandez gave her first speech since the country’s Supreme Court struck down a key provision of a controversial justice reform package she supported. La Nacion reports that she struck a defiant tone, vowing to continue lobbying for the reform.
  • Reuters profiles Mayor Sergio Massa of Tigre, Argentina, who broke ranks with the government of Fernandez to create a new coalition to participate in October’s Congressional elections.  Massa is one of the most popular politicians in the country, and his move is seen by many analysts as positioning ahead of a presidential race in 2015.
  • On Tuesday, Bolivian press published a letter by OAS Secretary for Political Affairs Kevin Casas-Zamora to in which he criticized the Bolivian Supreme Court’s recent stamp of approval on President Evo Morales’ third presidential bid. According to the OAS official, the move goes against remarks made by Morales in 2008, when he promised the opposition he would not seek a third term in an effort to gain support for constitutional reform. In response, La Razon reports Morales has hit back at the international organization, saying it suffers from a "colonial mentality" and repeating calls for its reform. 
  • A number of masked individuals attacked a leading university in Caracas yesterday, setting two buses on fire and causing serious damage to a campus building. According to El Nacional, the president of Venezuela’s Central University believes this was retribution for recent protests by students and professors calling for pay raises and greater funds.
  • Once again, the government has rejected a proposal from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to hold a national assembly to revise the constitution as part of an eventual peace deal. El Espectador reports that Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo said this was off the table, and personally feared that doing so would result in a “counterrevolutionary constitution” in the sense that it could jeopardize progressive reforms of the 1991 Constitution.  
  • The State Department has confirmed to El Nuevo Herald that talks between the U.S. government and Cuba on migration will resume next month, although authorities are careful to say that this does not amount to a shift in policy towards the country.  
  • In spite of its opposition to the gang truce in El Salvador, the U.S. has reportedly approved $91.2 million in funding to support law enforcement efforts in the country as part of the Association for Growth agreement signed in 2011. According to Spanish news agency EFE, the money will go towards improving the integrity of the court system, widening educational opportunities and a crime/gang prevention program called SolucionES, aimed at keeping young people from joining street gangs.
  • Coletta Youngers of the Washington Office on Latin America has a comprehensive analysis of the outcome of the recent OAS General Assembly in Antigua, Guatemala. While the drug policy debate in the hemisphere saw less progress than many advocates would have liked, she notes that the final resolution had the positive effects of demonstrating a growing consensus that current policies are failing, and ensuring a continued debate on the issue in the region. However, the fact that the next two major hemispheric meetings will be held in countries considered to be steadfast U.S. allies in the war on drugs (Paraguay and Panama) suggests that the debate will be limited moving forward. Separately, Youngers also points out that the event cemented an alliance between international and local drug liberalization advocates and human rights groups in Latin America, as illustrated by a letter from more than 160 civil society organizations to the General Assembly in which they expressed support for alternatives to the dominant anti-drug strategy.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Rousseff Offers Sympathy, But No Concessions to Protesters

Yesterday Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sympathized with the major protests that shook Brazil on Monday night, but stopped short of any immediate policy solutions to demonstrators’ general demands.

At the end of a speech yesterday in which she unveiled reforms to Brazil’s 46-year-old mining law, Rousseff addressed the events of the night before. Rousseff said she was “proud” that so many Brazilians took to the streets to defend their rights, and that the country “awoke stronger” that morning. The president also praised the “peaceful nature” of the protests, though she condemned isolated acts of violence, according to O Globo.

The New York Times compares Rousseff’s speech to the response of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to protests in his country, noting that “while Turkey’s prime minister has dismissed the protesters as terrorists, vandals and “bums,” Ms. Rousseff seemed acutely aware of the breadth of frustration in Brazil over the gap between the nation’s global aspirations and the reality for many millions of its people.”

But agreeing with the message of protests is one thing, and making concessions is something else. While the AP reports that officials in five major cities announced plans to lower bus fares, and São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad met with protesters to discuss a cut as well, the protests have moved on from this issue. So far the administration has refrained from offering any new policies to combat corruption or improve transparency in public spending, which have become the demonstrators’ (loosely expressed) demands.

Meanwhile, demonstrations continued in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo last night. Folha d. São  Paulo reports that some 50,000 gathered in the latter city last night to resume protests, with much more looting and vandalism of shops and banks occurring than on Monday’s event.

In response to the continued demonstrations, the Ministry of Justice has announced it will deploy the National Public Security Force (FNSP) to five major cities throughout the country, each of which is currently hosting football matches in the Confederations Cup, which is seen by many as a rehearsal for the World Cup. The only city hosting a Confederations Cup match which did not request the special police force was Recife, according to the BBC.

News Briefs

  • This past weekend, ten of the most prestigious online media sources covering Latin America agreed, after a three-day meeting in Buenos Aires, to form a consortium with the aim of improving the quality of journalism in the region. The newly-founded “ALiados” network includes, among others: Mexico’s Animal Politico, Peru’s IDL-Reporteros, Guatemala’s Plaza Publica, El Salvadors El Faro, Chile’s CIPER and The Clinic and Colombia’s Silla Vacia. According to the text of their pact, the editors of the news sites agreed to collaborate towards pursuing “journalism of a kind that traditional media in the region do not do.”
  • A Peruvian court has ordered the government to suspend a controversial mandatory military draft one day before it was set to go into effect. According to El Comercio, President Ollanta Humala has said he will respect the ruling, although he disagreed with the characterization of the draft as discriminatory. According to Humala, the current volunteer army is more discriminatory as the majority of volunteers come from poor families. “With this decision, we are condemning only the poorest to do military service,” he said.
  • Clarin reports that in a 6-1 ruling yesterday, Argentina’s Supreme Court threw out a key provision of a justice reform bill recently passed by President Cristina Fernandez’s party, which sought to submit the Magistrates Council (the body responsible for appointing and impeaching judges), to popular election. The WSJ claims it has dealt the Fernandez administration a “stinging blow,” while Joaquin Morales Sola of La Nacion asks why the president pressed forward with the reforms in the first place considering their dubious legality. The president, meanwhile, has called for public debate on the matter to continue, and her cabinet chief has accused the judges of being “afraid of the expression of the people.”
  • As peace talks between Colombia’s FARC rebels and the government progress in Havana, Cuba, former Colombian Inspector General Jaime Bernal has called on President Jose Manuel Santos to engage the smaller ELN guerrilla group, Semana reports. Santos has said he is willing to negotiate with the ELN, but only if they declare an end to hostilities first.
  • The United States Department of State has issued a statement expressing concern over the Ecuadorean National Assembly’s recent passage of a new media law. While proponents say the law will create a more pluralist media atmosphere, the U.S. government joins critics in claiming that it may restrict freedom of press and encourage media outlets to engage in self-censorship.
  • The Associated Press reports that 21 U.S. Senators have sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to provide a detailed report on rights abuses committed by security forces in Honduras, in order to certify that the country met the necessary conditions to guarantee U.S. aid. The senators say they have “serious questions regarding the State Department’s certification that these conditions were met for Fiscal Year 2012.”
  • Central American Politics looks at a recent Gallup-CID poll which found that nearly half of Guatemalans (51 percent) and Nicaraguans (50 percent) believe their governments control the national media. By contrast, this opinion was held by only 32 percent of Salvadorans, 38  percent of Panamanians, 29 percent of Costa Ricans, and 35 percent of Dominicans.
  • Chile’s Supreme Court has approved the extradition of former Argentine judge Otilio Romano, accused of having a hand in forced disappearances, torture and illegal raids while serving as a state prosecutor during the country’s military dictatorship.
  • The Commission for Human Rights and Minorities in Brazil's lower house of Congress has approved legislation that would allow psychologists to treat homosexuality as a disorder or illness, a measure that was fiercely opposed by gay rights activists in the country. It will now be debated in other committees before it is voted on in the full Chamber of Deputies.