Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Politics Behind Uruguay’s Marijuana Bill

A recent poll shows that most Uruguayans are opposed to marijuana legalization, so why is the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) pressing forward with the initiative? The answer lies in the committed activism of civil society organizations in the country, which has convinced much of Uruguay’s political class of the bill’s merit.

After months of internal wrangling and repeated revisions to the measure, the bill to regulate the cultivation, sale and distribution of cannabis in Uruguay will face a vote today in the country’s lower house, the Chamber of Representatives.

Lawmakers of Uruguay’s ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition have scheduled a special session to vote on the bill today, which will begin at 10:00am local time, and is expected to last into the evening.

As I wrote for InSight Crime last week, the initiative has changed significantly since marijuana legalization was first presented in June 2012 as one of 15 points of the FA’s strategy to improve citizen security. Unlike the initial proposal presented by President Jose Mujica, the bill will not create a state monopoly over the marijuana market.  In many respects, it is now similar to the marijuana legalization bill being implemented in Colorado state (see Friday’s post for the bill’s specifics).

The politics behind the bill are complex, and difficult to describe to those unfamiliar with Uruguay’s political landscape. Although a Cifra poll released on Monday suggests that roughly two-thirds of the country have remained consistently opposed to the measure since it was first presented, it has gained the support of a coalition of cultural figures, lawyers, healthcare workers, NGOs and unions, many of which make up core members of the Frente Amplio’s base. In May this coalition, which has adopted the moniker “Regulacion Responsable,” launched an aggressive lobbying and public awareness campaign dedicated to stressing the security, health and social benefits of regulating the black market for cannabis.

In a sign of Uruguay’s generational divide, the bill is also staunchly backed by the youth wings of most major political parties within the Frente Amplio. These groups, especially the Socialist Party Youth (JSU) and the youth of the Popular Participation Movement (MPP), were instrumental in getting the internal FA plenary to adopt a resolution calling for the marijuana bill to be approved “in the shortest time frame possible” in May.  This raised pressure on FA lawmakers to pass the measure, because they are bound to the plenary by the coalition’s internal rules.

Many of these youths are also active in Uruguay’s small but vocal marijuana legalization movement, which has held a series of rallies and marches in support of the initiative. Early Monday, as El Observador reported, an umbrella group of pro-marijuana organizations known as the National Coordinator for Marijuana Regulation organized a “green dawn” in the capital city of Montevideo, tying green bows and posting marijuana leaf flyers along major roads and on landmarks in the city in support of marijuana legalization.

So while most Uruguayans have doubts about the bill, it has the overwhelming support of the base organizations of the Frente Amplio, as well as that of a dedicated social movement.

The work of these actors appears to have convinced much of Uruguay’s political class of the need to regulate marijuana, even members of the opposition National and Colorado Parties. At least four opposition lawmakers have said they support the idea in principle (See Cronicas, Radio 180, and El Pais), and Montevideo Portal reports some of them are expected to vote in favor of certain provisions in the bill, though their parties’ leadership will not allow them to support it entirely.

It remains to be seen, however, if this will be enough to ensure the bill’s passage in the lower house. In order to move to the Senate, where the FA majority is expected to approve it with little debate, it must gain support of all 50 seats held by Frente lawmakers in the lower house (out of 99 seats in total). Although the Frente Amplio has been characterized by highly disciplined legislative conduct since its founding in 1971, FA Congressman Dario Perez has been an open critic of the bill since the beginning, and has been coy about whether or not he will vote for the measure. Today’s vote was initially slated to be held on July 10, but was rescheduled after he sent out signals that he needed more time to “reflect” on it.

Some of Perez’s opposition may be ideologically-based. He began his political career as a member of the conservative National Party, and while he has been a FA representative since 1994 he is seen as one of the Frente's most socially conservative members. He fought with the coalition in much the same manner against an abortion decriminalization bill  last September, before eventually allowing an alternate to vote for the measure in his place.

While there is a degree of uncertainty, it looks as though he will side with the FA on the measure, though he may rely once more on an alternate. According to today’s La Republica, the FA’s party whip in the lower house has said that he expects Perez to act with “Frente Amplio loyalty.” El Pais cites sources close to the lawmaker who say the same.

News Briefs
  • Today’s New York Times features a profile of Steven R. Donziger, an American lawyer known for representing thousands of indigenous Ecuadoreans in an environmental damage suit against Chevron Corporation. After a local court in Ecuador ordered the oil giant to pay $18 billion in damages to his clients in 2011, Chevron pulled its assets out of the country to avoid payment. The plaintiffs have since gone after the corporation’s assets in Argentina and Brazil, though they have had mixed success with courts there. As a result of Donziger’s work, Chevron is suing him for billions in damages, alleging that he bribed judges and led a conspiracy to “extort and defraud the corporation,” according to the NYT. Donziger has been compelled to turn over his communications as evidence in the case, and claims that his accusers have him under surveillance.
  • The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have once again announced that they are willing to free Kevin Scott Sutay, a U.S. ex-marine captured last month in Guavire Department, but they have laid out conditions for doing so. El Tiempo reports that FARC spokesman Rodrigo Granda said told reporters in Havana that the guerrillas are willing to turn him over to “a commission of high-profile individuals,” and are waiting on the government for a response. This clashes with the wishes of President Juan Manuel Santos, who as the AP notes, has said he would not allow the FARC to make a media spectacle out of the release.
  • Some 100 poor Paraguayan farmers briefly restarted an occupation of contested land yesterday in the eastern Curuguaty province, where a clash last year between police and agricultural workers killed 17 and ultimately led to the ouster of President Fernando Lugo. ABC Digital reports that 150 police were sent to the scene, and eventually the protesters were compelled to leave. Police say they were demanding the release of 12 of their associates who were arrested and face criminal charges as a result of last year’s incident. A judge in Asuncion is expected to rule soon on whether to proceed in the case, according to Telam.
  • After Pope Francis deftly sided with protesting youths while avoiding a direct clash with the Rousseff government in his recent trip to Brazil, it appears he now faces a new test of his willingness to get involved in Latin American politics. EFE reports that Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles has requested a meeting with the pontiff, and asked the Vatican to play a “mediating” role in the country’s political climate.
  • On the subject of Venezuela’s political climate, over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights David Smilde offers a helpful analysis of recent poll numbers in Venezuela, released by Datanalisis. According to the pollster, public approval of President Nicolas Maduro’s job performance has remained steady since his election, while negative perception has increased by eight points. However, the same polls found that support for Capriles is waning, having fallen several points since March. Smilde argues that this suggests public opinion has settled since the turmoil of the April 14 election, although lingering perceptions of instability indicate that most Venezuelans see Maduro as lacking a firm hold on the government, especially in comparison to his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
  • El Universal reports that lawmakers in Mexico’s Colima state have passed legislation legalizing same-sex civil unions there. According to the Mexican paper, it passed with the support of the majority of state lawmakers, but was opposed by members of the center-left PRD party, who argued that it was discriminatory. The AP reports that it is the second state to recognize same-sex civil unions, after the northern state of Coahuila. Gay marriage, meanwhile, is legal Mexico City as well as Oaxaca and Quintana Roo states.
  • Ben Emmerson, the United Nations special investigator on human rights and counter-terrorism, has issued a statement urging the government of Chile to stop using a Pinochet-era antiterrorism to crack down on Mapuche activists in the country. After a two-week country visit, Emmerson said the law was discriminatory, and had been in an arbitrary manner “which has turned into a real injustice that has impaired the right to a fair trial.” So far there has been no response from the Chilean government.
  • A protest against the administration of Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin was held last night in the city of Sao Paulo, according to O Globo, and was hijacked by extremist elements who began to vandalize local businesses. Police reprtedly arrested some 20 individuals involved. 
  • The leaders of the ALBA bloc met yesterday in Guayaquil, Ecuador, for the 12th ALBA Presidential Summit. The summit ended in a resolution which, among other things, expresses a commitment to guaranteeing social welfare in member countries, seeks to explore the potential of expanding ALBA by incorporating the Mercosur and Caricom trading blocs, as well as create a “technical-juridical” committee to investigate NSA surveillance activity in the region. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa also used the forum to once again express discontent with the Inter-American human rights system, at one point asking his fellow leaders to reflect on reforms to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, asking: “How long are we going to tolerate this?”
  • The Christian Science Monitor has an overview of Americas Quarterly’s Social Inclusion Index, an assessment of how well 16 countries in the  region foster conditions for their citizens to “enjoy a safe, productive life as a fully integrated member of society – irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.” At the top of the list is Uruguay, followed by Chile. Interestingly, the index scored both countries relatively highly on every scale except civil society participation, although this is not explained. The full Index will be made available in the Summer 2013 issue of AQ

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

45% of ‘Middle Class Mexico’ Lives in Poverty

Although it is becoming increasingly popular to describe Mexico as a middle-class country, official statistics suggest this is inaccurate.

Recently, reports on a growing middle class in Mexico have become more and more common in the U.S. Analysts have proclaimed that Mexico’s “tenacious middle class is fast becoming the majority,” the country is approaching a “middle class society,” and even that its citizens are “becoming too bourgeois to cross illegally into the United States.”

Although definitions of “middle class” are frequently tied to cultural identification, in economic terms the evidence that for this phenomenon is mixed at best, as illustrated by two recent reports.

In June, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) released an analysis which found that the middle class accounted for roughly 39 percent of the country’s 112 million people, only a four percent increase since 2000. While the report did not establish clear criteria for its definition of middle class, it did say that in general middle class households have a credit card, at least one member who is formally employed, and are headed by a high school graduate. By contrast, some 60 percent of population belonged to the lower classes in 2010, according to INEGI.

Yesterday, Mexico’s National Council of Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL) published a report which put economic inequality in the country into further perspective. El Universal reports that CONEVAL found that from 2010 to 2012 the number of people living in poverty rose from 52.8 to 53.3 million. The organization defines poverty as lacking welfare or employment, and making less $120 a month in rural areas or $186 in urban areas.

Perhaps even more jarring to the middle class narrative is the variation of poverty across Mexico’s 32 states. Animal Politico has a graphic showing that 11 of these have populations in which the majority fall below the poverty line. In three states (Chiapas, Guerrero and Puebla) more than two-thirds of residents meet this definition.

While -- as Reuters and La Jornada report -- in percentage terms the number of Mexicans living in poverty during this period actually reduced slightly (from 46.1 to 45.5 percent) and the number living in extreme poverty fell from 13 to 11.5 million, it’s clear from these figures that the country has a ways to go before it even approaches the middle class ideal.  

News Briefs
  • One day before Uruguay’s lower house is set to vote on a bill which would make it the first country to regulate the production, sale and distribution of marijuana, a new poll by Cifra has found that 63 percent of Uruguayans oppose the measure, 11 percent have no opinion, and just 26 percent approve of it. The figure has remained essentially unchanged since President Jose Mujica first proposed legalizing marijuana last year, which Cifra director Luis Eduardo Gonzalez described to El Pais as an unusually “systematic and persistent” opinion on the matter. Meanwhile, Montevideo Portal reports the fate of the bill currently rests on one vote in the ruling Frente Amplio coalition, that of Congressman Dario Perez. While other politicians in the Frente believe he will side in favor of the bill, he has refused to declare his intention publicly ahead of tomorrow’s vote.
  • The Uruguay poll comes on the heels of a similar survey published in Mexico, where lawmakers are considering a proposal to legalize the drug in Mexico City. According to a poll published last week by the De la Riva Group, of 800 Mexicans surveyed, just 32 percent believe marijuana should be legalized. In Animal Politico, widely-cited Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope argues that while he believes that the net effect of ending marijuana prohibition would be positive, its impact will be moderate. “It won’t break the cartels or end the killing; It won’t empty the prisons and it won’t fill public coffers,” he writes, and argues that drug reform advocates should refrain from overselling the benefits of legalization.
  • In an ambush in western Michoacan, gunmen killed Vice Admiral Carlos Miguel Salazar and a bodyguard of his on Sunday, Milenio reports. According to the BBC, Salazar was one of the country’s highest ranking navy officials in the state. Officials say they believe the Knights Templar is behind the attack, and have three suspects in custody. The New York Times reports that the incident illustrates the complexity of the drug-related conflict in Michoacan state. Jorge Chabat, a drug and security expert at the Mexico City-based research center CIDE, told the NYT that he believes the government did not send enough troops to reinforce the area in May.
  • Writing for the New Yorker’s News Desk blog, Ryan Lizza looks at what recent remarks by NSA Director General Keith Alexander show about the agency’s activities in Brazil. Alexander recently told reporters that the NSA was not conducting surveillance on the communications of everyone in the country, only focusing on “metadata around the world that you would use to find terrorist activities that might transit.” While at face value this does not appear to reveal much, Lizza points out that the remark, paired with a map of submarine cables, suggests that the NSA was monitoring Brazilian telecommunications companies because Brazil is one of the most important communication hubs linking South America to Africa and Europe.
  • O Globo reports that the trial of 26 Brazilian police officers accused of killing 73 inmates during a 1992 prison riot in Sao Paulo’s Carandiru prison begins today. According to the BBC, a verdict in the case is expected “by Friday or Saturday.”
  • In spite of Nicaragua’s plans to construct a rival to the Panama canal with the help of Chinese firms, Panamanian officials are unconcerned. In a recent interview, Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nuñez Fabrega told reporters that his country had no contingency plans to cope with the impact of a rival canal, as “it is easier to get to the moon than build a canal through Nicaragua.”
  • In response to Venezuela’s chief prosecutor requesting that his bank accounts be frozen in accordance with an investigation into allegations that he failed to pay back a multimillion dollar loan, El Nacional editor and owner Miguel Henrique Otero has accused the government of silencing his paper, the Associated Press reports.
  • The New York Times profiles cooperation between specialists at the U.S. government’s National Hurricane Center and Cuba’s National Prognostic Center, which share meteorological data during storm season in the Caribbean. According to the NYT, many experts in both countries wish that this cooperation could extend into disaster management, as the U.S. may be able to learn from Cuba’s highly successful storm preparation system.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Local and Regional Impact of Pope Francis’ Brazil Visit

In addition to serving as a boost to the waning influence of the Catholic Church in Latin America, some analysts expected Pope Francis’ visit to Brazil last week to demonstrate the pontiff’s clout as a regional political player. While they were right on the first count, on the second the record is fairly mixed.

The Pope’s visit for World Youth Day culminated on Sunday in a mass held on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach, which the city government estimates was attended by some 3 million people. Today’s New York Times reports that the weeklong stay was seen by many as a herald of a new Church strategy to revitalize itself in Latin America, where the faith has lost ground to Evangelical Christianity in recent years.  Prior to the mass, he held a meeting with the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM) in which he urged regional clergy to attend to the existential needs of their congregants and not “act like princes.”

Before the visit, some analysts expected Pope Francis to weigh in on regional politics and the Brazilian government’s response to recent protests there, potentially adding tension to the political climate. As the Wall Street Journal put it:

“While his chief mission is to revitalize the Catholic Church, the world's first Latin American pope is shaping up as a player in Latin American politics as well…Pope Francis' trip presents both an opportunity and a risk for [President Dilma] Rousseff. Association with the pope could help her popularity. But she could be damaged if Pope Francis makes critiques that hit close to home.”
However, the pope’s presence proved not to be a major issue for Rousseff, who appeared in public with him upon his arrival and praised him for his efforts to reduce inequality, which she characterized as their “common enemy.”  Some of Pope Francis’ most politically charged remarks came on Thursday, when he urged young people to fight against corruption, one of the main grievances in last month’s demonstrations. “To you and to all, I repeat: Never yield to discouragement,” Francis said, according to the AP. “Do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished. Situations can change, people can change. Be the first to seek to bring good, do not grow accustomed to evil, but defeat it.”

While his remarks touched on the protests, his message was vague enough to fall short of being a direct endorsement of them, even as he called for constructive dialogue on Saturday. In an interview published today in O Globo, the pontiff admitted to the paper that he was “not sure why the youths are protesting,” although he added that he supported the “essentially nonconformist” mindset of young people around the world, which he said was “based on an illusion of utopia.”

Perhaps his most overtly critical statement in terms of Brazilian politics came on Thursday, in the form of his challenge of the police strategy of “pacification” in urban areas around the country. Even then, however, his words fit with the social justice discourse of Rousseff and her Workers’ Party, as he noted that “no pacification effort will bring lasting peace, harmony, and happiness for a society that ignores and leaves its people on the periphery of itself.”

On a regional scale, his criticism of drug liberalization is sure to complicate the efforts of drug policy reform advocates throughout the hemisphere, although it did not exactly come as a surprise. As Brazilian journalist Igor Gielow noted in Folha de Sao Paulo last week, a hardline approach to drugs is a hallmark of Catholic doctrine, and falls in line with the pope’s generally conservative attitudes towards scripture, despite his populist image. Furthermore, as some have pointed out, the pope focused his remarks on the “liberalization of drug use,” mistakenly lumping drug decriminalization, legalization and regulation into the same boat.

News Briefs

  • On Saturday, a major demonstration against the administration of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala was held in Lima, drawing some 3,000 protesters, according to EFELa Republica has images of the protests, which coincided with the country’s Independence Day as well as the second anniversary since Humala’s election. LaRed21 reports that the demonstrations were organized by trade unions, students, and human rights groups, and appeared to be sparked by the recent highly-politicized election of representatives to the Tribunal Court and Ombudsman’s Office. The AP reports that police say 15 individuals were arrested in the protests, and Reuters claims they were “thought to be among the largest in Lima in a century.”
  • In a speech to Congress following Saturday’s demonstration, the Wall Street Journal reports that President Humala reiterated support for policies aimed at attracting foreign investment, even as economic growth starts to slow, and his approval rating has fallen to its lowest point ever since taking office.
  • The Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office announced on Saturday that officials had requested the freeze of the assets of Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the popular privately-owned El Nacional newspaper. While the AP notes that Otero called the incident “an outrage to limit freedom of expression,” the WSJ reports that the request was the result of charges filed by Alfredo Peña, a former Chavista mayor of Caracas who broke with the government and fled to the U.S. in 2004. Peña accuses Otero of failing to pay back a personal loan of some $3.5 million.
  • Saturday’s Washington Post featured a profile of the two main presidential candidates in Chile: former President Michelle Bachelet and former Labor Minister Evelyn Matthei, who have known each other since childhood. Their fathers were both air force generals, although each had opposite relationships with the Pinochet regimes. The paper offers an account of their respective stories, as well as an overview of the race, which political analyst Esteban Valenzuela frames as “an historic dispute between the daughters of a victim of the dictatorship and an active member of the military junta.”
  • One hundred days have passed since Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro took office following a narrow electoral win earlier this year. Maduro marked the occasion in a ceremony honoring the birthday of Hugo Chavez on Sunday, in which he described the months following the elections as a difficult, but “heroic” battle. BBC Mundo has an overview of Maduro’s administration so far, noting that while his claims to legitimacy have been threatened and he lacks Chavez’s charisma, he has demonstrated a more pragmatic approach to economic policy than his predecessor.
  • In the L.A. Times, Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul report on attitudes towards Edward Snowden in Venezuela, where some believe that his presence would be a distraction from more pressing issues in the country, and potentially involve them in a needless international dispute.
  • As the Colombian government and FARC rebels resume the latest session of dialogues in Havana, Cuba, the head government negotiator Humberto de la Calle  told reporters that the guerrillas “will be held to account for everything that has happened during the conflict,” the BBC reports. According to El Colombiano, De la Calle also warned against political posturing by the rebels, saying “this is not a process for the FARC to do politics, but to bring about the end of the conflict.” The remarks come as the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has had to defend its approval of a law that allows for selective prosecution of human rights abuses committed by armed groups, which some believe was a necessary condition for the current talks to begin.
  • On Saturday, NPR’s All Things Considered profiled the lower incidence of cocaine use in the United States, which according to national surveys has fallen from 1 percent in 2006 to .5 percent in 2011. In addition to reduced demand for the drug in the U.S., Daniel Mejia of the Research Center on Drugs and Security at Bogota’s Universidad de los Andes told NPR that much of this has to do with a shift in strategy which Juan Manuel Santos put in place when he was Defense Minister under President Alvaro Uribe. According to Mejia, Santos “emphasized drug seizures and targeting the labs and processing facilities that turned coca leaves into cocaine” instead of crop eradication, which caused a massive supply shock in the U.S. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Uruguay’s Marijuana Bill as an Anti-Crime Strategy

Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill faces a number of political and economic obstacles, but if properly implemented it could provide a model for other countries dissatisfied with the dominant approach towards drug policy in the region, as well as address growing insecurity in the historically peaceful nation.

It appears that the bill, which has been under consideration by Uruguay’s ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition for the past year, will finally face a lower house vote on July 31, and will likely pass with the full support of the FA’s slim majority in Congress. While opinion polls suggest the Uruguayan public is still largely opposed to marijuana regulation, a diverse platform of human rights groups, health workers and lawyers called “Regulacion Responsable” has launched an aggressive nationwide campaign to promote the measure, and has had success in altering the national debate on marijuana policy.

Since the campaign began in May, the conservative opposition in the country (the traditionally dominant National and Colorado parties) has become somewhat split on the issue, with a handful of opposition lawmakers voicing measured support for the initiative. Although the opposition’s leadership will likely restrict these legislators from voting for the measure next Wednesday, their backing suggests that Uruguay’s political class is becoming increasingly convinced of the need to regulate the black market for cannabis in the country.

So far, there has been little English-language coverage of the marijuana bill’s specifics or its potential impact on Uruguayan society. Most of the mainstream media has focused on its unpopularity, or on President Jose Mujica’s first proposal to legalize marijuana last June. The initiative has actually changed significantly since being introduced to Congress last year, and no longer involves the state monopoly Mujica first suggested. At the risk of self-promoting, perhaps the best available breakdown of the current bill is in this two-part investigation I wrote for InSight Crime, which has just been published.

As illustrated in this helpful graphic, in its current version the bill authorizes three forms of marijuana cultivation, which will be monitored by a new regulatory agency. The first of these is domestic cultivation, or “autocultivo,” in which adults can grow up to six plants in their homes, with a maximum annual yield of 480 grams. The second involves so-called "membership clubs," which allow cannabis enthusiasts to form growing cooperatives of between 15 and 45 members, and grow up to 99 plants. Third, the bill authorizes the state to grant licenses for private enterprises to grow marijuana for commercial purposes. This harvest will only be sold in pharmacies, though it will be available without a medical prescription. To purchase cannabis, users will have to present identification, and will sign on to a secure federal registry.

The bill’s success at undercutting the black market for marijuana (some 80 percent of which is imported from Paraguay, according to analysts) will depend on a number of economic and political factors. Although it will be kept private, users in Uruguay are already forced into a vulnerable position by being made to sign on to a federal registry. If politicians succumb to pressure from the opposition to levy taxes or alter the availability or price of the drug, it may not be enough to shut down the illegal trade. The prices which government officials say they are considering implementing are expected to undercut the street price of marijuana in the capital city of Montevideo, but are only barely competitive with prices in the country’s interior (see this map of reported price variation of marijuana around the country).

But if the drug is made available to users throughout the country, and is cheaper (or at least of better quality) than the marijuana sold on street corners, it could take a considerable bite out of the profits of criminal networks in the country. Officials say that Uruguay consumes around 30 tons of marijuana a year, generating between 30 and 40 million dollars a year in illicit revenue. The hope is that this will translate to a decrease in criminal activity. While it is one of the safest countries in Latin America, Uruguay’s crime rate has been rising in recent years, and 2012 was a record year for homicides. Police are also concerned about the emergence of increasingly organized criminal actors in the country. Although Uruguay’s underworld cannot be compared to those in Central America, Colombia or Mexico, authorities say there has been a rise of gang-like criminal bands in urban areas. By taking away their profits from marijuana sales, the government hopes to deny them the financial capability to expand into a bigger threat.  

News Briefs
  • El Espectador has an overview of the arguments presented at Colombia’s Constitutional Court hearing on the recently passed Legal Framework for Peace. While President Juan Manuel Santos argued that the legislation “does not amount to sacrificing justice for peace,” and Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre argued that it amounted to targeted prioritization of systematic human rights abuses, Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez accused the government of “opening the door to impunity” for atrocities. According to Caracol Radio, the court has until August 20 to rule on the issue. See Reuters for English coverage of the hearing.
  • As expected, Pope Francis delivered the most politically provocative address of his Brazil visit yesterday evening, in a visit to a Rio de Janeiro favela. The New York Times and Miami Herald report that the pontiff urged young people to fight against corruption, one of the main grievances in the recent protests in the South American nation. “To you and to all, I repeat: Never yield to discouragement,” Francis said, according to the AP. “Do not lose trust, do not allow your hope to be extinguished. Situations can change, people can change. Be the first to seek to bring good, do not grow accustomed to evil, but defeat it.”  He also criticized Brazil’s police pacification programs, saying: “No amount of pacification will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself.”
  • Yet another report has linked the devastating cholera outbreak in Haiti to the arrival of United Nations peacekeeping forces in 2010. The Washington Post reports that a panel of independent experts commissioned by the UN to study the cause of the outbreak concluded that “the preponderance of the evidence and the weight of the circumstantial evidence does lead to the conclusion that personnel associated with the . . . MINUSTAH facility were the most likely source of introduction of cholera into Haiti.” This comes two years after the same commission concluded that the factors behind the outbreak were inconclusive, and that Haiti’s poor water and sanitation infrastructure contributed to the spread of the disease.
  • As Peruvian President Ollanta Humala completes two years in office this week, La Republica reports that he appointed three new cabinet members: new Minister of Development and Social Inclusion, Foreign Trade and Tourism Minister and a new Culture Minister. According to the paper, the appointments make his cabinet practically evenly divided along gender lines, with nine women and ten men as his top ministers.
  • OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza visited El Salvador yesterday to present the results of the recent OAS-commissioned report on drug violence in the hemisphere, but, as with his visit to Uruguay earlier this week, his remarks strayed into domestic matters. El Faro reports that Insulza backed the government-facilitated truce between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs in the country, saying “for our organization the main thing is the significant reduction in the number of homicides it has acheived in El Salvador.”
  • The Associated Press features a profile of the victims of captured Zetas leader Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, who is believed to have masterminded a March 2011 mass killing of some 193 bus passengers and migrants in Mexico’s northern Tamaulipas state. Meanwhile, in the western state of Michoacan, police have been ambushed by gunmen eight times in the past three days, killing four officers and wounding at least 15. The Washington Post frames the rash of violence as a “sobering reminder” that the country’s drug war has multiple fronts.
  • While Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is set to undergo an operation to remove a thyroid nodule on July 31, Excelsior reports that he has said it is not a major health risk, and something he has been aware of for “six or seven years.”
  • Although it was reported that the “Pact for Mexico,” the tri-partisan pact guiding the agenda of Mexico’s legislature, was still intact after post-election accusations of foul play against the ruling PRI party, it may be less stable than previously thought. According to El Informador, the head of the leftist PRD held a press conference yesterday and announced that it was not functioning, and had been “frozen.” “It's not working because you know very well were things that were injured in the electoral process of the elections on July 7,” the PRD leader said.
  • Uruguayan President Jose Mujica is in Cuba for his first official state visit to the island, ahead of the 60th anniversary of a failed attack on a military barracks sparked the Cuban revolution. El Pais reports that he met with Castro on Wednesday, and the two discussed their shared past as former guerrilla leaders. Mujica described Castro to the AP as “an elderly man who continues to be brilliant, always a promoter of ideas.”
  • The L.A. Times has an op-ed by Mexican author Ricardo Ainslie, who argues that it would be a grave mistake for President Peña Nieto to continue the security policies of his predecessor, although he claims U.S. intelligence officials will “undoubtedly” pressure Mexican security forces  to continue their relationship. However, he writes: “so will everyday Mexicans, with their sometimes conflicting needs for peace and protection. In Mexico's budding if imperfect democracy, the latter pressures can no longer be ignored.”

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Colombia’s Historic Transitional Justice Law Under Scrutiny

The biggest test of Colombia’s peace process, aside from the talks between the government and FARC rebels in Havana, will begin today as Colombia’s Constitutional Court hears arguments about the legality of a landmark law meant to facilitate an end to the conflict.

In June 2012, Colombian lawmakers passed the Legal Framework for Peace, legislation which outlined the terms of a possible peace settlement in the country, primarily aimed at guerrilla groups. Supporters of the law, including President Juan Manuel Santos argue that the law is a necessary component of an eventual peace agreement.

In addition to allowing demobilized armed actors to hold elected office, the law allows Congress to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of certain crimes, a provision which some have  claimed amounts to an amnesty for FARC and ELN rebels. The legislation has been criticized from human rights groups, UN officials, and conservative former President Alvaro Uribe alike.

In December the law was challenged as unconstitutional by the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ). Semana magazine reports that the CCJ’s argument is threefold: the state cannot legally prioritize some crimes over others, it cannot only focus on “systematic” rights abuses instead of abuses in general, and the state cannot waive its constitutional obligation to investigate and punish those who violate others’ rights.

Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez, who has said he would rather resign than grant amnesty to guerrillas who commit abuses, is also a critic of the law. Both the CCJ and Ordoñez will argue against the constitutionality of the law in today’s hearing, although Ordoñez will first argue that the Court lacks the standing to rule on the bill, according to Semana.

La Silla Vacia provides a helpful overview of the main arguments for and against the constitutionality of the law, as well as a list of the major actors on either side. According to the news site, at the heart of the debate is the issue of whether the law is a matter of transitional justice and can override the Constitution. The Santos administration, ombudsman’s office and a number of legal experts maintain that it can, in certain cases. Bogota-based human rights research center Dejusticia argues that the framework “is not a substitute for the constitution, but restricts certain constitutional principles after weighing them in the context of a transitional justice process.”

The law has played a key role in shaping the environment for peace talks with rebels, and remains fundamental to their outcome, as FARC leaders are unlikely to agree to a deal which doesn’t appear to afford them some kind of legal protection. As a sign of its importance to the current peace process, El Espectador reports that President Santos himself is expected to present an argument in defense of the law before the court today.

News Briefs
  • In a visit to a crack cocaine addiction treatment center in Rio de Janeiro yesterday, Pope Francis took the opportunity to speak out against the growing support for drug legalization in Latin America. “A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use, as is currently being proposed in various parts of Latin America,” he said. Instead, the pope claimed governments should address the “underlying problems” of drug use, “educating young people in the values that build up life in society.” While many outlets have framed this as a (see the Associated Press and The Guardian, among others) response to a “softer” approach towards all drugs by former and current presidents in the region, this is inaccurate. The 2011 report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy does not call for the legalization of all drugs, but an end to the criminalization of drug users “who do no harm to others.”  Folha de Sao Paulo features the reactions of drug reform advocates to the remarks, most of whom claim that the pope falsely equated decriminalization with liberalization.
  • In an op-ed in Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazilian journalist in Igor Gielow argues that this statement on drug policy is in line with the Pope’s generally populist conservative bent. Despite his image as a reformer in the Church, Gielow claims the pontiff “essentially adopts conservative positions stated in the behavioral terms of his predecessors.”
  • Today’s New York Times features criticism of Brazil’s handling of the papal visit and the coinciding demonstrations. Buried in the middle of the story is the admission by Brazilian police officials that they are “using undercover agents to infiltrate the protests,” although they deny that authorities have incited any violence.
  • The Washington Post reports that many in Brazil are expecting Pope Francis to touch on the political grievances of Brazil’s youth, expressed in recent demonstrations in the country, this evening in a mass he will deliver on the beach of Copacabana. So far, he has steered clear of remarks which could be seen as critical of the government, the paper notes.
  • In 55 years of conflict, some 220,000 have been killed in Colombia, over 80 percent of which were non-combatants. That’s according to a report released yesterday by the government-funded Historical Memory Commission. The report found that paramilitary groups were responsible for 58 percent of the deaths, 17 percent were linked to guerrilla activity and 8 percent to security forces. The cause of the rest could not be determined. El Espectdor has an infographic breaking down the deaths, and Reuters covers the report’s main points in English.
  • The Miami Herald reports that the Panamanian government’s announced discovery of a North Korean freighter carrying allegedly Cuban military equipment came just days after South Korea announced it would be willing to explore a free trade agreement with the Central American nation.
  • At the request of petitioners backing an investigation into allegations that deceased Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was poisoned by agents of the Pinochet regime, a judge has ordered that additional DNA tests be carried out on his remains to confirm his identity, according to La Tercera.
  • The office of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has announced that he will undergo thyroid surgery next week to remove a thyroid nodule. Officials have not said whether the doctors have determined the nodule is cancerous, but according to experts consulted by the AP this would not necessarily be life threatening if this were the case.  
  • Lenin Carballido, the Mexican mayor-elect who was made  headlines earlier this month after it was revealed that he had himself legally declared dead to avoid sexual assault charges, has been arrested on charges of providing false testimony to officials, according to the BBC.
  • Writing for Forbes, Latin American political risk analyst Nathaniel Parish Flannery provides a good overview of available literature on the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, and the significance of the Zapatista movement in the country today. According to Flannery, “while all authors have zoomed in on Chiapas and then to varying degrees zoomed out to explain relevant national and global trends, no author has really achieved a perfect balance between the local and the national.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Peruvians Protest 'Politics as Usual'

Backlash over the appointment of a controversial new ombudswoman and several questionable figures to Peru’s top court has continued this week, and the announcement that lawmakers would hold an extraordinary session to annul last week’s election was not enough to prevent large-scale protests breaking out in Lima on Monday night.

As mentioned in last Friday’s post, last week Peruvian lawmakers voted to appoint a new head of the Defensoria del Pueblo, six new members to the Constitutional Tribunal, and three new members to the Central Reserve Bank’s board of directors. Because of the political background of many of the appointees, this election was seen as the result of negotiations between Peru’s major political parties rather than a decision based on merit. Civil society groups opposed the appointments, and President Ollanta Humala called for the election to be annulled.

On Monday, Congressional President Victor Isla announced in a press conference that lawmakers would be holding an extraordinary session Wednesday (today) to annul the election. However, El Comercio reports this did not stop young Lima residents from taking to social media sites to organize “#Tomalacalle,” a demonstration bringing together some 4,000 people dissatisfied with Peru’s congress. Eleven people were arrested in Monday's protests, and similar demonstrations are being organized for July 27 and 28.

Peruvian political scientist Carlos Melendez described this movement to El Comercio as a new kind of protest, rooted in a “crisis” of representation. “The discourse of ‘out with them all’ has come to Lima,” said Melendez. “It is a demonstration against the political class, against political representation. When parties are not representative, when politicians are not representative, the percentage of people in the streets increases.”
Journalist Claudia Cisneros, who participated in the protests on Monday, told Peru21 that, beyond the appointments, the protests were about the “degrading way in which politics is carried out in our country.”

In remarks to Spain’s El Pais, Harvard University Professor of Government Steven Levitsky described them as the first major anti-corruption protests in months, claiming that they were a victory for both Peru’s media and the country’s budding middle class.  

Meanwhile, some of the most controversial appointees have gotten the message already, ahead of Congress’ extraordinary session. Pilar Freitas said she would not accept the post of Ombudswoman in an announcement on Monday, though she denied any wrongdoing. This morning, La Republica reports that Rolando Sousa, a Fujimorista lawyer who has consistently defended soldiers linked to rights abuses, also sent a letter to Congress turning down his appointment to the Constitutional Tribunal.

News Briefs
  • While controversial reforms to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) backed by the ALBA bloc were shot down in an OAS General Assembly last March, they have not been completely abandoned. El Universo reports that Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has said he intends to present reform proposals during an ALBA summit on July 30 in Guayaquil.
  • Although Pope Francis’ vehicle was smarmed by supporters after his driver took a wrong turn after his arrival in Rio de Janeiro on Monday, Brazilian police officials rate their handling of security during the pontiff’s visit as positive, according to the AP. The BBC, however, notes that after a protest broke out during the pope’s visit to the Rio governor’s palace, clashes broke out between protesters and security forces, prompting criticism of excessive use of force from human rights groups. Julita Lemgruber, director of the Centre for Studies on Public Security and Citizenship at Candido Mendes University, told the BBC that much of the blame for many recent clashes lies with the confrontational culture in Rio’s military Police, saying “If you police the streets with the idea of war, you are going to deal with the people in the streets as enemies.”
  • While the pope’s embrace of social justice messages, and calls for a more humble Church have reverberated with many Catholics in Latin America, some in Argentina are still suspicious of his past. McClatchy has an overview of lingering allegations that Pope Francis has failed to come clean about the Church’s role in the country’s “dirty war.”
  • El Tiempo reports that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos accepted the resignation of Colombia’s ambassador to Washington yesterday, after the diplomat was implicated in a case of land theft. Leftist Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo and his Polo Democratico party have accused the ambassador, Carlos Urrutia, of illegally acquiring some 100,000 acres of land in central Colombia.
  • On Tuesday, Santos said he would not allow former Senator Piedad Cordoba, who has long served as an intermediary with FARC rebels, to facilitate the release of a former U.S. soldier captured last month by the guerrillas, a likely bid to prevent it from becoming a media spectacle.
  • Andres Allamand of Chile’s conservative Renovacion Nacional party has rejected calls to renew his candidacy in the country’s presidential race, La Tercera reports.  This leaves Evelyn Matthei as the undisputed conservative candidate, and the main challenger to former President Michelle Bachelet.
  • The New York Times looks at the reception in Cuba of President Raul Castro’s recent speech criticizing the decay of traditional values and conduct. Although the AP initially characterized the speech as “a diatribe that could have crossed the lips of many a grandfather,” the NYT notes that the speech resonated with many Cubans, who perceive an increase in corrupt activity on the island. Others blame this alleged shift in values on the economic hardship caused by the so-called “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As one father said put it: “How could I raise [my son] with the same morals, when just to put rice, beans and pork on the table requires all kinds of illegalities? I had to teach him the values of survival.”
  • In an essay for Foreign Affairs, Julia E. Sweig and Michael J. Bustamante argue that, due to recent economic changes, “Cuba has entered a new era, the features of which defy easy classification or comparison to transitions elsewhere.” While progress is slow, they claim this reflects the cautious self-assessment of its leaders rather than resistance to reforms or stubborn adherence to a crumbling economic model.
  • Outgoing Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano met with Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong in the border city of Matamoros yesterday to discuss border security issues. Despite recent reports that President Enrique Peña Nieto is scaling back cooperation with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement in its fight against drug cartels, the two announced plans for a bi-national security communications network and corresponding patrols between U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican Federal Police, according to the Washington Post.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

FARC Offers Armed Support to Protesting Farmers

On Monday, FARC guerrillas offered to support campesino protests which have raged for over a month in Colombia’s northeastern Catatumbo region, heightening already tense relations between demonstrators and the government.

Since mid-June, associations of small farmers in Catatumbo have blocked major roads and highways, holding demonstrations that have at times turned violent, with at least four killed in clashes with police. As El Espectador reports, the protests were sparked by an aggressive aerial coca eradication campaign in the area. Locals say coca is the only profitable crop, and that officials have failed to offer them any viable economic alternatives. The protesters also want the area to be  made into a semi-autonomous “campesino reserve zone” under a 1994 law that allows the government to set parcels of land aside to be managed by local communities, and prevents it from being bought up by large landholders.

The government has refused to stop coca eradication or grant the reserve zone, but claims it is willing to increase spending on roads and housing projects in Catatumbo. Negotiations between the farmers’ associations and government officials have yielded no concrete results, although both sides acknowleged that the tone of talks was altered when Vice President Angelino Garzon became involved in the negotiations earlier this month.

Meanwhile, both sides have traded allegations of violent activity. Officials have accused local farmers of using homemade explosives in protests and having secret ties with FARC guerrillas, while farmers say police have fired indiscriminately at protesters.

Amidst this tense backdrop, the FARC offered support to the farmers in Catatumbo. In a statement released on Monday, the guerrilla group said protesters “can count on our ranks, on our weapons, on our fighters.” Although the rebels acknowledged that they were in the middle of peace talks with the government in Havana, they claimed an end to their nearly 50 year-old war with the state would depend on a just solution to such conflicts, claiming: “While the Colombian people are still being abused like they are today, such an agreement is impossible.”

In response, the government released a statement condemning the move, saying it puts the civilian population in Catatumbo at risk. The government also claimed that the FARC’s “infiltration” of  protests in Catatumbo had “become a great obstacle to reach agreements to put an end to the demonstration.”

News Briefs
  • On July 10, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (which maintains a field office in Colombia) weighed in on the protests in Catatumbo. The office claimed that while both sides had resorted to violence, government security forces may have committed “excessive use of force” against protesters, potentially resulting in the deaths of the four protesters. This statement was not received well in Colombia, and the government directly contradicted it. Then, ahead of a country visit last week by High Commissioner Navi Pillay, President Juan Manuel Santos said he was considering shortening the human rights office’s mandate in the country, which will be up for renewal on October 31, because Colombia “had advanced enough to where it was no longer necessary.” Eventually, El Espectador reported that the two parties agreed that the office’s mandate would be renewed for one year, meaning that renewing the next mandate would be left to the victor of the upcoming presidential race in May 2014.
  • Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes, director of the Bogota-based human rights research center Dejusticia, offers a critical take on Santos’ claims, arguing that two recent news items  (the killing of a land reform activist and a military court taking over jurisdiction for a “false positives” case in accordance with a new military justice law) proved that Colombia still requires the presence of the UN human rights office. According to Uprimny: “In the first case, the problem is lack of state capacity, as the authorities have failed to adequately protect land claimants. In the second, the problem is with the government’s vision, as it forced a constitutional reform that was regressive on human rights: the reform of military jurisdiction.”
  • According to Argentina’s La Nacion, objections raised by human rights groups over the past record of a General Cesar Milani, nominated for head of the country’s army, may make him the first such official to be rejected for the position in 50 years. La Gaceta reports that yesterday the administration postponed a vote over Milani’s nomination until November, largely as a result of a report released by human rights group the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS). The CELS report found “information linking Milani with facts under investigation in court cases for crimes against humanity.”
  • OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza arrived in Uruguay yesterday to present the results of the recent OAS-commissioned report on drug trafficking and policy in the hemisphere. While he stopped short of weighing in directly on the bill under discussion in Uruguay’s legislature to regulate marijuana, El Pais reports that his overall tone and support of the search for alternative drug policies was received by the government as an endorsement of the initiative. According to Insulza, Uruguay is “well-suited to implement new policies; there are no impediments as there are elsewhere.”
  • A new poll has found that support for Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has dropped in recent weeks, with Ipsos-Peru giving him 32 percent support, the lowest point in his administration. El Comercio reports that the recent politicized appointment of figures to the Constitutional Tribunal and Ombudsmans’ office contributed to this decline.  
  • IPS has a report on the specifics and implementation of the new media law in Ecuador, which has been criticized by some as an attack on free speech in the country. As the article notes, the extent of a controversial provision banning “media lynching,” which has been one of the main targets of free speech advocacy groups, will depend on the specific regulations put in place by the administration.
  • President Santos and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro met yesterday in the Venezuelan border town of Puerto Ayacucho for talks on improving bilateral relations. The two agreed to establish high level committees to  security, energy and trade,  and Maduro expressed his commitment to serving as an intermediary in peace talks with the FARC, something which he had previously placed in doubt after Santos’ decision to meet with opposition leader Henrique Capriles earlier this year.  El Tiempo reports that te two did not mention the fact that protest leaders in Catatumbo had appealed to Maduro for asylum in Venezuela.
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero reports on inflation in Brazil and discontent with rising prices in the country. More than the country’s protectionist policies or lack of infrastructure, economists say a tax system which prioritizes consumption tax over income tax bears much of the blame, according to the NYT. On its website, the Times features a graphic illustrating the high percentage of sales tax that Brazilians are forced to pay for a number of goods.
  • Animal Politico takes a look at the 45 individuals that the administration of Mexican President Enrque Peña Nieto has identified as priority targets of his administration’s security strategy.  The fact that this includes most of the leaders of the main drug cartels in the country suggests that Peña Nieto has not abandoned the kingpin strategy of the previous administration, as some have claimed.
  • The NYT, the Washington Post both report on Pope Francis’ arrival in Brazil yesterday, and his focus on social justice themes in the context of recent protests in the country. By contrast, the Wall Street Journal has an interesting profile of the pontiff as a player in Latin American politics, noting that a papal visit represents both a risk and opportunity to leaders in the region. As the WSJ notes, this is especially true for Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, whose plummeting public approval ratings could be damaged further if Pope Francis makes any implied criticism of her administration.