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.  

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