Friday, August 30, 2013

UNASUR Leaders Weigh Joint Condemnation of Strike on Syria

As U.S. President Barack Obama appears poised to announce a limited military strike on Syria in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians last week, many South American countries are lining up to oppose the move.

EFE reports that yesterday, in a preparatory meeting ahead of a Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) summit today in Suriname, the foreign ministers of member states to the regional bloc debated the wording of a joint statement condemning foreign intervention in Syria. In subsequent remarks to the press, the foreign ministers of Venezuela and Ecuador said the officials also considered sending a delegation to Syria to assist UN experts in investigating allegations of chemical weapons use.

While its exact language is up in the air, a statement on Syria will likely come out of today’s UNUASUR summit, which will be attended by heads of state or top officials from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela. The president of Paraguay, which was temporarily suspended from the bloc following the removal of President Fernando Lugo in June 2012, will be in attendance as well, reports La Nacion.

Also yesterday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro issued a statement urging Obama to wait for the results of the UN investigation, and to stand up to “the hawks in the Pentagon,” according to El Nacional. He was joined by Bolivian President Evo Morales, who told reporters he would propose a joint statement on Syria in the summit meeting today.

The ALBA bloc nations are not the only ones opposed to a U.S. military strike on Syria. The governments of Argentina -- currently the president pro tempore of the UN Security Council -- and Brazil have also signaled that they are against it. While the Argentine Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that “the proper international law mechanisms have not been used” to justify foreign intervention, the newly-appointed Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo also urged the U.S. and its military allies to wait for the conclusions of the UN investigators.

News Briefs
  • While Venezuela’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) has long been a staunch ally of the Syrian government, some in the party are taking this a step further. Abdel el Zabayar, a PSUV lawmaker of Syrian descent, has asked permission from the government to step down from his position and fight with the Syrian army in the country’s civil war, according to the Global Post. Venezuela’s Noticias24 reports that the congressman is in Syria at the moment and will stay indefinitely, as he first arrived to visit family and then decided to stay to support the Assad government.  
  • The nationwide campesino protests in Colombia are heating up, and have spread to the capital city of Bogota. The Washington Post reports that some 30,000 people marched in support of small farmers in the streets of Bogota yesterday. The demonstration was an act of solidarity with the roughly 45,000 farmers, coffee growers and truck drivers who have blocked highways and roads throughout the country since last week, who claim that their sectors are being undercut by free trade policies. In a public address yesterday, President Juan Manuel Santos recognized that the rural demonstrators had legitimate demands, and characterized the ongoing protests as “a storm.” El Tiempo has a breakdown of this storm, which it claims is due to a “plurality of political interests” that has not converged simultaneously in years.
  • La Silla Vacia points out that the protests have come as a major boost to Colombia’s leftist Democratic Pole party, which just months ago appeared badly divided and fractured. The Colombian news site claims that party’s traditional opposition to free trade agreements, abuses by security forces and President Santos’ relationship with business interests have gained unprecedented traction among urban voters in the country, a political climate the Pole will likely use to its advantages in legislative elections next March.
  • The New York Times examines a recent U.S. court ruling on Argentina’s debt restructuring, the implications of which have the U.S. Treasury and the International Monetary Fund deeply concerned. A senior Treasury official told the paper that the department is worried the decision could “undermine the orderliness and predictability of sovereign debt restructuring and could roll back years of progress.” Ultimately, U.S. officials fear that the decision will encourage countries to issue bonds under English law instead of New York law, threatening New York’s status as a major financial hub.
  • Meanwhile, IPS reports that Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has submitted a bill to Congress to swap the debt still held by “holdout” creditors who refused earlier restructurings. Unlike previous bills, this version has been supported by the opposition, and does not set a deadline for bondholders to accept the deal.  Earlier this week, however, the AP cited financial analysts who were pessimistic about the outlook for this measure, as bondholders are unlikely to settle debts in Argentina instead of continuing to appeal to courts in New York.
  • IPS also has a good overview of the controversy around a proposed mining law in Uruguay, which would authorize open pit mining in the country. The measure could make the country the eighth-largest producer of iron ore, but it is strongly opposed by environmental groups and local residents near planned projects. Interestingly, while polls suggest that the majority of the public is against it as well, the ruling Frente Amplio looks set to pass the law.
  • Writing for The Atlantic, Robert Muggah and Steven Dudley profile insecurity, crime and corruption in the Nothern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, which they claim amount to a brewing “humanitarian catastrophe.” They conclude that one of the main contributing factors in this situation is the fact that international donors and world powers alike have been unwilling to push for the banking, judicial and campaign reforms necessary to crack down on corruption and organized crime.
  • With Chile’s presidential elections a month and a half off, the Center for Public Studies (CEP) has released a new poll which shows that 44 percent of Chileans support the candidacy of former President Michelle Bachelet, compared to 12 percent for conservative candidate Evelyn Matthei. La Tercera reports that Matthei’s campaign has criticized the poll’s accuracy, arguing that the poll was initiated before Matthei even declared her candidacy after Pablo Longueira unexpectedly dropped out of the race.
  • In the latest attempt by Peruvian President Ollanta Humala to avoid becoming a lame duck by reaching out to the opposition, La Republica reports that the president’s cabinet chief has offered to meet with two of Humala’s most powerful political critics: former President Alan Garcia and Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori. There is no word yet on whether they will accept the offer, though they have refrained from participating in his outreach efforts in the past.   

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Colombian Court Backs Landmark Transitional Justice Law

Colombia’s peace process overcame a major hurdle yesterday, after the country’s Constitutional Court issued a 7-2 ruling in favor of a transitional justice law meant to facilitate an end to the conflict.

Ever since it was passed in June 2012, the Legal Framework for Peace has been a tough sell. 

The legislation allows demobilized members of armed groups to hold political office, and authorizes the government to selectively prioritize the investigation and prosecution of human rights abuses. The law’s supporters, like President Juan Manuel Santos, claim this is a necessary transitional mechanism which will cement a lasting peace.

Its critics, however, say it amounts to an amnesty for FARC crimes, and is an attempt by the state to waive its constitutional obligation to investigate and punish those who violate others’ rights.

Last month, the Court began a hearing into a challenge to the law, first submitted by the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) in December. The CCJ was supported by Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez in its opposition to the law, while the Ombudsman’s office and civil society groups like Bogota-based human rights research center Dejusticia filed arguments backing the Santos administration’s position.

It appears that the Court has sided with the law’s supporters. Yesterday seven of its nine justices backed the constitutionality of the law, and the ruling listed eight parameters to guide the law’s implementation. Among these is the provision that it “should be respectful of international commitments…regarding the obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.” According to El Tiempo, the Court also found that in order for armed actors to be eligible for alternative sentencing under the law, they have to comply with set guidelines. This includes turning in weapons, minors among their ranks and locating the bodies of their victims.

In a public address following the announcement, President Santos called the decision “a very important step,” and said the Legal Framework for Peace would help “find that middle ground between justice and peace that allows us to put an end to this conflict that has bled us for over 50 years.”

News Briefs
  • While the court’s decision is a major boost for the peace process in Colombia, the latest series of talks between FARC and government negotiators in Havana drew to a close yesterday with little to show for itself. Reuters reports that Santos’ proposal to hold a referendum on an eventual agreement overshadowed the discussion on the agenda. While the negotiating teams on both sides read statements claiming that progress was still being made, they also offered opposing takes on the referendum proposal. The FARC have rejected the initiative, and continue to insist on a constituent assembly despite the government’s refusal to agree to it.  
  • There is other, more positive news for peace in Colombia, however. A day after the National Liberation Army (ELN) released a Canadian geologist it had been holding hostage since January, Santos announced that his government was willing to widen the peace process to include the rebel group.  While Santos did not give any details of his administration’s plans for doing so, the BBC claims that Uruguayan President Jose Mujica is expected to play a role in talks with the rebels, noting that he has recently expressed a strong interest in facilitating peace in Colombia.
  • Fourteeen years after the creation of an Ombudsman’s Office, or “Defensoria del Pueblo,” in Venezuela, a group of NGOs in the country (including Provea, Espacio Publico, Civilus and others) has released a report evaluating its work for the past six years. Overall, the assessment isn’t good. Caracas Chronicles has a rundown of the report’s main criticisms, which include the fact that the current head of the office, Gabriela Ramirez, has shown no apparent interest in challenging the government, and has criticized the Inter-American human rights system on multiple occasions.
  • Two days after announcing his government had broken up an alleged assassination plot against him -- which officials claimed was linked to ex-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe -- Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has now broadened the scope of his claims, alleging that the U.S. was behind the plot. “The plan was to eliminate me simultaneously with the attack on Syria,” Maduro said, according to El Universal.
  • Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro has responded to reports that Cuba bowed to U.S. pressure to deny entry to Edward Snowden in June. While The Guardian noted that he dismissed the report as “libel,” in his original Granma column he writes that he cannot comment on “whether someone said something to Snowden or not.”
  • The Washington Post profiles recent protests in Mexco City by teachers unions opposed to President Enrique Peña Nieto’s education reform plan. In the past week some 10,000 teachers have come to the capital city to protest the measure, effectively closing down certain areas and bringing normal daily activity to a halt.
  • Honduras Culture and Politics looks at recent public opinion polls ahead of that country’s presidential elections in November. While surveys consistently put leftist LIBRE party candidate Xiomara Castro in the lead, they also show that, when given a choice of all the leading candidates, most Hondurans prefer “none of the above.” This number appears to be rising, going from 19 percent in February to over 30 percent in July.
  • On Wednesday, Panamanian officials announced that the North Korea-bound Cuban weapons shipment it intercepted last month was “without a doubt” a violation of UN sanctions, citing a preliminary report authored by UN researchers.  The announcement comes after a report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and 38 North found that many of the weapons on the ship -- like rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and conventional artillery ammunition -- were actually in “mint condition,” clearly not in need of repair as Cuban officials claimed.
  • BBC Mundo highlights the debate in Brazil sparked by the arrival of thousands of Cuban doctors, which the administration of President Dilma Rousseff has contracted to meet health care needs in the neglected interior of the country. Although Rousseff dismissed the controversy as “prejudice” against Cubans, opponents of the move claim that the doctors may be unqualified, and are working in accordance with unfair labor contracts.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mexico’s Peña Nieto Backs off Proposed Gendarmerie

Ever since Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto first announced he would create a “national gendarmerie” police force with military training, the administration has had to water its plans down considerably. Initially the president claimed the force would consist of 40,000 officers, and officials said it would start with 10,000 by the end of 2013.

Civil society groups immediately condemned the initiative. In March, nine leading public policy NGOs in the country (including the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, or IMCO, Causa en Comun and the Institute for Security and Democracy, or Insyde) sent a letter to the administration in which they criticized Peña Nieto’s plan to create the new force by administrative decree. They urged him to pass the measure through the legislature, and called on him to consult with experts before moving forward.  In response to this, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong met with representatives of these organizations in June before announcing a revised version of the president’s plan. He said the gendarmerie would be under the jurisdiction of Mexico’s Federal Police, and would begin with half the initially announced number, or 5,000 officers.  

Now the Peña Nieto administration is walking this back even further. Yesterday El Universal reported that National Security Commissioner Manuel Mondragon told reporters that just 1,710 members of the gendarmerie had been hired so far. He claimed the force would not be ready for roughly another year, saying: “The gendarmerie will be a division of the federal police, made up of 5,000, who will begin their mission in July 2014.”

On one hand, this announcement is good news for human rights advocates who, like WOLA Senior Associate Maureen Meyer, argue that government’s plan to recruit gendarmerie officers from the armed forces will only cement the military’s controversial role in providing public security in the country. It means that the government will have more time to properly train members of the gendarmerie in police work, something their military background would not prepare them for.

On the other hand, Mondragon’s statement leaves plenty of unanswered questions about the initiative. Perhaps the most basic of these are related to what new role the force will play in the Federal Police, and how the gendarmerie would fit into its administrative structure. As analyst Alejandro Hope wrote in June for InSight Crime, one of the initial goals of creating a new militarized force was to allow police operatives to take advantage of the comparatively positive public perception of the armed forces. Including the gendarmerie under the umbrella of the Federal Police, however, may ensure that its officers will be seen as police, regardless of their background.  Additionally, as Hope points out, the fact that it will be much smaller than previously announced virtually guarantees that the government has given up on easing its reliance on the military for security any time soon.

News Briefs
  • Although Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced he would negotiate with the campesino groups that have organized a nationwide rural workers’ strike in the country yesterday, the talks have not yet yielded results. El Tiempo reports that the negotiations stretched into the early morning hours today, but no agreement was struck and demonstrators will keep roadblocks around the country in place. In an op-ed for El Espectador, Cesar Rodriguez Garavito of Colombia’s Dejusticia legal studies center provides an interesting take on the recent protests. He argues that they point to a gap urban and rural Colombian society. “For the first time in a long while,” he writes, “we city-dwellers are realizing that the forgotten countryside -- with its poverty and wars -- affects us directly.”
  • The Washington Post assesses the prospects for transitional justice in Colombia, where the country’s Constitutional Court is set to issue a ruling on the country’s landmark law that allows for the prioritization of prosecuting human rights abuses and grants a degree of amnesty to FARC rebels not convicted of crimes against humanity. The Court is set to issue a ruling on the matter this morning, and Semana reports that sources in the judiciary say the law will likely be approved.
  • Meanwhile, the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) has released a Canadian mining company employee it held since January, a move which analysts expect will set the stage for the Santos administration to begin peace negotiations with ELN rebels.  
  • On Tuesday, a Boston court sentenced Salvadoran Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, who has been accused of orchestrating the 1989 assassination of six Jesuit priests in the Central American country, to 21 months in prison for immigration violations. The New York Times reports that the ruling may set up Montano to be extradited to Spain for the Jesuit priest case, as U.S. officials have said they are open to granting the extradition request.
  • The Mexican government has expressed an interest in taking up the second phase of the San Andres Peace Accords that it signed with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in 1996. The agreement aimed to set up new guarantees for indigenous rights in the country, but the federal government never committed to it. EFE reports that Mexican officials have expressed a willingness to free remaining EZLN prisoners and restart dialogues “incorporating international law.”
  • Iñaki Sagarzazu of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights applies statistical analysis to recent polls measuring public support for Nicolas Maduro. While support for the president has remained stable since he took office at an average of 46.5 percent, opposition to his administration is growing and may be a factor in the upcoming December municipal elections.
  • On Monday, Venezuelan Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez told reporters that police had arrested two hitmen allegedly hired to assassinate Maduro. While this is not the first time Venezuela has claimed to have broken up an assassination plot, Rodriguez directly linked the attempt to Colombian ex-President Alvaro Uribe, saying he was “the one giving orders.”
  • The Guardian provides an update on the diplomatic spat that erupted between Bolivia and Brazil after Brazilian diplomats snuck opposition Bolivian Senator Roger Pinto -- who is wanted on corruption charges -- out of the country over the weekend. According to the paper, Brazil has said it will not extradite Pinto, though La Razon reports that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has called the manner in which he crossed into the country “unacceptable.”
  • Brazilian legislators in the country’s lower house have voted to approve a measure which would limit the president’s ability to cut spending, requiring the administration to get congressional approval before freezing spending on certain programs added by lawmakers. Reuters reports that if passed, the law would fuel uncertainty about Brazil’s ability to pay off its debts.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why Snowden Missed his Flight to Havana

On Monday, Russian daily Kommersant published a report alleging that former United States National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden had received a previously undisclosed amount of help from Russian authorities when he fled Hong Kong in June. As the Washington Post notes, the paper reported that Snowden celebrated his 30th birthday on June 21 at the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong, which casts doubt on the Russian government’s claims that the intelligence leaker’s arrival in Moscow on June 23 came as a complete -- and unwelcome -- surprise.

Of particular interest to Latin America observers, however, was the Kommersant article’s claim that Snowden had initially planned on traveling to Havana via Moscow, and then on to Ecuador or one of the other Latin American nations which expressed a willingness to host him at the time. According to unnamed Russian officials cited by the paper, the former NSA contractor found himself stranded after the Cuban government decided to refuse Snowden entry under pressure from the Obama administration. This explains why Snowden did not use the one-way ticket to Havana booked in his name for June 24, much to the chagrin of journalists on board the flight.

At the very least, this should be taken with a grain of salt. Reuters cautioned that it could not immediately verify the report, and that the claim about Havana was corroborated by a source “close to the U.S. State Department,” a description so vague it makes the confirmation almost meaningless.

Even setting the accuracy of the article aside, there is plenty of room for skepticism. Chief among these is Cuba’s proven willingness to defy U.S. foreign policy, recently demonstrated by Panama’s interception of a shipment of outdated weaponry bound for North Korea.

At the same time, however, there are several reasons why Cuba might choose to cooperate with the U.S. on the issue. The two governments are currently undergoing something of a rapprochement, with restrictions on the movement of diplomats from each country becoming increasingly relaxed, and officials recently resuming bilateral talks on migration. By ceding to U.S. on the Snowden issue, the Cubans may have gained a more favorable position for themselves in back-channel dealings with the Obama administration.

Additionally, allowing Snowden’s entry would go against recent signals by the Cuban government that it is less willing to harbor high-profile U.S. fugitives, even for more “political” crimes. As Cuba policy expert Anya Landau French wrote for the Havana Note blog in June:
In the State Department's 2006 report detailing why it would continue to list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, it noted that Cuban authorities had given assurances they would no longer accept "new" U.S. fugitives (whether their crimes were considered political or not). Allowing Snowden to transit Cuba would be a break of faith from that assurance given. Allowing a fugitive to transit your territory is tantamount to giving refuge, as the fugitive wouldn't be able to reach their ultimate destination without the transit stop.
Landau French suggested that if Snowden were to arrive in Havana, there is a good chance he would be deported to the U.S., potentially as part of a bid to trade him for one or all four of the members of the “Cuban Five” spy ring still in prison. This no doubt remains an attractive possibility for Cuban officials, making it unlikely that Snowden will be traveling through Cuba -- and thus Latin America, in all practicality -- in the near future.

News Briefs
  • A diplomatic row between Bolivia and Brazil is heating up. Over the weekend, Bolivian press reported that opposition politician Roger Pinto (who is wanted on corruption charges but had been holed up in Brazil’s La Paz embassy since Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff granted him asylum in June 2012) had been successfully smuggled out of the country, and arrived in Brasilia on Friday. El Deber reported that Pinto had been aided by Brazilian officials. Diplomat Eduardo Saboia, who used his diplomatic immunity to sneak Pinto out of the embassy in an official vehicle, said he was acting to defend a victim of political persecution. The move was not without controversy, however. La Razon reported that Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca requested an immediate explanation from Brazil, and asserted that the move was in violation of international treaties. On Sunday, the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations released a statement promising it would launch a full investigation into the incident.
  • President Rousseff was also apparently displeased by the incident. Yesterday, her office released a statement saying that Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota had resigned from his post, and would be replaced by Luiz Alberto Figueiredo. The statement also said that Patriota had been offered a post at Brazil’s UN mission. According to O Globo, this decision came directly from Rousseff, who administration sources claim saw the operation as a “disaster,” and allegedly only found out about it after Pinto had already arrived in Brazil.   
  • Former Brazilian Environmental Minister Marina Silva, who according to recent opinion polls could pose a threat to Rousseff’s re-election bid next year, is in the early stages of launching a campaign. The AP reports that Silva has submitted a petition to Brazil’s Electoral Tribunal requesting the official recognition of her Sustainability Network party.  The petition requires 492,000 voter signatures to be validated by the court, and the party turned in some 637,000. The wire agency notes that a recent poll puts Rousseff’s favorability rating at 35 percent, compared to 26 percent for Silva.  
  • The Washington Post questions recent claims by U.S. politicians -- including Senator John McCain -- about the spread of Mexican organized crime groups in the country. Although in 2011 the National Drug Intelligence Center concluded that seven Mexican drug cartels were operating in over 1,000 U.S. cities, law enforcement officials and drug policy analysts interviewed by the Post believe this is figure is extremely exaggerated.
  • Juan Jimenez, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s cabinet chief, is meeting today with leaders of two opposition parties, El Comercio reports. The meeting is part of Humala’s strategy to build a better relationship with his opponents, a move some analysts see as necessary for him to avoid political isolation.
  • At least six people were killed and 22 were injured when a cargo train carrying several hundred Central American migrants on board derailed on Sunday in the Mexican state of Tabasco.  The BBC reports that the incident was blamed on local thieves, who had stolen nails in the tracks to sell them as scrap metal.
  • IPS has the latest on civil society opposition to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s controversial decision to open up the Yasuni rainforest reserve in the Amazon to oil drilling. Indigenous groups and environmental activists are in the process of gathering signatures for a referendum on the move, which would require them to submit a petition signed by 5 percent of the electorate, or 584,000 people.
  • After a U.S. court on Friday ruled that Argentina was obligated to pay $1.4 billion to holders of its defaulted debt, yesterday Argentine President Cristina Fernandez announced her government would offer new bonds to be paid in dollars in to debt holders in Buenos Aires. According to the AP, analysts are pessimistic about the outlook for this measure, as bondholders would be unlikely to settle debts in Argentina rather than appealing to courts in New York.
  • Tomorrow, Colombia’s Constitutional Court is set to issue a ruling on the country’s landmark transitional justice law, the Legal Framework for Peace. President Juan Manuel Santos is confident that it will be approved, according to Caracol Radio. Meanwhile, Vanguardia reports that Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez, one of the law’s most vocal critics, has accused Santos of pressuring the court to approve the law by calling for a referendum on an eventual peace treaty with FARC rebels.
  • In what appears to be an abrupt about-face from his recent attempts to downplay the nationwide rural workers’ strike in Colombia, yesterday President Santos met with protest leaders in the central province of Boyaca, El Tiempo reports. Santos announced that he had set up teams to negotiate with the rural farmers’ associations which have organized the demonstrations, and Semana magazine claims the strike could end as soon as today. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Referendum Proposal Sparks Brief 'Crisis' in Colombia Peace Talks

While the Colombian government’s announcement last week that it will seek a national referendum on an eventual peace treaty with FARC rebels looked briefly like it could turn into a major obstacle in the peace process, the two parties will resume talks today in Havana. Still, the swift reaction of the administration to the guerrilla group’s calls for a break in proceedings sends a clear message: the government is setting the agenda.

After President Juan Manuel Santos sent a bill to Congress on Thursday that would link a referendum on an eventual peace agreement with either legislative or presidential elections next year, the FARC reacted almost immediately. On Friday, guerrilla spokesman Pablo Catatumbo told reporters in Havana that the group would need a “pause” in the talks, which he claimed was necessary to consider Santos’ initiative. In the statement, Catatumbo gave no indication of how long the FARC would need to reflect, though he did repeat the rebels’ demand for a constituent assembly (which the government has consistently rejected).

Later in the day, unidentified sources in the FARC’s negotiating team told news agency EFE that the pause would last only three days, and that they expected talks to begin again on Monday.

Even so, Santos was not pleased with the guerrilla’s announcement. The president immediately called on government negotiators in Havana to return to Colombia, saying: “In this process, the FARC are not the ones who hold pauses and set conditions.”

Although this immediately set off alarm bells and reports of a “crisis” in the peace process, this proved to be unwarranted. The Washington Post reports that in reality the government only withdrew half of the negotiating team, while the other half stayed in Havana for a planned meeting with UN officials. And on Saturday, top Colombian negotiator Humberto de la Calle announced that officials would return to Cuba for the next round of talks to resume this morning, according to Reuters.

While in the end the talks were not significantly disrupted by the posturing of either side, the weekend drama served to illustrate the balance of power at the negotiating table in Havana. Ultimately, the Colombian government has the upper hand in setting the agenda for the talks, and President Santos has made it clear that there are limits to what rebel demands are considered acceptable.

Setting up a convention to alter the constitution is not one of these, and it is now up to the guerrilla group to determine whether they will agree to this and continue with the talks. For now it appears they have not fully accepted it. On Sunday, FARC leader Timolean Jimenez issued a statement once again rejecting a referendum, doubling down on demands for constitutional changes and accusing Santos of exploiting peace talks to guarantee his own re-election.

News Briefs
  • Colombia’s RCN Radio reports that the cross-sector rural workers’ strike has entered its eighth day, with roadblocks and daily demonstrations taking place around the country and still no solution in sight. The BBC notes that roadblocks in the central province of Boyaca have raised fears of food shortages, while El Espectador reports that the spread of videos and images showing alleged police abuse of rural protesters has led Rodolfo Palomino to promise a full investigation into police misconduct. Meanwhile, President Santos has continued to downplay the protests, saying “the so-called national agrarian strike doesn’t exist,” claiming that the roadblocks and demonstrations are limited to a just handful of areas in the country.
  • Two weeks after São Paulo-based human rights group Conectas first released a report detailing a potential humanitarian crisis in the Brazilian state of Acre, which has seen a major wave of Haitian immigrants in recent years, the NGO has requested an audience with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). BBC Brazil reports that the group sent a letter to the IACHR asserting that the situation faced by Haitian migrants was a regional problem, which should be discussed “within the framework of respect for human rights.” Earlier this month Conectas researchers visited a camp set up by the Acre state government on the outskirts of the city of Brasiléia earlier this month and found its conditions “inhumane.” Although local officials said it was meant for 200 individuals, the camp houses more than 830 Haitian immigrants. Nearly all the immigrants interviewed by Conectas complained of serious lack of basic hygiene in the camp, and investigators found evidence of widespread illness.
  • Salvadoran news site El Faro, which in March 2012 broke the story that the administration of President Mauricio Funes was brokering a ceasefire between the rival MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs, has organized its reporting on the truce into a timeline detailing the major developments of the truce so far. In their introduction to the timeline, El Faro questions what President Funes would have done if news of the gang truce had not leaked to the press. “To what would the government have attributed the drastic reduction in the murders?” the site asks. “Or, more broadly: What would Salvadorans know about the truce if it were not for journalists?”
  • In a two-part analysis piece published in the World Politics Review, Americas Quarterly Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini and Editorial Associate Wilda Escarfuller argue that the current political fate of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, who is losing political allies as public opinion turns against him, is due to the nature of Peruvian politics since the election of Alberto Fujimori in 1989. The two also suggest that in order for Humala to recover, he will have to adopt a “consensus policy agenda” which incorporates popular social demands with his commitment to business interests, a difficult balance by any measure.
  • Mexican officials have announced that they have successfully identified 10 bodies  found in a mass grave outside Mexico City as those of the youths kidnapped in a popular downtown bar earlier this year. The Associated Press reports that the murders appear to be due to a turf war between local criminal groups in the capital city, which has dealt a blow to Mexico City’s image as a relatively peaceful oasis in the country’s drug-fueled violence.
  •  Sunday’s New York Times profiled opposition to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s education reform initiative by dissident teachers unions, which held large-scale protests in Mexico City last week and promised more in the coming days.  According to the NYT, pressure from teachers’ unions in the country has already caused legislators to indefinitely abandon requirements meant to evaluate teacher performance and stop the reportedly common practice of buying and selling teaching positions. Yesterday, El Universal reported that Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong announced that recent meetings with teachers’ union leaders “in no way” represented a step back from the administration’s commitment to pushing education reform.
  • The Miami Herald reports that a Brazilian prosecutor is reviewing President Dilma Rousseff’s plan to accept some 4,000 Cuban doctors to work in the country’s rural interior. According to the official, the program may violate the country’s labor laws. Additionally, last week Brazil’s attorney general told reporters that none of the doctors will be granted asylum if they apply for it, and will be deported back to Cuba if they do so.  
  • On Saturday, the NYT ran a profile of Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Joaquim Barbosa, the court’s first and only black justice, written by Simon Romero. While Barbosa is a widely-admired figure in Brazil, Romero writes that he has recently come under scrutiny for allegedly avoiding tax obligations and taking advantage of the country’s loose restrictions on payments to public servants.
  • Bolivia’s La Razon reports that a riot in the country’s Palmasola prison killed 30 inmates and wounded 38 on Friday, after a fight broke out between rival gangs and escalated when prisoners ignited propane gas tanks, setting fire to parts of the facility. The BBC reports that relatives of inmates have so far not received a list of the deceased in the incident. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Santos Proposes Referendum on FARC Peace Agreement

Although talks between FARC rebels and the Colombian government have made little progress since they first began in October, President Juan Manuel Santos has announced that he wants to put the terms of a peace treaty up for popular vote.

Yesterday, Santos announced he will submit a bill (El Espectador has its full text) to Congress which would allow an eventual peace agreement to be approved via a referendum. Although the country’s laws prohibit referendums to be linked to general elections, Santos is seeking an exception which would tie it to either the upcoming legislative election in March or the presidential election in May. According to El Pais, this is in order to allow the referendum a chance to receive the 7.5 million votes (25 percent of the electorate) it needs to be approved.

President Santos claimed passing the bill was a matter of urgency. “If we reach agreements and reach them by the end of the year as we all want, and don't have any way to have a referendum, it would be gravely irresponsible to not have foreseen this possibility,” he said.

The announcement was backed by the National Unity coalition, the umbrella group of major parties which support Santos, which means lawmakers will likely pass the measure without much debate. Colombia’s W Radio reports that it may even be signed into law by November.

The notion of holding a referendum on the peace agreement is not new. The administration first floated the idea in January, in response to the FARC’s calls for a constituent assembly. While the guerrilla group is still openly against organizing a referendum, doing so makes plenty of sense. In addition to involving the general public in the peace process, it provides an immediate incentive for the FARC to adapt to democratic politics, as the guerrillas would have to make their demands acceptable to not only the government, but to the general public as well.

There are, however, questions about the timing of Santos’ announcement. Because the two parties have only come to an agreement on one of five points after thirteen rounds of talks in Havana, it seems unrealistic to expect a full-fledged peace treaty to be hashed out by next March. Semana magazine reports that lawmakers of the opposition Democratic Pole party have voiced concerns that Santos’ announcement may be an attempt to put pressure on the rebels to speed up negotiations. The party’s leadership has requested a meeting with Santos before they take a position on the referendum, in order to determine “how advanced the conversations are” with the FARC.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday, Congressmen in Mexico’s lower house voted to pass a bill to reform the country’s official transparency body, the Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI). As the L.A. Times and International Business Times have recently reported, there were elements of the proposed reform package which transparency advocacy groups like Mexico’s Fundar and Article 19 warned could essentially defang the IFAI and reduce citizen access to information. However, it appears that the campaigning of these civil society organizations has paid off, and some of the most controversial elements of the reform were taken out of the bill’s final version. El Universal and Animal Politico report that while an earlier version passed in a legislative committee would have allowed the Attorney General’s office, the National Human Rights Commission, the Bank of Mexico and the Legal Counsel of the President to request the Supreme Court exempt them from releasing information deemed important to “national security,” now only the latter has the authority to do so. Additionally, according to Cuarto Poder  the bill expands the IFAI’s mandate to include political parties and unions, meaning that they will also be made to provide internal documents at the institute’s request.
  • Mexican officials are investigating whether bodies found in a mass grave outside Mexico City are those of the youths kidnapped in a popular downtown bar earlier this year, a case which -- as the New York Times notes -- raised fears about the spread of violence in the capital city.
  • Guatemalan online newspaper Plaza Publica has published an investigation which details the relationships that business elites in the country had with the regime of dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who has been accused of crimes against humanity and genocide. Among Plaza Publica’s findings is the revelation that Guatemalan businessmen lent their planes and private pilots to facilitate troop movements and attacks during the country’s armed conflict.
  • While on Tuesday Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles accepted what appeared to be an offer by President Nicolas Maduro to debate the state of corruption in the country, El Nuevo Herald notes that the president has not mentioned the subject since. Political analysts cited by the paper claim this is because it would be impossible to carry out without bringing up corruption in Maduro’s own party.
  • The Associated Press claims that a wave of resignations at Globovision “appeared to dim all hope Thursday for preserving editorial independence” at the Venezuelan TV channel. Globovision was long the only overtly anti-Chavista station in the country before a change in ownership earlier this year sparked a shift in its editorial bent. Still, the AP notes that there are two major “opposition-run” newspapers in the country, El Universal and El Nacional.
  • Although last month it was reported that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff had abandoned a controversial plan to recruit thousands of Cuban doctors to offer service in poverty-stricken regions of the interior, the Miami Herald reports that the administration is going forward with a program to bring in some 4,000 doctors from Cuba. According to Brazilian Minister of Health Alexandre Padilha, the Cuban doctors are despareately needed to fill positions in the program, as not enough Brazilians and medical professionals from other countries had signed on.
  • The Economist profiles Ecuadorean Preisdent Rafael Correa’s recent decision to open up the Yasuni Amazon reserve to oil drilling, a move the London-based magazine claims places his administration in contrast with traditional notions of the left.
  • Honduran lawmakers have passed a law which will create a new police force, the Military Police of Public Order (PMOP), which will be under military control and staffed by military reservists. According to La Prensa, the law will also allow judges to process drug trafficking cases remotely from outside the country, a move proponents say is necessary for their security. Russell Sheptak of Honduras Culture and Politics notes that the vote contradicts a 1998 law which established the Civil National Police outside of military jurisdiction, and points out that there are questions about the state’s ability to pay for the thousands of new officers security officials say they intend to hire in the coming months.
  • The State Department has confirmed that the U.S. is halting all police aid to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, which it claims is due to “credible allegations of gross human rights violations” against the police force. According to the AP, these allegations involve 12 murders committed between 2010 and 2011, which are believed to have been committed by police officers.
  • In less than 24 hours, Paraguayan lawmakers in both houses have passed a bill authorizing President Horacio Cartes to use the military to crack down on the Paraguayan Peoples’ Army (EPP), after the guerrilla group killed five security guards on a cattle ranch last week. Yesterday Cartes signed the bill, which allows him to send troops to the EPP’s area of influence without first declaring a state of emergency, the BBC reports. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Paraguay’s New Drug Czar Off to a Pessimistic Start

While the new Paraguayan drug czar’s recent criticism of Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill was not widely reported, his remarks have some interesting implications for drug policy in Paraguay under the new administration of President Horacio Cartes.

In an interview published yesterday by Spanish news agency EFE, the top anti-drug official in the Cartes administration, Luis Rojas, was highly critical of the bill to regulate marijuana in nearby Uruguay. “The situation will not change,” he said. “The Uruguayan market will receive the marijuana they produce and will not stop getting the marijuana produced in Paraguay. I think it really is a utopia, but well, we'll be analyzing it.”

Rojas is not the first official in the Southern Cone to comment on how marijuana regulation in Uruguay may affect its regional neighbors. Earlier this month Brazilian drug czar Vitore Maximiano raised concerns about the potential for cross-border spillover of the drug, and conservative Chilean presidential candidate Evelyn Matthei expressed support for the measure, saying it was an issue that “should be discussed.”

However, the Paraguayan official’s statement stands out because -- as I have noted for InSight Crime -- his country is responsible for producing as much as 80 percent of the marijuana consumed in Uruguay. What’s more, Paraguay is the leading marijuana producer in South America, and the second in the world behind Mexico, according to the latest UNODC World Drug Report. It is the main provider of cannabis to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile in addition to Uruguay.

It would be one thing for Rojas to simply criticize drug legalization initiatives, as Cartes has done, but by taking this a step further he is acknowledging that his country is unable to effectively curb its illicit marijuana cultivation problem. Regardless of the policies put in place, he asserts that “the situation will not change” and Uruguay will continue to receive Paraguayan marijuana. Essentially, Rojas is admitting defeat in his first week on the job.

This is significant, because beyond Paraguay’s ability to crack down on illicit drug trafficking, there are questions over the Cartes administration’s political will to do so. It is widely known that the DEA targeted the president in 2010 for alleged involvement in drug trafficking, money laundering and smuggling. Cartes has dismissed this as a political attack, and promised to take on corruption and organized crime in the country.

But the allegations against him have been hard to shake, and will likely prove even more so now that it has been revealed that Cartes’ uncle, pilot Juan Domingo “Papacho” Viveros Cartes, was arrested last month in a large-scale drug bust in Uruguay. The president has said that he supports a full investigation into the matter, and Rojas claims Cartes instructed him to be “relentless” in pursuing Viveros, who is also wanted on drug charges in Paraguay.

News Briefs
  • Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has emerged as a potential facilitator of Colombia’s peace talks. Semana reports that Mujica, himself a former guerrilla, has expressed an interest in contributing to the peace process multiple times in the past. Foreign Minister Luis Almagro has echoed the president’s position, saying that the government is willing to “humbly” serve as an intermediary between FARC rebels and the Colombian government. So far neither party has publicly endorsed the offer, though Mujica did meet with the FARC’s negotiating team in a visit to Havana last month.
  • Mexico’s El Universal reports that Jesus Zambrano, head of the opposition PRD party, publicly admonished party legislators who voted in commission to support a bill to reform the country’s highly-regarded freedom of information institute. Zambrano said the legislators made “a decision that was not adequate,” and that his party, along with the support of the PAN, will not support the proposed changes to the Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI), which pro-transparency advocacy group Fundar has criticized as a “serious setback in transparency and accountability.”
  • Guatemala’s elPeriodico reports that the country’s judiciary branch has launched a new Indigenous Interpretation and Translation Center, meant to facilitate court proceedings for the millions of indigenous Guatemalans who speak Spanish as a second language. The new center has hired 89 employees, but the paper claims the staff is only capable of providing service in 13 of the 22 nationally-recognized Mayan languages.
  • In the wake of revelations that the NSA conducts widespread surveillance of digital communications throughout the region, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has caused a stir by announcing that his government has found evidence of yet another massive espionage operation in Latin America. El Espectador reports that in a Tuesday interview, Correa said officials had uncovered proof that internal communications of the governments of Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina had been intercepted.  Correa failed to give specifics on the operation, however, and claimed officials were still working to determine who was behind it.
  • The Supreme Court of Chile has approved an extradition request for a former Argentine judge who fled the country to avoid charges of crimes against humanity in 2011. The judge, Otilio Romano, will stand trial in Argentina for allegations that he committed a laundry list of abuses while working as a prosecutor during the country's 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
  • Exactly ten years after Argentina’s Law of Due Obedience was annulled, allowing cases of crimes against humanity to be re-opened, Pagina12 reports that “the scenario is completely different.” The paper features an interesting interview with Gaston Chillier of the Center for Legal Studies (CELS), who notes that that 415 individuals have been convicted of crimes against humanity since then, and some 400 trials are still underway.
  • Retired Chilean General Juan Emilio Cheyre, who earlier this week admitted to putting a child whose activist parents were killed in the country’s Dirty War up for adoption, has stepped down from his position as head of Chile’s electoral commission. According to La Nacion, Cheyre claimed that his resignation was necessary in order to prevent distractions to the work of the election body.
  • The Economist looks at the ongoing nationwide strike in Colombia, which has brought agricultural workers of various stripes together to call for greater subsidies and more investment in rural areas. Demonstrators have blocked a dozen major highways in at least four provinces, and police have arrested at least 61 protestors.
  • On Wednesday, some 1,000 coffee growers clashed with police in Peru’s central Chanchamayo Province, demanding more government support to help them recover from the toll that a fungus has had on their crop, RPP radio reported.  Reuters notes that the government has estimated that the fungus will cause a 30 percent drop in coffee production this year, and La Republica reports that coffee farmers are demanding $200 thousand in subsidies to offset their losses.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

FARC Admit Partial Blame for Bloodshed in Colombia

For the first time in history, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have admitted to sharing partial blame for the violence in the country’s nearly 50 year-old armed conflict. In a statement that was read aloud by rebel spokesman Pablo Catatumbo at a press conference in Havana yesterday, the guerrilla group acknowledged that “without a doubt, there has also been cruelty and pain provoked by our forces.”

While it may not seem like much, it was the first time that the guerrilla group has unconditionally accepted any responsibility for violence, and amounts to a significant step towards lasting peace in the country. The FARC also expressed openness towards “reparation with full loyalty to the cause of peace and reconciliation,” which as El Tiempo points out is one of the five points on the agenda for peace talks. El Espectador reports that, with the announcement, the guerrillas “seem to understand at last that without accepting responsibility for victims there is no possibility for peace.”

La Silla Vacia notes that the admission is a major departure from statements that FARC leaders made when the talks began in October, in Oslo, Norway. Then, FARC negotiating team leader Ivan Marquez accused the government of attempting to turn the guerrillas “from victims into victimizers,” and claimed that the group was “not the cause but the answer” to violence in the country.

The statement takes on added weight in the wake of President Juan Manuel Santos’ admission last month that the state was responsible for “serious human rights violations” in the conflict.

 This is good news for the talks, which are now entering their thirteenth round. While the two parties are still hashing out the details of political participation, the second of the five points, both Santos’ and the rebels’ admission of responsibility lay a positive foundation for a discussion on attending to conflict victims. And now that Santos has backed away from an November deadline, the slow pace of the talks have become less of a problem.

News Briefs

  • Press freedom and human rights groups in Mexico are sounding alarm bells over proposed changes to the country’s freedom of information institute, which were recently approved by a congressional committee. While the reforms were initially embraced because they would make unions and political parties susceptible to freedom of information requests, the changes have taken on other, negative characteristics. According to the L.A. Times, under the new rules the Supreme Court would have the power to review decisions by the Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI), and allow government agencies to refuse to release certain documents they deem necessary for national security purposes.  Animal Politico reports that senators of the opposition PAN and PRD parties have announced that they were not aware of the proposals, and will join together to prevent them from passing in the Senate. The announcement comes after a coalition of transparency advocacy groups including Fundar, the Collective for Transparency and Mexico Informate released a press statement condemning the changes as a “serious setback in transparency and accountability.”
  • Both houses of Brazil’s legislature have passed a bill which will reserve funds from oil royalties exclusively for health and education. Under the law, 75 percent of state proceeds will go to education while 25 percent will be for health care. When the measure goes into effect, it is expected to bring in some $800 million in resources next year.  Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has called the bill a “historic victory,”  and O Globo reports that the president intends to sign it into law in the coming days.
  • Although Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos initially sought to downplay the massive labor demonstrations that began this week -- he claimed they lacked “the expected magnitude” on Monday -- they do not appear to be dying down. The first two days of strikes saw roadblocks, arrests and clashes with police in provinces around the country. Colombia Reports provides a helpful overview of the various actors involved in the protest, which brings together health workers, coffee farmers, truckers, university teachers, rice growers, sugar cane cutters, and miners. According to El Espectador, the protests picked up steam on Tuesday, with major demonstrations in the provinces of Boyaca, Cauca, Arauca, Nariño and Putumayo.
  • The New York Times looks at slowing economic growth in Peru. Last week President Ollanta Humala announced that “the crisis has come to Peru,” and while he has since walked that statement back, the NYT notes that in the coming years the country’s economic progress appears poised to continue at a more measured rate than in the previous decade.
  • After Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s decision last week to open up the Yasuni Amazon Reserve to oil drilling was heavily criticized by environmental and indigenous rights activists, El Comercio claims that lawmakers in his Alianza Pais party are feeling pressured to distance themselves from the president on the issue.
  • Chilean retired General Juan Emilio Cheyre Espinoza, who was army from 2002 to 2006 and now presides over the country’s electoral commission, has sparked a controversy after admitting to El Mercurio that he put a child of Dirty War victims up for adoption after his parents had been killed. Cheyre allegedly had no part in the murders, only in submitting victims’ son to adoption. The son, since identified as 40-year-old Ernesto Lejderman, has said he does not think Cheyre should face charges for his actions, though local human rights groups are calling for him to step down from his current position.
  • After Guatemalan TV journalist Carlos Alberto Orellana Chavez became the fourth media worker killed in the country so far this year, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has called on the government of the Central American country to conduct a full investigation into the incidents. There is little reason for optimism on this front, however. Today’s Prensa Libre reports that, while the country has seen over 2,185 homicides so far this year, police statistics show just 100 have been detained in connection with a murder.
  • On Tuesday, the U.S. deported Sandra Avila Beltran, the drug trafficking figure known as the “Queen of the Pacific,” to Mexico after she served part of her sentence for participating in a drug smuggling network. She was put under the custody of Mexican officials, and will now serve time in her home country for money laundering charges.
  • The Miami Herald profiles Sandra Honoré, head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, whose linguistic skills and commitment to the job have earned her a positive reputation among officials in the country.