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.