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.