Monday, September 30, 2013

Dominican Court Ruling Denies Citizenship to Thousands

A ruling by the Dominican Constitutional Court last week could have disastrous implications for individuals of Haitian descent in the country, potentially leaving tens of thousands of people stateless. 

On Thursday, the court found that anyone born to undocumented immigrants to the Dominican Republic since 1929 are not legal citizens, giving civil registry officials in the Central Electoral Board (JCE) a year to come up with a list of people to exclude from citizenship. In its ruling, the court said JCE officials were going over the birth certificates of more than 16,000 people, and recognized that some 40,000 people of Haitian descent had been denied identification documents because of their status.

Up until the Dominican constitution was revised in 2010, the country automatically guaranteed citizenship to anyone born there, regardless of the nationality of their parents. However, the new constitution left out children of undocumented immigrants from this provision, deeming them to be merely “in transit.” Because the change mostly affected descendants of Haitian migrants, it was widely chalked up to longstanding discriminatory attitudes against Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

Last week’s ruling is a continuation of this discrimination, and puts individuals of Haitian descent in an extremely difficult position.  Under Dominican law, they are living in the country illegally and could be deported to Haiti. However, most are not Haitian citizens either, and do not speak Creole or have significant ties to the country. Because of this, legal experts have challenged the basis of the court’s decision. As constitutional lawyer Nassef Perdomo told Dominican news site 7 Dias, “By revoking the citizenship of all these people, it has been determined that they are all of Haitian nationality, even though the Constitutional Court has no power to grant someone the nationality of a foreign country.”

The Associated Press notes that activists say they intend to file a petition against the ruling with the Inter-American Commission, which in turn may refer the case to the Inter-American Court.

Officials in the country insist that no one will be left stateless by the ruling. Over the weekend, JCE President Roberto Rosario told El Dia that Dominican law establishes mechanisms for affected individuals to apply for legal citizenship. “The sentence unifies the country,” Rosario said. “It clarifies and defines a legal path [to citizenship] and allows these people a humanitarian solution through a legal framework.”

“Far from remaining in limbo like some critics are arguing, [they] will for the first time benefit from a defined status and identity without having to violate the law,” Immigration Director Jose Ricardo Taveras told reporters.

However, the AP notes that this legal path to citizenship has not yet been established, nine years after a 2004 law called for its creation. It is also unclear how many of those who have been denied nationality by the recent court decision will be eligible for the process.  

News Briefs
  • On Saturday, Colombia’s FARC rebels called on U.S. civil rights activist Jesse Jackson to facilitate the release of a former American soldier held captive by the guerrilla group since June. El Espectador reported that the guerrilla group requested Jackson’s help due to his “experience and integrity.” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos immediately vetoed the request, saying he wanted to avoid a media spectacle. Nevertheless, Reuters reports that Jackson is determined to assist in the release, and plans on traveling to Colombia in the coming days.
  • An anonymous Obama administration official has contested Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s claim that he skipped out on the UN General Assembly last week because of plots against his life. According to the official, the decision was more likely due to fears that the Cuban jet he was flying in would be seized by U.S. authorities.  
  • Paraguayan President Horacios Cartes will arrive in Brasilia today to meet with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The meeting helps mend ties between the two countries, which were badly damaged after Brazil sought to isolate the Paraguayan government in response to the controversial ouster of former President Fernando Lugo. EFE reports that the two are expected to discuss Paraguay’s re-admission to the Mercosur trading bloc, from which it was suspended after Lugo’s removal.
  • InSight Crime features an analysis of Mexico’s criminal landscape by Malcolm Beith, who argues that the main criminal groups in the country have become increasingly fragmented over the last several years. Because of the level of market insecurity in the country, Beith argues that there is a possibility that newer, smaller crime syndicates could seek to unite under the banner of the largest remaining cartel, the Sinaloa Federation.
  • The Miami Herald looks at an underreported theme among the addresses that Caribbean leaders delivered at the UN General Assembly last week: calls for reparations to the descendants of victims of the African slave trade in the Americas. The paper notes that the movement for reparations has picked up momentum in recent months, and has been endorsed unanimously by the Caribbean Community regional bloc.
  • The Cuban government has lifted a ban on Cuban athletes participating in foreign leagues, so long as they pay taxes on their earnings agree to compete for Cuba in international events like the Olympic Games. As El Nuevo Herald notes, the ban is part of a package of reforms -- including pay raises -- thought to come as a response to a wave of high-profile desertions of Cuban athletes in recent years. The L.A. Times reports that, because of the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, the changes will not lead to an influx of Cuban players to Major League Baseball.
  • Just before Chilean authorities closed one of the two special detention centers used to house human rights violators of the dictatorship era, and it inmates were set to be transferred to the other facility, one of the prisoners committed suicide on Saturday. The New York Times reports that former intelligence chief Odlanier Menam shot himself at home, where he had been allowed to spend weekends since 2011. The incident has not complicated the closure of the Cordillera prison, which was completed yesterday according to La Tercera.
  • The Miami Herald’s Carlos Alberto Montaner has an interesting interview with an anonymous “former U.S. ambassador” on the reasoning behind the United States’ recently-exposed surveillance of Brazilian government officials.  The official describes the Brazilian government as “not exactly friendly,” and argues that U.S. espionage activities in the country are justified by Brazil’s diplomatic ties with U.S. rivals. According to the ex-ambassador: “The friends of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, of Dilma Rousseff and the Workers Party are the enemies of the United States: Chavist Venezuela, first with (Hugo) Chávez and now with (Nicolás) Maduro; Raúl Castro’s Cuba; Iran; Evo Morales’ Bolivia; Libya at the time of Gadhafi; Bashar Assad’s Syria.”  The official’s conservative views and relative openness to the media are in keeping with the profile of former Venezuelan ambassador-turned-policy analyst Otto Reich, though it is impossible to tell for sure.
  • The Washington Post looks at the complications to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s reform agenda, which has been hampered by sagging popularity and mounting opposition on both the left and right of the political spectrum. While many in the left-wing PRD oppose his confrontations with teachers’ unions and plans to scale back the country’s state oil monopoly, the conservative PAN is against plans to raise taxes on wealthy Mexicans to build up revenue. Peña Nieto will face a major test of his agenda next month, when lawmakers are expected to vote on controversial energy reforms.
  • The governments of Spain and Argentina have reached an agreement to join forces in their respective territorial claims against Great Britain: the Falklands Islands and Gibraltar.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Venezuela’s ‘Birther’ Scandal Picks Up Steam

Immediately after Venezuela’s April elections, fringe elements of the opposition in the country began to make use of a tactic famously put to use during the last U.S.  election cycle: questioning the birthplace of the president. While conspiracy theories that President Nicolas Maduro was in fact born in Colombia have existed for some time, Venezuela’s “birther” movement has become emboldened by mixed messages from the administration of President Nicolas Maduro.  As Juan Nagel wrote for Foreign Policy last month:
Maduro has responded by asserting he was born in the Los Chuagarmos district of Caracas. The foreign minister said he was born in El Valle. Adding to that, but not really helping, is the governor of Táchira state, hundreds of kilometers west of Caracas and bordering Colombia, who says that he was born there. Fueling the controversy is the fact that Maduro's official Venezuelan birth certificate has never been produced. 
The scandal hit fever pitch in the last few days when Guillermo Cochez, the former Panamanian Ambassador to the Organization of American States, presented what he claimed was Maduro's Colombian birth certificate. The Colombian Civil Registry has denied the document's authenticity, but this has done little to dispel the doubts.
The Venezuelan birther movement continued to gain momentum in late July, when opposition leader Henrique Capriles joined its ranks and called on the president to address growing doubt about his birthplace. Now, Capriles has taken it one step further. Ultimas Noticias reports that in a televised statement yesterday, he showed his own birth certificate, and called on the president to do the same.

“Here I have my birth certificate, where is the certificate of Maduro? They do not only steal an election but violate the Constitution as well,” said Capriles, referring to the constitution’s requirement for the president to be a Venezuelan citizen. So far Maduro has not responded.

Whether Capriles truly believes the conspiracy theories about Maduro’s birthplace is doubtful. Regardless, it is clear that he sees a political advantage to supplementing his attacks on Maduro’s record on corruption, crime and economic management by questioning the authenticity of the president’s Venezuelan identity. 

The test of the opposition’s political strategy will likely come in municipal elections on December 8. As David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights note, the opposition is framing the local elections as a kind of popular referendum on the Maduro administration. Although the government is attempting to downplay this, analysts believe his United Socialist Party (PSUV) has a good chance of losing the national popular vote even if it wind most win most municipalities.  This could be a huge moral victory for Capriles, potentially setting him up to lead a recall referendum against Maduro in two years.

News Briefs
  • On Thursday, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic issued an extremely controversial ruling that strips citizenship from individuals born to migrants who entered the country illegally. The Court has given electoral authorities a year to come up with a list of the tens of thousands of individuals who will have their citizenship revoked. The AP notes that the ruling affects mostly individuals of Haitian descent, and is bound to raise tensions with the neighboring country.
  • Amid mounting evidence that Syrian government forces were responsible for gas attacks on its own people, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced that he spoke with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad  via telephone yesterday.  El Nacional reports that Maduro said he assured Assad that “the Venezuelan people support and accompny the Syrian people in their battle with terrorist armies financed by the U.S. and the West.” Maduro also said that a high-level delegation of Syrian officials is set to visit Latin America in the coming weeks.
  • A new Gallup poll in Honduras shows the gap between the two leading candidates in the presidential race is narrowing ahead of November elections. According to the survey, center-left candidate Xiomara Castro of the LIBRE party has a slim lead over the National Party’s Juan Hernandez, with 29 compared to 27 percent. Previous polls had put Hernandez in third place, with only 18 percent of the vote.
  • Ricardo Soberon, the Peruvian drug czar who was dismissed for opposing an aggressive coca crop eradication program, has issued a scathing critique of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s approach to drug policy. In an interview with Spanish news agency EFE, Soberon characterized the Humala administration as marked by “weakness.” He also accused the government of complicity with illicit coca cultivation, saying: “The problem exists because there is a complicity and corruption at various levels that allow planting to continue.”
  • The Cuban government has expanded the list of private sector jobs allowed in the country, part of ongoing economic reforms on the island. Among the newly-allowed private occupations are agricultural vendors, real estate agents and telecommunications salespeople.
  • The Guardian profiles an experimental approach to reducing violent crime in Brazil’s federal district. Under a new law, toy and replica guns will be banned from Brasilia starting next year. Beginning in 2014, shops selling fake guns will face hefty fines, be closed for 30 days or even lose their license.
  • After the two special prisons that Chile uses to house military human rights abusers of the dictatorship era came under fire recently, President Sebastian Piñera has officially ordered the closure of one of them. According to La Tercera, the Cordillera prison facility (the most comfortable of the two) will be closed, and its inmates will be transferred to the Punta Peuco prison in Santiago.
  • The New York Times covers the attempts to prosecute Ray E. Davis, a former U.S. Navy captain accused of involvement in the killings of two American citizens in the wake of Chile’s 1973 military coup. After years of court battles by the families of the victims, and after a Chilean judge requested the U.S. to extradite Davis, records show that he had been living in a Chilean nursing home all along, and in fact recently passed away.

  • The U.S. Congress has passed a measure intended to reform the Organization of American States (OAS), the text of which gives the State Department 180 days to submit a multiyear plan which would encourage the OAS to adopt a “results-based budgeting process.” It will now go to the president’s desk to be signed. The bill comes several months after the OAS -- more specifically, the Inter-American human rights system -- faced an aggressive reform push from ALBA bloc countries, illustrating the growing consensus for OAS reform across the political spectrum in the hemisphere. Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told EFE that he believes the bill will help build an “invigorated OAS, which advances representative democracy and  significant economic growth by promoting and defending peace, security, the rule of law and human rights in the Americas.”

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Mexican Artists, Intellectuals Call for Marijuana Decriminalization

A number of famous Mexicans, including actors, artists, businessmen, former politicians and a Nobel Prize-winning scientist have signed a petition advocating  the decriminalization of marijuana, calling it “a step in the right direction” towards addressing the country’s citizen security crisis. As a justification for marijuana decriminalization, the statement lays out six main arguments:
1.       Current Mexican law allows for the use of all illicit drugs, but only authorizes possession of impractically small amounts.
2.       Problematic marijuana use has a far lower incidence rate than problematic use of legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco.
3.       Criminalization increases the price of drugs, providing drug traffickers with massive profits.
4.       International norms regarding marijuana use are changing.
5.        Possession of small amounts of marijuana is a matter of individual liberty that should not be infringed upon.
6.       Decriminalization would help refocus law enforcement efforts on more violent criminal activity.
The petition was hosted by, a project of the Miguel Aleman Foundation. It was signed by more than 60 influential Mexicans, including former Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, as well as the 1995 Nobel laureate for chemistry, Mario Molina.

It is no coincidence that this petition comes as lawmakers of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) are preparing a bill to loosen marijuana laws in Mexico City. So far a concrete version of the bill has not been presented, though there were rumors that it could be submitted by the end of this month.

The statement by influential Mexicans bears some similarity to the marijuana campaign in Uruguay, in which political and cultural elites have also played a key part. Regulacion Responsable, the coalition of civil society groups that supports the marijuana regulation bill currently under debate in the Uruguayan Senate, was launched in May as a platform of some 50 individuals. The initial adherents were a mix of leading intellectuals, pop culture figures and artists, including well-known local actor Petru Valensky and popular writer Mario Delgado Aparain.

In some ways, what is happening in Uruguay and Mexico is the inverse of the processes in the U.S. states of Washington and Colorado, where marijuana legalization initiatives passed by majority vote. By contrast, citizens of the two Latin American countries are largely against marijuana legalization, and its main supporters appear to be politicians and opinion leaders.

However, there is evidence to suggest this could change. Polls in Uruguay show that support for the marijuana regulation bill is slowly increasing, especially among supporters of the ruling Frente Amplio coalition.  In Mexico there seems to be flexibility in public opinion on the issue as well. While a July poll showed that only one in three Mexicans are in favor of marijuana legalization, an August survey by Parametria showed wider support for legalizing medicinal use of the drug. According to the pollster, over 60 percent of the country is in favor of legally permitting medical marijuana.

News Briefs
  • The marijuana debate in the hemisphere isn’t limited to the U.S. and Latin America. On Tuesday, Jamaican lawmakers debated the merits of decriminalizing marijuana for personal use. While there was no bill proposed and no vote scheduled, there is a growing interest in relaxing marijuana laws on the island. The AP notes that while previous attempts to decriminalize the drug were stalled due to resistance from the U.S., the Washington and Colorado laws have emboldened marijuana activists in the Caribbean country.
  • Yesterday, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in New York City, in a meeting that El Pais reports lasted over an hour. The two reportedly discussed bilateral economic ties, international peacekeeping operations as well as Mujica’s concerns about NSA surveillance abroad. The meeting is also perhaps the clearest sign yet that Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill will not strain its relationship to the United States.
  • ProPublica takes an in-depth look at a trial underway in Southern California against a retired Guatemalan military officer accused of having a lead role in the in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre, one of the most brutal mass killings of the country’s civil war. Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a former army lieutenant, is being charged with lying about his military past in his application for residency and citizenship in the U.S., and faces a 10-year sentence if convicted.
  • After claiming he was reevaluating whether to go to the UN General Assembly in New York this week due to allegations that the U.S. had denied a visa to his chief of staff, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has officially decided not to attend.  El Nacional reports that the president chalked up his decision to “provocations” by the United States and an alleged plot against him. The AP notes that while he mentioned two former U.S. officials he frequently credits with attempting to undermine him (Roger Noriega and Otto Reich), he did not go into detail about the supposed plot.
  • The Colombian prosecutor’s office has opened up an investigation into the younger brother of former President Alvaro Uribe, who has been accused of links to paramilitary groups in Antioquia province. The charges against Santiago Uribe were first leveled by former police major Juan Carlos Meneses, who El Espectador reports has gone missing and is also sought for allegations of wrongdoing.  
  • On Wednesday, Chile’s Supreme Court confirmed the suspension of Barrick Gold’s controversial Pascua-Lama mining project on the border with Argentina, reinforcing an earlier ruling that sided with local indigenous groups who accuse the project of contaminating their water supply. The court did not annul the company’s environmental permit, however, which was a key demand of local communities.
  • In a talk about the ongoing negotiations with FARC rebels at an academic event in Harvard yesterday, current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos praised the contributions of Cuba and Venezuela in the peace process. According to Santos, the two countries have been instrumental in encouraging the guerrilla group to lay down its weapons. “Venezuela and Cuba are helping us, they are saying, 'Get rid of warfare; today it's an anachronism,’” Santos told the audience.  
  • According to La Republica, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala and his Chilean counterpart Sebastian Piñera have agreed to abide by the decision of the International Court of Justice over a long-running maritime dispute. The agreement eases tensions between the two countries, and reestablishes the weight of The Hague in settling border disputes in the region after Colombia flatly refused to abide by a court ruling in favor of Nicaragua earlier this month.
  • Officials in the Brazilian state of Amazonas have come up with unorthodox future plans for a stadium being built for the World Cup: using it as a prisoner processing center after the big event next year. Local judicial officials told the Associated Press that they were considering a proposal to convert the stadium into a temporary detention center, a suggestion which local World Cup organizers and residents strongly oppose.
  • The New York Times profiles the work of recently-deceased Cuban economist and diplomat Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who was one of the most vocal advocates of economic reform in the country. Espinosa Chepe lost his job at the National Bank in 1996 after calling for the restoration of limited property rights in Cuba, reforms which were eventually put in place recently under President Raul Castro. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Rousseff Blasts NSA Spying at UN General Assembly

The United Nations General Assembly kicked off yesterday with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff issuing a sharp condemnation of the United States’ digital surveillance programs abroad, accusing the U.S. of violating universal human rights. The National Security Agency’s international espionage work, she said, amounts to “a breach of international law and an affront” to her country’s sovereignty. Reuters notes that the Brazilian president used unusually strong language, calling the NSA surveillance “totally unacceptable.”

As the Washington Post reports, Rousseff also characterized the NSA’s programs as a threat to global democracy, calling for UN regulation of the internet to safeguard its integrity. “Without the right of privacy there is no real freedom of speech or freedom of opinion, and so there is no actual democracy,” she said. And “without respect for [a nation's] sovereignty, there is no basis for proper relations among nations.” Rousseff also said her country would lead the way in presenting initiatives for a “civilian multilateral framework” for internet governance.

Much of the coverage of Rousseff’s remarks has focused on their anti-U.S. tone, as well as the implications of her recent decision to postpone a state visit to Washington. The New York Times' Room for Debate blog features arguments by analysts over which nation has the most to lose from the move. While Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society maintains that Brazil has lost a key opportunity to position her country in the Obama administration’s agenda, Oliver Stuenkel of the Fundação Getulio Vargas argues that the U.S. has more to lose, as the canceled visit focuses attention on its unpopular NSA espionage and may cost it a lucrative defense contract with the South American country.

Aside from the lofty rhetoric of Rousseff’s UN speech, there is an element of hypocrisy in her insistence on respect for free speech and privacy in cyberspace. As security analyst James Bosworth points out, Brazil’s strict libel laws have been used to silence bloggers and journalists in the country, and the country has been criticized for holding internet service providers, liable for messages created by third parties.

News Briefs
  • Uruguayan President Jose Mujica did not touch on drug policy reform in his speech to the General Assembly yesterday evening, despite speculation that he would defend the marijuana regulation bill currently being debated in his country. Instead, he gave a typically ponderous 40-minute long speech which touched on a wide array of subjects ranging from consumerism, war, climate change, globalization and Uruguay’s place in international relations. El Observador has a good overview of the highlights of his speech, including such choice quotes as: “So long as mankind lives in a climate of war, he is stuck in prehistory.”
  • But while Mujica excluded any mention of drug policy in his speech, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos used his address yesterday evening to echo previous calls for a shift in the dominant global approach to drug policy. Saying that the “war on drugs” had not been won, Santos called on UN member states to consider the findings of the recent OAS report on drug policy at the 2016 UN special session on drugs.
  • It seems Santos will not be alone in stressing drug policy at the UN this week. El Periodico reports that Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has announced that he will deliver a speech to the General Assembly on Thursday on “new routes against drugs.”
  • La Silla Vacia profiles the three main stumbling blocks in the Colombian peace process: the upcoming legislative and presidential elections next year, the issue of political representation for the FARC, and striking a balance between justice for victims and a lasting peace.
  • After an OAS-sponsored conference in El Salvador to assess the tenuous ceasefire between the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, the two largest street gangs in the country have released a joint statement  declaring their continued support for the agreement. InSight Crime notes that the impact of the ceasefire seems to be wearing off, as homicides are rising for the fourth straight month in the country.
  • Chilean retired General Juan Emilio Cheyre Espinoza, who stepped down from the country's electoral commission after admitting that he put a child of Dirty War victims up for adoption after his parents had been killed, is at the center of scandal once again. On Monday, a judge ordered an investigation into claims that Cheyre was responsible for the abduction and torture of three children in 1973.
  • The L.A. Times examines the case of a Mexican woman who, upon returning to her home town of Olinala, Guerrero after two decades in the U.S., became a leader of a community vigilante group created to free townspeople from criminal networks. She was arrested after her group ran afoul of local politicians, a case which illustrates the complicated relation that self-defense movements have with authorities in Mexico.
  • A Spanish judge has thrown out a lawsuit against Cuban security officials filed by relatives of deceased Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, who claimed that the Cuban government was responsible for his death. As the Miami Herald reports, the judge found that Spanish politician Angel Carromero had already accepted responsibility for the car crash that killed Paya, and that the crash was purely accidental.
  • The AP profiles a new Cuban government bid to attract foreign investment by lifting labor, customs and tax restrictions on commercial operators in its newly-refurbished Mariel port. The initiative is Cuba’s first experiment with special economic zones since the early 1990s.
  • The UN Office of Drugs and Crime has released its latest estimates on illicit coca cultivation in Peru. While overall coca cultivation has fallen to roughly 241 square miles -- a 3.4 percent drop from 2011 -- the figure means that Peru has officially displaced Colombia as the leading producer of coca in the world. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Latin American Leaders at the UN General Assembly

A number of regional heads of state are set to address the United Nations General Assembly today in New York, and are expected to touch on a range of issues, from drug policy and UN Security Council reform to U.S. surveillance abroad.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will be the first head of state to take the podium today. O Globo reports that she is expected to use her speech to call for the adoption of an international legal framework to limit espionage and allow states to maintain sovereignty over the internet in their territory. The speech comes a week after the “postponement” of her state visit to the U.S., which will be underscored by the fact that Rousseff will be immediately followed by U.S. President Barack Obama, as Bloomberg News notes.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera will be the second Latin American president to address the UN today, and according to El Mercurio will advocate reforms to the Security Council. In remarks at an event at Columbia University yesterday, the president said he favored “a new method of integration to the Security Council, incorporating new permanent members, particularly with the support of Chile, Brazil, Germany, Japan and India and non-permanent members as well.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will also address the General Assembly this morning. El Espectador reports that he is slated to talk about the ongoing talks with rebels in his country, and the importance of transitional justice in the peace process. Yesterday Santos met with Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who offered to facilitate talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Montevideo, according to EFE. While Santos emphasized that the decision to host the talks in Uruguay has not yet been made, he told reporters that “the fact that we have a country like Uruguay on the table is an important step for us.”

Later in the day, the Uruguayan president himself is expected to address the General Assembly, in a speech that is highly anticipated among Latin America watchers. While the Mujica administration has said that the president does not intend to focus his address on his country’s marijuana regulation initiative, it is likely that he will at least touch on it, especially considering how much the issue has raised his international profile.

In any case, Uruguayan press has treated drug policy as central to Mujica’s New York visit. Special emphasis has been given to his visit yesterday with billionaire George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations (OSF). Most of the coverage has centered on the fact that OSF has provided support to Regulacion Responsable, the civil society coalition backing the marijuana bill. On Friday, El Observador ran an article noting the irony in the ideological overlap of the “magnate and austere president” on the issue, “one from recycled Marxism of the south and the other from staunch liberalism of the north.” Mujica offered a humorous take on their contrasting backgrounds to La Republica, describing Soros as a “businessman who has behaved very well with Uruguay because he finances NGOS which have helped on the issue of addictions.” The meeting was the front page story of today’s El Pais, the leading daily in the country, which highlighted Soros’ remarks in which he described Uruguay as a “laboratory” for alternative drug policies.

News Briefs
  • The New York Times looks at leading New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio’s activist background, noting that he “studied Latin American politics at Columbia…was conversational in Spanish, [and] grew to be an admirer of Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista party.” De Blasio travelled to Nicaragua in 1988 on a ten-day trip with a Maryland-based solidarity organization known as the Quixote Center, and has credited the work of Sandinista-sponsored health clinics with inspiring his progressive politics. While he has mixed opinions of the FSLN today, the candidate is still interested in left-wing Latin American politics. According to the NYT, he honeymooned in Cuba -- in violation of the U.S. travel ban -- and sees his politics as fundamentally influenced by liberation theology.
  • While recent studies of immigration dynamics have pointed to a drop in the number of undocumented migrants who are detained on the Mexican border, official statistics suggest that figure is once again on the rise, which the Wall Street Journal attributes to the U.S. economic recovery. However, a new Pew Hispanic Center report (see the Washington Post and NYT) has found that while the number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. may be on the rise, it shows no sign of reaching pre-recession levels.
  • On Monday, Mexico’s main opposition party, the conservative National Action Party (PAN), conditioned its support for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s oil reform proposal on the passage of an electoral reform package that would significantly alter Mexico’s political sphere. As Animal Politico notes, the PAN plan would allow run-off votes between presidential candidates, permit direct re-election of lawmakers and mayors, and provide a basis to annul elections due to “excessive campaign spending.”
  • The Miami Herald has an overview of the domestic ramifications of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s decision to postpone her state visit to Washington. While many analysts argue that the move will ultimately harm her country (see Christopher Sabatini’s recent piece in Foreign Policy), in the short run Rousseff’s decision has been positively received in Brazil. Paulo Sotero of the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute describes the postponement as a smart political move grounded in a political climate that had soured as a result of the NSA revelations. At the same time, Sotero claims the decision was not primarily motivated by politics. “Any political mileage that Rousseff got out of the postponement is a ‘bonus,’’ not a motivation,’’ he told the Herald.
  • On Friday, El Salvador’s Supreme Court accepted a challenge to the country’s 1993 amnesty law, its first legal challenge since the Inter-American Court of Human Rights effectively ordered it to be overturned in a December 2012 ruling. El Faro claims that there appears to be growing political will to reverse the country’s amnesty, though it could leave the judiciary vulnerable to an institutional crisis similar to the one that began in June 2011.
  • The Associated Press takes a look at the recent discovery of 1.5 tons of cocaine found in 31 suitcases on board an Air France flight from Caracas to Paris last week. The find was the largest cocaine seizure in French history, and has so far resulted in a total of nine arrests in both countries. The AP notes that two National Guard sergeants and a lieutenant assigned to anti-drug operations in the Caracas airport have been arrested, renewing concerns about the possibility of Venezuelan military involvement in the drug trade.  
  • There will be one notable absence at the UN General Assembly today. After requesting that the United States provide guarantees that he and his entourage would be adequately “respected” in the visit, it seems Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has decided not to attend, at least today. El Nacional reports that the president is on his way back to Caracas from a state visit to China over the weekend.
  • On Friday, a Guatemalan court sentenced former National Police Director Héctor Bol de la Cruz to 40 years in prison for orchestrating the disappearance of a dissident student leader in 1984. As Reuters reports, the case was presided over by Judge Yasmin Barrios, the same judge who convicted General Efrain Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity earlier this year, before the decision was overturned. According to elPeriodico, Bol de laCruz’s legal team has vowed to appeal the case to the International Criminal Court.
  • With Latin America emerging as ground zero for drug policy alternatives, the UK-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation has published a new report aimed at providing decision makers in the region with policy arguments tailored to Latin America’s political climate. The report, entitled “Ending the War on Drugs: How to Win the Debate in Latin America,” is available for download in Spanish

Monday, September 23, 2013

Chile Weighs Closing Special Prisons for Human Rights Abusers

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera has opened up a debate over the controversial special prisons that Chile reserves for human rights abusers of the dictatorship era. The country has two facilities that house individuals convicted of rights violations under the Pinochet regime, the Cordillera and Punta Peuco prisons.

La Tercera reports that on September 11, Piñera held a meeting with Justice Minister Patricia Perez, asking her to provide him with information on the two prisons. The paper notes that the meeting occurred after CNN Chile aired an interview with Manuel Contreras, former head of the DINA secret police, who is being held in Cordillera. In his interview, Contreras made several controversial remarks, insisting that the government never authorized torture in its detainment facilities and that the victims of forced disappearances were armed rebels killed in gunfights.

Immediately after the Contreras interview, the network spoke with Francisco Vidal, a former spokesman for ex-President Michelle Bachelet, who characterized the existence of Cordillera and Punta Peuco as a needless “concession to the military.”

A week later, the president appeared on the same network to echo criticism of the special prisons, announcing that he was evaluating their closure. “I'm reviewing, as President, if it justifiable to have prisons like Cordillera,” Piñera told CNN. He especially emphasized the high cost of the facilities. Cordillera holds only ten inmates and is staffed by 36 guards, while Punta Pueco has 44 inmates and 82 guards. Radio U Chile points out that if Cordillera’s guard-to-inmate ratio was kept in every prison, the country would have to hire nearly 300,000 new guards. Additionally, the radio station notes that the average cost per prisoner in Cordillera is five times the cost for a regular inmate, and Punta Peuco is three times the average cost.

On Thursday, Piñera hinted that he will reach a decision “in the coming days.” Spanish news agency EFE reports that an administration spokesperson has told reporters that the president will likely order Cordillera’s closure, and house all rights abusers in one single facility.

News Briefs
  • On Friday, the U.S. government announced that it had settled a dispute with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro over allowing him to fly through U.S. airspace on his way to a state visit to China. State Department officials claimed that the request had been denied because Maduro’s administration made it only the day before the flight instead of the three required, and because he was not using a state aircraft for the trip. There was no response to Maduro’s claim that the U.S. has denied a visa to his chief of staff, General Wilmer Barrientos, to accompany him at the UN General Assembly this week. In any case, the AP reports that the Venezuelan president will be attending, and will likely use the visit to try to raise his political profile.
  • Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA takes a critical look at corruption in Venezuela’s public health sector, alleging that the government has not adequately investigated misuse of funds meant to purchase prescription medicine, and is not funding necessary upkeep for medical equipment at treatment centers. The report is noteworthy considering that criticism of the Venezuelan government more often comes from the framework of civil and political rights rather than economic, social and cultural rights. By focusing criticism on the latter, PROVEA is essentially critiquing the state on its own terms.
  • The Wall Street Journal looks at U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Mexico on Friday, in which he focused on improving bilateral economic ties and steered clear of mentioning the NSA’s surveillance programs in the country, which has also been downplayed by President Enrique Peña Nieto.
  • A Brazilian rancher has been convicted of ordering the 2005 murder of American nun Dorothy Stang. It was the third time the defendant had been tried in connection to the death, after two previous convictions were overturned.
  •  The L.A. Times reports that the government of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala is looking to restart several mining projects that have been put on hold due to mass protests. While Energy Minister Jorge Merino told reporters that two of the most controversial mining projects -- the Tia Maria copper mine near Arequipa and the Conga gold mine in Cajamarca -- would soon resume, locals say that the companies behind both have failed to obtain the proper permission to do so.
  • Although the investigation into former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo’s alleged illicit economic activities has generated controversy in the country, there has been comparatively less media coverage of a congressional investigation into allegations of corruption against former President Alan Garcia. A congressional committee is looking into pardons given to some 5,500 convicted drug traffickers during Garcia’s 2006 to 2011 term. On Friday, a Peruvian court ruled in favor of excluding Garcia from investigations, but lawmakers say they intend to appeal the ruling, Peru21 reports. Gustavo Gorriti, director of the investigative journalism center IDL-Reporteros, provides a helpful overview of the allegations against Garcia, and claims that major media outlets in Peru are purposefully discrediting the investigation due to their political connections with the ex-president.
  • Salvadoran news site El Faro profiles an OAS-sponsored forum on El Salvador’s gang truce, which brought together local and international experts to assess the impact of the ceasefire. Analysts visited the municipality of Ilopango, one of 11 which has seen the homicide rate cut in half as a result of the truce.
  • The New York Times has an overview of the changing dynamics of immigration in Mexico, where the foreign-born population roughly doubled between 2000 and 2010. The paper claims this is due to the country’s increasingly favorable business climate and economic development, though it recognizes that there is still progress to be made to ensure that all Mexicans see the benefits of development.

Friday, September 20, 2013

U.S. 'Denies Airspace' to Venezuelan President on China Visit

The Venezuelan government has accused the United States government of an act of “aggresion” after the U.S. allegedly refused to allow his plane to fly over Puerto Rico on the way to an official visit to China. Venezuela also claims that the U.S. refused a visa to General Wilmer Barrientos, the president’s chief of staff, ahead of a UN General Assembly in New York.

In a televised address yesterday, President Nicolas Maduro said that the U.S. had made a “grave mistake” in denying him permission to fly through “airspace which they colonized, like in Puerto Rico.” He also said that the U.S. government had placed “conditions” on granting visas to all members of his delegation to the UN General Assembly. Maduro did not go into detail about why Barrientos’ visa was denied, only saying “they don't want to give a visa to my minister.”

The AP reports that no U.S. diplomatic officials were available to comment on the claims. But if Barrientos was in fact barred from obtaining his visa, it would not be the first time that the U.S. kept high level foreign officials from visiting the UN. As Foreign Policy noted back in 2011, the U.S. frequently denies visas to diplomatic figures suspected of engaging in activities deemed threatening to national security. The government has charged a number of high level military officials in Venezuela of facilitating drug and arms trafficking by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), even adding four top military officers to the so-called “kingpin list.” While Barrientos is not among these, the denial of his visa could be meant to implicate him in such illicit dealings.

On the other hand, this could be simple diplomatic jockeying. The U.S., after all, has a history of purposefully failing to process visas applications for diplomats on time. A 2009 State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks, for instance, shows that U.S. officials deliberately waited until after a UN meeting was over to inform a member of the Iranian Foreign Ministry that his application had been denied.

As for the airspace allegations, the immediate inconvenience to Maduro’s travel plans appears to have been resolved. According to Noticias24, the administration was forced to take a different, longer flight plan to avoid U.S. airspace, and El Universal reports that the president is on his way to Beijing this morning.

However, the incident has the potential to escalate. Reuters notes that it is “reminiscent” of the episode earlier this year in which several European nations denied their airspace to Bolivian President Evo Morales, which generated a strong diplomatic backlash from over regional governments. The Bolivian president has strongly criticized the U.S. over Maduro’s allegations, and has announced that he will request that an emergency meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) to discuss the matter.

News Briefs
  • Peru’s El Comercio reports that former President Alberto Fujimori, who is imprisoned on charges of corruption and human rights abuses, will begin publishing extracts from a forthcoming autobiography via social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, through accounts managed by supporters. The news was announced with a handwritten and illustrated letter posted on Twitter. The BBC notes that announcement has stirred controversy in the country, with Justice Minister Daniel Figallo reacting particularly harshly. "People who commit violations and have their liberty taken from them have their rights limited,” Figallo told reporters. “Otherwise, we turn prisons into hotels.”
  • The news also comes as the jailed ex-president is seeking to alter the terms of his imprisonment. While Fujimori’s recent request for an official pardon from President Ollanta Humala on health grounds was rejected in June, Fujimori’s legal team is seeking to allow him to serve out his sentence under house arrest. Last week, La Republica reported that a judge has accepted the request for consideration, a development which has been vocally criticized by human rights groups. Carlos Rivera, of the civil rights group Instituto de Defensa Legal (IDL), was especially critical of the move, telling the paper: "No provision in our legal system establishes the possibility that a person sentenced to imprisonment can effectively serve the sentence at home, so the request must be dismissed out of hand.”
  • U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Mexico today to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto to discuss the economic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. The Hill notes that this is Biden’s third official trip to Mexico, and is part of the launch of the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue, meant to improve economic ties. The L.A. Times’ World News Now blog notes that, unlike Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent trip to Brazil, NSA surveillance will not be on the agenda.  Writing for The Guardian, John Ackerman has a polemical take on the visit, arguing that “the widespread image of Peña Nieto as a bold reformist struggling against the forces of nostalgic reaction is about as accurate as Vladimir Putin's presentation of Bashar al-Assad as a distinguished statesman.”
  • Mexican officials say the death toll from massive floods and landslides resulting from Tropical Storm Manuel has risen to 97 across nine states, and thousands have been left stranded or homeless.
  • The latest round of peace talks -- the 14th, to be precise -- between FARC rebels and the Colombian government has come to an end, with no progress to show once again, Semana reports.
  • In a wide-ranging interview with Spain’s El Pais, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera offers a candid assessment of his presidency. Acknowledging that he has had the lowest popularity ratings for any president since Chile’s return to democracy, Piñera attributes this to his commitment to unpopular pro-market reforms. He also claims that Latin America “has always been center-left,” a claim which many analysts have criticized as inaccurate and ahistorical.
  • El Mostrador reports that Chilean Senator Isabel Allende Bussi, the daughter of ousted President Salvador Allende, has called on the government to shift former officials imprisoned for human rights crimes to regular jails instead of the relatively comfortable detainment facilities they are currently housed in. The AP notes that President Piñera has said he is considering closing the special prisons.
  • In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes told the news agency that he is in favor of rejoining the Mercosur trade bloc, despite his initial reluctance due to the recent inclusion of Venezuela. When pressed for a timetable on Paraguay’s readmission, the  president avoided specifics but said he expected it to take place “very early in 2014."
  • The BBC profiles the case of 43-year-old bricklayer Amarildo Gomes da Silva, whose disappearance in July after being stopped by police officers in Rio de Janeiro has sparked a debate about abuses by Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) in the city. While officials say there is no proof that UPPs were involved in Amarildo’s disappearance, locals are skeptical, in part because of the city’s shoddy record of looking into disappearances.
  • The New York Times takes a look at urban life in Caracas, describing the way street corners there are known more commonly by their colorful names like “Danger,” “Eternity,” and “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” rather than their intersecting roads. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Brazilian Court Grants Appeals to 'Mensalão' Scandal Culprits

In a deeply unpopular ruling yesterday, Brazil’s Supreme Court voted to allow some of those convicted in the country’s landmark “mensalão” vote-buying scandal last year to appeal their sentences. According to Folha de São Paulo, prosecutors say the decision to re-open aspects of the case could extend the trial will for months or even years, and it may end with far lighter sentences for some of the accused.

The appeals will only be granted to 12 of the 25 defendants, but among these are some of the most high profile figures in the case, like Jose Dirceiu, a former chief of staff under ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The 11-member court was evenly split on the issue before senior justice Celso de Mello cast the deciding vote yesterday in a televised debate. The judge had been one of the most vocal critics of those who participated in the mensalão scheme, but said he supported granting the appeals as a matter of due process. In his statement, Mello claimed that in order for the Supreme Court to maintain its legitimacy, it could not “expose itself to external pressures as a result of popular outcry and pressure from crowds.”
Yet despite Mello’s statement, the legal basis for the ruling is highly unusual. As the NYT’s Simon Romero writes:
The appeals involve a rare legal procedure in which close votes on the high court can be held again. The appeals, which are thought to have originated in the 16th-century legal system of Portugal, Brazil’s former colonial ruler, were abolished there in the 1930s. Few Brazilians had even heard of the appeals until the high court considered them in the mensalão trial. 
While few convictions are expected to be overturned, defendants are seeking less stringent prison conditions, including arrangements that allow convicts to leave prison during the day to work. Some legal experts held open the possibility that some defendants could avoid jail time altogether if the trial endured long; crimes committed about a decade ago could be exceeded by the statute of limitations.
If the defendants’ wishes are granted, it will no doubt further the perception that the Brazilian political establishment is incapable or unwilling to crack down on corruption. It would also fuel the same public outrage that contributed to the wave of mass protests in June. O Globo reports that several demonstrators gathered outside of the Supreme Court yesterday, some of whom protested the decision in a particularly unusual way: by hurling slices of pizza at the building. As the Wall Street Journal explains, “pizza” is Brazilian slang for “big investigations that fizzle away in Brazil's daily flood of scandal news, becoming less significant than eating a pizza.”

News Briefs
  • An international tribunal, acting under the Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration, has ruled that oil giant Chevron has fulfilled its obligations to the Ecuadorean government in damage agreements related to a legal battle over pollution in the Amazon. Ecuador accuses Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001, of damaging the environment in the southern Lago Agrio region from 1964 to 1992, affecting some 30,000 inhabitants. However, The Wall Street Journal reports that tribunal found that Ecuador agreed not to pursue further damages in separate agreements in 1995 and 1998. Reuters notes that this is the latest in a series of setbacks for Ecuador, and that in January tribunal will look into Chevron’s charges accusations of fraud against the plaintiffs.
  • On the day before the tribunal’s ruling, La Hora reports that Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa held a press conference in the area affected by the oil company, showing journalists that oil was still present in waste pools throughout the region.  He also took the opportunity to call for a worldwide boycott against Chevron. MercoPress notes that the move puts Correa in an awkward position ahead of a planned trip to Argentina today, because Chevron is the main partner of Argentine oil giant YPF.
  • Plaza Publica takes a look at the mining conflict in the Guatemalan municipality of San Rafael Las Flores, where locals opposed to a silver mining venture clashed with police in a series of deadly conflicts that began in September 2012 and continued for eight months.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is making his first state visit to China this weekend, and is expected discuss economic ties with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Maduro has touted the meeting as part of a “new geopolitics,” and the two governments have announced that they will partner on a $14 billion development project in the Venezuela’s Orinoco oil belt, the WSJ reports.
  • El Salvador’s El Mundo profiles the 2013 World Ultra Wealth Report, compiled by the UBS/Wealth-X, which provides an interesting look at economic elites in Central America. According to the report, Guatmala has the most so called “Ultra High-Net Worth Individuals” (with a net worth of $30 million and above) in Central America, with 245 individuals matching that description, followed by Honduras with 215 and Nicaragua with 200.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced on Wednesday that at least 58 people are missing after a massive mudslide buried a section of a town near Acapulco. A series of deadly storm in Mexico this week, which have now transformed into Hurricane Manuel, have already killed at least 80 and damaged some 35,000 homes on the west coast.
  • Just the Facts has published a new report (.pdf) on trends in United States security assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean. The report notes that the U.S. has largely scaled back aid to governments around the hemisphere (with the exception of Central American nations), and that the Obama administration -- with few exceptions -- has prioritized counternarcotics efforts over emphasizing human rights and democratic development. The authors also stress that the dominant drug policy paradigm is changing. After years as the main theater in the “war on drugs,” Latin America is emerging as the epicenter of a search for new alternatives. The Just the Facts asserts that for the U.S., it is “time to listen” to calls for drug policy reform in the region.
  • The administration of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica announced earlier this week that he will be meeting with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 22. While he is also slated to discuss facilitating the Colombian peace process with Santos, Radio Espectador notes that it is likely that the issue of marijuana regulation will come up, and the fact that all three presidents are in crusaders for drug policy reform has interesting implications for drug policy advocacy in the region.
  • In an exclusive interview with the Associated Press, newly-elected Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes discusses a wide range of issues, including his support for a recently passed 10 percent tax increase on large-scale soy, corn and wheat producers, which he says is necessary to fund social development in the country. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Rousseff Postpones State Visit to U.S.

It’s official: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has called off next month’s state visit to the United States. But while many outlets are reporting that the Brazilian leader has canceled the visit, press statements released by both the White House and the Rousseff administration were careful to say that the visit had only been postponed.  Brazil’s statement expressed confidence that “when the question is settled in an adequate manner, the state visit can quickly occur.”

The Washington Post’s Juan Forero claims that the announcement will harm Brazil in the short term, asserting that the country’s flagging economy is “is seeking American investment and a greater opening to Brazilian products.”

However, the move is probably best interpreted as posturing ahead of next year’s elections. As noted in Monday’s post, the NSA’s surveillance activities in Brazil have been loudly criticized by leading members of the president’s Workers’ Party (PT) as well as the opposition. The New York Times characterizes the announcement as a “sharp rebuke” to the Obama administration, which could potentially “unravel years of Washington’s efforts to recognize Brazil’s rising profile in the developing world and blunt the growing influence of China, which has surpassed the United States as Brazil’s top trading partner.”

Additionally, the NYT and other media have noted that the stakes for the visit were particularly low. No major breakthroughs in relations were set to be announced, and the accords the two were set to sign were expected to be fairly limited. As Matias Spektor, a Brazilian international affairs expert, told the Wall Street Journal: “The accords were going to be very thin in the first place, basically lots of nice language about how far Brazil has come, but in practical terms there wasn't much at all…The assessment in Brasilia was that the potential costs were high, and the benefits were limited.”

At the same time, postponing the visit rather than canceling it is a shrewd move by Rousseff, as it will allow her to appeal to her PT base while leaving the door open to take up the offer again in the future. A state visit is probably off the table for the rest her current term, but if she wins re-election in October 2014 -- which opinion polls suggest is still quite likely -- she may be able to schedule it afterward, in a potentially more favorable political climate.

News Briefs
  • Today the senior justice in Brazil’s Supreme Court, Celso de Mello, will cast the deciding vote in a split ruling over whether to allow 12 of the 25 defendants in the high profile “mensalão” corruption case to appeal the strict sentences against them. The Wall Street Journal quotes several analysts who say that allowing the defendants to appeal for lighter sentences could reduce public faith in the political system, and O Globo reports that Supreme Court Judge Marco Aurélio Mello (who is against allowing the appeal) has said that he believes the credibility of the Court is at stake with the decision.
  • When Colombia’s historic Victims Law went into effect last year, it was widely praised for its ambitious attempt to compensate individuals who have suffered violence or been forced off their land as a result the country’s armed conflict. However, the Colombian government’s ability to fulfill its commitment to land restitution is severely limited by the lack of state presence in rural areas, where individuals attempting to reclaim their land face intimidation and assassination at the hands of local armed groups.  This is the conclusion of a new report on land restitution in Colombia released by Human Rights Watch yesterday. The Associated Press provides a decent overview of the report’s findings (including the alarming facts that over 99 per cent of denounced cases of forced displacements are met with impunity, and at least 21 land claimant activists killed since 2008), but the best English language coverage of the report is by Sibylla Brodzinsky for the Christian Science Monitor. Brodzinsky notes that land ownership is an important source of “political, social, and economic power” in Colombia, and illustrates the report’s findings using the case of farmers in southern Cesar Province. The victims are unable to return to their land because it is occupied by individuals with links to a convicted paramilitary warlord, who is currently believed to be living in Maryland. The HRW report has also received attention in local media, including in Semana magazine and newspapers El Tiempo and El Espectador.
  • The L.A. Times profiles Colombia’s settlement of a lawsuit filed by Ecuador, in response to claims that herbicide used in Colombian aerial spraying  efforts to eradicate coca crossed the border and harmed crops, as well as leaving several farmers with health problems. As a result of Ecuador’s complaint to the International Court of Justice, Colombia agreed to pay $15 million in damages.
  • According to La Tercera, a Chilean appellate court has referred a judge to look into a petition alleging 106 acts of violence committed by left-wing rebels in the country between November 1970 and 1990. If the case proceeds, it will no doubt serve to rebuke claims made by the right that transitional justice efforts in Chile have overlooked crimes committed by leftist insurgents.
  • While Central and South America have received plenty of attention recently as the “front line” in the search for alternative drug policies, several countries in the Caribbean are also studying the possibility of relaxing their drug laws. EFE reports that Puerto Rico’s Senate will begin studying a proposal to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, and the governments of St. Lucia and Jamaica are also weighing new approaches to marijuana. Recently, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines proposed that his Trinidad and Tobago counterpart -- who has the rotating chair of CARICOM -- open up a debate on legalizing medicinal marijuana use.
  • An organization of Cuban bishops issued its first joint pastoral letter to journalists on Monday, the AP reports. In the letter, titled “Hope Does Not Dissapoint,” the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba called on the government to recognize “the right to diversity with respect to thought, to creativity and to the search for truth.” Additionally, the letter praised the recent reforms of President Raul Castro and called on the U.S. to end decades-old economic embargo on the island. A copy of the letter, in Spanish, can be read over at Diario de Cuba.
  • El Universal reports that Mexico’s dissident CNTE teachers’ union has vowed to return to the central square in Mexico City today, despite the opposition of officials. According to Animal Politico, riot police are in the area and government officials say the teachers will not be permitted to resume their occupation.
  • Yesterday Guatemalan authorities arrested alleged drug trafficker Waldemar Lorenzana Cordón in an operation in Zacapa state. According to Prensa Libre, Lorenzana is the son of Waldemar Lorenzana Lima, who has been identified as a major local drug kingpin. Lorenzana senior and another of his sons have already been extradited to the U.S. on charges of cocaine trafficking. The decline of the Lorenzana crime family was well documented by journalist Julie Lopez in this 2011 investigation for Plaza Publica.
  • Venezuelan officials say that at least 16 inmates have been killed this week in clashes between rival gangs in the Sabaneta prison in the western city of Maracaibo. The BBC reports that the director of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP), an NGO that monitors the coutnry’s overcrowded prison system, said the latest incident made Sabaneta the most violent jail in the country, with at least 69 people killed there so far in 2013. According to Noticias24, the OVP’s records show that 289 inmates have been murdered behind bars in the first six months of this year alone.
  • In an interview with Bloomberg news, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has expressed optimism about the peace talks with FARC guerrillas in Havana. Although the two parties have only reached an agreement on one of the five items on the agenda, the president said he is hopeful that the peace process will end before presidential elections next May. The president also said he was aware of a lack of public support for the process, but claimed he had faith in the Colombian public to back an eventual agreement with a referendum. “I was very aware since the beginning that it would be very difficult to sell to public opinion,” said Santos. “But I can assure you that if you have a sensible package, people will accept it. People are tired of war.”