Thursday, November 28, 2013

One Year into EPN’s Administration, Human Rights in Mexico Suffer

Nearly one year after taking office on a promise to alter the country’s approach to citizen security, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has come under fire from human rights groups for continuing the policies of his predecessor. Meanwhile, his strategy has failed to significantly reduce homicides, and reported kidnappings have skyrocketed.

December 1 will mark one year since Peña Nieto’s inauguration. In recognition of the occasion this week, international human rights NGOs have released statements criticizing his administration’s record so far. On Tuesday Human Rights Watch published a letter to the Mexican president by Americas Division Director Jose Miguel Vivanco, who blasted Peña Nieto for allowing continued impunity for military and police abuses, as well as failing to fully commit to investigating forced disappearances.  Ultimately, Vivanco writes, “the shift in your approach to human rights remains largely confined to rhetoric.”  

The following day, the Washington Office on Latin America issued another critical evaluation of Peña Nieto’s first year in office, in which Mexico analysts Maureen Meyer and Clay Boggs also lament the “disappointing” results of the president’s security strategy. This assessment is backed by official statistics. As this helpful analysis of the available law enforcement data by researcher Molly Molloy shows, the average 1,555 intentional homicides that have occurred per month since Peña Nieto took office is only slightly less than the average across all six years of Felipe Calderon’s administration. What’s more, the country saw a record number of reported kidnappings in the first half of 2013, higher than in similar periods for the previous 16 years according to the National Citizen Observatory (ONC).

Both of these releases have received considerable attention in the Mexican press (see Reforma, El Universal, Milenio and Proceso).

The Peña Nieto administration’s response to the criticism has been decidedly hostile. Yesterday, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong disputed the HRW letter, saying that its allegations of torture contradicted reports by Mexico's official human rights organ, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). As news site SinEmbargo notes, however, he did not provide specifics to support this claim.

Ironically, the letter was actually endorsed by the CNDH president himself, Raul Plascencia. Plascencia told reporters that while he would “take out the adjectives” from the memo, he agreed that human rights progress has been slow. “I would point out that currently there is much to be done in the way of justice, much to be done so that victims of crime can have access to the proper administration of justice, [and] much to be done to overcome impunity in our country,” the CNDH head said.

News Briefs
  • Also on Peña Nieto’s first year in office, Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope offers his take at Animal Politico. Hope notes that while the president has largely continued Calderon’s approach to citizen security, he has made significant changes in terms of centralizing the Interior Ministry and changing the government’s communications strategy on crime. He also notes that extortion, like kidnapping, is on the rise even as murders have apparently fallen.
  • The government of the Dominican Republic has announced that it has canceled plans to participate in a Venezuela-facilitated dialogue with Haitian officials about its recent controversial Supreme Court ruling on nationality. According to Presidential Minister Gustavo Montalvo, Dominican authorities felt that remarks by Haitian representatives to Caricom violated a previous agreement to prioritize bilateral dialogue. The Dominican government has also recalled its ambassador to Haiti for consultations.
  • Following a December 2012 decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights which ordered El Salvador to pay reparations to victims of the 1981 El Mozote massacre, the Salvadoran government has announced the creation of a payment scheme to comply with the ruling. However, Salvadoran news site El Faro points out that the plan only give between 15 and 50 dollars a month to those affected, which falls far short of the tens of thousands in damages ordered by the court.
  • Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, husband of LIBRE presidential candidate Xiomara Castro, has called on LIBRE supporters to take to the streets on Saturday in protest of the TSE “stealing” his wife’s victory. The AFP points out that while Castro lost her election, Zelaya has been elected to Congress, marking his official return to politics and cementing his role as the main face of the Honduran left.
  • In the latest escalation of its maritime border spat with Nicaragua, El Tiempo and the BBC report that the government of Colombia has recalled its ambassador in Managua after the Nicaraguan government filed a complaint with the ICJ over Colombia’s refusal to acknowledge a ruling which backed Nicaragua’s border claim.  
  • While the Panamanian government had initially claimed that all but two members of the crew of the vessel seized after transporting Cuban weapons to North Korea would be let go, this turned out not the be the case. The AP reports that organized crime prosecutor Nahaniel Murgas has backpedaled on this, now saying that only the ship itself will be returned, and only after North Korea pays a $1 million fine.
  • Yesterday a construction crane being used for work on a stadium in São Paulo collapsed, caving in a section of the roof and killing at least two, the Folha de São Paulo reported. The stadium was due to hold the opening World Cup match in seven months, and the NYT notes that the incident has fueled fears that the city will not be ready for the games time.
  • The L.A. Times reports on the recent murder of a city council candidate in the western Venezuelan state of Zulia. The opposition has called for the murder to be investigated, and blamed it and other recent violent incidents in the lead up to December 8 local elections on a government attempt to “generate fear and paralyze the country.”
  • In an emailed press release, the U.S. State Department claimed it is working with its Cuban counterparts in the U.S. to help them find a bank that will handle their diplomatic accounts. The previous bank used by Cuba ceased its service due to a business decision, forcing Cuban diplomats to suspend consular services indefinitely. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Citing Citizenship Ruling, Caricom Freezes Dominican Republic’s Application

Following up on an October statement criticizing the Dominican Republic’s recent Supreme Court citizenship ruling, the Caribbean Community (Caricom) has further condemned the decision and announced it will suspend consideration of the country’s application for membership to the bloc.

In yesterday’s statement, Caricom claimed it was “especially repugnant” that the court ruling, which could leave thousands of people essentially stateless, ignored a 2005 Inter-American Court on Human Rights judgment ordering the D.R. to align its migration and nationality policies with human rights standards. 

The communiqué adds that, “given the grave humanitarian implications of the court ruling the Community cannot allow its relationship with the Dominican Republic to continue as normal.” As such, Caricom announced that it would suspend consideration of the D.R.’s request for membership to the regional organization, and review its relationship with the country in other diplomatic arenas. “It cannot be business as usual,” the statement reads.

The AP notes that the move comes after reports that some 350 Haitians and people of Haitian descent were deported or (according to the government) voluntarily accompanied by police across the border following an outbreak of violence in the western town of Neiba.

While the Dominican government has faced heated international criticism as a result of the ruling, it still has not followed up on a promise to provide those affected with a path to legal documentation and citizenship. However, this may change now that the country’s national interests have been directly impacted. The D.R. has been seeking to join Caricom since 1989, and with its application on hold the government has even more reason to remedy the situation.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday evening Uruguay’s Senate Health Committee passed the country’s marijuana regulation bill with no changes. While the full measure passed with the support of only lawmakers of the ruling Frente Amplio (FA), opposition members of the committee backed some provisions in an article-by-article vote. It now appears that the full Senate vote will take place next week. El Pais reports that the vote is slated for “early next week,” claiming it will happen “next Tuesday or Wednesday” (December 3 or 4). The AFP, however, is reporting that FA Senator Luis Gallo told the news agency the bill will be voted on in a December 10 session.
  • According to the website of Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), as of this morning election officials have counted 68 percent of the ballots cast in Sunday’s election. National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez continues to hold a commanding lead, with 34 percent to Xiomara Castro’s 29 percent. Election monitoring officials from the European Union and the Organization of American States have endorsed the TSE’s initial results, and praised the election process for its transparency. In its report on the elections, however, the EU delegation noted that the campaign leading up to the vote was “opaque and unequal,” which it claimed was worsened by the National Party’s use of public funds to support its candidates.
  • The Americas Quarterly blog has a good survey of Honduras’ political landscape by Kevin Lees, who notes that even if the country’s elections are deemed technically “free,” there will be lasting doubts about whether they can be considered truly fair. Lees also points out that political polarization in the Central American nation is likely to worsen, as whoever is declared the winner will have to deal with a deeply fragmented Congress.  Meanwhile, La Tribuna reports that Hernandez met with President Porfirio Lobo yesterday to discuss the “transition period” before the likely president-elect takes office.
  • The Cuban government has announced that it has been forced to indefinitely suspend its consular services in the United States due to an inability to find banks willing to accept its business. The bank which previously handled the Cuban interests section’s money has announced it would stop providing services, and efforts by Cuban diplomats and the U.S. State Department to find a replacement have failed.
  • According to a new poll commissioned by several leading Colombian media outlets, President Juan Manuel Santos is still the leading candidate ahead of the country’s May presidential election, with 26 percent support compared to 10 percent for his closest rival. Still, Semana magazine notes that this is hardly a resounding mandate, as 23 percent of those polled say they would not vote for any candidate. The poll also offers some interesting insight into variation in public support for the peace process along class lines. According to the survey, some 79 percent of the wealthiest Colombians support the negotiations, followed by 64 percent of middle class Colombia, and 60 percent of the poorest in the country.
  • Mexico’s lower house has approved a bill to reform the country’s Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI), a measure which has been backed by pro-transparency advocacy groups Fundar and Articulo 19. The bill passed Mexico’s Senate last week. Animal Politico has an overview of the bill’s specifics, which aim to significantly expand public access to government documents.
  • InSight Crime’s Patrick Corcoran provides a useful overview of the main points of a new report on Mexican prisons by Mexico Evalua, which criticizes the country’s reliance on prison as a punishment. According to the report, overcrowding and worsening conditions are at least partially fueled by the fact that 95 percent of all crimes are punishable by prison sentences.  
  • The NYT’s Simon Romero reports on a corruption case gripping Brazil, which involves allegations that a group of tax investigators in São Paulo accepted tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from construction companies looking to avoid taxes. The scandal has reached Mayor Fernando Haddad, who has fired a top aide accused of participating in the scheme.
  • According to La Republica, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori has had the phone line to his prison, which he has used to get around a ban on conducting interviews, cut. Penal officials have also filed sanctions against Fujimori, accusing him of violating prison conduct regulations.
  • Yesterday was the last day of the trial of U.S. lawyer Steven Donziger, who Chevron is accusing of bribing judicial officials in Ecuador to win a high-profile lawsuit for environmental damages against the oil giant. The Wall Street Journal has an overview of his defense team’s main strategy, which involves characterizing Donziger as a “noisy, boisterous” activist, but also stressing that he used only legal means to pursue the case. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hernandez Declared Honduras' Unofficial President-Elect

After a second day of vote-counting, Honduran election officials announced that National Party presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez’s 5-point lead over the LIBRE party’s Xiomara Castro is insurmountable. With roughly 68 percent of the ballots counted, Hernandez had 34 percent to Castro’s 29 percent.

Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) Spokeswoman Lourdes Rosales told reporters that the initial results amounted to an “irreversible trend.”  TSE President David Matamoros echoed this statement, saying that although the tribunal was “not declaring a winner or loser” of the election, “the results are not going to vary.” While the TSE has refrained from announcing the official winner, leading daily La Prensa has already crowned him Honduras’ “president elect,” and Reuters is reporting that Hernandez won Sunday’s election.

President Daniel Ortega of neighboring Nicaragua has publicly recognized Hernandez’s win as well. Press reports indicate that Hernandez was also congratulated by the heads of state of Panama, Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica. The United States has not yet recognized a winner, and in a statement released yesterday the U.S. State Department commended Honduras on its “generally transparent” election while urging the country to await the final, official results.

The AP’s Alberto Arce notes that that the TSE announcement came after an “unexplained, hours-long lull” in the release of vote counts.  Neither TSE representatives nor officials from either party commented on the delay.

During the interval, the LIBRE party held a press conference in which ousted ex-president Manuel Zelaya urged supporters to take to the streets to “defend” his wife’s self-proclaimed victory in Sunday’s vote. Arce noted that only about 100 Castro supporters rallied for her in Tegucigalpa, however. The NYT spoke with several LIBRE supporters yesterday afternoon, and offers a sample of their disappointed take on the initial results.

Meanwhile, according to the AFP, the likely winner called on Castro yesterday to recognize his victory and join him in a “national pact” against insecurity and poverty in the country.

News Briefs
  • As the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas move on to the next round of talks, which involves drug trafficking, the FARC have made an interesting suggestion. On its website on Sunday, the rebel group published a proposal to work with local officials in Caqueta province to provide local coca growers with viable economic alternatives. The proposal, which dates back to the failed 1999-2002 peace talks with former President Andres Pastrana, would launch a pilot project aimed at reducing coca cultivation in the town of Cartagena del Chaira, “without using fumigations, violence or repression.”
  • The New York Times’ architecture critic Michael Kimmelman profiles efforts at economic development in Rio de Janeiro, noting that public spending on new theaters and port redevelopment has failed to bridge class divisions, and the poorest residents say their opinions are not being taken into account.
  • Following an incident in which two Dominicans were killed last week in the western town of Neiba, and a Haitian man was killed by a mob in retaliation, Haitians and locals of Haitian descent are fleeing the area. Migrant rights activists say that many were deported after turning to the police for refuge, while authorities claim they voluntarily asked for accompaniment to the border. Meanwhile, the Caribbean Community bloc is set to hold an emergency meeting in Trinidad today to issue an official response to the the Dominican Republic’s recent controversial court ruling on nationality.
  • São Paulo newspaper Estadão has obtained a copy of former Brazilian politician Jose Dirceu’s request to be permitted to work as a manager for the four-star Saint Peter hotel in Brasilia while serving his sentence for participating in the mensalão scandal.  
  • Former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo has backpedaled on reports that he was open to serving as the next Secretary General of UNASUR, as other regional governments have suggested. In a press release, his Frente Guazu (FG) political party said Lugo would decline the position because it would require him to leave the country and would “have a negative impact” on the FG’s political profile. As noted last month, these are precisely the same reasons why Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes is likely to have supported Lugo’s UNASUR bid.
  • Officials in Mexico have raised the body count at nearly two dozen mass grave sites discovered last week along the border between Jalisco and Michoacan states to 48, Proceso reports. The AP notes that the area has witnessed the outbreak of a turf war between the Knights Templar and the New Generation cartels.
  • BBC Mundo looks at the scarcity of consumer goods in Venezuelan grocery stores, noting that the problem is worse in establishments regulated by the state. In a separate story, the news agency also questions whether Brazil has the capacity to address Venezuela’s shortages by ramping up its exports to its northern neighbor.
  • Uruguay's marijuna regulation bill has also received the endorsement of the Guatemalan government. In remarks to reporters in Paris yesterday, the foreign minister of the Central American country said the measure has the “complete support” of President Otto Perez Molina. He added that the government is totally convinced that regulating drugs is a way to “destroy the economic capacity” of drug trafficking organizations. This statement comes weeks after Perez's creation of an advisory commission to assess drug policy reform, which was a signal that the Guatemalan president is finally getting serious about enacting policy shifts in his own country. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Two Self-Proclaimed Winners in Honduran Elections

While only about half of the ballots have been counted, this has not stopped the two leading candidates in Honduras’ presidential race from declaring victory.

LIBRE candidate Xiomara Castro was the first to do so, telling her followers before the initial vote count had even been released: “According to exit polls, I am the president of Honduras.” When the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) released preliminary results showing her trailing behind Juan Orlando Hernandez (the TSE’s latest numbers show 34.26 percent for him and 28.73 percent for Castro), the National Party candidate followed suit, declaring himself the winner.

Hernandez also claimed that he had been congratulated by various heads of state in the region. He began his victory speech by apologizing for being late to take the podium, saying he had just gotten off the phone with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. The Honduran ambassador to the U.S. also told reporters that Hernandez had been commended for the win by Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli.

The TSE, meanwhile, has stressed that these are only preliminary results, and no candidate has been declared winner yet. TSE President David Matamoros also told reporters that yesterday saw a record turnout, with 61 percent of eligible voters participating.

More conclusive results are expected to be released today. Considering that both candidates have already declared victory, it seems unlikely that either will be particularly quick to concede.
Political jockeying aside, the elections themselves ran relatively smoothly. The AP reports that both U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske and Ulrike Lunacek, head of the European Union observer mission, endorsed the transparency of the voting process. Enrique Correa, head of the OAS observer mission, also praised the vote, telling The Washington Post that there were no signs of fraud.

There were some reports of violence and other irregularities, however. In the southeastern Mosquitia region, five people were gunned down after a fight broke out outside of a voting center in the town of Ibans. La Prensa reports that locals say the election process was suspended following the incident. The Roundtable for Analysis of Human Rights Violations (Mesa de Análisis sobre Violacion a Derechos Humanos), a coalition of human rights, labor and campesino groups, counted at least 63 reports of irregularities, including allegations that armed men intimidated voters in some rural communities.

Today’s New York Times offers a dramatic take on the significance of the elections for Honduran democracy, reporting that “[r]egardless of the final result, it was clear that Honduran politics was entering a new, potentially messy period, when multiple parties would have to negotiate to get laws passed and new voices representing the country’s marginalized poor would get a hearing.”

News Briefs
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement last Monday, in which he touted a new approach to relations with other countries in the hemisphere and an end to the Monroe Doctrine, has provoked a wave of commentary. Writing for the Global Post, Dudley Althaus notes that Kerry’s remarks, and Vice President Joe Biden’s subsequent endorsement of them, were seen by many analysts as out of touch with the current reality. Joy Olsen, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, criticized the speech for ignoring key issues for regional governments, including drug policy reform, immigration reform and citizen security. In column published last week in The Guardian, Federico Finchelstein and Pablo Piccato echo this argument, claiming it is “no surprise” that the lack of meaningful content in the speech has failed to spark celebrations in the hemisphere.  
  • On Saturday, the Venezuelan opposition organized its largest nationwide protests since the aftermath of the April election in which President Nicolas Maduro beat our Henrique Capriles by a slim 1.5 percent margin. The AP reports that turnout was low (only 5,000 people participated in the Caracas march), reflecting a general disheartenment among the opposition, which has been slowed by internal power struggles and a lack of media access. Prior to the march Capriles announced that his campaign coordinator, Alejandro Silva, had been detained by military intelligence authorities earlier that day. El Universal reported on Saturday that Capriles said Silva was released after 14 hours, which the opposition leader called a “kidnapping” designed to intimidate him.
  • IPS profiles the struggle of indigenous groups in Venezuela’s southern state of Amazonas to get the government to recognize their claims to their traditional land, and cease mining exploration in the area. While the country’s 1999 constitution calls for the demarcation of indigenous territories to be carried out by an Environment Ministry commission, none of the 40 collective property titles granted so far are in Amazonas.
  • Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian ex-senator who was famously kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2002, has authorized the Green Party to include her name in an initial poll ahead of the March primary elections for its president candidate, El Tiempo reports.  To participate in the primary, she will have to receive over 10 percent support in the poll.
  • In its latest issue, The Economist offers a largely positive appraisal of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration thus far, noting that he has successfully managed to get most of his desired reforms through Congress. However, the magazine notes that implementing and enforcing them will be a new challenge altogether, and asserts that the president’s political clout will be seriously tested by the pending vote on reform to the energy sector.
  • Reuters has an analysis of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s plans for the last few weeks of 2013, which according to one administration official amount to “putting the house in order” before the start of next year’s election campaign. This involves preparations for the World Cup, as well as warming up to an increasingly hostile business community ahead of a rocky financial climate in 2014.  
  • Following a military operation in which 10 alleged National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels were killed in the province of Arauca, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called on guerrilla groups in the country to “accelerate” negotiations. While the government is said to be in discussion with the ELN about a peace process with the smaller rebel army, it still has not officially begun dialogue with them like it has with the FARC.  
  • The U.S. government has expressed concern about a bill backed by Nicaragua’s Sandinista majority which would formalize a Supreme Court decision ending presidential term limits in the country. In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was “concerned that steps that concentrate power and undermine checks and balances will be harmful to democracy.”
  • The Miami Herald has a two-part series (Part I and Part II) on the consequences of the prohibition of abortions in Haiti, where pregnant women and girls are increasingly seeking illegal and unsafe abortion procedures, and human rights groups are stepping up demands to end the ban. Fortunately, cultural and religious taboos surrounding the use of birth control are changing, and public and private health institutions are now required to provide free contraceptives following a decree by President Michel Martelly.
  • A judge ruled last week that Chiquita’s bid to stop the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission from releasing documents on the company’s payments to AUC paramilitaries in Colombia was unfounded. The multinational corporation’s legal team argued that the documents, sought by the National Security Archive via a FOIA request, would threaten the impartiality of an ongoing case in Florida. Chiquita plans to appeal the ruling, Bloomberg reports.
  • Following United States Attorney General Eric Holder’s critique of the mass incarceration crisis in the U.S. on Thursday, drug policy reform advocates have praised the speech. Drug Policy Alliance Ethan Nadelmann announced via press release that “its historic significance cannot be denied,” and expressed hope that the administration’s shift in rhetoric “truly translates into new policies.”

Friday, November 22, 2013

U.S. Atty Gen Holder Rejects Mass Incarceration, 'One-Size-Fits All' Security Policies

Speaking at a meeting of the hemisphere's security ministers in Medellin yesterday, United States Attorney General Eric Holder touted the Obama administration's efforts to curb mandatory minimum sentences. He also backed a more heterodox approach to citizen security, a sign of a subtle shift in the U.S.-backed “War on Drugs” in the region.

Holder delivered his address at the Fourth Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Security in the Americas (MISPA IV), a biannual OAS-sponsored conference designed to promote policy coordination on the issue. Press coverage of the event has focused on Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza’s calls for deeper cooperation (see EFE) or on the symbolic significance of Medellin as the venue (El Colombiano, AP), with most outlets glossing over Holder’s statement.  

This is a shame, because it contained some interesting tidbits for drug policy reformers. The full speech is available here. Highlights include:
“We must cooperate if we are to protect our respective citizens from the criminal enterprises that threaten our national and international interests. And we must acknowledge that none among us can fight this battle on our own, or by implementing a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach.” 
“As President Obama and I have discussed many times over the years – and as I have repeatedly made clear – the path we are currently on is far from sustainable. As we speak, roughly one out of every 100 American adults is behind bars. Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. While few would dispute the fact that incarceration has a role to play in any comprehensive public safety strategy, it’s become evident that such widespread incarceration is both inadvisable and unsustainable.” 
“While my colleagues and I recognize that the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes will always be necessary, the reality is that we will never prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. No country can succeed with such an approach.”
While it’s not a full endorsement of decriminalization or legalization, as many drug policy reform advocates would like, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. These remarks indicate that the Obama administration’s criticism of mandatory minimum sentencing is not solely for domestic consumption. Holder’s use of the forum to focus on prison overcrowding and alternative security policies suggests the U.S. is open to promoting similar reforms abroad.

If this is the case, the administration would be hard-pressed to find a better target than Mexico, which -- like the U.S. -- is seeing its prison population rise due to an influx of low-level drug offenders.  The proportion of Mexicans in prison has nearly doubled since the mid-1990s, growing from 103 inmates per 100,000 citizens in 1996 to 204 in 2012. According to a 2011 study by Catalina Perez Correa of the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas (CIDE), 74 percent of investigations initiated by Mexican public prosecutors for drug trafficking-related crimes that year involved charges of possession and consumption (23 percent were exclusively for consumption). The vast majority of these were non-violent cases, with no other crimes implicated.

If the Obama administration is serious about encouraging targeted law enforcement and smart incarceration in the region, Mexico would be a great place to start.

News Briefs
  • Also on Holder’s visit to Colombia, news site La Silla Vacia notes that a Wednesday meeting between the attorney general and President Juan Manuel Santos could have important consequences for the next round of peace talks in Havana, which will focus on the illicit drug trade.
  • Cooperativa reports leading Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet appeared in public with student leaders-turned-congresswomen-elect Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola yesterday, in a press conference in which both former activists expressed support for Bachelet and the center-left New Majority coalition. The AP notes that Vallejo stated she is optimistic about the potential for meaningful education reform following the December 15 runoff elections.
  • Opponents of Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill have once again raised objections about its constitutionality. Weeks after erroneously reporting that the measure violated a constitutional ban on creating new state offices one year before a general election, this morning Uruguay’s conservative leading daily El Pais is claiming that its provisions mandating drug awareness education in schools infringe upon the autonomy of the National Public Education Administration (ANEP). According to the paper, leading lawmakers of the ruling Frente Amplio coalition “recognize its unconstitutionality,” but plan to pass the measure in the Senate before the end of the year anyway to avoid another tough battle in the lower house.
  • Ahead of Sunday’s presidential election in Honduras, La Prensa notes that each of the main candidates has shifted their campaign discourse to focus on insecurity, which could ultimately be the deciding factor in the race. Meanwhile, RNS of Honduras Culture and Politics profiles an OAS report on the Honduran vote counting system. While local press has focused on the report’s praise of the system, the author points out that it identified significant flaws as well, which the regional body said needed to be addressed in order to properly ensure the validity of results.
  • A report published by the Brazilian Forum of Public Security earlier this month, which found evidence that some 1,890 people died at the hands of police in 2012 (an average of five people a day) generated controversy and a fueled the country’s conversation on police abuse. InSight Crime’s Miriam Wells has an outstanding overview of the report’s main findings, complemented by remarks from Brazil experts on the contributing factors behind extrajudicial killings, which include a lack of oversight and unequal access to justice for the poor.
  •  As expected, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro put his decree powers to use yesterday, passing a law capping private companies’ profit margins to 15-30 percent, and another which charges a new agency with allocating dollars at the official rate.
  • At a press conference in Guayaquil on Tuesday, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa promised to resign if Chevron could prove that his government interfered in the suit against the oil giant for environmental damages. “Let Chevron prove that the government interfered in the judgment and I will resign my post,” Correa said. By this author’s count, the remark is the second time that Correa has threatened to resign in the past two months, following a similar threat he made in early October if lawmakers passed an abortion decriminalization measure.
  • The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), in collaboration with investigative journalist Tracey Eaton, has produced a short two-part documentary on the shortcomings of USAID’s democracy promotion programs on the island. Eaton interviewed a wide range of academics, policy experts and democracy activists for the series, including opposition figure Reinaldo Escobar, who claims: “The main mistake that the United States has committed regarding Cuba is to stubbornly refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the government of Cuba.  That’s everything.” In the second part, CDA Director Sarah Stephens argues that shifting immediate U.S. priorities away from regime change and towards transparent engagement is ultimately more in line with its national interests.
  • The AP takes a look at the Mexican city of Oaxaca’s experimental police force, a group of some 20 deaf and mute individuals who have been hired to monitor the country’s surveillance cameras. Dubbed “The Angels of Silence,” the individuals were hired due to their unique abilities to read lips and interpret threatening body language.
  • David Smilde and Rebecca Hanson of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights have published the third installment in a series of posts on public attitudes towards citizen security policy in the country. The two added questions relating to the government’s security and police reforms to pollster Datanalisis’ August-September survey, which revealed that general attitudes towards the security policies are divided along political lines. Interestingly, however, Smilde and Hanson find that support for PSUV-backed efforts to promote less “mano dura” policing is greater among the opposition than among supporters, which is likely due to class differences. This, they argue, illustrates the difficult “tightrope” that security reformers face as a result of the country’s polarized political climate.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dominican Court Ruling Fuels Climate of Fear

The recent court ruling on nationality in the Dominican Republic has drawn plenty of criticism for essentially stripping citizenship from thousands of people of Haitian descent. Even more alarming, however,is the fact that Dominican authorities are already implementing the ruling, deporting individuals across the border and leaving them stranded in Haiti. 

While there are no available figures on deportations following the court decision, human rights advocates say it has shifted the local legal context, giving officials increased justification for expulsion. Unsurprisingly, this has generated panic in communities most influenced by the ruling. From the AP:
There are accounts of people who have been reported to immigration authorities and deported after squabbling with their neighbors or being abruptly thrown out of the country at a time when their employers are having financial difficulties, [International Organization for Migration Program Manager Tobias] Metzner said. Migrants say they have paid bribes to soldiers to keep from being detained, or were held when they couldn’t come up with enough cash, said Colette Lespinasse, director of the Support Group for Repatriates and Refugees, known by its French acronym as GARR.
And there are widespread reports that authorities are deporting or seizing the residency documents of people with darker skin or French names that may signal Haitian ancestry.
The government has sought to downplay these reports, insisting that no one will be left stateless and that rights groups’ estimates of the number of those affected are exaggerated. According to Dominican officials, only 24,000 are at risk of losing their citizenship as a result of being improperly registered, not 200,000 as some claim. Still, the administration of President Danilo Medina has not been quick to address their needs. Although the government claimed it would create a legal path to citizenship for those affected, it has not done so.

Meanwhile, the regional fallout for the country continues. The Caribbean Community bloc has condemned the ruling, and last week the Dominican government sent representatives to Venezuela and Cuba to explain its consequences. Today, the Santo Domingo-based Listin Diario reports that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will be sending a delegation to the country to assess the impact of the court decision in the coming days, potentially as soon as December 2.

News Briefs
  • After months of dodging a straight answer on his intentions, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has finally confirmed that he plans to run for a second term in next May’s presidential election. Judging from his speech yesterday, it seems that the campaign will be heavily focused on the peace negotiations in Havana. El Espectador notes that in his address, the president repeated the phrase “we have to continue to finish the job,” with a special emphasis on the peace talks with FARC rebels. La Silla Vacia has the full text of his speech, also noting that among its major themes is Santos’ desire to pursue a lasting peace deal. Consulted by Semana magazine, political analyst Laura Gil argues that the election will ultimately boil down to a “referendum on peace; the proposal of peace versus the proposal of war.” This is a reference to Santos’ opponent Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who is a major critic of peace talks backed by ex-president Alvaro Uribe.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced that he intends to take advantage of his newly-granted temporary decree powers today to pass two new economic measures. Telesurand Reutersreport that one will limit the private profit margin to 15-30 percent, and another will establish a government agency to allocate dollars at the official rate.
  • The L.A. Times profiles the Drug Enforcement Administration’s latest National Drug Threat Assessment Summary. This year’s annual report found that while the availability of cocaine is down across the United States, methamphetamine and heroin have become more accessible. According to the report, this is due to efforts by Mexican traffickers to deepen their hold on the U.S. meth and heroin markets, combined with a “sizable increase” in demand for the latter drug.
  • In the latest story to fuel rumors about the whereabouts of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Honduran Deputy Defense Minister Carlos Roberto Funestold El Mundo that there was a chance he could be hiding out in the Central American country. “Yes, Joaquin Guzman could be in Honduras,” Funes remarked to the Spanish newspaper. Previous press reports have indicated that the Sinaloa Cartel boss could also be laying low in Argentina, Bolivia and Guatemala.
  • During his Tuesday visit to Panama, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden praised the government for its leadership and “international responsibility” in detecting and seizing the North Korea-bound Cuban arms shipment earlier this year. Security analyst James Bosworth points out that this is a rare bit commentary on the find from a United States government official. The U.S. has demonstrated a restrained response to the issue in recent months, at least partially due to Washington’s increased openness to improving relations with the island.
  • The Washington Post has a sampling of some common attitudes towards Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’sdecision to enforce strict price controls with the help of the military and police. While the move has given him a boost of popularity ahead of local elections, businessmen and economists say it will do little to curb inflation and further erode the economy.
  • William Potts, the American citizen who returned to the U.S. from Cuba to face charges stemming from his decision to hijack a plane to Havana 30 years ago, has been denied release on bail. Prosecutors contend he is a threat to society, and is wanted in New Jersey on robbery charges.
  • The Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism (FNPI) and the Colombian city of Medellin have announced the winners of this year’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez International Journalism Awards. La SillaVacia’s piece on Colombia’s Victims Law, “Proyecto Rosada,” received the innovation award, and Mexican Journalist Alejandro Almazan won the features and reporting category for his excellent piece on crime in Durango and Coahuila, “Carta la Laguna.” The prize for “excellence in journalism” went to Costa Rican investigative journalist Giannina Segnini.  AP photographer Esteban Felix won the journalist images category for his multimedia photo essay on a mysterious illnesses faced by sugar cane cutters in Nicaragua.
  • The Miami Herald reports that Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe arrived in the U.S. yesterday to tour the major companies of Silicon Valley. Lamothe met with executives from Facebook and Google yesterday, with whom he discussed generating technological innovation in the impoverished country.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Venezuela’s Maduro Gets Decree Powers

The Venezuelan National Assembly has approved a bill (.pdf) which grants President Nicolas Maduro the authority to sidestep the legislative process and pass certain laws by decree for a 12-month period.  The ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) says the measure is necessary to allow the president to lead an anti-corruption campaign and overcome what Maduro calls an opposition-led “economic war” in the country.

The Washington Post notes that the PSUV obtained the necessary 99 votes to pass the bill only after an opposition legislator facing corruption and embezzlement charges was stripped of her seat. The congresswoman is Maria Aranguren, who ran on a PSUV ticket but distanced herself from the party in 2012. Her alternate, Carlos Flores, is still aligned with the PSUV and provided the key 99th vote for the proposal.

Taking advantage of “Leyes Habilitantes” was a favorite maneuver of Maduro’s deceased predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who received decree powers four times during his presidency. But this tactic is not a new feature of Venezuela’s democracy, nor is it exclusive to the PSUV. As the AFP reports, every Venezuelan president of the last 40 years has been granted temporary authority to rule by decree. In remarks on the Assembly floor yesterday, independent Congressman Hernan Nuñez -- formerly of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) -- pointed out that ex-presidents Rafael Caldera and Carlos Andres Perez made use of the measure as well.

It is a safe bet, however, that Maduro will be invoking special powers in unique and controversial ways. According to El Universal, the president has said he will use the authorization to expand price controls, rein in speculation and limit private profit margins to between 15 and 30 percent. The government has called the bill a necessary move to “shield the new internal economic order of transition to socialism.” Noticias24 reports that in a press conference yesterday, Maduro cautioned that this model still “includes economic freedom in a variety of activities.”  State-run daily El Correo del Orinoco notes that Maduro has also promised a “shattering offense against corruption beginning in January 2014.”

Despite the government’s claims, a statement released by the opposition MUD coalition asserts that Maduro’s real intention is to “deepen political persecution and criminalize the opposition’s constitutionally legal sources of finance.”

Rafael Uzcategui of the Caracas-based human rights group PROVEA does not dispute the need for the government to crack down on corruption, but claims that granting decree powers to the executive is detrimental to democracy. He writes: “It is paradoxical that a government which promotes participatory democracy constantly needs to govern by sidestepping broad mechanisms for debate and democratic inclusion.”

Many political analysts (see the FT and Reuters) have interpreted Maduro’s economic measures as an attempt to boost support for the PSUV ahead of December 8 local elections, which both the government and opposition hope to use as a kind of referendum on the president’s first year in office. Venezuela politics expert David Smilde, however, has argued that Maduro actually firmly believes in the “economic war” narrative. Regardless, in an interview yesterday with Chicago radio station WBEZ’s Worldview, Smilde claims that continued enforcement of strict price controls will be virtually impossible in the long term. He contends that eventually the administration will have to devalue the currency and address its budget deficit, moves which Maduro has been avoiding so far because they will be highly unpopular.

News Briefs
  • In other Venezuela corruption news, on Monday a former official with the government-controlled Economic and Social Development Bank of Venezuela pleaded guilty to charges that she accepted bribes to direct business to a New York broker. The NYT notes that the fact that the former executive, Maria de los Angeles Gonzalez de Hernandez, has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors suggests more revelations about corruption at the bank will be forthcoming.
  • Just weeks before a likely Senate vote on Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill, El Pais reports that the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has issued a statement expressing “concern” that the law violates international drug control conventions. INCB President Raymond Yans also told reporters the body was concerned that the law could have “serious consequences for public health, particularly for youth.”
  • According to Salvadoran news site El Faro, Defense Minister David Munguia Payes was called to the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber for the second time to provide testimony on a case filed by children of assassinated and disappeared dissidents. Once again, no one from the armed forces presented themselves to provide comment on the case, which gained international attention following last week’s attack on Pro-Busqueda, the organization representing the plaintiffs.
  • Yesterday, La Prensa Libre reported that the defense lawyers of Guatemalan ex-dictator Rios Montt tried to have judges throw out his trial on genocide charges on the grounds that a separate court had reverted the case to an earlier point. The request was denied and the January 5, 2015 date for the trial will stand.
  • In the New York Review of Books, Steven Kinzer offers a detailed account of Guatemala’s democratic development. While plenty of analysts have bemoaned a lack of progress on human rights in Guatemala, Kinzer claims that the Rios Montt trial, the publication of an official archive detailing past abuses and the September commemoration of ex- President Jacobo Arbenz’s birthday all offer significant hope for the country’s future.
  • Following the Colombian government’s decision to appoint peace negotiator Luis Carlos Villegas as the new ambassador to the United States, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has replaced him with Nigeria Renteria, the negotiating team’s first female member. Newspaper El Espectador has a profile of Renteria, an Afro-Colombian woman who has until now served as the government’s top advisor on gender equality.
  • In a recent interview with the Dallas Morning News, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs discussed the changes that are occurring in U.S.-Mexico relations under President Enrique Peña Nieto. The diplomat claimed that this shift is accompanied by U.S. security funds increasingly going towards strengthening judicial institutions and communities.
  • Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has released a new report on the state of the country’s prisons. CNDH researchers found that the number of facilities run by inmates has jumped from 60 to 65 in the past year, and gave the overall administration of penal facilities a rating of 5.68 points on a 10 point scale. At the report’s release, CNDH President Raul Plascencia also told journalists that the number of killings, prison riots, escapes and other incidents has increased, rising to 119 so far this year, up from 52 for all of 2011.
  • Ahead of Honduras’ November 24 presidential election, RNS of Honduras Culture and Politics has a useful overview of the country’s “fairly fragile” voting system.  The country’s electoral court has implemented a new system of compiling vote tallies, requiring local voting centers to scan and submit results to election officials in the capital via an internet or telephone connection. However, some 500 voting centers lack electricity or internet, meaning that these votes will be counted by hand a week later in Tegucigalpa.   
  • The newly-appointed figures in Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s cabinet, Economic Minister Axel Kicillof and cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich, are due to be sworn in today, Telam reports. Reuters claims that the cabinet picks “confirmed a deepening of Argentina's left-leaning economic model.”