Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ecuador Shuts Down Environmental NGO

In the latest incident to raise questions about the state of freedom of speech in Ecuador, Ecuadorean officials have forced an environmental NGO to close its doors after holding it responsible for acts of violence against foreign participants in a recent auction of oil contracts. The organization, the Pachamama Foundation of Ecuador, has operated in the country for 16 years and claims the closure is an arbitrary violation of the right to dissent.

Following the end of the 11th Oil-Licensing Round in Quito last week, environmental and indigenous rights protestors gathered outside the hotel where the auction took place and confronted several international participants. Among those who were swarmed by protestors were Juan Pablo Lira, Chile’s ambassador to Ecuador, and a Belarusian businessman. In his November 30 Enlace Ciudadano television address, President Rafael Correa apologized to the Chilean government for the incident, and placed partial blame on a lack of proper security. He also aired footage showing Lira being harassed by demonstrators (see the 3:18:00 mark in this video), and of the Belarussian businessman being hit with a pole before fleeing on the back of a police motorcycle.  Correa claimed that the protest had been organized online by the Pachamama Foundation and other indigenous rights groups, and promised to prosecute those responsible.

In the days that followed, the Pachamama Foundation released a statement defending the protest as an exercise of its democratic right to free speech. The group also lamented that the government continued “fostering exploration and exploitation in the Amazon without having adequately implemented free, prior and informed consultation processes with indigenous nationalities,” allegedly in violation of the constitution.

On Wednesday afternoon, the full extent of the government’s response to the protest became clear. El Comercio reports that police and a number of Interior Ministry and other officials arrived at the Pachamama Foundation’s headquarters and informed the office that its operating permit had been revoked. Images posted to Twitter from the Ministry’s official account showed that two signs had been posted to the office doors, reading:  “Dissolved due to deviation from statutory purposes and objectives.”

Pachamama Foundation President Belen Paez told the AFP that her organization was not responsible for any of the acts of violence, and said she was meeting with lawyers to determine a response. A statement posted to its website yesterday announced that the organization intended to challenge the closure using “all legal means.” The Pachamama Foundation will be holding a press conference later this morning to address the allegations against it.

The closure is in keeping with Correa’s notoriously combative approach to criticism of his administration. In recent years, he has famously gone so far as to pursue a multi-million dollar libel suit against two of his leading critics in the press. Although he later pardoned them the issue has haunted his administration since, and a new communications law passed in June was criticized by international press freedom advocates as an attempt to muzzle the media. The closure of the Pachamama Foundation is sure to fuel similar criticism, as well as his government’s mixed reputation on tolerating dissent.


News Briefs
  • One day after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and characterizing current U.S.-Colombia relations as at their warmest point in history, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos took a surprising jab at U.S. foreign policy in the region. In remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Santos said he believed it was time for a new U.S. approach to Cuba, remarking : “I think Cuba would be willing to change, and both sides have to give in some way.” He also described what he saw as a growing amount of young people in the U.S. who believe the Cuban embargo is “obsolete.” Interestingly, the AP points out that Santos used the loaded term “bloqueo” to describe the embargo.
  • Indigenous Mexican teacher Alberto Patishtan, who was recently pardoned by President Enrique Peña Nieto after serving 13 years in jail on dubious murder charges, met with the president yesterday for over an hour, Milenio reports. Following the meeting, Patishtan told reporters that he called on the government to guarantee due process of those accused of crimes, saying: “There are many people in jail, indigenous and not indigenous, who suffer from  [a lack of] procedure.”
  • The UN's atomic energy watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), announced yesterday that a group of thieves hijacked a truck in Mexico carrying “extremely dangerous” radioactive materials. While the IAEA refrained from pointing this out, a number of media outlets (Reuters, El Universal) have noted that the material could potentially be used to make a dirty bomb. Fortunately, the AFP is reporting this morning that the cargo has been found. The Washington Post notes that officials say those stole the material will likely die of radiation poisoning.
  • Ahead of Venezuela’s December 8 local elections, El Nacional looks at the campaign strategies of President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles to support candidates affiliated with their parties. According to the paper, Capriles visited 117 different municipalities in recent months to stump for opposition candidates, five times more than Maduro, who visited 21. However, the report notes that Maduro benefited from live media coverage of each of his visits.
  • Semana magazine reports that former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who is running for a Senate seat ahead of March elections, is facing over 100 different lawsuits, and is the Senate candidate with the greatest number of ongoing judicial investigations against him.
  • Brazilian Guarani leader Ambrosio Vilhalba, who was known internationally as an advocate for indigenous rights and for appearing in the award-winning film “Birdwatchers,” was killed on December 2 in the western state of Mato Grosso do Sul. O Globo reports that officials do not believe the murder was related to land conflicts, and was instead linked to a family dispute.