Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Changes at the Pan-American Post

For the past three and a half years, I have had the pleasure of using this space to provide regular summaries and analysis of political and civil society issues in Latin America. Starting in 2015, however, the Pan-American Post will see some important changes.

I’m pleased to announce that I have been hired to work as a Digital Communications Officer for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and will be starting in January. While I plan to keep using the Pan-American Post blog and my Twitter page to follow regional politics from a more editorial angle, I will no longer be posting daily news briefings here.  A successor will be taking them over in the coming weeks and posting to the associated Google mailing list.

Writing these daily press roundups has been a wonderful opportunity to improve my familiarity with the region, and I’m grateful to readers for following them.

I’d also like to thank Hannah Stone, Elyssa Pachico and James Bargent, with whom I split the press briefings in 2011-2012, for their excellent contributions. They continue to produce brilliant research and journalism on political and insecurity-related issues in the Americas, and I invite readers to follow their latest work on Twitter. Joshua Frens-String, from whom I took over the press briefings in 2011, also deserves a shout-out for his outstanding analytical capabilities. 

Un cordial saludo y feliz año nuevo, 

Geoff Ramsey

Rios Montt Trial Slated for January 5, But Amnesty Ruling Pending

Guatemala’s Constitutional Court -- the same court that annulled Efrain Rios Montt’s guilty sentence on genocide charges in 2013 -- has paved the way for the ex-dictator to face a new trial next month. But while human rights advocates have welcomed the news, an overdue ruling on a 1986 amnesty decree could sink the case altogether.

Amid all the reporting on last week’s breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations, another important story got lost in the headlines. On December 18, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled in favor of an appeal filed by the attorney general’s office against a lower court decision that sought to reverse the Rios Montt trial to the investigative phase it moved out of in November 2011. The trial, in which Rios Montt and former intelligence chief Jose Mauricio Rodriguez will face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, has been scheduled for January 5.

Last week’s ruling is a welcome development in the struggle to prosecute the former dictator, whose ill health and advanced age -- he turned 88 this year -- left some worried that he could pass away before a verdict was reached on his alleged crimes. But it comes too late for some of the victims in the Rios Montt case. Edgar Perez, a lawyer with the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) who represents the victims, has told the Associated Press that three witnesses of civil war-era atrocities have died since the trial was annulled in May 2013. Nevertheless, Perez said that his clients are prepared to return to the courtroom to repeat their accusations against the general.

Even the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala has issued a statement on the scheduled trial, promising to follow it closely and noting in no uncertain terms that “the outcome of this case will reflect the status of rule of law in Guatemala.”

Still, it is too soon to celebrate the Constitutional Court ruling. Rios Montt’s defense lawyers have long maintained that he is exempt from prosecution under the terms of an amnesty for civil war abuses issued in 1986. As El Periodico reports today, this motion has been sitting in an appellate court for months, and more than 60 judges have excused themselves from issuing a ruling on the matter. The Guatemalan paper claims to have made repeated inquiries into the case, each time receiving no answer as to why the appeal had not been resolved.

This silence is worrisome, and leaves open the possibility that the three appellate judges currently reviewing the amnesty -- perhaps already bristling at international outcry over the rampant corruption behind their nominations --- could rule in favor of Rios Montt’s claim at the last minute.

News Briefs
  • The Chinese firm behind Nicaragua’s planned interoceanic canal, which the AP notes has been opposed by environmental groups and affected residents, will officially break ground in the project on Monday. Writing for Fusion, Tim Rogers has an excellent rundown of the biggest controversies surrounding the planned canal, noting doubts over its alleged economic impact, environmental concerns and worries over increasing Chinese influence in the country.
  • A new development appears to have complicated the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire, announced on Saturday. El Colombiano and El Espectador report that rebels in Cauca province captured a soldier during an ambush the day before the ceasefire went into effect, and the army claims he is being held hostage.
  • All of the reporting on the shady ties between the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and construction firm Grupo Higa has made an impact. Animal Politico reports that the company has dropped plans to bid on a proposed high-speed train linking Mexico City to Queretaro, following reports that linked the company to a luxury home belonging to the president’s wife.
  • Venezuela is mounting a full court press against U.S.  plans to issue targeted sanctions against officials linked to human rights abuses. Ultimas Noticias reports that the Venezuelan diplomatic mission in the OAS is pushing for the regional organization to include language rejecting the sanctions in a proposed resolution on improved U.S.-Cuba ties. Meanwhile, Buzzfeed reports that the Venezuelan government is hiring a new lobbying firm, Hogan Lovells LLP, to look out for its interest on Capitol Hill.
  • The Guardian reports on efforts to fight human trafficking in Peru, which have been complicated by economic growth and changing migration patterns even as officials demonstrate increased willingness to tackle the issue.
  • The government of Cuba has pushed back against recent  remarks by U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who told reporters that improved relations would increase the likelihood of Cuba handing over fugitives on the island like Assata Shakur. The Cuban head of North American affairs has told the AP that the island reserves the right to shelter such fugitives.
  • NPR, the Miami Herald and the L.A. Times all report on an interesting detail in the release of the Cuban Five prisoners: the U.S government allowed one of the detained men to artificially inseminate his wife as “something of a humanitarian gesture,” thanks to the advocacy of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
  • The Associated Press profiles the extent of child labor in Honduras, where officials estimate that 500,000 minors-- or some 15 percent of the youth population -- hold jobs.
  • The Washington Post takes a look at Brazil’s deepening Petrobras scandal, in which dozens of politicians have been accused of taking bribes and kickbacks from companies linked to fixed contracts. For many transparency advocates in the country, the investigation represents a hopeful sign that Brazil has turned an important page in the fight against corruption.

Monday, December 22, 2014

No Immediate Regime Change in Cuba, But So What?

Despite last week’s historic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuban President Raul Castro has made it clear that a major overhaul of his country’s political system anytime soon.  But while U.S. conservatives will use this as fodder to attack President Obama, some analysts contend that normalizing relations in Cuba is about more than pushing regime change on the island.

In a speech in Havana on Saturday Castro thanked Obama for moving to normalize relations with his country, even as he vowed that his government would stay true to the ideals of the Cuban revolution. “We can't pretend that by improving ties with the Unites States, Cuba will renounce the ideas for which it has fought for more than a century, for which its people have shed a lot of blood and have run the biggest of risks,” Castro said.

As the Associated Press reports, Castro’s speech was heavy on symbolism, and he delivered it to an audience that included Elian Gonzalez and the repatriated members of the Cuban Five. The president also declared that Cuba had “won the war,” and The New York Times notes that he “offered no immediate concessions to demands for improvement in Cuba’s human rights record.”

Of course, conservative opponents of Obama’s shift on Cuba see this as evidence against improving relations with the island. On Meet the Press Sunday, Senator Marco Rubio accused Obama of handing the Castro government a win while asking for nothing in return: “[I]f you’re going to make concessions to Cuba, if you’re going to recognize them diplomatically, if you’re going to have more commerce with them, there has to be some reciprocal opening on their part towards democracy,” Rubio said. “There was none.”

This logic was expanded in a Sunday Washington Post column by Jackson Diehl, who attacks Obama for allegedly failing to make demands for democratic progress as well as for the president’s stated wish to avoid a chaotic “collapse” in Cuba. According to Diehl, several successful democratic regimes have emerged from the rubble of such collapses; and “U.S. ‘engagement’ with Stalinist-style totalitarian regimes, such as Cuba, has never produced such a transition.”

President Obama, for his part, has argued that by normalizing relations the United States will be better positioned to offer incentives and disincentives to the regime to change its behavior. The Washington Post reports that in a Friday press conference, Obama told reporters:  “We will be in a position to respond to whatever actions they take, the same way we do with a whole range of countries around the world when they do things we think are wrong […] There may be carrots as well as sticks that we can then apply.”

Interestingly, Obama’s talk of carrots and sticks and Rubio’s calls for concessions rely on the same logic. Both positions assume that U.S. policy can somehow lead to regime change in Cuba. But as Gordon Adams writes in Foreign Policy, the U.S. holds a mixed -- at best -- record at state-building over the past century, one which he contends has been fueled by “the worst kind of American exceptionalist fantasy.” As he writes:

The fantasy that U.S. policies and actions can reshape another country has been with us for far too long. The ability of the United States to change any country’s internal economy or politics is extraordinarily limited, as our most recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan show, yet again. 
We have spent more than 100 years trying to remake other countries, often by force, sending the U.S. military into Haiti, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, Vietnam, Guatemala, Iran, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, among many, many others. And we have spent billions, if not trillions, on democracy assistance, international broadcasting, and economic support funds to bring about political and economic change in other countries around the world.
Perhaps cynically, Adams argues that it is unrealistic to expect U.S. relations to have “anything more than a marginal impact” on Cuba’s internal system. However, the shift does amount to abandoning a decades-old approach that was not working and did more harm than good, an outcome that ought to be seen as positive in its own right.

News Briefs
  • Haiti’s ongoing political crisis saw a positive development on Saturday. As the Miami Herald reports, President Michel Martelly named Health Minister Florence Duperval Guillaume as his interim prime minister, and the president has said that later today he will present the opposition with a list of permanent candidates to the position.
  • Two articles in today’s headlines look at the impact of Obama’s Cuba announcement on Venezuela.  In Foreign Policy, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez notes that for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the announcement is likely a realization that his allies in Havana are adjusting to his own government’s failed policies. Writing for Time, Caracas-based journalist Girish Gupta asserts that Cuba likely learned its lesson from the post-Soviet collapse “Special Period,” and points out the 18-month secret talks between Havana and Washington began in the period of uncertainty following Hugo Chavez’s death.
  • Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Panama, but the Central American country is still grappling with the impact of the operation. The AP notes that President Juan Carlos Varela on Saturday became the first leader of the country to attend a ceremony to remember victims of the invasion, and El Pais reports that a truth commission has been set up to promote reconciliation and address the demands of the victims.
  • Last week, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court issued an important decision in the genocide case against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. As El Periodico and the AFP report, the court ordered lower judge Carol Patricia Flores to reverse an April 2013 ruling that found that the case should be reset to the investigative phase it moved out of in 2011. Flores has five days to revise her sentence, and the trial is expected to resume on January 5.
  • The FARC’s latest unilateral ceasefire announcement, which will be held “indefinitely” so long as its units do not come under attack, went into effect on Saturday, as the BBC reports. In a Sunday column for Bogota newspaper El Tiempo, editor Marisol Gomez Giraldo marked the news with an optimistic assessment of its ramifications for the peace process. According to her, the ceasefire amounts to a first step towards a bilateral end to hostilities, what some officials have called a “humanitarian de-escalation” of the conflict.
  • Following the appointment of Honduras’ first-ever active duty general as its next security minister (see last week’s post), InSight Crime’s Steve Dudley and David Gagne offer a damning analysis of the state of civilian policing in the country. According to them, the nomination represents the recognition of the sad fact that in Honduras, “the military are officially in charge of all things related to citizen security.”
  • In other drug policy news, tomorrow will make one year since Uruguayan President Jose Mujica signed his country’s historic marijuana regulation bill into law. The AFP reports that its signature component -- a commercial cannabis market -- remains in the planning stages, but cannabis clubs and home-growing have taken off in the country, as evidenced by a boom in marijuana-growing technology and paraphernalia.
  • Mexican news site Animal Politico reports on a new development in the case of two mass killings of migrants that occurred in 2010 and 2011 in the border state of Tamaulipas. According to details obtained by a freedom of information request from the attorney general’s office, municipal police were allegedly involved in the massacres of 72 and 193 migrants in the area, a revelation that had not previously been made public.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Obama Signs Sanctions Against Venezuelan Officials

Yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014, which imposes sanctions on Venezuelan officials responsible for human rights violations linked to the wave of protests earlier this year.

While the law denies visas to these officials and freezes their U.S. assets, Reuters reports that there is still no official list with the names of those who would be affected by the measure. Diplomats in Caracas have told the news agency that the list will probably contain the names dozens of officials, involving mostly security officials with a direct hand in the crackdown on the February demonstrations.

Back in May, the office of Senator Marco Rubio put together a list of names for an earlier version of the bill, which cast a much wider net. Rubio’s list contained 23 names, including Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz, former Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, several state governors and a number of intelligence, military and police officials.

Of course, the debate over the wisdom of sanctioning these officials continues to rage among Latin America policy experts, as the Global Post reports. And as The Guardian notes, some analysts have expressed concern that the incoming Republican majority in Congress could seek other, broader actions against Venezuela in the coming years.

From a domestic perspective, Obama timed his approval of the sanctions quite well. It sends a message to some -- but not all -- of the most vocal elements of the Republican opposition, who are currently slamming the president for being too lenient on Cuba. And as El Universal reports, a number of Venezuelan political analysts have argued that normalizing relations with Cuba punches a hole in President Nicolas Maduro’s anti-imperialist discourse. Still others, as the Miami Herald points out, suggest that Cuba’s eagerness to renew relations with the U.S. illustrates Havana’s growing doubts over the future of Venezuela-subsidized oil imports.

In Caracas, Maduro has given no high-profile reaction to sanctions ever since telling a crowd of government supporters on Monday that the “insolent Yankees” should “shove their U.S. visas where they should be shoved.” However, El Nacional reports that the Venezuelan leader took to Twitter yesterday to characterize Obama as hypocritical for relaxing the hostile relationship with Cuba while pursuing “aggressions” against his government.

In a New York Times op-ed that ran yesterday, Venezuelan National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello makes a similar argument about alleged hypocrisy. In his column the official points to the fact that U.S. lawmakers are criticizing Venezuelan police just as African-American communities around the country are expressing outrage over police killings of unarmed black men.

News Briefs
  • In the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s historic announcement, a number of interesting pieces on the Cuban reaction to the news have been published. The AP has a roundup of local opinions, noting that most people on the island welcomed the news even as some expressed fears that it could lead to future instability or economic chaos.  El Nuevo Herald has a collection of responses to the news from Cuban artists and writers, among whom the reactions are also largely positive. And in an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez describes the positive impact of this week’s news while also profiling the concerns of Cuban civil society about handing the government a “blank check.”  Ultimately, she writes, “We cannot confirm that it will be better, but at least it will be different.”
  • Writing for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, political scientist Greg Weeks and geographer John Weeks take an interesting look at some of the demographic factors that influence support in the U.S. for normalizing relations with Cuba, as well as those which could fuel economic instability in the coming years. Chief among the latter is the fact that the share of the older population on the island is greatly increasing, placing a growing burden on the country’s social programs.
  • Reactions to Brazil’s Truth Commission Report have not all been positive. On Monday, the country’s Superior Military Tribunal released a statement claiming that the report is biased and factually incorrect, and ultimately “failed” in its “goal of clarifying the facts of the time,” Veja and EFE report.
  • The head of one of the two self-defense groups that clashed earlier this week in a Michoacan shootout that killed 11 claims members of the country’s newly-created gendarmerie police force were involved in the clash. A rival autodefensa chief has denied this claim, as EFE reports, but Animal Politico reports that the government has confirmed that 56 members of the elite police squad are currently under investigation over the incident.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Congressional Cold Warriors Stick to Their Guns on Cuba

Yesterday, President Barack Obama announced the biggest change in United States policy towards Cuba of the past 50 years. But while Obama deserves praise for finally taking executive action on the issue, Congress remains the main obstacle to improved relations with Havana.

At noon yesterday, both Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro gave statements announcing the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two countries, as well as the exchange of the remaining imprisoned members of the “Cuban Five” for USAID contractor Alan Gross and another unidentified U.S. intelligence agent. The Miami Herald notes that some analysts have speculated that the man is 51-year-old Rolando Sarraff, who helped identify a number of Cuban spies within the U.S.

The announcement was the result of 18 months of secret talks facilitated by Pope Francis and the Canadian government, which culminated in a 45-minute long phone conversation on Tuesday between Obama and Castro. The New York Times reports that the process was also eased by Secretary of State John Kerry’s direct line of communication with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla.

In his speech, Obama ordered the State Department to end the dubious inclusion of Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terror, and said he would further ease restrictions on travel and allow greater banking ties to the island. He also said he would join his Cuban counterpart at the April Summit of the Americas, though he said he would “insist” that civil society join in the meeting as well. Fusion has a very helpful bullet point breakdown of the concrete policy changes that will result from the announcement.

For Latin America watchers, Obama’s remarks contained an important recognition of the shift’s potential ramifications for the region. The president began his announcement by justifying the move as an attempt to “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas,” and ended it by saying, in Spanish, “Todos somos Americanos.” As the AFP reports, the speech has already been widely applauded by the heads of state of Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Colombia, among other nations.

Though most of the region -- including Cubans themselves and some Cuban-Americans in Florida -- is celebrating the announcement, the embargo supporters inside the beltway are fuming. Bloomberg reports that the usual suspects (Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Marco Rubio, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez) have all announced they oppose Obama’s executive action, with most framing it as rewarding a dictatorial regime for poor behavior.

Rubio, a potential Republican White House candidate in 2016, was especially vehement. “Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office,” reads a statement released by his office. “As a result, America will be less safe as a result of the President’s change in policy.”

Politico notes that when the Republicans assume majority control of the Senate next year, legislation ending the embargo is off the table, and they will be in a position to block presidential nominations. This would include any ambassador to Cuba.

While their opposition is not particularly surprising, it is interesting to note that these figures are increasingly finding themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. As The Hill notes, polls show that a majority of Americans support ending the embargo, and an Atlantic Council survey released in February found that even a majority of Florida respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” support “normalizing relations or engaging more directly with Cuba.”

News Briefs
  • One element of the Cuba shift that will be interesting to watch in the coming months is how it will play out for the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The AFP reports that a number of regional experts have predicted that it could Chavismo to alter its traditional discourse of a region-wide anti-imperialist struggle. As opposition leader Henrique Capriles put it in a quote to Reuters, “It looks like Raul is cheating on Nicolas!”
  • Maduro, for his part, has not seemed publicly phased by the change in U.S.-Cuba relations. As El Pais reports, the Venezuelan president praised the U.S. leader for his “bravery,” and referred to the release of the Cuban Five as “a victory for Fidel and the Cuban people.”
  • Yesterday saw an important development in the the hemisphere’s other Cold War-era conflict as well. Colombia’s FARC guerrillas announced an indefinite unilateral ceasefire beginning on December 20. While the rebels have announced and maintained previous ceasefires during the holiday season since 2012, this one stands out for the rebels’ willingness to keep it open-ended, albeit on one condition: the ceasefire will end if guerrillas come under attack from security forces. The FARC also invited the UNASUR and CELAC regional blocs to observe its adherence to the ceasefire. According to El Espectador and Semana, while the government has applauded the ceasefire as an important goodwill gesture, it has rejected the involvement of outside actors in monitoring the ceasefire, and maintains that it will not discuss ending hostilities until the current agenda item of victims’ rights is settled.
  • In the latest incident of tension between Ecuadorean officials and indigenous groups, the government is revoking the license of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) to use its current offices. El Comercio reports that the government is refusing to renew its contract in order to use the space to rehabilitate youth substance abusers, but as El Universo notes, CONAIE has framed the order as an attack on its work and is refusing to leave.
  • Following an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report recommending that the Mexican government allow an independent investigation into the case of the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa, Animal Politico reports that authorities have agreed to provide the investigation with a budget of one million pesos (some 70,000 USD).
  • Apart from the New York Times’ wave of coverage of the Cuba deal today is an interesting investigation into the ties between an elite Ecuadorean family and figures in the Obama administration. According to the NYT, the administration waived travel bans on individuals accused of financial crimes in Ecuador in exchange for thousands of dollars in campaign donations.
  • Guatemala’s Plaza Publica has an interview with Judge Claudia Escobar, whose October resignation from an appellate court position helped focus international attention on the extent of corruption in the country’s judiciary. Despite her efforts, however, she laments that little has changed on this front.
  • As the country’s standoff over long-stalled elections continues, the AP reports that Haitian President Michel Martelly met with opposition leaders yesterday in talks over the recommendations of an independent commission tasked with ending the political crisis. While no major announcement came yesterday, two opposition activists were freed in accordance with the commission’s report.

  • The Economist casts a critical eye on Brazil’s response to the historic drought in São Paulo, noting that officials at all levels of government have failed to implement rationing or incentive measures necessary to replenish the city’s water reserves.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Honduras’ New Security Minister: a Sign of Militarization?

In a potential indicator of the increasing militarization of public security in the country, Honduras has appointed the first ever active-duty general as head of its security ministry.

On Sunday, the administration of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez announced that General Julian Pacheco Tinoco would take charge of the agency responsible for internal security and law enforcement policies in the country. He will replace Arturo Corrales as head of the security ministry on January 15.

As Reuters has reported, Pacheco’s appointment marks an important break with the past. When he takes office he will be the first non-civilian official to direct the ministry since its creation in 1998. What’s more, local paper El Heraldo reported that Pacheco is expected to continue his current cabinet position as the head of the National Division of Investigation and Intelligence.

The announcement is sure to cause backlash from human rights groups and security analysts in the region, many of whom have warned against Honduras’ increasing reliance on the military for law enforcement.

Pacheco’s appointment could also worsen frictions within the country’s police forces. Just last month, Police Chief Ramon Antonio Sabillon was reportedly dismissed over his opposition to the Hernandez administration’s support for expanding a new Military Police force at the expense of  new funding for the National Police. As Angelika Albaladejo and Sarah Kinosian have noted in a helpful post over at Security Assistance Monitor, his replacement is an avid supporter of Hernandez’s security strategy and the new military police.

Despite concerns over militarization, there are signs that the new minister may bring positive changes for Honduras’ security approach. Last week the government announced that the security ministry will dismiss 700 police officers from their posts in an ongoing purge of the force. And General Pacheco, for his part, has shown some sensitivity towards concerns over his military background. In an interview published today by Proceso Digital, Pacheco said that he would be willing to retire from his intelligence and army posts in order to “avoid criticism” if the president asked him to do so. 

While the general framed the military’s involvement in policing as a practical necessity -- and rejected warnings of Honduras’ “remilitarization” -- he also said he hoped to use his new office to further train and professionalize law enforcement in the country, “so that they can do their job.”

News Briefs
  • Responding to claims from opposition lawmakers that the six former Guantanamo detainees in the country represent a potential threat, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has publicly presented a U.S. State Department document certifying that the men have not participated in terrorist acts. El Pais has a copy of the letter, which asserts that there is no evidence “the men were involved in conducting or facilitating terrorist activities against the United States or its partners or its allies.”
  • Mujica is also in today’s headlines for separate remarks regarding the political situation in Venezuela. When asked what he discussed with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in a recent visit to the country, Mujica responded: “In general terms I asked for compassion towards prisoners and for very preferential treatment towards the political prisoners that are disgraceful to have to have.” While hardly a stinging rebuke, the remark hints that the Uruguayan leader may be carrying out quiet calls for change in Venezuela through diplomatic backchannels.
  • In the Mexican state of Michoacan, six people died yesterday in a clash between rival “self-defense” groups in the area, a shootout officials say was sparked by a territorial dispute.
  • In a column for Spain’s El Pais, Human Rights Watch’s Jose Miguel Vivanco and former OAS Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Eduardo Bertoni take a look at an apparent pattern of online censorship in Ecuador. According to the authors, officials in the Correa government have used a Spanish company to compel social media users to take down anti-government content by invoking U.S. copyright law. Also worth mentioning from HRW is its recent criticism of Bolivia’s child labor, criminal justice and press freedom laws, which have received a good deal of play in Bolivian and international media (see La Razon, EFE).
  • Today’s Washington Post highlights discontent with Brazil’s massive public housing project, “Minha Casa Minha Vida,” and the squatters’ rights movement that has emerged in major cities to answer a demand for affordable housing.
  • Jair Bolsonaro, a notoriously misogynistic Brazilian lawmaker representing Rio de Janeiro, is coming under fire for repulsive comments he made recently on the floor of Congress. Veja and The Guardian report that the attorney general’s office is pursuing action against Bolsonaro after he taunted a rival legislator that he “wouldn’t rape her” because she’s “not worth it.” O Globo reports that a congressional ethics committee is investigating the incident as well.
  • In an excellent blog post for La Silla Vacia, Wilson Center Fellow Juan Carlos Garzon analyzes the policy debate in Colombia around a proposed measure to legalize medicinal marijuana in the country. He notes that debate over the bill, which has been postponed to March, has focused unnecessarily on the wider issue of ending drug prohibition rather than helping sick patients access a drug they can only get on the black market.
  • Foreign Policy reports this morning that Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, will be stepping down next month. The FP notes that the resignation comes as the USAID’s democracy promotion work in Cuba is under fire, though it is unclear if Shah is leaving as a direct result of the controversy.
  • Also on the USAID’s work in Cuba, the AP notes that its reporting on USAID’s support for dissident hip hop artists on the island has earned the criticism of legendary Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez. In a blog post, Rodriguez told the U.S. agency to “go to hell” for allegedly involving his son and other anti-Castro hip hop artists in a scheme meant to fuel youth discontent with the government.
  • Yesterday brought no new developments in Haiti’s ongoing negotiations between the government and opposition to resolve the country’s political crisis.  Reuters notes that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement urging both sides to come to an agreement to hold long-overdue elections as soon as possible.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Report: Mexican Federal Police Involved in Ayotzinapa Disappearances

On Sunday, Proceso magazine published an investigative report that directly contradicts the official account of the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa. The investigation, which is based on leaked government documents and a Guerrero state report on the events leading up to the September 26 disappearances, implicates federal police officials in the crime.

According to Proceso, the Guerrero report shows that federal forces were aware of the students’ protests in Iguala that day and were watching them closely. The magazine claims the report clearly shows that federal police joined in the repression of the student demonstration, in which officers and unknown gunmen shot and killed at least six people.

The article also claims that internal documents from the attorney general’s office question government of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s handling of key witnesses and suspects in the case. The documents reportedly show that the main witnesses all bore signs of torture and abuse at the hands of police interrogators.

As Proceso author Anabel Hernandez told HuffPost for the latter’s helpful rundown of the magazine investigation, the piece reveals that the Peña Nieto administration is purposefully covering up the extent to which corrupt federal officials knew about or even facilitated the disappearances. “We have information that proves the federal government knew what was happening in the moment it was happening, and participated in it,” Hernandez said.

If true, the allegation would prove a point that security analysts and human rights groups have been arguing for years: state or federal police are not necessarily less corrupt than their local counterparts. This is an important argument, as it refutes the logic of “centralization equals greater police accountability,” which underpins Peña Nieto’s plans to place local police under state control.

News Briefs
  • Today’s headlines contain another story with alarming implications for Mexico’s insecurity crisis and rickety justice system. According to Milenio, yesterday a judge in Mexico State ordered the release of two women held for over five months following the alleged army massacre of 22 suspects in June. As the AP reports, newly-inaugurated CNDH President Raul Plascencia has said that the two were tortured and blackmailed into corroborating the official version of the deaths.
  • Mexico’s El Universal has an in-depth investigation which illustrates the power that the Guerreros Unidos gang has in the state of Guerrero, describing how after the disappearance of the 43 the group ordered locals to support corrupt local police and to man road blocks outside their communities.
  • Yesterday saw a troubling development for security policy in Honduras. For the first time in the country’s history, an active-duty military general has been named to head the country’s Security Ministry. El Heraldo reports that General Julian Pacheco Tinoco will take office on January 15, and that he will also retain his current position as head of state intelligence.
  • Haitian President Michel Martelly has not yet announced who will replace ousted Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. But in a press conference yesterday, a spokesperson said that the president intends to follow the other recent recommendations of an advisory commission, including releasing political prisoners and ordering the resignation of an electoral council.
  • In Venezuela yesterday, thousands of government supporters took part in a rally to mark the anniversary of the country’s new constitution and protest impending sanctions against Chavista officials. President Nicolas Maduro appears to have taken advantage of the rally to announce some important shifts in his administration moving forward. El Universal reports that in a speech yesterday, the president said he would delegate his political agenda to Vice President Jorge Arreaza and his cabinet in order to focus his efforts on “winning the economic war.” The paper also notes that in response to the U.S. sanctions, Maduro suggested tasking a commission of jurists to look over the human rights abuses committed by “imperialist countries.”
  • The Cuban government continues to roll out important economic reforms on the island. As BBC Mundo reports, on Monday officials issued a resolution that allows for companies receiving foreign investment to negotiate salaries on more favorable terms for workers. Meanwhile, in a Sunday editorial the New York Times issued yet another call for U.S. President Barack Obama to take executive action in order to loosen the terms of the U.S. embargo on the country.
  • The NYT reports that the Peruvian government has said that Greenpeace is refusing to hand over the names of the activists accused of damaging the country’s famed Nazca Lines, and that authorities are considering seeking their extradition.
  • A vote on a Colombian bill to legalize medicinal marijuana in the country that has been gaining support among policymakers has been delayed. As Radio RCN reports, the Senate will not take up the bill until March of next year. The Uribista opposition has said it would oppose the measure, and Uribe himself argues that a presidential decree alone would suffice to allow patients to treat their illness with the drug.
  • The Economist has a nuanced look at the way that machismo plays out in Latin America, noting that it is hardly a cultural phenomenon exclusive to the region.  The magazine highlights particularly interesting violence prevention programs run by an NGO in Nicaragua, which focus on deconstructing gang members’ unhealthy attitudes towards masculine identity.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Haiti's Prime Minister Steps Down

In a major concession to the opposition that could end the country’s long-running electoral stalemate, Haitian President Michel Martelly has agreed to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. Other concessions recommended by a presidential commission, like the resignation of the Supreme Court president and electoral council, may soon follow.

Martelly announced that he would accept Lamothe’s removal on Friday. The Miami Herald reports that in his speech the president also said he would begin assessing the commission’s other recommendations, as well as nominating a new prime minister, on Monday (today). Lamothe himself announced his resignation yesterday, alongside other cabinet ministers.

While the move could pave the way for serious negotiations to take place in the coming weeks over the passage of a delayed election-scheduling law, some analysts have pointed out that it leaves Martelly considerably weakened, as Bloomberg notes. The AFP reports that some sectors of the opposition have been mollified by Friday’s announcement, but that others are calling for the president himself to step down.

The latter camp has fueled a new round of anti-government protests in recent days. These protests have been accompanied by reports of inappropriate use of force by elements of the UN peacekeeping mission in the country. According to the AP, MINUSTAH released a statement late Friday that it was investigating these assertions. On Saturday, demonstrators clashed with security forces outside the presidential palace, and at least one was killed after hundreds of youths allegedly attempted to break through police barricades.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and United Nations continue to be playing an important role on the sidelines in attempting to support the government while steering both sides away from a political crisis. State department envoys Tom Adams and Thomas Shannon visited the country last week and met with both Lamothe and Martelly to push for dialogue. And in a Herald interview last week, former U.S. President and U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti Bill Clinton defended the now former prime minister, saying:
“He’s done a really good job […]The one thing that Haiti doesn’t want to get out of this process is looking like ‘Ok, we had four great years, we were growing like crazy so you think we’ll throw it all away and go back to the old ways. It won’t be good for the country.’”

News Briefs                                                                                                                                    
  • The currents phase of the Colombian peace talks, in which conflict victims have been given space to address the FARC and government negotiating teams in Havana, is drawing to a close. Newspaper El Espectador reports that UN and National University mediators have announced the list of the final victims’ delegation, which will visit Havana today. Semana notes that the list includes ex-Senator Piedad Cordoba, who was kidnapped by paramilitaries in 1999, a selection that has caused controversy over her perceived closeness to the rebels.
  • Yesterday Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto hit back against critics of the investigation into the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa. Reforma reports that in a report on the investigation sent to the Senate, the president noted that 56 people had been arrested, 13 searches had been carried out, six vehicles had been arrested and 26 arrest warrants issued so far in connection with the case.
  • As the BBC reports, last week hundreds of police in Rio de Janeiro took part in a protest marking the death of eighty officers who were killed so far this year and calling for the penal code to deal stricter sentences against those who kill police.
  • Recent days have seen further indications of U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan officials potentially allowing President Nicolas Maduro to rally his base. El Universal and Ultimas Noticias report that on Friday, Maduro called for a mass rally to be held today in Caracas to mark the 15th anniversary of the country’s new constitution, as well in protest of the U.S. sanctions.
  • In an interesting show of solidarity with Maduro, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has confirmed to journalists that the main supporters of Venezuelan sanctions -- Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Marco Rubio -- have been placed on a list of people banned from entering Nicaragua. On Twitter, Rubio mocked the announcement, joking that his “summer vacation plans are ruined.”
  • The past week has seen a good deal of reporting on Uruguay’s reception towards the six former Guantanamo detainees who were released there last week. While an October Cifra poll showed that 58 percent of the country disapproved of the transfer, by all accounts the six appear to be enjoying Montevideo thus far. On Friday the PIT-CNT labor union, which is housing the former detainees, said that the six went on a stroll through the city the day before, and that they are already becoming fans of the local custom of sipping yerba mate.
  • In the early hours of Sunday morning, the UN climate talks in Peru finally arrived at a deal that outlines a frameworks for signees to commit to cutting fossil fuel emissions. As the New York Times reports, however, nations will face no legal consequences or sanctions for failing to cut emissions, and will only be subject to international scrutiny.
  • Sunday’s Miami Herald featured an analysis of Cuba’s unfinished economic reforms, highlighting the lack of progress on plans to unify the country’s two-currency system.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Obama Will Sign Venezuela Sanctions, But Will They Work?

Following Congress’s passage of a bill that would impose targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials linked to human rights abuses, today’s Washington Post and New York Times report that the White House has signaled that President Obama will sign the measure into law. This is not surprising, as the president has shown he is willing to work with lawmakers on sanctions in recent weeks.

Since the passage of the sanctions bill, some corners of the Latin America analyst blogosphere have been buzzing with commentary. Over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, WOLA’s David Smilde has a particularly scholarly approach to the sanctions debate. Smilde’s analysis is a challenge presented earlier this year by freelance journalist Steven Bodzin who asserted that the U.S. has sanctioned Venezuelan government officials in the past, with little or no repercussions. As Bodzin wrote:
I think anyone arguing that Maduro will use US sanctions to bolster his position needs to explain why he hasn’t already done that. Here’s what I think: the Venezuelan people aren’t stupid. Even die-hard government supporters know there are some awfully corrupt people in their government.
This is essentially the argument put forward by some members of the Venezuelan opposition, like former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. El Universal reports that yesterday the opposition figure took to social media to assert that the sanctions are targeting “connected officials, not Venezuela and much less its people.”

Smilde’s position, which is also held by local civil society actors like human rights NGO PROVEA, is that sanctions could be used as a pretext by the government to rally the Chavista base and distract attention from the country’s economic ills. In his post he tracks the government response to sanctions against officials in 2008, 2011, and earlier this year. While Smilde concedes that the evidence for these instances triggering nationalistic responses is mixed, and that reactions have mostly been limited to political theater, he asserts that such theater is important.

Among other impacts, Smilde argues that sanctions: 1.) “provide the population with evidence for Chavismo’s continual flow of international conspiracy theories;” 2.) “allow the government to portray the opposition as dangerous traitors at a time of external threat;” and 3.) “lead regional allies to circle the wagons around Venezuela in the face of foreign aggression.”

The sanctions have not been signed yet, but already there are signs of these effects taking place. In a fiery speech after the Senate vote, President Maduro railed against the “insolent imperialists” of the U.S. for the assaulting the “children of Bolivar.” It’s not hard to imagine how this tone could be paired with ongoing cases against opposition leaders to present the opposition as part of the imperialist menace.  And on the international front, Ultimas Noticias reports that the ALBA bloc has released a statement rejecting the sanctions. Other regional organizations that have rejected U.S. interference in Venezuela in the past, like UNASUR, may soon follow.

Still other analysts have cautioned against judging the effect of targeted sanctions on these grounds. James Bosworth of Bloggings by boz, for instance, argues that whether the sanctions provide space for Maduro to rally his base is irrelevant. The real goal of the sanctions, he notes, is reducing persecution and politically-motivated violence against Venezuelan citizens. “If the sanctions reduce political violence or help the politically persecuted, we should view the sanctions as a success, no matter how Maduro reacts and whether the Maduro government is strengthened, weakened or unaffected in the process,” Boz asserts.

News Briefs
  • The Wall Street Journal has uncovered further evidence of shady ties between the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Juan Armando Hinojosa, a businessman who has won hundreds of million dollars in public work contracts. According to documents viewed by the WSJ, Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray also purchased a luxury home owned by Hinojosa’s company.
  • The latest Associated Press scoop on USAID actions in Cuba, which details how a USAID contractor attempted to infiltrate the island’s hip-hop music scene, has sparked immediate reactions. The AP reports that Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has condemned the program for a “lack of concern for the safety of the Cubans involved,” and Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) called it a “downright irresponsible use of U.S. taxpayer money.” El Nuevo Herald, meanwhile, reports that one of the rappers recruited to spark an anti-Castro opposition movement refutes the AP’s claim that he received money from the U.S. agency.
  • Also on Cuba, The Miami Herald highlights remark by former U.S. President Bill Clinton on the Alan Gross case made in a recent interview. Clinton told the paper he believed the U.S. “would be well on our way to doing it [ending the blockade] if they released Alan Gross,” and praised the emergence of a more “nuanced” approach to Cuba policy.
  • EFE and Peru21 report that Peruvian anti-corruption prosecutor Joel Segura has recommended that former Peruvian leader Alberto Fujimori be fined some $84.1 million for the 1998-99 “diarios chicha” scandal, in which he paid tabloids to support his re-election campaign and attack his political rivals.
  • Some potentially bad news for drug policy reformers in Argentina: Buenos Aires Province Governor Daniel Scioli, who is positioned to be government-backed presidential candidate in October 2015 elections, has said he does not support legalizing cannabis in the country, as El Pais reports.
  • In other drug policy news in the hemisphere, Semana reports that Colombian opposition leader and former President Alvaro Uribe has said he will support a bill in the country to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes, albeit with reservations. The Colombian senate is slated to vote on the measure on Monday.
  • La Silla Vacia looks at one of the biggest obstacles Colombia may face in a post-conflict era: the issue of mine clearance. The news site points out that records of mine placement are incomplete, that the country has not significantly increased its demining efforts, and that there is a chronic lack of mine clearance programs in areas that desperately need them.
  • The Guardian reports on a major march in Lima on Wednesday, in which trade unions, environmentalists and indigenous groups protested to pressure negotiators at the UN climate talks in the city to adopt a just solution to climate change. From inside the talks, the AP notes that the slow-moving talks are entering their final stretch with lingering disputes over how developed and developing countries should split emission cuts.
  • La Prensa Grafica reports that after falling ill in Mexico, on Wednesday the Salvadoran government announced that President Salvador Sanchez Ceren had traveled to Cuba this week for a “periodic medical checkup” that had been moved up. Of course, the fact that he sought treatment in Cuba has led some to draw parallels to Hugo Chavez’s attempts to hide the extent of his cancer from the public. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Brazil’s Truth Commission Addresses Contemporary Problems

Much of the reporting on yesterday’s release of the Brazilian National Truth Commission (CNV) report has focused on the fact that it recommended overturning the country’s 1979 amnesty law. But the report does not focus exclusively on reconciling with the past.

In its 29 recommendations, the CNV showed a clear interest in addressing state violence that continues in present-day Brazil. As Carta Capital and BBC Brasil report, many of the recommendations directly involve changes in police operations, the justice system or the country’s prisons. Among other things, the CNV calls for:
  • Demilitarizing Brazil’s state military police forces, which the CNV referred to as an “anomaly” in an otherwise democratic country
  • Making state forensic offices independent of police structures, to ensure civilian oversight and document torture and extrajudicial executions
  • Guaranteeing detained suspects the right to see a judge within 24 hours of their arrest, in order to minimize torture and inhumane treatment
  • Amending the country’s penal code to specify punishment for forced disappearances committed by agents of the state
  • Ending the dictatorship-era practice of allowing police to register deaths of suspects in custody as the result of resisting arrest, or “autos de resistência”

While few of these proposals are new, some of them may see more progress than others. On the last point, for instance, Brazil’s lower house is preparing to vote on a bill that would eliminate “autos de resistência” and force prosecutors to investigate all deaths in police custody, as noted in Tuesday’s post.

Also worth noting in the media coverage of the report is the way in which the U.S. press made comparisons with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s CIA torture report. Both the Washington Post and New York Times commented on the timing of both reports being released within one day of the other.

Of course, the most important difference between the reports is the issue of naming those responsible. Brazil’s CNV directly identified 377 ex-military and police officials as human rights abusers, whereas the Senate report includes only the pseudonyms of CIA employees who carried out torture under the Bush administration.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday brought bad news for the genocide case against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. Prensa Libre reports that the country’s Constitutional Court -- the same body that annulled his genocide conviction last year -- will decide at what point to restart the case on January 5 when it is slated to resume. El Periodico notes that this means that there is a risk that the case can be bumped back to the pre-trial stage.
  • The United States House of Representatives has voted to pass a bill that would level sanctions against Venezuelan officials linked to human rights abuses during this year’s wave of opposition protests. As Reuters reports, the bill was previously approved by the Senate and will now to go to President Obama, who has signaled his support for the measure in recent weeks.
  • Over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde takes on a challenge by blogger Setty to present the case against targeted sanctions of Maduro government officials using previous examples of limited sanctions in recent years. In response, Smilde highlights the government reaction to these past sanctions, identifying the processes by which Chavismo has responded with nationalist, base-rallying tactics. While he concedes that the causal evidence is mixed, Smilde argues that there is no doubt that increased sanctions have accompanied a process of polarization and radicalization in Venezuelan politics.
  • Yesterday, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Colombia was guilty committed forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial execution in the aftermath of a bloody 1985 hostage confrontation in the Colombian Supreme Court building between the military and M-19 guerrillas. As Semana reports, the court ordered the government to locate the remains of disappearance victims, continue a thorough investigation of the incident and compensate relatives of the deceased.
  • The AP reports on a forum held in Bogota yesterday on drug policy reform in the country, in which various Santos administration officials and ex-President Cesar Gaviria lent their support to a medicinal marijuana bill currently being debated by Colombian lawmakers. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica also offered a statement in favor of marijuana legalization via video, providing further proof that he is positioning himself to be an international advocate of drug policy experimentation after stepping down in March. Meanwhile, RCN Noticias and Caracol Radio today also report on the main arguments in favor and against the bill.
  • Yesterday, the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo was disrupted by a young man carrying a red-stained Mexican flag. The incident has made headlines in Mexico -- see El Universal and Reforma -- as an apparent attempt to raise awareness for the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa.
  • BBC Mundo reports on protests in Managua, Nicaragua against a Chinese-funded plan to build a new inter-oceanic canal, noting that locals say they are being kicked off of their land without fair compensation for the project to move forward.
  • Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has thrown his support behind a proposal by 15 lawmakers of his National Party to challenge a Supreme Court ban on debating presidential re-election. Reuters notes that the opposition has criticized this proposal as a bid to solidify the ruling party’s authority.
  • The New York Times reports on organized crime and drug trafficking in the Brazilian Amazon city of Manaus, which is seeing an uptick in violent turf wars between local criminal networks.
  • Harm reduction strategies to drug policy continue to make slight inroads in Brazil. Tuesday’s O Globo featured an interesting interview with Liz Evans of Vancouver’s PHS Community Services Society, which manages the only supervised injection facility in North America. In it, Evans praised the work of São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad and his “Braços Abertos” program, as well as rehabilitation efforts by Rio de Janeiro NGO Viva Rio.