Friday, January 31, 2014

Weekend Elections Part II: No Clear Frontrunner in Costa Rica Race

This Sunday, voters in El Salvador and Costa Rica will head to the polls to elect new presidents following months of tight races.  Like the Salvadoran race profiled in yesterday’s post, Costa Rica’s election is a multiple-way contest, albeit a much closer one. In all likelihood, the country will see a run-off election in April, only the second run-off in Costa Rican history.

The race has four main candidates. The top contenders are Johnny Araya of the ruling center-left National Liberation Party (PLN) and Jose Maria Villalta of the left-wing Broad Front (FA), whose campaign has picked up surprising momentum in recent months. As the AFP notes, Villalta’s rise in the polls has led his opponents to frame him as an anti-democratic extremist. Earlier this month electoral officials scolded a number of companies for distributing internal memos denouncing Villalta as a "communist" to their employees.

Also in the running are Otto Guevara of the Libertarian Movement and Luis Guillermo Solis of the center-left Citizens’ Action Party (PAC). Both have considerable support, and a strong showing in the polls by supporters of either can’t be ruled out.

The most recent poll, published Tuesday by the University of Costa Rica’s CIEP policy studies center shows Araya leading Villalta by three points (17.4 percent to 14.4 percent). CIEP has Solis in third, with 11.6 percent support, followed by 7.3 percent for Guevara. However, out of the 800 respondents surveyed, 43.9 percent said they did not support any candidate, a slight increase compared to a previous January CIEP poll.  CID-Gallup published a poll this week excluding undecided voters, which shows Araya in the lead with 35.6 percent of the vote, followed by 21 percent for Villalta, 17.6 for Guevara and 15.6 for Solis. Unfortunately for Araya, this still leaves him below the 40 percent threshold needed to win in the first round and avoid a run-off.

An Unimer poll published by leading daily La Nacion on January 16 showed a statistical tie, with Villalta leading Araya 22.2 to 20.3 percent, and Guevara at 20.2. Interestingly, La Nacion declined to publish the last Unimer poll before the close of the campaign, explaining in an op-ed that it did not want to encourage “ill-intentioned speculation.” The Tico Times claims to have had access to the poll data, which allegedly shows Solis gaining ground by eight points.  

Aside from disenchantment with Costa Rica’s traditional parties (illustrated by the wide and relatively level playing field), Reuters reports the main issues for voters going to the polls appear to be corruption and poverty.  Villalta is campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket, and has promised to raise taxes to fight growing economic inequality. As the news agency notes, Araya has sought to distance himself from current president and fellow PLN member Laura Chinchilla, whose administration has been rocked by scandals, contributing to her ranking as the least popular president in the hemisphere. Whether or not he has done so successfully remains to be seen.

News Briefs
  • A judge in Brasilia has sparked controversy in the country for absolving an alleged marijuana dealer, ruling that Brazil’s prohibition of cannabis is “unconstitutional.” As O Estado de S.Paulo reports, Judge Frederico Ernesto Cardoso Maciel found that placing the drug on a list of controlled substances is unjustified and a violation of individual rights. However, public prosecutors have challenged the ruling, and on Thursday the decision was overturned by a district court in the capital city.
  • The L.A. Times highlights a recent report by PEN International on journalist killings in Honduras. Based on a review of journalist murders in 2012, the study’s authors conclude that those who work in print media see the most violence overall, while those in radio and television have been the main targets for assassination.
  • Recent remarks by Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam cast doubt on the wisdom of the government’s recognition of militia groups in Michoacan. Milenio reports that, according to Murillo, police have detained two members of “self-defense” groups in the state who told investigators the New Generation Cartel supplied weapons to the militias. More from the L.A. Times. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry has begun registering the weapons of militia members, according to Animal Politico.
  • Mexican police have announced the arrest of a son of Jalisco New Generation cartel leader Nemesio Oseguera on drug trafficking charges, also accusing him of handling the cartel’s finances.
  • The Associated Press profiles the trend of Venezuelan students looking abroad for opportunities amid economic uncertainty at home. Surprisingly, Ireland has become a top destination in recent years, with Venezuelans now rivaling Brazilians as the largest foreign student population in Irish language schools.
  • The BBC reports that Panama has ordered the release of 32 crewmembers of the North Korean ship seized last year for transporting Cuban weapons through the Panama Canal. The ship’s captain and two other members of the crew will remain in custody.
  • The Center for Democracy in the Americas offers the most comprehensive English-language overview of Sunday’s election in El Salvador, describing the main scandals during the campaign and the biggest obstacles for each party. The briefing notes that while the FMLN is struggling to moderate its image and appeal to middle-class voters, while ARENA is attempting to minimize the damage of internal divisions and high-profile corruption scandals.
  • Following up on Elliot Abrams’ recent op-ed criticizing the FMLN for alleged drug ties, another Bush-era diplomat has weighed in on the election. This time the author, former USAID official Jose R. Cardenas, attacks Tony Saca’s decision to run (thus complicating ARENA’s chances of winning) in a column for the Washington Times. Meanwhile, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador William G. Walker has a solid rebuttal to Abrams’ column in today’s New York Times, arguing that the United States has nothing to fear from the prospect of another FMLN president.
  • The AP and Spanish news agency EFE look at the “parallel summit” in Havana this week, which took place in the private home of Fidel Castro. The former Cuban president met with at least seven heads of state in the region, as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
  • Spain’s El Pais has an interview with former Colombian police commander Oscar Naranjo, in which he gives his take on the ongoing peace talks and discusses his political future. In a move that’s sure to fuel speculation that President Juan Manuel Santos will select him as a vice president, Naranjo told the paper he would accept the offer if he were asked. Meanwhile, the head of Colombia’s Liberal party, Simon Gaviria, has endorsed Naranjo as a VP pick, calling him “perfect” for a post-conflict Colombia.
  • The government of Ecuador has continued its efforts to discredit opposition politician Martha Roldos, once again taking a swing at her attempts to obtain funding for a new media outlet in the country from various U.S. human rights advocates and democracy promotion groups. State-owned newspaper El Telegrafo has published yet another article criticizing Roldos’ proposal as conspiratorial and lacking in transparency, while at the same time it refuses to disclose how it gained access to her private emails detailing the plan.
  • The Washington Post features an editorial on the devaluation of the Argentine peso, which the Post calls the “predictable result” of the economic policies of President Cristina Fernandez. With Fernandez’s defeat in the recent legislative elections last fall, the paper suggests that the country’s political class should take note and steer a different course in the future. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Weekend Elections Part I: El Salvador’s Three-Way Race

This Sunday, voters in El Salvador and Costa Rica will head to the polls to elect new presidents. Both races are fairly tight, and the odds are good that they will trigger a second run-off vote. In an attempt to give these elections the in-depth coverage they deserve, today’s post will take a look at the Salvadoran contest, while tomorrow’s will focus on Costa Rica.

In El Salvador, the three main candidates are Vice President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and former President Antonio Saca, who is running with the center-right UNIDAD coalition.

In recent weeks, polls have shown Sanchez Ceren up by several points. The most recent Universidad Centroamericana survey shows 46.8 percent support for the FMLN candidate, compared to 32.8 percent for Norman Quijano, and a recent CIP Gallup survey gives Sanchez Ceren a 12-point lead over Quijano (49 to 37 percent). A notable outlier is a Mitofsky poll published on January 13 which shows Quijano ahead with 35.5 percent, compared to 31.8 percent for Sanchez Ceren. In all of these, Saca is far behind in third place with between 14 and 16 percent.

The major issues at stake, or at least those that have been highlighted by local media, are insecurity and the economy. Quijano, for his part, has promised to address crime by deepening the involvement of the Salvadoran military in the fight against drug gangs. In recent remarks to Reuters, he described El Salvador as a country “overrun” by criminals. “The constitution gives you the power, when you are overwhelmed ... When you have lost peace, you can use the armed forces,” Quijano told the news agency.  He has also opposed the controversial government-facilitated gang truce that has brought down homicides, calling it a “betrayal” to the country.

Sanchez Ceren has strategically avoided linking himself to the gang truce, although La Prensa Grafica notes that he has promised not to interfere with it, downplaying it as an independent ceasefire between two rival groups. The FMLN candidate has also promised to implement a “mano inteligente” -- as opposed to a “mano dura” (iron fist) -- approach to crime, part of which involves strengthening the National Civil Police (PNC). In contrast to Quijano, he has come out in favor of rolling back some of the military-heavy security  strategies of current President Mauricio Funes, proposing that the PNC build up  its capacity so that the army can return to focusing on external security threats.

On the economy, Sanchez Ceren has promised to create jobs and enforce labor regulations, as well as provide low-interest loans to small businesses.

Quijano, on the other hand, has presented himself as a champion of free markets, and promised to boost growth by attracting foreign investment and creating a stable business climate. He has also centered much of his campaign around framing Sanchez Ceren and the FMLN as corrupt authoritarian socialists (occasionally enlisting the help of conservative allies in Washington). It is interesting to note, however, that Quijano has promised to continue many popular social programs that began under the current FMLN president, like a school milk program and credits to small farmers.

On both crime and the economy, Antonio Saca has attempted to position himself as a moderate alternative between two extremes.  He has criticized the gang truce, but says he would not seek out an open, bloody conflict with the gangs. He has attacked the FMLN’s social programs, while unveiling relatively similar proposals of his own.  

Saca’s campaign has siphoned off support from ARENA. As a result, the FMLN has a real shot at obtaining the 50 percent of votes necessary to win in a first round. While much of this will depend on how effectively the party mobilizes its support base, it may also see a boost from the ongoing corruption investigation into former President Francisco Flores, an ARENA member. The Flores case made headlines on Tuesday after the ex-president allegedly tried to escape prosecution by fleeing over the border to Guatemala.  While he claimed he was merely attending to business in the country, investigators have ordered a freeze on his bank account and assets.

The FMLN is no doubt hoping that ARENA supporters will be discouraged from supporting Quijano in the wake of the corruption allegations. If they do not, and Sanchez Seren does not win the first round, his party will very likely lose the vote. As WOLA’s Geoff Thale points out in his overview of the election (which has more on the U.S. role in the campaign), Saca supporters can be expected to switch to Quijano, giving him very strong odds of winning an eventual run-off.

News Briefs
  • The Associated Press has more disturbing details on the constitutional reforms passed by Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista majority this week. In addition to scrapping presidential term limits and authorizing new decree powers, they will also allow the army to “help draft laws governing the country's national records, computer databases and telecommunications spectrum.” The reforms also permit the military to provide security to private companies.
  • La Silla Vacia offers a scathing critique of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ position on drug policy reform, which is marked by plenty of grand gestures abroad but very little progress on the issue at home. The news site has seven critiques of the president, starting with the fact that he has allegedly never participated in a meeting of his much-lauded Drug Policy Advisory Commission.
  • In a column for Politico Magazine, Karen Hinton points to the alarming implications that Chevron’s racketeering lawsuit could have for advocacy work and lobbying. She argues that the environmentalist activists and lawyers involved employed only “hard-hitting press releases and lobbying before Congress and government agencies” to support their case, and criticizes the suit as an attack on standard lobbying techniques.
  • Panama’s governing Democratic Change party has chosen current First Lady Marta Linares de Martinelli  as the running mate of Jose Domingo Arias ahead of May 4 elections in the country. La Estrella and Telemetro report that the selection was met with harsh criticism from the opposition in the Central American country, which likened it to a de facto reelection of current Presdient  Ricardo Martinelli.
  • The Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (CELAC) summit in Havana, Cuba came to a close yesterday with the release of a lengthy joint statement (.pdf). While the remarks of some attendees generated plenty of headlines about the rise of the left in the hemisphere and the decline of U.S. influence, little concrete appears to have resulted from the two-day summit.   Reuters picks up on one interesting detail in the CELAC statement, noting that it includes a commitment to “fully respect the inalienable right of every state to choose its political system,” a likely nod to Cuba.
  • One development at the CELAC summit of particular interest to human rights advocates is an agreement reached by Argentina and Brazil to share information regarding Operation Condor, the political repression campaign adopted by southern cone dictatorships in the 1970s. According to El Mercurio, the agreement is based on a similar accord reached between Argentina and Uruguay in 2012.  
  • The AP highlights remarks made at the CELAC conference by Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who provided a light moment of relief from repeated denunciations of imperialism and foreign intervention at the summit.  It fell to Mujica, as the news agency puts it, “to tackle a subtler evil plaguing humankind: the business suit.”
  • The second of the so-called “Cuban Five” is set for release next month. Fernando Gonzalez will be deported to Cuba next month after serving 15 years for spying on the Miami exile community, making him the second of the intelligence network to be sent back to the island.
  • Police in Washington have arrested a former head of Ecuador’s national police, General Edgar Vaca, who is wanted in his home country on charges of crimes against humanity stemming from the 1985 torture and disappearance of three people with alleged links to a leftist rebel group. El Comercio reports that Vaca will be extradited to Ecuador to face charges.
  • The anti-crime “Operacion Morazan” launched by recently-inaugurated President Juan Orlando Hernandez on Monday, seems to have yielded few results so far. The first day of the operation, which was the first deployment of the controversial “Tigres”  military police, saw the seizure of a USB drive shaped like a gun, a knife and “a piece of a machete,” El Tiempo reports. According to La Tribuna, police also arrested 11 individuals and seized “various vehicles,” though the paper notes that these may have been detained for simply  not having proper identification. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Nicaragua Reforms One-Fifth of Constitution

Following a preliminary vote in December, the Nicaraguan National Assembly has approved a constitutional reform giving President Daniel Ortega the ability to run for re-election indefinitely. But while most English-language coverage of the reform measure has focused on the end of term limits, there are a number of other troublesome details in the legislation.

The bill passed yesterday in a 64-25 vote, in which Wilfredo Navarro was the only opposition legislator to vote with the Sandinista majority. Lawmakers are set to finish an article-by-article vote of the bill today before it is passed on to Ortega to be signed.

In effect, the bill’s language on term limits only validates a Supreme Court ruling that allowed President Daniel Ortega to run for re-election in 2011. However, it includes a range of other changes.  Out of the 202 articles of the Nicaraguan Constitution, the legislation alters 46 of them, roughly one-fifth of the country’s charter.

Among these reforms is a complete overhaul of the requirements to win elections. Instead of mandating that candidates receive over 35 percent of the vote to win the presidency, they will now only have to win a relative majority of ballots, eliminating the need for a second round.

The bill also paves the way for active-duty members of the police and military to hold public office, and gives the presidency new decree powers.

Much of the reforms seem aimed at solidifying the ruling Sandinista party’s hold on power. These include provisions for removing lawmakers who defy party leadership, and providing constitutional recognition of Sandinista-affiliated community groups (see Tim Rogers’ critical take on Sandinista “Family Councils”). These are major threats to the health of Nicaraguan democracy. Beyond merely politicizing government institutions, the reforms create new official structures tied to the ruling party. Should the Sandinistas lose popularity -- or the presidency -- in the future, these new mechanisms are sure to guarantee them disproportionate influence, as Latin America analyst James Bosworth has pointed out.

News Briefs
  • Unfortunately for Latin America-watchers, the region received little mention in U.S. President Barack Obama’s state of the union address last night (see full transcript here). In his address, the president only made one reference to “the Americas” in the context of his administration’s work on improving trade, cultural and educational exchanges in the hemisphere. Milenio highlights his brief remarks on immigration -- an issue of particular interest to Mexico and Central America -- in which he urged Congress to move forward with immigration reform. The L.A. Times notes that Obama’s immigration remarks were carefully worded so as to avoid laying blame on either party.
  • As the shortage of newsprint in Venezuela continues, local media have become increasingly vocal in their allegations that the government is restricting the purchase of paper to stifle dissent. Yesterday, journalists and journalism students held a rally in front of the official currency exchange agency to protest the shortages. The AP has an overview of the deepening shortage, noting that nine regional papers have been forced to close and leading daily El Nacional claims it only has enough paper to last until February.
  • While Uruguay’s marijuana law will not go into effect until April, Uruguayan researchers at the University of the Republic are already laying the framework for a comprehensive academic study of the effect of marijuana on human sleep cycles, AFP reports. As El Observador reports, the study is only one example of the kinds of scientific research made possible by Uruguay’s pioneering law.
  • Colombia’s dominant Social Party of National Unity (Partido de la U) has endorsed President Juan Manuel Santos’s campaign for re-election on Tuesday, El Colombiano reports. El Nuevo Herald notes that, beyond his own political camp, the president has received the backing of the Liberal Party but the rejection of the Conservatives, who will run their own candidate ahead of the March presidential election.
  • Nelson Camilo Sanchez of the Bogota-based human rights research center Dejusticia has an excellent update on the progress of Ecuador’s attempts to reform the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). After the failure of its recent effort to jumpstart a conversation on relocating the commission, Sanchez assesses the risk that Ecuador will follow up on its threats of following Venezuela and denouncing the American Convention.
  • Today’s New York Times features an editorial on the economy of Argentina, which the NYT’s editorial board predicts will face a financial crisis unless it reins in inflation and brings in more foreign investment.
  • United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Fidel Castro in Havana on Tuesday on the sidelines of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) meeting there. The AP reports that the two discussed the human rights situation on the island, and that the UN leader also met with President Raul Castro to discuss the U.S. embargo. Despite reports that OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza arrived in Havana as well to participate, his chief of staff told reporters that there was no record of him visiting Cuba. However, EFE reports that Insulza spoke with reporters about the potential for Cuba’s return to the OAS, and said he was in Havana to “advance compliance with the OAS Charter.”
  • While homicides have dropped slightly since Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took office, kidnappings and extortion have risen, putting pressure on the administration to address these crimes. Yesterday the government unveiled a new plan (the fourth such plan since 1997) to crack down on kidnappings, which focuses on the ten states that see the most kidnappings, according to the AP. News site Animal Politico has a rundown of the main elements of the plan, which includes the creation of a new federal anti-kidnapping agency and a centralized national database of all reported kidnapping cases. 
  • Animal Politico also highlights an interesting detail of the Mexican government’s decision to afford legal recognition to the vigilante militias in Michoacan. The legal document (.pdf here) which lays out the conditions for the Defense Ministry’s recognition of “Rural Defense Corps,” has not been updated since 1964, and contains language that may not sit well with the militias. The Defense Corps, for instance, can only be comprised of individuals who "affiliate with the policies of the government."

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mexico to Legally Recognize Vigilante Groups

Despite recent criticism of militia groups by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, the federal government has signed an accord granting institutional recognition to the so-called “self-defense” groups in Michoacan state.

Federal and state officials signed an agreement with several vigilante leaders in Michoacan yesterday which will allow them to be recognized as part of the Rural Defense Corps, a little-known volunteer force under military jurisdiction. According to the text of the agreement, members of vigilante groups may also join municipal police as long as the legal requirements are met and prospective members have the support of local officials. In exchange, the militias will have to turn over lists of their members to the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) and register their weapons.

As El Universal reports, the government is emphasizing that the accord states these groups will be temporary. But neither the length of operation nor the terms of their service are specified in the text.

The move comes in the wake of the Peña Nieto administration’s repeated calls for the groups to disarm themselves and allow security forces to take up responsibility for law enforcement in the state’s volatile Tierra Caliente region. Just last week in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the president said that if the vigilantes were genuinely interested in improving security, they should join the police.  “The Mexican government cannot be permissive nor tolerate the presence of [these] groups, even if they may be genuine about wanting to defend themselves,” Peña Nieto said.

The unexpected recognition of the militias demonstrates that the government is still grappling with an embarrassing Catch-22: while the vigilantes showcase officials’ inability to provide security, their popularity makes it difficult to disarm them without public backlash. The announcement coincides with the arrest of one of the four top Knights Templar Cartel leaders, Dionisio Loya Plancarte. As the AP points out, the timing of this may help the government save some face, distracting from its concession to the self-defense groups.

News Briefs
  • The International Court of Justice at the Hague yesterday issued a long-awaited ruling on the maritime border dispute between Peru and Chile. The court sided mostly with Peru’s claim, although it kept rich coastal fishing grounds within 80 nautical miles of the border in Chilean hands, the New York Times reports. Chilean President Sebastian Piñera announced that while he disagreed with the ruling, he would abide by it, though it would be implemented “gradually.” Peru’s El Comercio reports that Piñera and his Peruvian counterpart, Ollanta Humala, are set to meet tomorrow on the sidelines of the CELAC summit in Havana.
  • After roughly a year and a half of serving as an advisor to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on security issues, Colombian police chief Oscar Naranjo is returning to his home country in March. Noting his popularity in Colombia, Semana questions whether his return will boost President Juan Manuel Santos’ reelection campaign, with the magazine even speculating that he could be poised to be the next vice president.
  • Honduras’ new president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, was sworn in yesterday after delivering a speech which directly addressed the United States at several points. During his address, Hernandez urged the U.S. to continue support for his country’s counternarcotic efforts (see the AP) while also pointing out what he described as a “double standard” in the U.S.-led war on drugs (Reuters). According to the president: “It strikes us as a double standard that while our people die and bleed, and we're forced to fight the gangs with our own scarce resources, in North America drugs are just a public health issue. For Honduras and the rest of our Central American brothers it's a case of life and death.”
  • Immediately after swearing in, the president announced a new law enforcement operation involving the military and police, known as “Operation Morazan.” While the operation seems to differ little from previous operations involving military patrols in the country, La Prensa notes that the controversial military police force (the “Tigres”) has now officially gone into operation.
  • On Friday, the FARC gave a rare public rebuke to some of its own soldiers. In a statement published on their official website, the guerrilla group’s leadership said that a bombing that occurred in the western Valle de Cauca region earlier this month had shown a “lack of foresight,” and that “appropriate disciplinary action” would be taken against the FARC unit responsible. The AFP chalks up the statement as the latest sign of the group’s fragmentation. Marisol Gomez Giraldo of El Tiempo, however, claims the statement marks the first time the FARC have recognized their own error in killing civilians instead of dismissing them as “collateral damage.”
  • Brazilian authorities have launched an investigation into the shooting of a young protestor at the hands of police during a Saturday demonstration against the World Cup. Fabricio Chaves, 22, has been hospitalized and is in critical condition. O Globo reports that police say Chaves was carrying an explosive device in his backpack, and attempted to assault one of the officers when stopped.
  • The New York Times looks at the inauguration of the first phase of the Mariel Port renovation project in Cuba, which is being financed by Brazil, as well as the surrounding “special development zone.” Cuban officials hope the area around the port, which will allow foreign companies to operate with far less bureaucracy than usual on the island, will help bring in much needed foreign investment. So far the popularity of the project is difficult to determine, but the paper notes that companies in China, Malaysia and Angola have expressed interest.
  • The NYT also features an interesting profile of Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, a rising star in Argentine politics. While President Cristina Fernandez has been avoiding the public eye in recent month, Kicillof has been steadily raising his profile since he was appointed in November.
  • The Washington Post editorial board has a column in today’s paper on the European Union’s consideration of normalizing relations with Cuba. The editorial argues that an upcoming February 10 meeting of EU representatives should be used to solidify a position showing the Cuban government that any investment in the country must be linked to progress on  democracy and human rights. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

São Paulo Paves New Drug Treatment Path in Cracolândia

After years of São Paulo officials employing forced treatment and other heavy-handed tactics to fight the city’s crack epidemic, Mayor Fernando Haddad is trying a new approach. But his attempts to implement a health-based, humane line of attack against crack abuse are being challenged by state police, who favor more orthodox law enforcement practices.

Earlier this month, Haddad announced a strategic shift in the city’s battle with rampant crack cocaine use in the central slum popularly known as Cracolândia.  He unveiled “Operation Open Arms,” a new program which provides housing, food and work opportunities to those living on the streets in the neighborhood. Inspired by the success of similar programs in the Netherlands and Canada, participants will receive roughly $6.50 USD a day in exchange for cleaning parks and other public places. They will also be given meals, medical care and group housing in local motels, according to G1. Giving up drug use is not a condition for participating in the program, though participants will be encouraged to do so and will have greater access to addiction treatment programs.  Some 300 people have been enrolled in the program thus far, and were moved into motels after their improvised shelters were demolished on January 14 and 15.

While Haddad has touted the program as a bold embrace of harm reduction-based treatment, some are skeptical of the program. As the Christian Science Monitor notes, many view it simply as an attempt to temporarily clean up the city’s streets in time for the World Cup. Several drug treatment experts who work in Cracolândia told the CSM they are doubtful that the program can offer a long-term solution to crack addicts.

This skepticism is seemingly shared by state anti-drugs police agency DENARC. Last week saw a major confrontation between DENARC officers and locals in Cracolândia, in which police allegedly fired rubber bullets and used tear gas against a crowd after an operation there sparked public outrage. Estadão reports that Haddad called São Paulo state Governor Geraldo Alckmin to complain about the incident, and some in his office told the paper that Alckmin, a member of the PSDB, was working to undermine the drug policy of the Workers’ Party (PT) mayor. Public prosecutors are investigating the alleged use of force, and a top aide to the governor has said that there will be no more confrontations between state police and Cracolândia residents, though Folha de São Paulor notes that he assured the public that DENARC operations there will continue.

The incident occurred just as federal public prosecutors announced an investigation into alleged abuses that have occurred in local, state and federal operations in Cracolândia in recent years.

News Briefs
  • São Paulo saw a massive anti-World Cup protest on Saturday, which brought some 2,500 people together and led to several clashes between demonstrators and police. Protestors rallied under the banner of the “There Will Be No Cup” ("Não Vai Ter Copa") movement, which stems from the massive demonstrations of last June. As a result of the violence, the BBC reports, São Paulo officials were forced to cancel some events planned for the city's 460th anniversary.
  • Chile’s Michelle Bachelet has named her picks for her incoming cabinet when she takes office in March. EFE notes that includes a record number of women, as well as political independents. Reuters reports that the choices reflect a pragmatic sampling from across her wide political coalition. Rodrigo Peñailillo, one of her top advisors, has been named as cabinet chief and Interior Minister, and Heraldo Muñoz -- currently the regional director of the UNDP in Latin America -- as her foreign minister.
  • On Friday, Peruvian public prosecutor Marco Guzman announced that his office would drop a criminal investigation into former President Alberto Fujimori and several of his health ministers who oversaw a mass sterilization program during his administration. El Comercio reports that Guzman found that legal responsibility for the sterilizations does not extend up the chain of command to the president. Sigifredo Florian of the Legal Defense Institute (IDL) told reporters that this decision will be appealed. The AP notes that the case was initially taken up by Peruvian authorities under pressure from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
  • The governments of Chile and Peru are awaiting a ruling from the International Court of Justice in The Hague over a longstanding maritime border dispute between the two countries. As El Pais reports, both countries have vowed to abide by the ruling, though it is sure to stir up nationalist outrage in one of them.
  • Over the weekend, leaders from across the hemisphere began arriving in Havana, Cuba today for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit. Today’s meetings will bring together CELAC foreign ministers to agree on a common agenda for tomorrow, the official meeting of heads of state. The Nuevo Herald points out that, while this is the first CELAC meeting since former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s death, his legacy still looms large over the fledgling organization.  Latin America historian Miguel Tinker Salas tells the AP that he believes the CELAC’s existence puts pressure on the OAS and Inter-American system to respond more closely to the interests of Latin America, though other experts are less optimistic of any real change arising from the organization.
  • Honduran President-elect Juan Orlando Hernandez takes office today, and La Prensa reports on the arrival of international delegations to the country. Among these is OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, who heralded Hernandez´s inauguration as proof that political order had been restored. “The political crisis of 2009, after which Honduras was isolated by the world, is now in the past and now things are normal and calm,” Insulza told journalists.
  • As the region’s focus turns to Cuba, pro-democracy activists on the island have staged a series of protests to draw attention to their cause. Members of the Ladies in White claim that over 100 of their group have been arrested by officials, and leading dissident Guillermo Fariñas told reporters he has been placed under house arrest to prevent his participation in a parallel summit meant to draw attention to the human rights situation in Cuba.
  • The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff takes advantage of the CELAC summit to look at the post-2000 “left turn” in Latin American politics, which has only deepened in recent years. As Miroff notes, when Chile’s Sebastian Piñera ends his term in March, the only conservative governments in power will be in “small Central American nations and Paraguay.”  While part of this has to do with the appeal of left-leaning policy narratives in the poverty-stricken region, it can also be explained by the willingness of some leftist politicians to moderate their images in order to appeal to a wider base.
  • The L.A. Times is the latest U.S. paper to profile the arrival of Cuban doctors to Rio as part of the “Mais Medicos” program. While the program has earned criticism from those who say it exploits the labor of the doctors involved, the isolated and poor communities where they serve have been very appreciative of the program.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Colombia’s Santos Talks Drugs at Davos

Remarks by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on drug policy reform at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland yesterday have generated a flurry of media attention. But while Santos spoke about a potential turning point in drug policy on the international stage, his administration is also facing a unique political opening for drug reform in the ongoing peace talks with FARC rebels.  

Santos spoke at a panel on drug decriminalization featuring Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Texas Governor Rick Perry. While the first two have openly called for ending the criminalization of drugs before, Perry raised eyebrows by touting his promotion of drug courts in the state as a path towards decriminalization. A spokeswoman for the governor confirmed this to the San Antonio Express-News, though she stressed that Perry was opposed to outright legalization.

As El Tiempo reports, Santos framed his support for alternative drug policies not only as a security strategy, but also as a human rights issue. “How I can tell a campesino from the mountains of Colombia who grows one hectare of marijuana that he could go to jail for that, when in Colorado or Washington state it is legal to smoke it?,” he asked attendees. According to the president, this “contradiction” illustrates the need for a global debate on drugs, though he did not specify any particular policy remedy. El Espectador notes that Santos also repeated past calls to approach drug reform through international consensus, not unilaterally.

CNBC and El Colombiano report that Santos was hopeful that progress on the issue could be made at a number of upcoming forums, including the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna in March and the planned 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs.

An abundance of drug policy reform hype paired with a lack of substance seems to have become a recurring theme at the annual forum in Davos. Last year, for instance, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina made waves by announcing that he would host a summit for world leaders and policy organizations on alternative drug control proposals in Tikal, but the event never happened.

Meanwhile, Santos did not mention the ongoing peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, which are currently centered on the issue of drug trafficking. On Thursday, the rebels closed the latest round of negotiations by presenting another plan to radically alter Colombia’s drug policy. Like previous proposals by the guerrilla group, this statement calls for the state to recognize health and medicinal uses of coca, marijuana and poppy plants, as well as to regulate their cultivation.

Also this week, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, whose government passed a historic marijuana regulation law in December, offered to meet with FARC and President Santos at the CELAC summit in Havana next week. As a former guerrilla turned politician himself, the Uruguayan president seems well qualified to mediate between the two parties, especially on the issue of drug policy reform.

According to Caracol Noticias, Santos said Mujica had so far made no official request to meet with him, though he said it would be possible to talk  on the sidelines of the CELAC conference.

News Briefs
  • Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro has bought himself a few more weeks in office, at least. Yesterday the Administrative Tribunal for Cundinamarca province suspended his removal order, finding that it violated the mayor’s political rights, El Espectador reports. The AFP notes that Petro’s defense lawyer said the Colombian Inspector General’s Office is expected to appeal the decision to a higher court, however.
  • A new poll by Chilean research center CERC shows widespread support for President-elect Michelle Bachelet’s main policy proposals. According to the poll, 80 percent of those surveyed agreed with education reform, 63 percent backed tax reform and 71 percent supported an overhaul of the Chilean constitution. Bachelet, who takes office on March 11, was initially rumored to unveil her cabinet picks yesterday, but the announcement has been postponed to later today. La Tercera has some speculation over her potential choices; according to the paper, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza is rumored to be a top contender for Interior Minister.
  • BBC Mundo looks at the symbolism of the big Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit in Havana next week, noting that it demonstrates Cuba’s success in overcoming regional isolation.
  • The Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Program has released a collection of policy recommendations for U.S. President Barack Obama going into 2014, “Big Bets & Black Swans: A Presidential Briefing Book.” The report contains only two memos pertaining to Latin America, one pertaining to Cuba and the other to Venezuela. The first, by Ted Piccone, urges the president to “double down” on engagement with Cuba and expand trade, travel and communications with the country. The second, by Harold Trinkunas, warns that economic instability in Venezuela could lead to popular violence and ultimately threaten U.S. oil interests. Trinkunas thus recommends that Obama “begin a conversation” with Brazil (whose interests are also at jeopardy) to encourage Venezuela to shift its economic and political policies.
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has released a statement expressing concern over a new law in Peru which guarantees that police officers and soldiers who use their firearms to kill or wound civilians "in compliance with their duty" cannot be prosecuted. The law has generated controversy in the country, with civil society organizations claiming that its potential to further impunity for police abuses amounts to  a “license to kill.” 
  • The New York Times reports on a rare instance of seemingly spontaneous demonstration in Cuba, sparked by a crackdown on vendors selling unlicensed goods at a market in the southeast city of Holguin. In response, dozens of newly self-employed workers reportedly marched to local government offices and demanded the right to work without interference from authorities. A video posted to YouTube lends weight to the reports, although the NYT suggests that the fact that it was posted by a militantly anti-Castro group may cast doubt on the claim that the incident was not organized by dissidents.  
  • With only days left before their current term ends, legislators in Honduras’ outgoing Congress passed a law breaking up the state-controlled electricity company ENEE on Monday. Reuters and El Heraldo report that the move will divide ENEE into three parts in an effort to pursue investment in the electricity sector and bring down costs. RNS of Honduras Culture and Politics has a less positive take, criticizing the law as an abuse of the dominant National Party’s majority before the opposition takes a greater share of seats.
  • As the governments of Chile and Peru ready themselves for a Hague ruling on a decades-long ruling over a maritime border dispute, Reuters reports that both countries have promised to abide by the decision.
  • Just as the Venezuelan government rolls out changes to its currency exchange system, Caracas-based journalist Girish Gupta has an overview of the incredible distortions caused by currency manipulation in the country. As a result of the government’s fixed exchange rate, those with access to U.S. dollars are able to take advantage of the black market rate to reap extraordinary profits, while those without such connections struggle to make ends meet.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Debate on Relocating the Inter-American Commission Falls Flat

A proposal to move the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) out of Washington DC --backed by Ecuador and its allies among the ALBA bloc -- met with a cool response from regional diplomats yesterday, despite arguments that a venue change made more sense and could save millions of dollars in operating costs.

On January 21-22, Uruguay hosted the 3rd Conference of States Parties to the American Convention on Human Rights in Montevideo. Like previous meetings in Guayaquil, Ecuador and Cochabamba,Bolivia, the event brought together representatives of the countries most bound by the Inter-American human rights system, with the goal of discussing potential reforms.

 Unlike the two previous conferences, however, the Montevideo meeting was far less ambitious. Only Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador and Haiti had foreign ministers in attendance, and according to Spanish news agency EFE the Argentine official reportedly left the conference early.

The comparative lack of momentum did not stop Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño from taking up his longstanding calls to reform the Inter-American Commission. Among these, as, El Telegrafo reports, was his continued criticism of the IACHR’s Special Rapporteurship on Freedom of Expression, which Patiño claims is given undue attention at the expense of other rapporteurships. He also attacked the logic of basing the commission in the United States, a country which has never ratified the American Convention.

Uruguay’s Foreign Minister, Luis Almagro, echoed this criticism. On the first day of the conference the two ministers presented a joint report on the costs and benefits of relocating the IACHR outside of Washington. According to a statement by the Uruguayan Foreign Ministry, moving the commission elsewhere could save between 3 and 5 million dollars in operating costs, although no specific alternative locations were proposed.

Ultimately, EFE reports that the conference brought little new to the debate. It concluded with a watered down final statement calling for a “deepening” of the “legal, political, budgetary, regulatory and functional”  aspects of the report presented by Uruguay and Ecuador. The declaration also suggested that states subject to the convention “express their interest in permanently hosting” the IACHR and invited commissioners to hold sessions in these countries.

News Briefs
  • In recent months, Ecuador has gained a reputation for a relatively progressive outlook on drug policy. The country decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs last year, and President Rafael Correa has said that he supports “partial” legalization of marijuana. In October Ecuadorean drug officials signed an agreement with their Uruguayan counterparts to “deepen the debate” on drugs in the hemisphere, and the country earned praise in November for going after inhumane drug treatment centers. Yesterday, however, Correa signaled that drug legalization is not on the table in his country, at least for now. In a press conference, the president said that while he supported Uruguay’s decision to legalize marijuana as a sovereign country, his administration has “a thousand other priorities ahead of this problem.”  At the same time, Correa recognized that the dominant anti-drug strategy until now has been a “complete failure,” and told journalists: “there is no reason to exclude any possibility, including the legalization of some kinds of drugs.”
  • The AP reports on another announcement by Correa yesterday, in which he said that Washington has too many military attaches stationed in his country, adding that he would request that some of them be dismissed. U.S. diplomats consulted by the news agency say they have received no such request, and that any military officials in Ecuador are there with the explicit approval of the host country.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto told reporters yesterday that “in no way” had his government  allowed self-defense militias to grow in Michoacan state, even though -- as the L.A. Times notes -- the groups have grown in number and influence in recent months.
  • After the U.S. Supreme Court denied a motion to stay his execution, Mexican national Edgar Tamayo Arias was executed yesterday evening despite diplomatic pressure from the Mexican government. Tamayo’s attorneys had argued  he had never been properly advised of his right to legal assistance from the Mexican consulate, and that his execution was a violation of international law. An editorial by leading Mexican daily El Universal argues that Tamayo’s death goes against the principle of due process, something that -- ironically -- the United States is working to strengthen in Mexico’s judicial system. The New York Times reports that Secretary of State John Kerry warned Texan officials that the execution would harm the ability of the U.S. to protect its citizens abroad.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez appeared in public for the first time in 40 days yesterday, putting an end to speculation over her absence and criticizing her opponents for spreading rumors about her health, La Nacion and the BBC report.
  • Ahead of his January 27 inauguration, Marguerite Cawley of InSight Crime takes a look at Honduran President-elect Juan Orlando Hernandez and the challenges he will face in reining in crime and corruption in the Central American country. Cawley recently conducted an interview with former security minister and current lawmaker Oscar Alvarez, who is a member of Hernandez’s party, about the incoming president’s security plans, and also has a useful analysis of the top three obstacles to improving citizen security in the country.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales presented his eighth annual report on his administration’s progress to lawmakers yesterday. The president highlighted his government’s policies as a success, especially on the anti-narcotics front. As Telesur reports, Morales noted that the number of police operations more than doubled between 2005 and 2013. He also pointed to the fact that annual cocaine seizures rose from 11 to 22 tons as proof of his administration’s triumph in the war on drugs, even as he has been criticized by U.S. anti-narcotics officials. Additionally, Morales announced plans to build the country's first nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes, telling legislators that the governments of Iran, France and Argentina had offered to assist the project. The president also unveiled the makeup of his new cabinet, which keeps many of the same high-level ministers in place.
  • The Venezuelan government yesterday announced an overhaul of its foreign currency system. According to Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, Venezuelans traveling abroad will no longer be allowed to obtain foreign currency at the official rate of 6.3 bolivars per US dollar. Ramirez said that the move would make it easier for companies to obtain dollars to import essential goods and raw materials, and that further details of a new multi-tier currency system would be announced in the future.
  • The Guardian reports on a law that U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to sign into law this week, which will pressure the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to report on the status of reparations to indigenous Guatemalans affected by the construction of a dam of the country’s Chixoy river in the early 1980s. Both financial institutions supported the project, which was made possible by the displacement of some 3,500 Maya Achi people and murder of 400 others by security forces and paramilitary groups.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Venezuela Blames Hoarders for Newsprint Shortage

The Venezuelan government appears to be dealing with a shortage of newsprint in much the same way that it has dealt with food and basic good shortages: by accusing businesses of hoarding products in order to create scarcity.

Venezuelan print media are facing a historic shortage of newsprint, which has forced a number of papers in the country to drop circulation and scale back their content.  According to the Associated Press, the editors of the country’s two largest papers -- El Nacional and El Universal -- say they have only enough paper reserves to continue publishing for the next month and six weeks, respectively

Because the country does not produce newsprint, most of it is purchased from Canada and the United States by import companies or the newspapers themselves. However, strict currency controls mean that obtaining dollars from the state to buy that paper can take months. Print media, especially the opposition-aligned El Nacional and El Universal, have claimed that this is evidence of a conscious attempt by authorities to stifle criticism of the government.

The situation newsprint has earned the government criticism from local and international human rights and press freedom groups, as well as the IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.

Instead of responding with a solution to expedite the purchase of newsprint, however, the Venezuelan government has blamed the shortage on opportunistic hoarders. In a statement yesterday, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello announced that authorities had found 13,700 spools of newsprint laying untouched in a warehouse in the port city of La Guaira. “Who is buying this? Who brought it and why haven’t they taken it out of the port?” Cabello asked, insinuating that the private newspapers have been exaggerating the shortage for political benefit.

El Nacional, for its part, has denied purchasing the newsprint, insisting that it has not been allowed to acquire dollars from the government to buy paper since May 2013.

News Briefs
  • Noting a spate of recent attacks on businesses in Mexican states around Michoacan, the L.A. Times questions whether the federal government’s crackdown on the Knights Templar cartel there may have spread, in the latest manifestation of the so-called “cockroach effect.”
  • Animal Politico has a map detailing the presence of “self-defense” militias and Knights Templar affiliates in Michoacan, allegedly obtained from the vigilante groups. It suggests that militiamen have succeeded in establishing themselves in a west-east line across the state, cutting across Templar areas of influence in the south and north.
  • According to Colombia’s left-wing Marcha Patriotica, 29 of the rural campesino movement’s leaders have been killed in the country since it was founded in 2012, 12 of whom were allegedly killed by security forces. Colombian ex-Senator Piedad Cordoba, one of the movement’s most visible leaders, told journalists that some of its members were considering disbanding in the face of the violence, El Heraldo reports.
  • In an incisive column for El Espectador, Colombian legal scholar Cesar Rodriguez Garavito argues that the conflict over the removal of Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro has given birth to new polarizing discourse in the country, one which challenges the legitimacy of the Colombian constitution. Rodriguez notes that Petro’s recent call for a constitutional assembly is eerily similar to demands to revise the constitution by Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez and other powerful conservatives. To him, this paves the way for “institutional sabotage” in Colombian politics, by which political minorities are able to set the agenda by effectively holding the entire system hostage.
  • Writing for the Financial Times, Havana-based journalist John Paul Rathbone claims that Cuba under Raul Castro has seen an impressive increase in political debate, which he chalks up to the lifting of a “state of fear” on the island. But while dissent is becoming less taboo, certain limits on criticism of the government remain. As Rathbone puts it, “Most Cubans want to be critical – but also keep their day job.”
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales is gearing up for a cabinet shakeup as he enters the final year of his second term in office, with all 20 of his cabinet ministers presenting letters of resignation to the president for his approval. La Razon reports that the president is unlikely to accept the resignation of his core team of eight ministers, which includes Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca and Economic Minister Luis Arce.
  • Following a Haitian judge’s recommendation that nine people -- including a former senator belonging to ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s political party -- be arrested for links to the 2000 murder of radio commentator Jean Leopold Dominique, an appellate court has yet to accept the findings.  The AP reports that the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has published a statement urging authorities to bring those responsible for the killing to justice.
  • In line with earlier remarks placing partial blame for the country’s insecurity on the media, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called for the construction of a “new telecommunications culture” yesterday, El Universal reports. Speaking at the swearing-in ceremony for his newly readjusted cabinet, the president said he would take advantage of the special decree powers granted to him by the National Assembly to pass tighter regulation on broadcast content.
  • Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles has welcomed Maduro’s willingness to dialogue with his political foes about insecurity in the country, demonstrated by the handshake the two shared at a recent meeting on violence convened by the president. Still, Capriles told Reuters that he remains wary of Maduro’s motives, saying: “time will tell if this was for TV, just a photo opportunity, or if there really is an intent to unite the country and win the war on violence.”
  • In an interview with state-owned newspaper El Telegrafo, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has promised that he will not run for re-election when his term ends in 2017. “It is great harm for a person to be so essential that the Constitution may be changed to affect the game,” the president told the paper. The AP notes that the remark comes after Correa signaled in late 2013 that he was in favor of holding a referendum on amending the constitution to allow indefinite re-election