(Note: The daily news briefings will return after a brief hiatus on Thursday, March 6)
When the convoy transporting Aida Avella, the presidential candidate of Colombia’s left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) party, came under attack on Sunday in the northeastern province of Arauca, many suspected that the attackers had been right-wing paramilitaries. After all, the UP has a history of being targeted by paramilitary organizations, and the systematic assassination of thousands of UP members in the 1980s and '90s has been labelled a “political genocide” by some.
The aftermath of Sunday’s incident saw a flurry of press reports about repeated threats against Colombia’s democratic left by right-wing armed groups, most of which (see Reuters, the AFP, Semana) highlighted the issue as a potential threat to the country’s peace process and the long-term prospects of post-conflict reconciliation. Avella herself blamed the attack on the same paramilitaries that led her to flee Colombia in 1996 following a failed assassination attempt.
Yesterday, however, the leadership of the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) released a communique accepting responsibility for the attack, despite a previous statement (which has since been removed from the ELN website) denying government allegations of its involvement. The rebels said they had attempted to stop the caravan to confirm the identity of its passengers, when Avella’s bodyguards opened fire, leading them to fire back “to protect themselves.” Nevertheless, the ELN commanders apologized to the UP candidate and said they would take “necessary precautions to ensure that this does not happen again.”
The fact that the ELN was responsible is significant for two reasons. First, it illustrates the fact that guerrilla groups can pose just as much a threat to the left’s political participation as paramilitaries. This is an important counterpoint to the long-standing argument used by FARC rebels that it is too dangerous to run for office, and that the armed struggle is the only path to power available for leftists in Colombia.
Secondly, the ELN’s involvement provides yet another obstacle to its involvement in peace negotiations with the government. Firing at the convoy of a presidential candidate is hardly a sign of good faith, and clashes with the group’s stated interest in joining the talks underway in Havana. Of course, as an International Crisis Group report published this week notes, the ELN’s participation in talks has also been jeopardized by its reluctance to consider any unilateral gesture -- like renouncing kidnappings, for instance -- as a precondition.
The fact that the ELN was behind the attack does not negate the vulnerability of left-wing political movements in the country, however. The Patriotic March, a campesino movement which emerged in 2012, has seen 29 of its members killed since its founding, according to ex-Senator Piedad Cordoba, one of its most visible leaders. Earlier this year the movement made headlines for reportedly considering disbanding as a result of the threats faced by its members, but the leadership has since dropped the idea.
- Guatemala’s Constitutional Court heard final arguments on Wednesday in the case over whether Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz should be allowed to serve out a four-year term, or whether it should expires in May (as the court has previously indicated). El Periodico reports that Paz y Paz herself took the stand to make the case for a full term, arguing that disputing whether or not the constitutional language laying out a four-year term for her office should be applied “directly impacts the independence of judicial institutions.” Meanwhile, the paper reports that the committee tasked with naming the new top prosecutor in the country is considering six individuals for the job, including Paz y Paz, although whether or not she would accept the position is unclear.
- The U.S. Department of State released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices yesterday, with its findings making headlines in outlets across the region. Highlights of the reports in today’s press include the Mexican government’s failure to account for victims of disappearances, discrimination against Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic, persistent corruption and impunity in Guatemala, and attacks on freedom of the press in Ecuador and Venezuela.
- Despite forecasts by some analysts who predicted that the beginning of a week-long holiday in Venezuela yesterday would take the wind out of the sails of protests there, the opposition remains persistent. Roadblocks and demonstrations continued in cities across the country yesterday, and the AP reports that the unrest has begun to take a toll on many residents, who see the roadblocks as “just another irritation” on top of rising inflation, food shortages and citizen insecurity. Just as with the death toll (Maduro recently put this as high as 50, though other officials say 13 have been killed), there have been contradicting reports on the number of those detained. Prosecutors say 55 have been placed in custody in relation to the protests, while non-governmental Venezuelan Penal Forum says 609 individuals have been detained by police and the military, of which only 156 had been accounted for.
- Following a Supreme Court ruling earlier this month, Bolivia has become the latest Latin American nation to ease its abortion laws. On February 13, the country’s constitutional court issued a long-awaited ruling finding that women seeking abortions in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk do not need permission from a judge to perform the procedures. The move has been hailed by reproductive rights groups as an important step forward, and La Razon reports that the Bolivian government is working on regulation to implement the ruling.
- Reuters reports on the after-effects of Argentina’s recent devaluation, which has worsened the country’s inflation rate and left many of its poorest citizens struggling to afford rent and basic goods.
- In a series on the U.S.’s 25 most “awkward allies,” Politico Magazine features a damning profile of the government of Honduras, noting the “Thugocracy’s” deeply entrenched corruption as well as its history of targeting the opposition in recent years. After highlighting the continued U.S. relationship with Honduran police despite the shady record of its national police director ,author Dana Frank argues that recently-elected President Juan Orlando Hernandez has a history of undercutting the rule of law which will likely continue in his administration.
- Cuban intelligence agent Fernando Gonzalez has become the second of the “Cuban Five” to be released from a U.S. prison after serving his sentence. Gonzalez was freed from an Arizona prison yesterday, and is expected to be deported to the U.S. in the coming days.
- The Miami Herald is the latest to look at criticism of the Rio de Janeiro government’s handling of preparations for this year’s world cup and the 2016 Olympics. While local officials insist that the households displaced by construction projects linked to these events are resettled with state assistance, affected individuals and human rights groups claim that they are often relocated to areas prohibitively far from the city center, where many work.
- On the heels of Haitian President Michel Martelly’s recent visit with President Barack Obama and other leading U.S. politicians, today’s Washington Post features an op-ed on his government’s failure to hold parliamentary or local elections since he took office. The paper places partial blame for this on the “gamesmanship” of the opposition, and urges the U.S. to promote their continued dialogue to resolve the issue.
- The newly appointed head of Uruguay’s army, Juan Villagran, is catching flak from human rights groups over recent comments about forced disappearances during the country’s military dictatorship. Upon taking office, Villagran claimed that the military had already presented all of the available information regarding disappearances, noting that it had no reason to hide anything anymore as “96 percent of the Uruguayan army had joined after [the restoration of democracy in] 1985.” In a separate interview with El Pais, Villagran said he believed the army had “overcome” its legacy of abuses and that it was time to “turn the page and look to the future.”