Monday, February 10, 2014

Colombia’s Santos Shifts Tone on Peace Talks Surveillance

After Semana magazine first reported that Colombian military intelligence was spying on the communications of government negotiators in peace talks with FARC rebels, President Juan Manuel Santos appeared angered by the news. The president called the operation “totally unacceptable,” and called for an immediate investigation. Two generals, army intelligence chief Mauricio Ricardo Zuñiga and cyber intelligence head Jorge Zuluaga, were relieved from duty as a result of the revelations.

After his initial outrage, however, Santos has changed his tone. As El Colombiano reports, a day after denouncing the operation the president clarified that the electronic surveillance outpost used in it was completely legal. Though he admitted that federal prosecutors had seized the computers used to intercept communications, he chalked this up to miscommunication within the government. He said that the results of an internal investigation into the matter are still pending, but stressed the importance of the army’s ability to legally conduct intelligence.

This shift has been criticized by the FARC delegation to the peace talks. In a statement released Saturday, lead rebel negotiator Ivan Marquez blasted the government for “flipping its assessment overnight, like a wind vane.” Marquez also blamed the operation on former President Alvaro Uribe, who has been a consistent critic of the peace process.

Semana, for its part, has not been dissuaded by Santos’ apparent about-face. Alejandro Santos, director of the magazine (and coincidentally the president’s nephew) insists that he has proof that illegal wiretapping was used in the operation. The magazine has also drawn parallels to the previous wiretapping scandal in the country, in which intelligence officers tracked the communications of members of the Supreme Court, noting that the government attempted to downplay the significance of those operations as well.

News Briefs
  • On Friday, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court denied an appeal filed by Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, which asked the court to reconsider its ruling shortening her term by seven months. Plaza Publica has an overview of the legal arguments presented by the prosecutor, which challenged the constitutional basis of the argument that she was chosen to fill out the remaining four-year term of her predecessor, who was appointed in May 2010 but replaced by her in December. Prensa Libre reports that the following day Paz y Paz filed a petition requesting that the court “widen and amplify” its decision. Congress, meanwhile, is set to vote today on a second attempt to convene the committee to nominate her replacement.
  • Interestingly, Paz y Paz is not the only Guatemalan judicial analyst to find fault with the basis of her shortened term. El Faro features an article by former Plaza Publica journalist Martín Rodriguez Pellecer, who notes that separate reports were submitted internally to the country’s Supreme Court last year, which agreed that the prosecutor’s term expired in December. Not only were these reports never released to the public, but Rodriguez notes that the authors of both were dismissed by the provisional head of the court.
  • It looks as though Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s plan to promote development in the troubled state of Michoacan, which he unveiled last week as part of a pledge to send $3.4 billion in social and infrastructure programs, is less groundbreaking than first presented. Animal Politico reports that the aid program is made up of funds that were already allocated in the federal budget for 2014.
  • Writing for Roads and Kingdoms, journalist Ioan Grillo offers an excellent snapshot of the lawlessness in Michoacan and the problems of its so-called “self-defense” militias. Grillo profiles one militia member, “Manuel,” who spent most of his life in Portland, Oregon before being deported and ending up working for the local drug gang, the Knights Templar Cartel. Though “Manuel” has switched sides to battle the cartel, locals worry that ties like this could spell trouble for them in the future.
  • The AP provides an indicator of Brazil’s increasingly robust economy, noting that while Argentina is plagued by a surge of inflation and devalued currency, its ability to inflict damage on Brazil is limited compared to a decade ago.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the newsprint shortage in Venezuela, noting that a number of local papers accuse the government of intentionally targeting newspapers by restricting their access to dollars to buy paper. Other analysts disagree, however, and say the while the government is not explicitly facilitating their access to newsprint, neither does it appear to be intentionally hampering it.
  • Rebecca Hanson and David Smilde have some good news for the future of citizen security in Venezuela. Despite recent measures which seem to indicate President Nicolas Maduro’s support for concentrating law enforcement duties in military hands, other developments show that the future for security reform is not completely hopeless. As examples, the authors point to a new police patrol plan in Caracas, the creation of citizen oversight committees for the police, and the continued discussion of a ban on carrying weapons in the country.
  • Bucking the trend against the positive reporting on the ongoing economic reforms in Cuba being promoted by President Raul Castro, the Miami Herald profiles a critical view of them by economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, touted by the paper as “the leading expert on the Cuban economy.” According to Mesa-Lago, recent government data shows a massive drop in social spending, leading to an increasing poverty rate that he estimates at around 26 percent.
  • Haitian President Michel Martelly met with U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time last Thursday.  The Miami Herald notes that Obama referenced the Haitian government’s slow progress on holding long overdue elections, but said he was pleased with Martelly’s efforts to negotiate an agreement to hold elections this year. Martelly also met with Secretary of State John Kerry and influential lawmakers like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who said the Haitian leader took her concerns very seriously although he may have been “blowing smoke.” In an interview with Voice of America during his visit, Martelly called on the U.S. to change the way it provides aid to his country, saying more should be channeled through government institutions instead of NGOs.
  • The 8th Summit of the 8th Summit of the Pacific Alliance trade bloc kicked off in Cartagena, Colombia yesterday as trade and foreign ministers from Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru met to finalize the details of an agreement which will further economic integration in the bloc. El Tiempo calls the treaty a “milestone” which will significantly reduce trade barriers between member countries.  Latin America analyst James Bosworth has a decidedly cautious forecast for the future of the Pacific Alliance. As he points out, all of the current heads of state of member countries have public opinion problems at home, and lack the mandate to pursue free market reforms, at least in the short term.