Monday, March 31, 2014

Will Venezuela's Opposition Support Dialogue?

The Vatican has expressed interest in facilitating dialogue in deeply-polarized Venezuela, following a suggestion made last week by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

On Thursday, Maduro backed a recommendation made by the visiting UNASUR delegation last week that his government engage in mediated talks with the opposition through a “good faith witness.” The president suggested Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the former ambassador of the Holy See to the country.

It seems that Parolin is interested, although the Vatican is still holding back until a more concrete proposal is made. From the AP:
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Friday the Holy See and Parolin were “certainly willing and desirous to do whatever is possible for the good and serenity of the country.” He said Parolin, in particular, “knows and loves” Venezuela. 
But he said the Vatican needed to have more information to understand “the expectations and the premise for undertaking a useful role that could achieve the desired outcome.” Such a study, he said, was underway.
Beyond the Vatican’s interest, however, there are questions about the Venezuelan opposition’s commitment to dialogue. While Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) Secretary General Ramon Guillermo Aveledo has voiced his thanks for the Vatican’s offer, the MUD is far from a monolithic coalition. There continues to be a wide gap between those of the coalition who, like the imprisoned Leopoldo Lopez and recently-impeached Maria Corina Machado, are calling for Maduro’s resignation, and those like Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, who advocate a more long-term moderate approach based on winning support of Venezuela’s lower classes.

Even though there is ample evidence to suggest that the so-called “street strategy” adopted by Lopez his allies has -- at least in the short term -- only served to rally the Chavista base around Maduro, this gap in rhetoric appears likely to continue. In a Saturday interview with El Pais, Machado stressed that dialogue should “lead to a democratic transition,” and repeated demands for the government to release imprisoned members of the opposition before talks could begin.

In addition to the MUD’s own internal divisions, the coalition does not necessarily represent those who have been participating in the recent wave of protests. The student movement has its own agenda and grievances, and its leaders will have to be taken into account in any legitimate dialogue.

News Briefs
  • As Uruguay’s government prepares to release the specific regulations of its marijuana law in early April, last week officials announced the creation of an expert panel tasked with monitoring and evaluating the law’s impact, El Pais reports.  Meanwhile, the AP has more details on how the government intends to monitor legally-produced cannabis, according to National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada. As the wire service notes, a proposed genetic tracing plan is a “much tougher tracking system than those imposed in Colorado and Washington.”
  • While Brazil has been an important ally of the Venezuelan government in recent years, Reuters highlights some subtle changes to President Dilma Rousseff’s approach to Venezuela in recent years, which insiders say has included efforts to promote more pragmatic policies and dialogue with the opposition.
  • In the latest phase of Rio de Janeiro’s “pacification” efforts, some 1,400 Brazilian police and marines were deployed to the Rio complex of Mare early Sunday morning. The military has assumed responsibility for security in the neighborhood, and is expected to pass it off to a Police Pacifying Unit (UPP) in the second half of this year. While the AP reports that no shots were fired during the operation, according to O Estado one local teenager died Sunday evening in an apparent shootout between rival gangs in the area. O Globo has photos of the operation, and notes authorities have sent in municipal cleaning crews to clear Mare of litter, in line with the overall goal of using pacification programs to improve public services.
  • Today marks the 50th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew Brazilian President João Goulart in 1964, but as the Washington Post report, the incident and subsequent abuses of the military regime remain fresh in the minds of many Brazilians. A new poll published by Datafolha suggests that some 46 percent of the population support the annulment of Brazil’s 1979 amnesty law, while just 37 percent are against it and 17 percent are undecided. The poll also found that support for the punishment of dictatorship-era abuses has increased to 46 percent, up from 40 percent in 2010. The same poll, however, found that 68 percent of Brazilians think there is more corruption in the country today than under the military regime.
  • As expected, yesterday Cuba’s largely rubber-stamp National Assembly approved a law aimed at paving the way for more foreign investment on the island. As the BBC reports, the new law will cut taxes on profits from 30 to 15 percent, and investors an eight-year exemption period from paying taxes.
  • Leaders of El Salvador’s Catholic Church have come out against the government-facilitated truce between two rival gangs in the country, La Prensa Grafica and EFE report. In a press conference yesterday, San Salvador Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar said the truce was “a well-intentioned effort, but did not work,” and called on the incoming administration of President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren to adopt a new strategy to address gang violence.
  • The latest round of talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels came to a close on Sunday with both sides hailing progress made on drugs and drug trafficking, the current issue on the table. In remarks to the press, the government negotiating team also issued its first reaction to a FARC proposal to create a truth commission charged with looking into abuses committed by all sides during the country’s armed conflict. Top official negotiator Humberto de la Calle said the government welcomed the suggestion, but that such a commission would only be established after a peace deal was reached.
  • Mexican migration officials announced Sunday that some 370 migrant children were apprehended by migration authorities in 14 states across the country last week, after apparently being abandoned by traffickers paid to smuggle them across the U.S. border. The operation may reveal a developing trend. According to one migrant rights activist consulted by the AP, more and more minors have been making the trip north.
  • Ahead of the May deadline for Mexican lawmakers to select seven new commissioners to the country’s much-lauded transparency agency, the Institute of Access to Information and Protection of Data (IFAI), El Universal reports that some 158 applicants have submitted their names for consideration. The paper profiles 24 of the most eligible candidates, a list which includes academics, transparency advocates and politicians. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

UNASUR Proposes Mediated Talks in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has accepted a proposal made by the visiting Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) delegation to engage in facilitated talks with the opposition, marking a significant breakthrough in the country’s political crisis.

Yesterday, the UNASUR foreign ministers’ delegation released a statement on its two-day visit to Venezuela. The wording is rather vague -- it mostly lists the various actors who spoke with the ministers and notes the interest of all sides in peaceful dialogue -- and does not include a list of specific recommendations made to the Venezuelan government. Instead, the press release praises Maduro’s willingness to embrace mediated talks through a “good faith witness.”

The delegation did not say who would appoint this third party, but remarks to the press by Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca and other diplomatic sources have suggested that the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador would take the lead in UNASUR’s future promotion of talks. As El Tiempo reports, Colombian President Juan Manuel appeared to confirm this yesterday, announcing that “a group of three foreign ministers of three countries was created to finalize conditions for dialogue.”

In the wake of the UNASUR visit, Maduro has been vocal in his support for the delegation. In a national address yesterday, the president said he welcomed the call for a neutral international arbiter. El Nacional and the Associated Press note that Maduro even suggested that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state who until recently was the Holy See's ambassador to the country, could fulfill this role. The president also said he would tone down his rhetoric, promising to cease referring to the opposition as “Chuckies,” a reference to the murderous doll films.

Earlier in the day, Vice President Jorge Arreaza announced that the country would create a new human rights office under the executive branch. Arreaza claimed this was one of UNASUR’s recommendations (he said it was put forward by Colombia’s Maria Angela Holguin), but again, as specific recommendations have not been publicized it is unclear how much of the proposal is the government’s own initiative.

While Maduro is on board the UNASUR-sponsored dialogue proposition, its degree of support among the opposition is unclear. Secretary General of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, has been open to dialogue but stressed the importance of a neutral mediator agreed upon by both sides. Other sectors of the MUD, however, have been openly hostile to UNASUR involvement. Yesterday, six smaller member parties publicly criticized Aveledo for meeting with the UNASUR delegates. One opposition lawmaker, Carlos Berrizbeitia, told El Nacional that the coalition had rejected UNASUR as a credible mediator, although this does not appear to be the MUD’s official stance.

Venezuelan civil society is also divided over UNASUR mediation. While members of the Venezuelan Penal Forum (FPV) described their meeting with the delegation this week as positive overall, FPV Director Alfredo Romero said the body was not ideal for settling human rights cases. “A foreign minister cannot resolve violations of constitutional rights…a court can,” Romero said to Ultimas Noticias. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan Program of Education and Action on Human Rights (PROVEA) has welcomed international mediation, with PROVEA’s Rafael Uzcategui calling the UNASUR visit “a message of the need for a third party for productive dialogue, as the government of Nicolas Maduro has not been able to create conditions for it to be effective.”

News Briefs
  • While the ongoing drought in the southeast of Brazil has fueled speculation (see the Wall Street Journal) that it could hurt President Dilma Rousseff’s re-election prospects in October, a new poll shows that her popularity has fallen in recent months. The CNI/Ibope survey released yesterday shows that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s personal approval rating fell to 51 percent from 56 percent in November, and support for her administration has dropped to 36 percent from 43 percent in the same period. Even still, Reuters notes that she remains the clear frontrunner in the presidential race.
  • Locals in the central Bolivian city of Yapacani organized demonstrations yesterday to protest against the construction of a military base that officials say will be used to fight drug trafficking in the area. The BBC reports that residents fear it would lead to increased violence and conflicts with security forces. The government has announced that it will go through with the construction of the base regardless of the protests, a move that El Deber notes could cost President Evo Morales support for his MAS party in October’s general elections.
  • After Uruguay made headlines last week for apparently considering an offer to accept former Guantanamo detainees from the U.S., Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin announced yesterday that President Juan Manuel Santos had received a similar request, though she said the government has not fully analyzed it, Semana reports.
  • In the latest story to highlight the murky makeup of Mexico’s “self-defense” groups, yesterday the Mexican Attorney General announced the arrest of 11 individuals suspected of being criminals posing as vigilantes, who were charged with the illegal possession of firearms. Considering that a number of high-profile vigilante leaders have been found to have criminal records and shady connections of their own, it is unclear how exactly investigators determined these suspects were “fake” militiamen.
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is slated to hold two hearings on human rights cases in Ecuador today, one of which involves freedom of speech and another on the right to associate, which civil society groups say is threatened by the forced closure of the Pachamama Foundation -- an environmental NGO --in December. However, the government of Ecuador has announced that it will not participate in the hearings, with Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño saying the state refused to “put on a political show” for the IACHR. In a press conference yesterday, Patiño also accused the commission of being “a politicized institution which seeks to persecute democratic governments that do not follow certain guidelines,” the AP reports.
  • Today’s New York Times features a follow-up of its recent feature on Ecuador’s Isaias brothers, two wealthy business magnates who have fled to Miami after the Correa government accused them of corruption. According to the NYT, the Department of Homeland Security is currently investigating money laundering charges against the two, who have made contributions to a number of political campaigns in the U.S. in an alleged attempt to avoid extradition.
  • Guatemala’s Constitutional Court held a hearing on Wednesday on the ongoing case against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, in which the prosecution argued that the judge who ordered the annulment of Rios Montt’s historic guilty verdict a year ago lacked the proper standing to do so, Siglo21 reports. If the Court stands by the annulment, it will bring the trial back to where it was in 2011, invalidating the testimony of dozens of victims.
  • Yesterday newly-inaugurated Chilean President Michelle Bachelet signed a bill into law which creates a new Ministry of Women and Gender Equality, a fitting move for the former head of UN Women. As La Tercera reports, the law fulfills a campaign promise and allows Bachelet to check off one of the 50 measures she plans to carry out in her first 100 days in office.
  • Bachelet’s government has also made headlines for her approach to drug policy. Earlier this month, the country’s Miinstry of Health and drug control agency suggested removing marijuana from its list of banned substances, which would pave the way for the drug’s legal medicinal use. On Wednesday, a survey released by pollster CADEM showed that some 78 percent of Chileans support medicinal use of cannabis.
  • In the wake of Paraguay’s historic general strike on Wednesday, which stopped most transportation services and forced the closure of schools and businesses across the country, EFE reports that President Horacio Cartes has announced the creation of a dialogue commission with the country’s main union centers. The AP gives some background on the strike, noting that it was triggered by the ruling Colorado Party’s passage of a controversial privatization measure.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

With Election Settled, El Salvador Begins to Shift to Politics as Usual

El Salvador’s election dispute has finally ended and the FMLN’s Salvador Sanchez Ceren is officially the president-elect. The institutional response to the conflict has demonstrated the strength of El Salvador’s democracy, and the fever pitch of the polarized campaign is beginning to die down.

Yesterday, the Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court rejected a petition by the opposition ARENA party calling for a full, “ballot-by-ballot” recount of the March 9 election. The ruling, which supported previous decisions by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), was a close one. As La Prensa Grafica reports, the judges were split 3-2 against ARENA’s petition.

The decision came one day after the TSE officially declared Sanchez Ceren the country’s president-elect, denying a motion to annul the elections filed by ARENA on the basis of alleged irregularities.

Unlike the opposition party’s repeated attacks on the electoral authority (ARENA candidate Norman Quijano accused the TSE of covering up fraud), yesterday its leadership announced it would respect the Constitutional Court ruling. In a brief statement, ARENA promised to act as a “democratic, serious, intelligent and honest opposition,” a far cry from Quijano’s overtures to the military in the immediate aftermath of the close vote.

 The party’s comparisons of the FMLN to Venezuela’s Chavistas, which has whipped up its base, will likely make meaningful cooperation with the government difficult. Nevertheless, ARENA President Jorge Velado appeared to take a first step towards this yesterday, saying: “If we have to sit with the FMLN and its illegitimate government, we will do so."

For his part, Sanchez Ceren appears to be actively seeking to build bridges across political lines.  After receiving his formal accreditation from the TSE, the president-elect directly addressed the opposition and invited them to engage in policy debates, saying: “You are necessary to political pluralism in the country, you are necessary to build democracy. The various political forces are needed to work together towards the social and economic development of the country.”

Sanchez Ceren has also attempted to assuage fears of a sharp turn to the left in his presidency, and has approached the major private business associations in the country about creating a basis for dialogue and cooperation.

Yet even still, others in the FMLN likely harbor some resentment over the ARENA’s dirty campaign. As La Pagina reports, Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo told reporters this week that investigators had identified a self-professed prison employee who supported ARENA claims that inmates were released from behind bars and taken to polling stations to vote for the FMLN candidate. According to Perdomo, the man works for ARENA legislators, and may have fled the country. The minister called on the Attorney General to investigate the case, and accused ARENA of knowingly spreading false accusations.

News Briefs
  • The UNASUR delegation in Venezuela continued to meet with pro-government and opposition sectors yesterday.  In addition to speaking with student leaders, the delegates met with civil society actors like the director of the Venezuela Penal Forum, which presented evidence of 59 acts of torture committed by police against demonstrators, El Nacional reports. Meanwhile, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua has said that the delegation presented “a series of recommendations” to President Nicolas Maduro at the end of the visit yesterday, which were "fully welcomed" by the president. These will reportedly be presented to the public later today.
  • Opposition Venezuelan Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, a prominent opposition figure who has been speaking out against the Maduro government from abroad over the past several days, returned to Caracas from Peru yesterday. As La Republica reports, Machado returned accompanied by three opposition Peruvian lawmakers. Machado is currently facing charges of inciting violence, and was recently stripped of her seat for briefly joining the Panamanian OAS delegation to speak out against Maduro.
  • The Miami Herald reports on a bill being prepared in Cuba which will pave the way for new foreign investment there. According to the paper, the law will allow Cubans living abroad to invest in joint ventures with the government, even as the embargo prohibits U.S. residents from investing in the island.
  • InSight Crime recently published an interesting post by drug control policy and Bolivia analyst Thomas Grisaffi, who takes on popular characterizations of Bolivia’s approach to coca cultivation as giving rise to a booming criminal underworld. Grisaffi moves beyond the politics of the issue, looking at the economics involved in coca production and the available profit margins to argue that cocalero unions actually have a strong incentive to stick to licit production of the crop.
  • While no one was killed in a blaze that swept through Guatemala City’s main market, La Terminal, on Tuesday, at least 12 were injured in the fire, La Prensa Libre reports. Guatemalan news site Plaza Publica has a closer look on the fire, which mentions rumors that it was started by city officials who had long been looking for reasons to displace local vendors.
  • Colombia is no longer the only country in the hemisphere to ignore a request to take precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. On Monday, the IACHR issued a request that Ecuador take steps to safeguard the rights of three individuals accused of slander. In response, President Rafael Correa has loudly rejected the request, rejecting the IACHR’s authority to issue it and calling the move “yet another step towards discrediting the [Inter-American human rights] system.”
  • Over at Honduras Culture and Politics, Russell Sheptak profiles an unusual bit of maneuvering by the Honduran Supreme Court, which was packed with National Party members while President Juan Orlando Hernandez was head of Congress. As proof that this has politicized the country’s already shaky judiciary, Sheptak points to a Supreme Court ruling this week over a mayoral election dispute, in which the court majority merely declared the National candidate the winner, ignoring electoral authorities.
  • In a Monday briefing to the UN Security Council, UN Haiti envoy Sandra Honore said that Haiti remains the country with “highest number of cholera cases in the world,” even as progress is being made against the epidemic. The news is unlikely to change the international organization’s position that it has legal immunity from prosecution over the likely introduction of the disease from Nepalese peacekeepers.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the record drought in southeastern Brazil, which has sparked conflict between the governors of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo states. With water reserves dwindling, the paper notes that the shortage and associated power rationing could pose a serious threat to President Dilma Rousseff’s election prospects ahead of the October vote.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

UNASUR Delegation Meets Venezuelan Opposition

The visit of UNASUR foreign ministers to Caracas provides an opportunity for the regional organization to promote dialogue in Venezuela’s polarized political climate, potentially proving itself to be a more credible and effective arbiter  in the country than the OAS.  

Yesterday, the delegation began its two-day country visit to Venezuela, in accordance with a recent agreement made in Santiago, Chile. According to the text of the March 12 statement, the foreign ministers of UNASUR member states are there to “accompany, support and advise” the Venezuelan government’s efforts to promote dialogue with opposition sectors, along with President Nicolas Maduro’s “national peace conference.”

But with this goal in mind, the visit got off to a bad start yesterday. The delegation’s preliminary agenda -- set by the government of Suriname, the current UNASUR president pro tempore -- excluded several major opposition groups, like the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). This was challenged yesterday by the foreign ministers of Colombia and Paraguay, who called on Suriname to broaden the schedule of their 48-hour visit to include the MUD and other opposition voices in the country.

It appears this request was granted, as after the delegates met with Maduro, religious leaders, and members of the government-sponsored peace conference, El Universal reports that they met with MUD leaders in the Meliá Caracas hotel yesterday evening. The issues discussed reportedly included the recent ouster of opposition mayors and the move to strip lawmaker Maria Corina Machado of her seat. The meeting lasted over three hours, after which MUD Secretary  Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told journalists that the opposition coalition was open to a dialogue with the government and “a third party in good faith,” according to EFE.

Not only was the MUD meeting a valuable step towards tackling Venezuela’s polarization, it also provides some reassurance to the opposition that UNASUR might serve as that objective third party. Prior to the visit, the MUD called this into question, sending a letter to the UNASUR president pro tempore requesting that the regional bloc not be used as a “propaganda tool.”

According to Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, the second half of the delegation’s visit will continue today with meetings with student leaders and ruling party activists.

Once the visit comes to an end today, it is unclear what exactly will follow. The delegation’s mandate is fairly vague, and says nothing about issuing recommendations. It does, however, mention concern for any threat to Venezuela’s “independence and sovereignty,” and considering how prickly Maduro has been with regard to OAS statements on Venezuela, recommendations may be off the table.

Harold Trinkunas, director of the Brookings Institute’s Latin America Initiative, argues that the delegation should adopt a wide interpretation of its mandate, as doing otherwise would weaken UNASUR’s credibility and potential to address future conflicts in the region. As he suggests, this might include widening the current dialogues, or even creating a new forum which would include those opposition sectors not currently participating in the peace conference (a move which the MUD’s Aveledo now seems to favor).

News Briefs
  • As Folha de São Paulo reports, Brazil’s lower house has approved the country’s long-pending net neutrality bill, the "Marco Civil da Internet." It was passed without major debate, as the the Rousseff administration made concessions on an initial requirement stating that companies which store data from Brazilian users had to do so within the country’s borders. The new version of the bill also allows the president to determine the specifics of “net neutrality” via an executive order.
  • In an opinion piece for CNN Mexico, Lisa Sanchez of Mexico United Against Crime (MUCD) takes on recent allegations by critics of the recent marijuana decriminalization initiative presented in Mexico City that the measure would violate international drug law. As Sanchez notes, the UN Narcotics Convention actually allows states some flexibility in assigning sentencing for drug violations, which would fit well with the text of the Mexico City bill. On Friday, drug policy reform received implicit support from the city’s Human Rights Commission, which called for an end to the stigmatization of drug use in the release of a new report, El Universal reports. However, at the same presentation the head of the DF’s Supreme Court criticized the legislative debate on the bill as “sterile,” saying that drug policy was a purely federal matter.
  • Prensa Libre and the AP report on the trial of Felipe Solano Barrillas, the first Guatemalan ex-guerrilla for a mass killing during the country’s civil war. At a hearing yesterday, the judge heard testimony from other former rebels who said Solano personally ordered the 1988 massacre of 22 villagers of El Aguacate, after locals uncovered an insurgent arms cache in the area.
  • Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes is facing a serious test of his administration: the first general strike in Paraguay since 1994. BBC Mundo notes that the strike comes amid growing concern about inequality in the country, and that Cartes has accused the strike's main organizers of attempting to incite violence, which they deny.
  • This time, it’s finally official: yesterday El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) officially furnished FMLN candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren with the necessary credentials to be legally recognized as the country’s president elect. The move comes after the TSE formally denied ARENA’s request to annul the results of the close second elections. After the news, Sanchez Ceren reportedly held a meeting with the national business council, according to La Prensa Grafica, perhaps an effort to ease concerns of a radical shift to the left in a second FMLN presidency.
  • Today’s New York Times features an in-depth investigation of the financial structures of Mexico’s mighty Sinaloa Cartel, which relies on wealthy businesspeople who frequently operate in plain sight. Dismantling these networks in Mexico, experts say, is made difficult by a lack of both political will and a legal framework in the country.
  • Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez has penned an op-ed for today’s NYT from his cell in a military prison outside Caracas. In it, Lopez claims that he has only called for non-violent, peaceful protests, and repeats the opposition coalition’s demands for demonstrators to be freed and Chavista “colectivos” to be disarmed.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced yesterday that three air force generals had been arrested for allegedly planning out a coup d’état. He did not reveal their names or give details of their plans, but said that they had been reported by younger officers, as the Wall Street Journal reports.
  • The Times also looks at repeated assertions by the anti-government opposition in both Cuba and Venezuela that Cuban officials have a disproportionate influence in the South American country. While little factual evidence has been presented to support these accusations, it has energized the opposition in both countries. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

IACHR Takes Dominican Govt to Task for ‘De-Nationalization’

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights began its 150th session yesterday with hearings on a range of human rights cases in Colombia, Argentina, Peru and elsewhere in the Americas. But perhaps the most dramatic hearings were related to the Dominican Republic’s recent court decision which denied citizenship to thousands of individuals, mostly of Haitian descent.  

The commission heard two cases related to the issue yesterday, one on the situation of Haitian migrant workers and their families in the D.R., and another directly linked to the ruling, on the right to nationality for Dominicans of Haitian descent. Representatives of the Dominican government were present at both hearings, in which they protested against addressing an issue that “had already been sufficiently debated,” according to the Listin Diario.

The D.R. found itself under fire before the hearings even began. On Sunday, airport officials in Santo Domingo prevented Juliana Deguis, a young woman of Haitian descent who was set to testify before the IACHR yesterday from flying to Washington, saying that a special State Department letter granting her entry to the U.S. was not enough to allow her to leave. She did not have a Dominican passport, authorities said, and thus could not exit the country. But as the AP reports, this is something of a Catch-22:  Deguis was unable to apply for a passport because her Dominican birth certificate had been revoked by authorities due to her heritage, leaving her in legal limbo. The refusal to allow Deguis’ departure was condemned by her lawyers, as well by the president of the Dominican National Human Rights Commission, which accused the state of virtual “kidnapping.”

The government was the target of some strong censure from the commission during the hearings yesterday as well, which was reflected in local and regional press coverage. The AFP has a good overview of the petitioners’ remarks on the situation, who characterized their plight as a process of “de-nationalization.”

EFE notes that several IACHR commissioners were especially critical of the Dominican authorities’ “foreigner regularizing plan,” on the grounds that forcing individuals to register as foreigners was a clear violation of their right to nationality.

Ultimately the IACHR’s members lamented that the government did not appear to be following the recommendations made by the commission after a country visit in December, a sign that the case may be passed on to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has binding authority in the Dominican Republic. But as human rights expert Julia Harrington Reddy recently pointed out, the Inter-American Court has already ruled against the D.R. regarding its discriminatory citizenship policies in 2005, which did nothing to prevent the Dominican Constitutional Court’s September ruling.

More IACHR hearings are scheduled throughout the week, including the first-ever thematic hearing on “Drug Policies and Human Rights in the Americas,” to be held this afternoon.

News Briefs
  • Opposition Venezuelan Congresswoman Maria Corina Machado, who appeared before the Organization of American States to speak about the human rights situation in her country on Friday, has been stripped of her seat. According to El Nacional, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello announced the move yesterday, saying that Machado had “accepted a position from the hostile government of Panama as an alternate representative” to the OAS. As the BBC notes, this paves the way for her prosecution for allegedly inciting violent protests. It’s worth pointing out, however, that Machado did in fact participate in the Friday General Assembly after being made a temporary member of the Panamanian delegation, an unusual step, as the Wall Street Journal reports.
  • Oscar Martinez of El Faro’s Sala Negra has published an investigation into the massacre of some 260 Central American migrants in northern Mexico in 2010 and 2011. According to Martinez, interviews with survivors and a local coyote suggest that the killings were part of the Zetas drug gangs’ strategy of muscling into the lucrative migrant-smuggling trade.
  • In the wake of the removal of Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos this morning announced a new government initiative meant to address alleged “crises” in security, health, housing and mobility in the capital city, El Espectador reports. 

  • The increasing professionalization of Haiti’s national police, along with reductions in crime, have led U.N. officials Haiti to consider a scaled-back presence in the country, as outlined in a new report submitted by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. As the Miami Herald reports, however, this finding was tempered yesterday by U.N. delegates’ concern over the country’s shaky judiciary and the lack of concrete progress on elections.
  • The AP looks at the impact that the recent announcement by the U.S. embassy in Caracas that issuance of new tourist visas would be suspended has had on economic elites in the country. The move has caused angst among well-to-do Venezuelans, and the news agency notes that it comes at a time of heightening diplomatic tensions between Washington and Caracas.
  • Today’s  New York Times profiles Venezuela’s recently-unveiled system meant to roll back currency controls, cautioning that it is “not clear if the move would add significantly to inflation by making it more costly to import goods.”
  • While the news wires (AP and Reuters) report that British mining company Anglo American has stopped operations in the Los Bronces copper mine in central Chile due to a conflict between the multinational and local contract workers, La Tercera reports that operations have resumed as normal.
  • Last week, civil society leaders and academics involved in the hemispheric debate on drug policy and citizen security met in Rio de Janeiro as part of the “Citizen Security Dialogues,” hosted by the Rio-based Igarapé Institute. The event served as a platform for these groups and individuals to exchange ideas on best practices for security in the region, and remarks by Brazilian participants on the country’s police pacification efforts especially gained a  significant amount of local and regional press coverage (see: Jornal Dia Dia, El Economista and GlobalTV). The conference came after the Igarapé  Institute’s publication of  took advantage of the event to release a new report: “Changes in the Neighborhood – Reviewing Citizen Security Cooperation in Latin America,” which was expertly outlined by InSight Crime and highlighted by the Economist’s Americas blog yesterday.
  • Security analysts in the region may also be interested in another recently-launched project, a collaboration of Igarapé with the Inter-American Development Bank and InSight Crime. These organizations have announced the first edition of a comprehensive online database of past and current citizen security programs throughout the region, complete with a graphic interface that allows for the comparison of multiple variables. The site’s launch was covered by Spanish news agency EFE, which focused on the database’s apparent finding that two-thirds of the region’s security programs have been focused on just seven countries: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Venezuela Admits “Excesses” in Crackdown

For the first time since protests began last month, yesterday saw some indication that the government of Venezuela is open to self-criticism regarding its heavy handed response to the wave of demonstrations in the country.

In an interview with talk show host and former Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, Attorney General Luisa Ortega acknowledged that there was evidence of police abuse in recent weeks, but maintained that those responsible would be punished.  “On the issue of human rights violations, there have been police excesses, but we are investigating them in the Public Ministry, and today we have 60 investigations for alleged violations of human rights,” Ortega said. As Reuters notes, the attorney general also added that some 15 officials have been arrested so far in connection with abuses.

Some of the reasoning behind Ortega’s conciliatory tone on human rights violations likely has to do with international pressure. The battle between the opposition and government is taking place on an international stage, and both sides are keenly aware that they are being watched. At an OAS session on Friday, the opposition received a significant blow when an attempt by Venezuelan congresswoman Maria Corina Machado to address the body’s General Assembly was struck down by a majority vote. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Panamanian delegation took the unusual step of making Machado a temporary member of its delegation in order to grant her an audience, but a Venezuelan-led measure was passed to restrict the meeting to a closed door session.

This conflict is also playing out in UNASUR. EFE notes that an UNASUR monitoring delegation is expected to arrive in Caracas on Tuesday, and that both Maduro and the opposition MUD coalition have made statements welcoming the visit.

Meanwhile, the government’s efforts to promote reconciliation continue to be regarded with suspicion by the opposition.  On the recommendation of President Nicolas Maduro, last week the Chavista majority in the National Assembly voted to create a legislative “truth commission” charged with investigating violence linked to the protests. However, the opposition refused an offer to occupy four out of nine seats on the committee, claiming that it would only serve to legitimize alleged acts of repression. According to El Pais, the commission’s makeup seemed stacked from the beginning. Of the four opposition slots, one was reportedly reserved for Ricardo Sanchez, an opposition congressman who has been drifting closer to the government in recent months.

News Briefs
  • Following the announcement on Friday that Rio de Janeiro state would enlist the help of federal troops to help with security efforts there ahead of the World Cup, there has been relatively little information given to the public on their specific roles. O Globo reports that the details will be announced after a meeting between Rio Governor Sergio Cabral and Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo.
  • El Pais highlights remarks by Brazilian ambassador to the U.S. Mauro Vieira, who recently said that the administration of President Dilma Rousseff is “in diplomatic talks” with the Obama administration about the possibility of rescheduling another state visit to Washington to make up for the one she canceled in October.
  • The BBC reports that Chilean President Michelle Bachelet faced the first protest of her second administration on Saturday, when over 100,000 people participated in a mostly peaceful march in favor of the creation of a new constitution in the country.
  • The AP highlights the growth of Cuba’s “nouveau riche,” many of whom have benefited from economic reforms to fuel a boom in hip, privately-run bars and clubs on the island.
  • Eric Hershberg, director of American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, has an interesting blog post on the prominence of re-election within ALBA bloc nations. He argues that left-wing presidents in the region have focused too much on extending their own time in office at the expense of nurturing a credible successor, a pattern which ultimately jeopardizes the long-term impact of their political programs.
  • The U.S. embassy in Caracas has announced that it will no longer process first-time tourist visa requests, due to a shortage of staff following the expulsion of consular officers last month.
  • On Friday, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica clarified his recent remarks regarding the news that he is considering accepting five Guantanamo Bay detainees in his country. According to the AFP, in his weekly radio address Mujica admitted that the deal was “far from concluded.” He also said that he would not be accepting the offer for anything material, only requesting that the U.S. free the remaining three imprisoned members of the Cuban Five.
  • With disapproval of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala at its highest point since he took office (76 percent, according to a recent GFK poll), the president has significantly scaled back on public appearances with deeply unpopular first lady Nadine Heredia.
  • Semana magazine looks at the consequences of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ decision to ignore the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ request to suspend the removal of Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, with some experts comparing it to the questioning of the Inter-American human rights system recently spearheaded by Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.
  • Following the discovery of the bodies of two Colombian policemen allegedly killed by the FARC in the southwestern Nariño province, the guerrilla group has released a statement taking responsibility for their deaths. According to rebel leaders, the two were killed by a guerrilla unit that did not seek approval for the executions. El Colombiano reports that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on the rebels to turn over those directly responsible for the murders.
  • The Washington Post reports on increasing backlash in Brazil to government efforts to save a vulnerable indigenous tribe in the Amazon by evicting small-scale farmers from their land. Many of these are poor families who have lived in the area for years, and their removal has been criticized by farmers associations. While the government land reform agency has offered to provide those affected with free land and housing elsewhere in the state, some locals are not convinced officials will deliver. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Mujica Volunteers to Receive Gitmo Detainees in Uruguay

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has told journalists that his government is in talks with the U.S. over a proposal to accept five prisoners from the detention center in Guantanamo. If the deal holds it would make Uruguay the first South American country to accept detainees, as well as putting it in a position to request a favor in return.

Weekly magazine Busqueda was the first to break the story, reporting that the Obama administration first approached Mujica about the issue last week. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly called Mujica on Monday, and the two discussed the proposal, which would require the detainees to stay in the country for two years, in greater detail. Yesterday, Mujica confirmed the report, telling local press that he said yes to the deal out of sympathy, remembering the years he spent locked up in prison under the civic-military dictatorship.

If a deal is struck, Uruguay would join El Salvador (which accepted two prisoners in 2012) as the only two Latin American countries to serve as transfer nations for Guantanamo detainees.

According to U.S. Ambassador Julissa Reynoso, however, there has been no final agreement on the matter. “We’re in consultations and dialogue, but there is no agreement on a process in Uruguay. We are still in conversation,” Reynoso told Radio Espectador.

The Wall Street Journal notes that Mujica seems to take the proposal personally:
"He asked a whole bunch of countries if they could offer refuge," Mr. Mujica, 78 years old, who was a leftist guerrilla in his youth and spent 14 years in prison, said in televised comments to journalists. "I said yes because I was imprisoned many years.""It's a human rights issue," said Mr. Mujica, who was visibly moved as he talked to reporters. "There are 120 guys who have been prisoners 13 years that haven't seen a judge, prosecutor, anybody. The president of the U.S. wants to get rid of this problem."
Subrayado has video of his remarks, in which he does in fact appear quite passionate about the issue. He is also emphatic that the individuals would be admitted as refugees, and not be detained.

However, even Mujica admitted that altruism is not the only factor at play, remarking that he does not “do free favors” and hinting that he would expect something in return. As Uruguayan foreign policy experts consulted by El Observador note, the biggest potential return favors include building on the recently expanded U.S. market for Uruguayan meat exports, or (more imaginatively) support for the country’s marijuana regulation law in the United Nations.

News Briefs
  • Information technology news site TechCrunch has an overview of Brazil’s internet neutrality bill, which is slated for a vote next Tuesday. But while much of the article’s praise is for the inclusion of a provision guaranteeing net neutrality, this has been amended somewhat. After negotiations with opposition lawmakers, language laying out which authority would be in charge of providing exceptions to net neutrality has been removed and left to regulation, G1 reports. As Agencia Publica has notes, telecommunications giants in the country have been leaning heavily on lawmakers to oppose the bill, or at least make it more favorable to their interests.
  • At least one Rio de Janeiro police officer was wounded last night after gang members in the Rio favela of Manguinhos launched an attack on three Police Pacification Unit (UPP) bases there, as the AP reports. In addition to the conflict in Manguinhos, where a UPP was installed in October 2012, O Globo reports that similar shootouts occurred last night in two other neighborhoods in the city. In response to the violence, Rio state Governor Sergio Cabral has asked for federal assistance in implementing security measures.
  • David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights have more on the controversial decision by leading daily Ultimas Noticias to withdraw an investigative article that profiled similarities between the makeup of the student opposition movement and the National Guard. As noted in Wednesday’s brief, the article was allegedly pulled over “political” considerations. Smilde and Perez cite Venezuelan media scholar Carolina Acosta-Alzuru as saying that the piece’s attempts to humanize both sides of the current political debate “isn’t a message the government wants Venezuelans to hear right now.”
  • Following the official ouster of Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro on Wednesday, and his replacement by Labor Minister Rafael Pardo as provisional mayor, Colombia’s FARC rebels have spoken out against Petro’s removal. When the latest rounds of dialogue between guerrillas and government negotiators kicked off yesterday in Havana, El Universal reports that it began with the rebels making a statement that the President’s decision “has a negative impact and affects confidence in the talks.” La Silla Vacia, meanwhile, takes a look at Petro’s accomplishments while in office, noting that while homicide rates and infant mortality fell under his administration, he failed to make significant progress on infrastructure, waste management and his promise of providing housing to victims of violence.
  • A new Human Rights Watch report on violence in the Pacific Colombian port city of Buenaventura has focused attention on the pervasiveness of paramilitary influence in parts of the country (see the BBC, AP and Christian Science Monitor). The 30-page report highlights murder and acts of torture committed by the two dominant neo-paramilitary groups, the Urabeños and the Empresa, which has also displaced thousands of city residents. The L.A. Times took the opportunity of the report’s release to profile the Urabeños, which in recent years have climbed to the top of Colombia’s criminal underworld and have drug trafficking connections throughout the country.
  • InSight Crime looks at the intersection of organized crime, indigenous rights and environmentalism, reporting on the ongoing struggle between the Wounaan people of Panama and illegal loggers in the area. The conflict escalated in 2012 when loggers killed local leader Aquilo Puchicama, a crime which has not been prosecuted. The site links to a new short documentary on the Wounaan by filmmaker Ian Bell.
  • Honduras’ La Prensa reports on growing support to reform a recently passed law to expand classified information in the country, which has been criticized by transparency organizations there as a major blow to accountability. The drive to repeal the law has been backed principally by the opposition LIBRE and Anti-Corruption parties, as well as a coalition of civil society groups known as the Alliance for Peace and Justice.  Yesterday, the controversial law also received condemned by a coalition of 23 transparency advocates in the hemisphere, the Regional Alliance for Freedom of Expression and Information, which called it a “serious setback” for freedom of information in Honduras.
  • Yesterday the Economist’s Americas View blog published briefs on Petro’s removal and its potential to fuel calls for a new constitution and the improved relationship between Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Pope Francis, as well as an update on police violence in Brazil, which made headlines this week when a woman died after being dragged behind a police car for more than 1,000ft.
  • Gustavo Gorriti, director of Peru’s IDL-Reporteros, writes a scathing critique of the Peruvian government’s stated goal of eradicating a record 30,000 hectares of coca crops in 2014. According to Gorriti, the Humala administration’s dogged insistence on military-led forced eradication operations in the VRAE region -- which it carries out while attempting to publicly minimize the security forces’ role -- is political folly on par with the Vietnam War. He argues that these operations will only fuel resentment towards the state, pushing locals to side with the remnants of the Shining Path guerrilla army. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Colombia’s Santos Ignores IACHR, Removes Bogota Mayor

In a move that breaks with Colombia’s recent adherence to the Inter-American human rights system, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has removed Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro from office, disregarding a request by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to suspend his ouster.

Yesterday, Santos announced that Petro would be removed in accordance with Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez’s December sentence. In his place he named Labor Minister Rafael Pardo Rueda as interim mayor, with a special mayoral election to be held sometime in May, close to the presidential elections.

As El Espectador reports, Santos justified his decision by saying that while Colombia remained dedicated to its international human rights commitments, the IACHR’s request that his government take precautionary measures to protect Petro’s right to political participation was invalid because Petro had not yet exhausted domestic legal remedies, and because Colombian law should be prioritized. “The Council of State has said that Petro still has legal mechanisms in Colombian jurisdiction… The government understands the importance and has defended the Inter-American system of human rights, but it believes that this role is complementary [to domestic law] and therefore should only go into effect if a failure in the internal system occurs.” said the president.

The problem with this, however, is that Colombian constitutional law has given considerable weight to the IACHR’s requests for precautionary measures in recent years. In a 2003 ruling, for instance, the country’s Constitutional Court established a basis for them to be considered binding, and laid out the procedure for state organs like the national police, attorney general and Ministry of Justice to  properly comply with them.  

In an interview with Spain’s El Pais, IACHR Secretary General Emilio Alvarez Icaza called Colombia’s system for responding to requests for precautionary measures “paradigmatic in the continent.”  The paper notes that Santos had established a reputation for breaking with the cavalier attitudes towards the IACHR of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, but that his announcement yesterday calls that into question. Cesar Rodriguez Garavito, of Bogota’s Dejusticia human rights center, has made a similar point, telling Caracol Noticias that the president’s decision “defeats a four-year effort in which Colombia sought to be a regional leader in the field of human rights.”

Semana, on the other hand, questions whether the Inter-American Commission “overstepped” its bounds in seeking protection for Petro. As the magazine note, it is unusual for the IACHR to request that Colombia take precautionary measures in cases where only the individual’s political rights are at risk, not their life.  Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin argued as much yesterday, saying that Colombia could not accept “interference” from the human rights organ, especially in the case of “something abnormal…which does not involve fundamental rights.”

La Silla Vacia suggests that there were other political considerations behind the decision, such as the fact that most of Santos’ support network behind his reelection campaign is in favor of Petro’s removal. By standing up to the IACHR, he is scoring points among his conservative base at a time when polls suggest that, for the first time, his victory in May is not guaranteed.

News Briefs
  • Elsewhere in the region, two other mayors appear to have lost their jobs as well. Daniel Ceballos, mayor of the western Venezuelan town of San Cristobal -- where the recent wave of protests began -- was arrested yesterday in Caracas by intelligence agents. El Universal reports that Ceballos’ arrest was confirmed by Interior and Justice Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, who said the mayor had been charged with “rebellion and conspiracy.” Also yesterday, Venezuelan officials arrested the mayor of San Diego, Enzo Scarano, after the Supreme Court sentenced him to ten months in prison for disobeying orders to crack down on opposition barricades. According to El Nacional, both officials are being held in custody of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service.
  • In addition to dropping a controversial provision to an internet bill which would have forced Internet companies operating in Brazil to store data within the country (see the Wall Street Journal), the government of President Dilma Rousseff has met with congressional leaders to discuss other concessions. G1 reports that these include leaving a net neutrality provision up to executive decree, and may even exclude it altogether from the bill. Felipe Seligman of Agencia Publica profiles the influence of Brazil’s telecommunications lobby on these high-level talks, highlighting ties between the sector and PMDB legislators. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the bill next week.
  • According to El Nuevo Herald, Cuba’s National Assembly of Peoples' Power will hold a meeting on March 29 to analyze a new foreign investment law. The paper reports that Former Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez has said the proposed law will broaden the nature of foreign investments allowed under the existing law, though details are unclear. Reuters reports that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has announced plans to visit the island, the first such visit in 30 years and an indicator that EU-Cuba relations are rapidly improving.
  • On Tuesday the head lawyer in the Ecuador-Chevron case, Steven Donziger, appealed a federal judge’s ruling that he committed fraud and bribery to entice an Ecuadorean court to rule against the oil giant in a $9.5 billion environmental damages case. Donziger denies the allegations, and his legal team told the press that they were optimistic that an appellate court would overturn the ruling.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has announced that her government will conduct a new census in the country, meant to make up for the disastrous 2012 census carried out by former President Sebastian Piñera. Billed as “the best census ever,” it was plagued by allegations of methodological errors and the manipulation of figures, which forced Piñera to issue a formal apology last year.
  • The L.A. Times reports on the outcry from Mexican press freedom advocacy groups looking into an investigation of the murder of a reporter in Veracruz last month. These organizations have found evidence of negligence and omissions in the investigation, highlighting a lack of commitment to protecting journalists in the country which they say is rampant.
  • After left-leaning PRD lawmakers in Mexico made headlines last month for presenting bills in both the national and Mexico City legislatures to relax marijuana regulations in the country, a member of the conservative PAN party has introduced a separate marijuana policy reform bill in the Senate. According to El Pais and El Universal, PAN Senator Roberto Gil submitted a measure yesterday that would allow non-violent, low-level cannabis offenders to avoid jail time.
  • In a column for El Faro, drug expert Juan Carlos Garzon looks at the criminal landscape in El Salvador. He argues that despite recent reports of mara violence and potential collusion between maras and larger drug trafficking organizations, its significance as a transit country is far less than that of Honduras or Guatemala. Instead, the country’s real contribution to transnational crime is in its weak anti-money laundering enforcement, which some officials say make it “the bank of drug trafficking” in the region.
  • Following Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo’s guilty plea in a New York court on Tuesday to charges that he accepted $2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan in exchange for diplomatic recognition of the country, current President Otto Perez Molina has assured the public that “these bad practices have been overcome.” According to him, all Taiwanese aid is transparent and publicly disclosed. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Court Backs Petro’s Ouster, IACHR Requests Suspension of Ruling

Colombia’s highest administrative court has upheld the inspector general’s order to remove Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro and ban him from office for 15 years over his handling of a dispute with garbage collectors in 2012. His ouster may be delayed, however, as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has requested that the state suspend the ruling and take precautionary measures to protect Petro’s right to political participation.

Yesterday the Colombian Council of State, the country’s supreme tribunal for all administrative disputes, issued a ruling on 25 legal petitions submitted against Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez’s removal order on Petro’s behalf. While press reports yesterday suggested that the Bogota mayor might find some support from the judges for his challenge, he had no such luck. Fifteen of the council’s magistrates voted in favor of Ordoñez’s decree, while only eight voted against it. As El Espectador reports, the move struck down claims that the mayor’s political rights had been violated, and suspends a recall election that had been slated for April 6.

The Council of State decision paves the way for Ordoñez’s sentence to reach the desk of President Juan Manuel Santos. According to Caracol the president will have 10 days to sign the decree and officially relieve Petro of his duty, at which time he will have the authority to name a provisional mayor in his place.  

Nevertheless, it is unclear whether Santos will follow this timeline. As Semana and the Associated Press note, late last night the IACHR released a statement asking the government to suspend its compliance with Ordoñez’s ruling. According to its resolution (.pdf), the case meets all the requirements (“severity, urgency and irreparability”) for the human rights body to invoke its power to request that Colombia take measures to safeguard Petro’s right to political participation. As such, the IACHR called on officials to hold off on removing the mayor until it could rule on his petition to the commission.

As El Tiempo reports, the ball is now in President Santos’ court. He can either respect the IACHR’s recommendation or ignore it. Fortunately for Petro the latter option is unlikely, as Colombia’s constitution recognizes the competence of the Inter-American human rights system. Also, in January Santos signaled that he would remain neutral in the case, promising to respect the commission’s decision according to his country’s international obligations.

Even if Santos honors the IACHR request for precautionary measures, however, it will likely be a while before the commission issues a verdict on his petition.  As Nelson Camilo Sanchez of the Bogota-based research center Dejusticia pointed out in a January column for Razon Publica, there is a good chance that the case could be decided after the mayor’s term ends in 2016.

News Briefs
  • The seizure of Altamira Plaza on Monday by security forces points to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s hardened resolve to crack down on the wave of opposition protests in his country, and the Washington Post suggests that the move is at odds with his rhetoric of peace and stated interest in dialogue with protestors. Venezuelan expert David Smilde makes a similar point, noting that Maduro’s response to protests has been more “mano dura” than Chavez’s reactions to similar unrest in2004. According to Smilde, this is likely due to Maduro’s comparative lack of charisma as well as the country’s deteriorating economy.
  • According to El Universal, the Venezuelan National Assembly has approved a measure to present evidence of alleged wrongdoing by opposition congresswoman Maria Corina Machado to prosecutors. Her crimes, according to Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, include support for violent protest and appealing to a foreign power to “sabotage” Venezuela’s democracy. The vote is the first step in a process that could culminate in her loss of congressional immunity, which would require the approval of public prosecutors  and the Supreme Court.
  • The reporting staff of Venezuelan private media group Cadena Capriles staged a protest on Monday against a last minute editorial decision to pull an investigative report on opposition protestors  from the page of Ultimas Noticias newspaper. Tamoa Calzadilla, the media group’s chief investigative editor, resigned as a result of the decision, which she claimed executives made due to “political” considerations. Despite Ultimas Noticias’self-censorship, the article in question -- by reporter Laura Weffer -- has been leaked online, and can be read here. It is an in-depth exploration of the demographics of both the demonstrators and the National Guard, which according to Weffer are both made up of “19 to 22 year-olds…who swear that they are fighting for Venezuela.” Weffer also describes the makeshift distribution networks for food and medicine that have sprung up around the opposition barricades, in addition to casting doubt on claims that protestors are on the payroll of anti-Chavsta politicians.
  • The AP’s Frank Bajak profiles nascent efforts among the Venezuelan opposition to reach out to Chavismo’s traditional bastions of support in poor urban areas. Members of the student movement, at least in the Caracas suburb of Petare, are attempting to build working class support via door-to-door canvassing. But as Bajak notes, their appeals have been met with hostility and suspicion, even as some express similar frustration with insecurity, food shortages and inflation.
  • The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has a new report on Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s proposed tax reforms in the country, which is expected to generate revenues of 3 percent of GDP, to be used to finance public spending on education.
  • Drug policy reform advocates in the region, beware: January saw the launch of a new drug policy advocacy platform, Drug Policy Futures (DPF). The organization bills itself as a supporter of “a new drug policy debate based on health,” but its steering group includes a number of drug war “hawks” like Kevin Sabet. Sabet is a former senior advisor to the Obama administration on drug policy, and has been a staunch opponent of loosening drug prohibition. Indeed, the DFF’s rejection of “the simple dichotomy between ‘a war on drugs’on the one hand and ‘legalization’ on the other” is nearly a word-for-word quote of the White House’s 2013 National Drug Control Strategy.
  • Brazil’s O Globo reports that lawmakers are expected to vote today on the “Marco Civil da Internet,” legislation which has been described as a “constitution for the internet” in the country, guaranteeing net neutrality and aiming to protect users’ metadata from companies and intelligence agencies. As Reuters notes, a provision which would have forced global internet companies to store user data in Brazil has been scrapped, though they will still be subject to Brazilian law.
  • In a U.S. district court yesterday, former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo admitted to taking $2.5 million in bribes in exchange for granting diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. According to El Periodico, Portillo will be sentenced in June, and faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.
  •  The AP also looks at the popularity of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, noting that while his progressive policies and humble public image have risen his profile abroad, domestically he retains only a 47 percent approval rating. As the wire service notes, however, this figure is still greater than support for any other president since Uruguay’s return to democracy, except for his predecessor (and the most likely future president) Tabare Vazquez.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has nominated a new federal police chief and head of the country’s National Security Commission (CNS), following the resignation of Manuel Mondragon on Monday. El Universal has a profile of the nominee, Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia, noting that he is a lawyer with several years’ experience in high level police intelligence and national security work. In a column for his blog at Animal Politico, security analyst Alejandro Hope argues that the new CNS head should be a civilian with experience in public administration, but above all someone who is committed to reforming the police.
  • The L.A. Times has a more in-depth analysis of Mondragon’s resignation, noting that it comes two months after Peña Nieto’s Colombian security advisor General Oscar Naranjo stepped down. For analysts, the two departures underscore the administration’s lack of a coherent public security strategy, as well as any clear system to evaluate its performance.