Friday, May 30, 2014

Brazil's Pioneering Chief Justice to Retire

Joaquim Barbosa, the first and only black justice to serve on Brazil's Supreme Court, has announced he will retire after 11 years on the bench. Despite rumors that he has political aspirations, the judge best known for his role in investigating the mensalão scandal insists that his only plans for the future are to "watch the World Cup in Brasilia, and then to rest."

Barbosa first made the surprise announcement yesterday during a meeting with lawmakers. In later remarks to the press, he touched on his role in dealing harsh sentences to offenders in the landmark mensalão trial. "This matter has been completely overcome," he told journalists. "[The ruling] is out of my life and hopefully will be out of yours. Enough of this issue." 

In its coverage of the announcement today, the Wall Street Journal  reports that Barbosa's departure "is raising fears that his fight against graft will wane."

As legal expert Ivar A. Hartmann writes in a column for O Globo, Barbosa made a name for himself as a crusading figure in the court for more than just the mensalão trial. He has been a vocal champion of affirmative action programs, and played a key role in establishing de facto recognition of same-sex marriages in the country last year. However, he has also seen his share of personal scandals. Hartmann points out that he created a limited liability company in Miami to get around paying taxes, and is accused of using his authority to target the wife of a journalist who revealed excesses and irregularities in judicial salaries. Still, he argues that none of this should detract from Barbosa's achievements.

Barbosa's popularity and his early retirement -- the AP notes his term as chief justice would end in November, and the 59-year-old is far from the mandatory retirement age of 70 -- has led analysts to speculate that he intends to run for office eventually. But the judge has denied this, saying there is "no way" he could launch a political career. Still, O Globo reports that the two main opposition presidential candidates ahead of the October elections have publicly lamented his retirement, with Eduardo Campos admitting that every political party in the country would like to have him in their corner.

News Briefs
  • BBC Mundo profiles optimism among thousands of individuals of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, who hope to benefit from legal recognition as citizens as a result of the recently-passed nationality law there. But the report notes that the reform will only help some of those affected by last year’s controversial court ruling which stripped citizenship from those born in the country to migrant families. According to human rights activists, as few as 10 percent of the impacted population are estimated to benefit from the law.
  • Peru’s new drug czar, Alberto Otarola, has confirmed reports -- see IDL-Reporteros -- that his predecessor’s abrupt dismissal and his subsequent appointment amounts to a shift in President Ollanta Humala’s anti-drug strategy. But in an interview with El Comercio, Otarola denied that the administration was backing away from its goals to continue record levels of coca eradication, though he also laid out blueprints for a new subsidized crop substitution program in the coca-growing VRAE region.
  • Costa Rica’s La Nacion reports that the board of the country’s social security system has announced it will extend medical benefits to same-sex couples, a measure which will be implemented in three months’ time. Reuters notes that while newly-elected President Luis Guillermo Solis recently hoisted the rainbow flag outside his official residence in celebration of May 17th's International Day Against Homophobia, he does not support gay marriage.
  • The AFP looks at child labor in Bolivia, where the practice is “considered a cultural norm” in the country, according to the news agency. President Evo Morales himself has shied away from raising a minimum work age, and the agency points out that a constitutional ban on child exploitation is impaired by a lack of specification regarding who exactly qualifies as a “child” under the law.
  • The New York Times reports on an increase in U.S.-bound drug seizures in the Caribbean, which many analysts believe points to a jump in popularity of smuggling routes passing through Puerto Rico to the East Coast.
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue, currently in Havana to assess the progress of economic changes on the island, has signaled tentative praise for the reforms instituted under Raul Castro. In remarks at the University of Havana yesterday, Donohue said citizens’ efforts to create fledgling private businesses exhibit “the spirit of entrepreneurship,” but stressed that the government should institute further changes. He also called on U.S. President Barack Obama to alter relations with Cuba, saying: “Changes take time, but if he wants to get it done before the end of his term, he's got two years.”
  • Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory has released a new report cataloging forced disappearances from 1970 to 2012, finding that some 26,000 people were disappeared as a result of the conflict between the army, paramilitary groups and guerrillas. Of these, the whereabouts of 19,688 -- roughly 94 percent -- remain unknown. As Semana magazine reports in its coverage of the publication, the organization found that forced disappearances are a crime mostly committed by the state, occasionally acting with paramilitary forces. Reuters notes that victims’ relatives are pessimistic about seeing justice for disappearances.
  • Panama's Supreme Court has ruled that a decision to grant asylum to former Colombian intelligence chief Maria del Pilar Hurtado is unconstitutional. Hurtado was head of the now-defunct DAS intelligence agency, which was dissolved after a series of scandals suggested DAS agents illegally spied on journalists, human rights activists and judges.
  • The Washington Post profiles the ongoing peace talks between Colombian officials and FARC rebels in Havana, noting remarks from former Police General Oscar Naranjo, who described sitting across from longtime mortal enemies by saying that exchanges have been “cordial and respectful, but austere.” But while the paper suggests the future of talks hinge on President Juan Manuel Santos’ victory in the upcoming June 15 runoff, right-wing candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga’s recent reversal on dialogue means this may not be the case.  Meanwhile, a new Cifras y Conceptos poll suggests that Santos and Zuluaga are virtually tied, receiving support from 38 and 37 percent of respondents, respectively.
  • Roughly 14 years after the embezzlement trial against former Ecuadorean President Jamil Mahuad began, the country’s Supreme Court has found him guilty in absentia. As El Comercio reports, Mahuad -- who is living in Boston -- was sentenced to twelve years in prison, though the ruling can still be appealed.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Zuluaga Reverses on Colombia Peace Talks

Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the Uribista presidential frontrunner in Colombia's first round vote, has altered his stance on negotiating with FARC guerrillas, dealing a blow to President Juan Manuel Santos’ attempts to frame their contest as a choice between “war vs. peace.”

The reversal was part of a pact with Conservative Party candidate Marta Lucia Ramirez, who came in third place in Sunday’s election, obtaining 15.5 percent of the vote. Ramirez agreed to support Zuluaga’s bid in exchange for adopting some of her proposals, including softening his approach to peace talks. In a joint declaration released yesterday, the two agreed that negotiations with rebels should continue under a Zuluaga administration, albeit under some new conditions. These include:
a. Immediately ending the recruitment of children. 
b. Desisting from laying landmines and providing the government with maps of existing minefields for clearance to start immediately. 
c. Stopping terrorist attacks against the population. 
d. Ending war crimes. 
e. Stopping attacks on infrastructure. 
f. The government will reach an agreement on a time limit for negotiations with the FARC. 
g. We will insist that the FARC comply with their commitment to end kidnapping and extortion and on the necessity of the group ceasing activities related to drug trafficking.
As Semana reports, this is a far cry from Zuluaga’s recent remarks on the peace talks. On Monday he said he would provisionally suspend the talks immediately upon taking office, and end them unless guerrillas adopted a permanent unilateral ceasefire, a condition the FARC have rejected in the past. In previous statements the Uribe-backed candidate also said he would not allow rebel leaders to participate in politics without serving jail time.

La Silla Vacia suggests that these new conditions are far more realistic. The FARC have already announced an end to kidnapping, and issues like drug trafficking, landmines and the recruitment of minors are currently being negotiated.

The news site also points out that the announcement puts President Juan Manuel Santos in a tight spot ahead of the June 15 runoff. Up to now, he has based much of his re-election campaign on his image as the “peace candidate,” and Zuluaga’s mano dura approach to FARC negotiations has played into this. But with his opponent embracing an updated, more nuanced position on peace talks, Santos may have a harder time convincing voters that a vote for him is a vote to end the country’s long-running armed conflict.

News Briefs
  • Despite some opposition, the United States House of Representatives yesterday passed a bill that instructs the Obama administration to compile a list of Venezuelan officials linked to human rights abuses and freeze their assets in the U.S.  The vote follows the approval of a separate sanctions measure by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, though analysts cited by Bloomberg suggest the Senate bill is unlikely to move to the full floor unless opposition protests and a violent crackdown escalate dramatically.  
  • As U.S. lawmakers passed the sanctions bill, the Venezuelan government announced yet another discovery of an alleged plot to kill President Nicolas Maduro, supposedly backed by the opposition. Over at Venezuela Conspiracy Theories Monitor, Hugo Perez Hernaiz has a good overview of the claims made by heavyweights in the ruling United Socialist Party yesterday, who said the plans also included the assassination of various other government officials. As the New York Times reports, the “evidence” of the plot includes emails from opposition figures like Maria Corina Machado, who in one alleged message said she had the backing of  U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker.
  • In Peru, the recent abrupt replacement of drug czar Carmen Masias is being seen by some analysts as a sign that the administration of President Ollanta Humala has shifted his approach to drug policy somewhat. Masias, who has publicly complained that she was unceremoniously told to resign on Tuesday, has been replaced by Alberto Otarola Peñaranda, a former defense minister with close ties to Humala. IDL-Reporteros claims that the replacement is the result of the administration backing away from plans to adopt an aggressive, confrontational eradication strategy in the coca-growing VRAE region -- which Masias supported -- in favor of one based on alternative development and subsidized replacement crops. According to El Comercio, her removal was the result of an agreement reached between the government and coca growing associations in the VRAE. The Centro de Investigacion Drogas y Derechos Humanos, a Lima-based drug policy reform advocacy group and research center, has praised Masias’ ouster as an opportunity for the government to adopt a more “efficient, sustainable, respectful and clear” approach to drugs in Peru.
  • The AP has a photo essay on the impact that the Peruvian government’s recent crackdown on illegal mining in April has had on a once-booming mining town in the Amazon region.
  • A new Gallup poll shows 66 percent of Hondurans support newly-inaugurated President Juan Orlando Hernandez, significantly higher than the 34 percent of votes that won him victory in November’s elections. InSight Crime notes that the poll also shows wide public satisfaction with his hardline crime policies, which are largely a continuation of the militarized approach to security of his predecessor.  
  • A French court has ruled in favor of extraditing former Argentine police official Mario Alfredo Sandoval, who is wanted in his country for a list of over 600 human rights violations stemming from his time working at a special prison for dissidents during the dictatorship era.
  • Indigenous Diaguitas activists in Chile have reached a preliminary agreement with Canadian mining company Barrick over a controversial gold mine along the Argentina-Chile border, which critics say threatens the local water supply. But while the AP reports that locals and environmentalists have hailed the agreement as a victory, El Ciudadano notes that a coalition of activist groups in the area has said those negotiating with Barrick do not fully represent the affected community.
  • A Mexican federal court has ordered the government to pay compensation to Jacinta Francisco Marcial, an Otomi indigenous woman whose arrest and imprisonment for kidnapping on dubious grounds was condemned by local and international human rights groups. As Animal Politico reports, the Miguel Agustín Pro Juarez Human Rights Center has called the ruling a “historic precedent,” as it establishes grounds for victims of unjust imprisonment to seek reparations from the state.
  • Former Ecuadorean President Jamil Mahuad has responded to his addition to Interpol’s wanted list this week by saying that the charges against him, which include embezzling public money in a 1999 banking crisis, are "predominantly political." Mahuad is living in the U.S. and has lectured at the Harvard, which is reportedly “evaluating” its relationship with the ex-president.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on opposition to Argentine President Cristina Fernandez among the agricultural industry in the country, noting complaints among farmers that the government is using record soy exports to stem a drop in foreign reserves.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Poverty, Extreme Poverty Increase in Venezuela

Supporters of the Venezuelan government often point to Chavismo's success at reducing poverty and fostering social inclusion, but the country's shifting economic fortunes have placed some of its anti-poverty gains in jeopardy. And in many cases, poor management and lack of funds have led to serious shortcomings in Venezuela's ability to fulfill the economic and social rights guaranteed in its consitution.

This weekend saw more bad news for the Venezuelan economy. On top of its high inflation rate and widespread shortages of basic goods, the official National Statistics Institute (INE) quietly released figures which suggest that poverty is on the rise in the country. According to Ultimas Noticias, the INE figures show that the share of Venezuelans living in poverty rose nearly six points last year, from 21.2 percent in 2012 to 27.3 percent in 2013. The rate of extreme poverty increased as well, to 9.8 percent up from 7.1 percent the year before. This means that during this period, 1.79 million people fell below the official poverty line and 733,000 fell from poverty into extreme poverty.

Caracas-based human rights group PROVEA was quick to respond to the news. In a statement released yesterday, the organization pointed out that the figures directly contradict remarks by President Nicolas Maduro, who said in January that extreme poverty had been cut to 5.5 percent. For PROVEA, the increase represents an infraction of economic and social rights on par with recently-denounced political and civil rights violations in the country. The group warned that "the existing situation of political exclusion is now joined by increasing social exclusion."

PROVEA has long monitored the progress of social and economic rights in Venezuela. In its annual report on the country’s human rights situation, published last week, the group noted increasing restrictions on labor strikes, a drop in construction of public housing as well as serious shortcomings in the public health system. The latter were especially striking, as PROVEA cited an "insufficient, irregular and unreal" public health budget as a primary cause of shortages of personnel, equipment and medicine in major hospitals across the country. 

Indeed, a lack of transparency regarding the government's public spending programs known as Bolivarian Missions is a recurring trend in the report. Ultimately, PROVEA calls for a "profound review" of these programs, and for Maduro to "explain to the country how, despite the existence of 36 social missions, poverty has seen this significant increase."

News Briefs
  • In other Venezuela news, police commissioner Ivan Simonovis, whom the opposition claims is one of the longest-held political prisoners in the country, has begun a hunger strike in protest of his continued imprisonment. El Nacional reports that Simonovis sent a letter to the Supreme Court in which he criticized authorities for denying his requests to be released due to his poor health. Reuters suggests that the announcement could “rekindle” opposition protests, which have ebbed in recent weeks.
  • The U.S. House of Representatives is set to debate a bill today which would levy targeted sanctions against Venezuelan government officials linked to human rights abuses. The legislation’s author, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has said that she expects the bill to pass, telling Buzzfeed that the U.S. State Department appears to have backed off from previous criticisms of sanctions. The vote will not be unanimous, however. Yesterday 14 House Democrats, led by Michigan Rep. John Conyers, sent a letter to President Barack Obama opposing the sanctions push and calling for an exchange of ambassadors with Venezuela. The Miami Herald, meanwhile, notes the arguments of supporters and critics of the bill, and suggests that Foreign Minister Elias Jaua has already begun framing the threat of sanctions as an act of “U.S. imperialism” in recent UNASUR and Non-Aligned Movement summits.
  • Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez’s new online newspaper, 14ymedio, continues to make headlines (See El Pais, EFE, Univision). The site’s latest high-profile piece is Sanchez’s interview of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in which he discussed the case of imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross and called for economic reforms on the island to be paired with increased individual liberties. As analyst James Bosworth points out, Sanchez also skillfully touched on the U.S. embargo’s impact on opposition activism, asking if the Obama administration planned to ease restrictions on Cuban access to app stores and some Google services.
  • O Globo reports that Brazilian senators yesterday voted to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to expropriate land from individuals who employ conditions of slave labor, a phenomenon seen in sugar cane plantations and cattle ranches in remote areas of the country’s interior. The vote, which comes after the lower house approved the measure in 2012, essentially ends a 15-year legislate debate over the reform.
  • The Wall Street Journal profiles discontent among Brazilians over waste and corruption associated with the World Cup preparations in the country, which has been deepened by analysts’ claims that the long-term economic benefits of the Cup will fall short of government promises.
  • The Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho, CEDD) has released a new report today which offers a useful roundup of drug policy throughout Latin America. The study, "En busca de los derechos: Usuarios de drogas y las respuestas estatales en América Latina,” looks at oficial responses to small-scale drug possession and use in eight countries in the region: Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia. Perhaps their most interesting finding is that even in countries where drug use is not a criminal offense (Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico and Bolivia), possession accounts for a large portion of overall drug-related detentions.
  • The Ecuadorean government has announced that an international arrest warrant had been issued for former President Jamil Mahuad, who is accused of embezzling public funds during the country’s 1998-99 banking crisis. The AP notes that Mahuad has been on trial in abstentia for over 13 years in the country, and is living in the United States.
  • Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group, offers a look at Colombia’s peace process and its ramifications for the U.S. government. While U.S. policymakers have largely echoed President Juan Manuel Santos’ support for peace talks, Haugaard argues that it remains to be seen whether this will translate into concrete funding commitments for post-conflict development initiatives, declassification of documents in the interest of truth and reconciliation, and a retreat from heavy U.S. involvement in drug eradication campaigns.
  • Colombia’s FARC rebels have declined to respond to first-round presidential election winner and peace talk critic Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who recently announced he would suspend talks until the guerrillas cease “crimes against the population.” Spanish news agency EFE reports that FARC spokesman in Havana Ivan Marquez said Zuluaga’s remarks were premature, and accused him of “putting the horse before the cart.”

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Bachelet Under Fire for Abortion Initiative

Last week, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet unveiled a bill that would loosen Chile's strict ban on abortions. While the measure has been praised by women's and reproductive rights advocates, the president has come under heavy criticism from conservative sectors. 

In the first state of the union address of her second administration on May 21, Bachelet confirmed reports that she would submit a bill to loosen the country’s abortion ban. Abortion is currently criminalized in all cases in Chile, and women or doctors convicted of having or performing them can be sentenced to between three to five years in prison. Bachelet's proposed reform would allow abortion in three cases: when the fetus is non-viable, when the mother's life is in danger and in cases of rape.

As news site The Clinic reports, in subsequent remarks the president said her position had to do with recognizing an existing social reality. "It seems like this has been a taboo subject for some time, and it seems to me that there should be no taboo subjects in a society. That is undemocratic," said the president. "There may be different perspectives here and I am not imposing anything. What I'm saying is that we must not close our eyes."

Not everyone sees it that way, however. Yesterday, La Tercera and El Mostrador reported that some 2,000 demonstrators -- mostly young students -- gathered in front of the presidential palace to prostest the measure. They were joined by lawmakers of the conservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party. The opposition National Renewal (RN) party has slammed the initiative as well, in addition to the Catholic Church.

In fact, the president may face an uphill battle in pressing the issue among lawmakers in her own ruling coalition, which includes Christian Democrats. Paula Molina has a good discussion of the political challenges and longstanding cultural barriers that Bachelet is up against for BBC Mundo, noting that more than 10 bills to amend the abortion ban have been presented in Chile since 1991, and each one has failed. While there is some support for the measure among more liberal segments of the opposition, this is complicated by the fact that the head of the RN has promised to expel anyone who votes for the bill. Ultimately, Molina suggests that for the measure to pass, supporters will have to remove one of the more contentious exceptions, like cases of rape, or restrict the risk to a mothers' life to "a very specific definition."

News Briefs
  • Following Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s recent reversal on a constitutional amendment to allow indefinite reelection, El Universo has an overview of the president’s evolution on the issue. The paper notes that while he called ending term limits “absurd” when taking office in January 2007, he has become increasingly vague on his public position on reform that would authorize a fourth term following his third inauguration in May 2013. In a recent interview, Correa stopped short of saying whether he would seek to run for a fourth time, saying only that it would depend on political conditions in 2017 and would be a “decision for his party.”
  •  Animal Politico casts a critical eye on recent remarks by Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong’s recent claim that the total number of disappeared individuals in the country had been reduced to 8,000, while roughly twice that number had been found. Ultimately, it seems this figure is a product of fuzzy math, selective wording and data manipulation. According to federal prosecutors consulted by the news site, just 73 victims of forced disappearances have been located -- alive and dead -- under the Peña Nieto administration.
  • Following his victory in Sunday’s first-round vote, Colombian presidential candidate Oscar Zuluaga has seemingly confirmed President Juan Manuel Santos’ characterization of the election as a choice between “those of us who want the end of war and those who prefer a war without end.” Semana reports that yesterday Zuluaga announced that if elected president, he would “provisionally suspend” the peace talks and demand that the guerrillas “cease all crimes against the population.”
  • Today is the 50th anniversary of the creation of the hemisphere’s oldest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). InSight Crime marks the occasion with an in-depth investigation into the history of the guerrilla army, detailing their development both before and after the peak of their military power in 2002. The investigation’s author, InSight co-director Jeremy McDermott, also argues that the government has painted an inaccurately rosy picture of the progress of peace talks in Havana, deemphasizing serious points of contention at the negotiating table like FARC opposition to immediate disarmament and ceding control of territory. McDermott also offers a useful look at the involvement of several FARC fronts in the drug trade, which underlines the importance of the recent accord on drug trafficking reached in Havana.
  • A federal judge in Rio de Janeiro state has ruled against the application of Brazil’s 1979 Amnesty Law in the case against five military officials accused of disappearance and murder of former congressman Rubens Paiva in 1971. As Folha de São Paulo reports, the judge found that the amnesty law “should be interpreted restrictively…especially when it opposes fundamental rights.”
  • The New York Times is the latest U.S. outlet to point out delays in Brazil’s World Cup preparations, this time in the central state of Mato Grosso, where construction projects in the host city of Cuiaba have been marked by passed deadlines, corruption allegations and design flaws.
  • In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez offers a look at the recent economic reforms on the island. She characterizes these, along with the January 2013 immigration reform, as major blows to the prevailing order in Cuba, asserting that these changes are fueling the pro-democracy opposition movement.
  • Buzzfeed’s David Noriega reports on the growing momentum behind the push for sanctions against Venezuela in Washington, noting that some of its Venezuelan-American backers in the U.S. appear to be organizing along similar lines as the powerful Cuban-American lobby in Florida.
  • Following a wave of high-profile announcements by international airlines that they would cut flights to the country, Venezuela’s government has announced a new plan to pay nearly four billion dollars in debt to the companies. As El Universal reports, airlines will now fix ticket prices according to the country’s devalued exchange rate, a move which the AP characterizes as a potential “stealth devaluation” that could cause prices to multiply significantly.
  • Uruguay’s National Drug Secretary, Julio Calzada, has announced that the government is putting the finishing touches on its registry of home cultivators of marijuana. Over the weekend, Calzada told local news channel Teledoce that this would be launched in “15 to 20 days.” When the registry goes into effect, a 180-day “amnesty period” will begin, during which individuals who had previously grown the drug illegally will be allowed to register their plants with authorities under the conditions of the law (6 plants per household, a maximum yield of 480 grams annually). 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Santos to Face Zuluaga in Colombia's Runoff Vote

With 99.9 percent of the ballots counted, the first round of Colombia’s presidential election has been decided. Despite the last-minute spying scandal that tied him to an apparent attempt to sabotage peace talks with rebels in Havana, it appears that supporters of conservative candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga were unfazed by the revelation. Zuluaga beat President Juan Manuel Santos by 29.2 to 25.6 percent of the vote. The two will now face each other in a runoff on June 15.

Interestingly, former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa received only 8 percent of the vote, even though just two months ago polls suggested he could emerge as Santos’ main challenger. The two women candidates, Clara Lopez of the left-wing Polo Democratico-UP alliance and the Conservative Party’s Marta Ramirez, each received nearly twice as many votes as Peñalosa (15.2 and 15.5 percent, respectively). Semana magazine claims that their strong showing will give Lopez and Ramirez significant leverage, and predicts that Santos and Zuluaga will likely compete to court their respective support bases ahead of the second round.

Indeed, Santos wasted no time in appealing to supporters of the three losing candidates. In his post-election speech yesterday, he invited their supporters to back him in the runoff, praising Ramirez’s anti-corruption promises, Lopez’s education and post-conflict proposals and Peñalosa´s security and environmental promises.

In its 10-point analysis of the vote, news site La Silla Vacia also claims that electoral officials in the Registraduria are among yesterday’s victors, noting that they were able to count 95 percent of the results just two hours after polls had closed.  

The other meaningful aspect of yesterday’s vote was the high abstention rate. El Tiempo reports that just 40 percent of eligible voters participated in the election, compared to 51 percent in the previous first-round presidential vote in 2010. Spanish news agency EFE notes that there were no reports of violent incidents, which it chalks up to the unilateral ceasefire announced by FARC and ELN guerrillas.

News Briefs
  • El Universo and Reuters report that during a speech before Congress on Saturday, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said that he would support a reform to the Constitution that would ban term limits, allowing any elected official to serve indefinitely. The president had previously opposed such a measure, but told lawmakers that he had reversed his position out of concern for preserving the gains of his political project. According to Correa: “We must continue to adjust our institutions to reality and not give way to the return of elite domination.” As recently as January, the leader told state newspaper El Telegrafo that “It is a great injury for one person to be so essential that the Constitution may be altered to change the rules of the game.”
  • A UNASUR summit in the Galapagos Islands on Friday ended with the 12-member body issuing a joint statement rejecting the application of sanctions against Venezuelan officials, a move many U.S. lawmakers support. According to the statement, sanctions would represent an “obstacle” to dialogue and “violate the principle of non-intervention in other states’ internal affairs,” El Universal reports.
  • Following the ouster of their husbands in March, the wives of two imprisoned opposition mayors in the Venezuelan cities of San Cristobal and San Diego have won special elections to replace them. The Wall Street Journal and BBC Mundo note that their win is a symbolic victory for the opposition movement in the country.
  • In a column for Foreign Policy’s Passport blog, Venezuelan opposition blogger Juan Nagel offers a critical look at the country’s “enchufados,” a term used to describe the plugged-in political elites who profit from the price controls and regulation initiatives of the government. Nagel argues that this crowd, whom he identifies as military personnel, public employees and business elites, are frequently the primary beneficiaries of government policies. This relationship, according to him, represents “an important tool in keeping the Chavista coalition together.”
  • The government-mediated truce between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs in El Salvador --  which led to a record drop in homicides in 2012 -- has officially ended, and it shows.  Friday saw 31 homicides in a single 24-hour period, according to La Prensa Grafica, making it the most violent day of the year so far. According to El Faro’s Sala Negra, mediators between the gangs blame the collapse of the truce on an alleged effort by Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo to arrest gang spokesmen and shut down communication between imprisoned mara leaders and their lieutenants on the outside.
  • Last Thursday, Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong announced that the government had recalculated the total number of disappeared individuals in the country since the start of its drug-fueled violence in 2006. According to the government, the running total of missing people had been cut in half in the past year, and now stands at around 8,000. However, both CNN Mexico and La Jornada note that victims’ associations, human rights groups and security analysts have all questioned this number, accusing the Peña Nieto administration of manipulating statistics.
  • Subcomandante Marcos, the masked, pipe-smoking spokesman for the indigenous Zapatista movement in southern Mexico, is apparently withdrawing from the spotlight. In a long communiqué posted on the group’s website, Marcos announced that he would “no longer exist” because the figure he represents, which he called a “hologram,” is no longer necessary. “The persona was created and now its creators, Zapatista men and Zapatista women, destroy him,” the statement reads. Marcos said he would be replaced by “Comandante Insurgente Galeano,” a reference to a Zapatista activist who was recently slain. As the AP notes, it is unclear whether he will continue to speak or write under the new name.
  • While new Cuban news site 14ymedio was blocked from users on the island shortly after its launch last week, founder and opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez has announced that it is once again accessible within Cuba. EFE reports that the block was lifted hours after official daily Granma denounced the news site as a U.S. destabilization plot, comparing it to failed social media app ZunZuneo. The timing has 14ymedio editor -- and Sanchez’s husband -- Reinaldo Escobar wary that it the removal of the block could be a tactic of discrediting the site.
  • The AP reports on the latest push to relax marijuana laws in the Caribbean: a three-day conference held in Jamaica on the benefits of marijuana decriminalization. The conference brought together experts from the U.S. and Israel, and ended with the presentation of a 12-point roadmap for the government to follow, which includes measures like expunging criminal records of those convicted of possessing the drug. The news agency notes that while several cabinet officials in the country have supported decriminalization and legalizing medical marijuana, the government of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has not signaled a concrete position on the issue.
  • Today’s New York Times features an op-ed by Brazilian journalist Vanessa Barbara, in which she takes aim at the growing international criticism of her country’s World Cup and Olympics arrangements. Barbara characterizes the preparations as part of her country’s longstanding practice of struggling to meet demands by foreign entities, and takes the position that the slow pace of these is in synch with the state of Brazilian bureaucracy and government functions overall.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Portillo, Flores and Taiwan's 'Battle' for Central America

Yesterday, former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced by a U.S. district judge in New York to nearly six years (five years, ten months) of prison. Portillo had previously pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. The ruling comes three years after Portillo was acquitted by a Guatemalan court, in a trial that judicial observers say was marked by irregularities and external political pressure.

The charges against Portillo stemmed from his embezzlement of $2.5 million in funds from the Taiwanese government, money which had allegedly been intended to purchase books for school libraries. He admitted to the scheme in March, but said that the money had actually been a bribe in exchange for continuing to recognize Taiwan diplomatically. 

Reuters notes that Portillo's defense lawyers argued that he was "far from the only Guatemalan or Central American leader to receive gifts or bribes from Taiwan." Of course, the recent arrest order for El Salvador's fugitive ex-President Francisco Flores adds weight to this claim.

On top of embezzling $5.3 million during his 1999-2004 presidency, Flores is accused of mismanaging $10 million in aid from the Taiwanese government. As El Faro notes, the former president failed to account for the money in recent congressional hearings. Flores has been missing ever since the arrest warrant was announced, and is rumored to be hiding out in Panama, which has agreed to extradite him should he be found there.

While the Taiwanese government has denied these allegations, such payments are thought to be the darker side of its "checkbook diplomacy," which also includes aid programs to ensure diplomatic support over its rival, China. With the exception of Costa Rica (which broke ties with Taiwan for China in 2007), every country in Central America still retains diplomatic relations with the Taiwanese government.  

Vocativ has published a good overview of recent developments in the proxy war for diplomatic recognition in the region between Taipei and Beijing. As the news site points out, China and Taiwan reached a "diplomatic truce" in 2008 in which they promised to stop undercutting support for the other abroad, but some analysts believe this has not stopped either side from attempting to buy loyalty in Central America.  

News Briefs
  • While the Ecuador-led drive to overhaul the Inter-American Human Rights system was largely shot down after an OAS General Assembly in March 2013, this has not stopped Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño from repeating calls for reforms at several international summits since then. Patiño once again raised the issue at a Union of South American Nations summit being held on the Galapagos Islands yesterday and today. El Universo reports that the foreign minister focused his criticisms on his longstanding grievances about outside funding for Special Rapporteurships and the fact that not all OAS members have ratified the San Jose Pact. He is expected to press the issue again at a meeting of San Jose Pact adherents next week. EFE notes that Chilean Deputy Foreign Minister Edgardo Riveros told reporters that the representatives discussed the prospect of the Washington, DC-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights holding sessions in other countries, as opposed to suggestions by Ecuador and other countries to move the seat of the commission altogether.
  • Two weeks after the Ecuadorean government rejected the validity of signatures on a petition meant to challenge its plan to open up oil drilling in the Yasuni Amazon Reserve, officials have issued the first permit for drilling, which they say can begin as soon as 2016.
  • Thursday night saw the first televised presidential debate in Colombia in which all of the candidates, including President Juan Manuel Santos, participated. EFE and El Pais note that the debate was mostly dominated by Santos and his primary rival, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, and revolved around their mutual scandals and posturing on peace talks. Semana looks at the symbolism of one moment near the end of the debate: when the two were asked by moderators to shake hands, and Santos deftly removed a peace dove pin from his lapel and offered it to Zuluaga, who accepted it somewhat bewilderedly.
  • A vice presidential debate was also scheduled to take place, but according to El Espectador, the only vice presidential candidate to show was Aida Avila, of the left-wing Polo Democratico Party. El Tiempo reports that the televised event went ahead as planned, and Avila was asked about her position on political inclusion, the role of women in politics, and international relations.
  • Facing pressure from local and international human rights groups, the government of Mexico’s Puebla state has ratified a controversial new measure (known as the “Bullet Law”), but without some of its most controversial provisions. The removed sections include language that would authorize police to use deadly force against demonstrators deemed “violent” in defense of their own lives. Animal Politico reports that while state lawmakers say the version of the law that has been published is what was passed in the legislature, it appears that it has been edited since the vote.
  • The AP profiles the emergence of a unique architectural trend in the Bolivian City of El Alto: “mini-mansions” that combine baroque styles with bright colors and traditional Andean imagery. The news agency describes the construction of these houses, most of which have been built since the election of President Evo Morales in 2006, as proof of “a new class of indigenous nouveau riche,” who seek to demonstrate both their ethnic pride and their newfound wealth.
  • Following the passage of Uruguay’s historic marijuana law, the issue has filtered into the presidential debate in neighboring Brazil. Asked in a Folha interview yesterday about his view on the subject, conservative candidate Aecio Neves said that while he agreed that the law should be monitored, he said he was against decriminalization and “using Brazil as a guinea pig for an experiment.”
  • While Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff remains the favorite to win upcoming presidential elections, The Economist looks at recent public opinion polls and argues that she will still have to have to struggle to convince voters that she can deliver on corruption and improving public services. The magazine also features an overview of Guatemala’s new attorney general, Thelma Aldana, as well as a look at Argentina’s currency troubles.
  • O Globo reports that some 10,000 people participated in a march in São Paulo yesterday organized by members of the "Homeless Workers Movement" (MTST). The group has questioned government spending on stadiums for the World Cup, and occupies several areas around the city, most famously right next to the site of the Cup’s opening match. The Washington Post also profiles dwindling enthusiasm for the Cup in Brazil, even among the vendors and tourist industry workers along Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beachfront.
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales has confirmed that he has in fact “signed on” to play for a division one professional soccer team in his country. EFE reports that the president has characterized the move as a form of youth outreach and encouraging participation in sports.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

DR Lawmakers Pass Partial 'Fix' for Citizenship Ruling

Lawmakers in the Dominican Republic have passed a bill aimed at resolving the legal status of thousands of individuals who were stripped of their citizenship by a September 2013 ruling, but the measure could still leave thousands essentially stateless.

In an emergency session yesterday, Domincan senators voted unanimoutsly to support the long-awaited bill, which was submitted earlier this month by President Danilo Medina. The move will re-establish citizenship rights for children born in the country to foreign parents  in the past, provided they are on the government's civil registry and have legal identification. 

As El Listin Diario reports, lawmakers cited international pressure as a primary reason for the bill's passage. Senate President Reinaldo Pared Perez, noting that even Pope Francis had raised concerns about the citizenship ruling during a meeting with a Dominican delegation to the Vatican, expressed hope that the new law would end "international commentary" on the issue.

But the measure has earned a mixed reaction from human rights advocates in the country and abroad. The Denationalized Peoples Solidarity Committee, a coalition of civil society groups and individuals opposed to the September ruling, referred to the bill as a "victory" in a statement released following its presentation to Congress. But at the same time the committee expressed concern that citizenship would still be denied to those who are not registered or lack documentation. These criticisms have been echoed by the UN Refugee Agency as well.

As Reuters explains, the law will have a varying impact on those affected by the ruling: 
The legislation would create different categories. Those born between 1929 and 1997 with proper documentation will be granted full citizenship; those born between 1997 and 2010 will need to apply for citizenship; and those born 2010 or later, or those who have no legal documents, will be given the opportunity to apply for naturalization after 10 years.
The requirement for documentation is problematic. A recent study (.pdf) of some 350 households in the country (both immigrant and non-immigrant) by the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) found that 30 percent of those polled lacked necessary documentation to prove their citizenship. This means that many may be required to register as foreigners in the very country they were born in, which the editorial board of digital newspaper Acento calls a paradox that "will have to be resolved in the future."

News Briefs
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Mexico yesterday as part of his first official visit to the country, expected to focus on economic, education and security issues. In remarks to the press yesterday, Kerry also took the opportunity to give his most forceful response yet to the political situation in Venezuela. As the New York Times and Washington Post note, Kerry criticized the “total failure by the government of Venezuela to demonstrate good-faith actions.” He also brought up the subject of sanctions, noting that while the administration continued to hope they “would not be necessary,” Congress is pushing the issue. “The Congress of the United States is discussing those sanctions now,” Kerry said. “They have already passed some legislation reflecting that attitude. They’re moving it.”
  • Animal Politico and EFE report on the passage of a controversial law passed in the Mexican state of Puebla, which human rights groups have criticized for authorizing the use of deadly force against violent demonstrators.
  • In the U.S. debate over Venezuela, the conversation has generally focused around targeted sanctions on officials and their impact on the human rights situation there. Lawmakers backing the sanction push say they will punish human rights abusers in the country, while opponents argue that doing so will only reinforce the government’s anti-imperialist rhetoric. But in a column for The Hill’s Congress Blog, international relations scholar Juan Gabriel Tokatlian lays out the case for a different approach, one which would involve using back-door communication with Cuba, which also has a significant stake in a peaceful outcome in the country.
  • Imprisoned ex-Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori is once again making headlines in Peru after his attorneys called for him to receive a pension from the state due to his ten years in office, El Comercio reports. The Legal Defense Institute (IDL) has challenged this assertion, arguing that if Fujimori is entitled to a pension, the funds should go towards the families of the victims of the human rights abuses for which he has been convicted.
  • Venezuela is coming under increasing pressure from international air carriers to pay overdue debts. With the withdrawal of Italy’s Alitalia last week, a total of 13 airlines have pulled out or restricted service to Venezuela due to charges that the government is not passing along ticket revenue, as the L.A. Times reports. Ultimas Noticias notes that the economic minister in the country yesterday denied that airlines were pulling out of the country, saying international flights were merely being “redirected” due to the World Cup.
  • The Miami Herald has a succinct overview of the recent scandals that have rocked the two main candidates in Colombia’s presidential election, President Juan Manuel Santos and his rival Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. Despite the recent release of a video showing Zuluaga meeting with a hacker accused of attempting to sabotage peace talks in Havana, Colombian political analysts cited by the Herald say it is unlikely to hurt Zuluaga’s odds in Sunday’s vote.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet gave her first state of the union address yesterday since taking office for a second term.  El Mercurio reports that the president spoke for two hours, during which she outlined her plans for her administration and repeated campaign promises to push for tax and education reforms. La Nacion notes that she also stressed her commitment to loosening the country’s harsh anti-abortion laws, proposing a reform that would allow abortion in three cases: when the fetus is non-viable, when the mother's health is in danger and in cases of rape. The Wall Street Journal looks at her proposed tax reforms, which are currently under debate in Congress, citing business leaders who argue that they threaten to “reverse the gains that have made this country Latin America's most prosperous nation.”
  • Access to the new digital newspaper launched by dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez and her husband Reinaldo Escobar, 14yMedio, was reportedly blocked on the island shortly after its launch yesterday. The AP reports that it was redirecting Cuban visitors instead to a site dedicated to hosting criticism of Sanchez by pro-government writers. Sanchez and Escobar have blamed government censors for the redirect, and have said they intend to distribute a PDF version of their paper weekly via USB memory sticks.
  • What’s in Blue, a United Nations publication detailing the work of the UN Security Council, has released a briefing suggesting that Cuba could receive only an “implementation assistance notice” for violating sanctions on North Korea by attempting to send military weaponry there last year, a move the Miami Herald characterizes as a diplomatic “slap on the wrist.”
  • Guatemalan news site Plaza Publica looks at the effect of freedom of information legislation in the country, five years after its passage. While the law has hardly rid the country of its notoriously opaque government institutions, its application is slowly growing and more individuals are taking advantage of it, with last year seeing a 37 percent rise in freedom of information requests.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

UNASUR Delegates Leave Venezuela Empty-Handed

An attempt by the foreign ministers of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) delegation in Caracas to save floundering talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition appears to have fallen short. While the UNASUR delegates and the Vatican representative facilitating the dialogue released a joint statement yesterday congratulating both sides for their "willingness to keep working on finding solutions," the dialogue remains frozen. 

In the statement, the mediators said both sides had "presented ideas and now should reflect on the next advances in the dialogue." No date was given for the next round of meetings, though they expressed hope that this could be determined soon.

As the AP notes, the opposition MUD coalition has insisted that before it can return to talks, the  government must make progress on its demands. These include reviewing the status of alleged political prisoners and creating an independent committee to look into police abuses and deaths linked to the ongoing wave of protests. El Nacional reports that MUD Secretary General Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told reporters yesterday that the opposition was not completely turning away from dialogue, saying that it was "keeping a window open" should the administration of President Nicolas Maduro meet the MUD's conditions. 

President Maduro, for his part, has insisted that he is willing to participate in talks but refrained from mentioning the opposition's conditions. 

Meanwhile, in Washington the push for targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials is gaining momentum. Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 16-2 to pass a bill which would freeze the assets and revoke or deny the visas of Venezuelan officials linked to abuses. So far the Obama administration has insisted that it will refrain from taking drastic action on Venezuela so long as the dialogue continues. But the current setback in talks will likely add fuel to calls for sanctions. The Wall Street Journal reports that Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the leading proponents of sanctioning Venezuelan officials, has even prepared a list of "about two dozen" suggested targets. It reportedly includes Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz as well as Caracas National Guard chief General Manuel Quevedo. 

News Briefs
  • Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA has presented its annual report on the human rights situation in the country. The report assesses the state’s compliance with universal human rights over the course of 2013, which the NGO notes was an “exceptional year” in terms of social conflict. As EFE and Ultimas Noticias report, among PROVEA’s findings is that while the organization saw a 20% drop in the number of protests (4,410) compared to last year, there as a 62% increase in cases of police abuses against peaceful demonstrators in the same period.
  • While many remain skeptical of the move, it seems that Mexico’s efforts to incorporate armed militias into security forces in the troubled state of Michoacan is attracting some of the movement’s leaders. According to El Universal, “autodefensa” leaders Hipolito Mora and Jose Manuel Mireles have both applied to join the state’s “rural forces.”
  • On Monday, Reuters published a story on Uruguay’s supposed plan for commercial marijuana growers to operate in the country “virtually tax free.” However, this is slightly misleading. As the Uruguayan National Drug Council announced last week, commercial growers will be obliged to pay income tax, and the cost of their operating licenses will include two components: a flat fee and a “variable” one to be determined by regulators. Authorities have said that the latter will be used as a tool to control the price of the drug to be sold in pharmacies, ensuring that it is competitive with the black market product.
  • The days following the announcement of the agreement between the FARC and Colombian government on drugs have seen a number of interesting takes on the development. Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group, for instance, praises it for placing the needs of rural residents most affected by the drug trade “front and center.” La Silla Vacia has an analysis of “the good, the revolutionary, and the invisible” of the agreement. While the news site applauds the accord’s potential to alter the drug policy paradigm in the country, it also notes that the emphasis on dialogue with local communities on drug eradication could preserve FARC influence in guerrilla-controlled areas. Over at Razon Publica, Angela Duran looks at the promises and challenges of the three main components of the agreement: crop substitution, drug prevention/treatment, and drug trafficking. Each of these points is exceptionally complex in reality and Duran notes that their success will ultimately depend on the specifics of how they are carried out.
  • Reuters has an interesting look at the potential for the FARC to engage in democratic politics in Colombia, drawing comparisons with the experiences of other rebel groups-turned-political-parties in places like El Salvador and Guatemala.
  • In welcome news for human rights advocates in Latin America, a judge in Spain appears to be pushing back against Spanish lawmakers’ recent vote to limit the country’s doctrine of universal jurisdiction. According to El Pais, Judge Santiago Pedraz has reasoned that his investigation into Guatemala’s genocide may continue, as the case involves Spanish victims of what could be considered acts of terrorism under the country’s law. Even still, the judge stated that he feels limiting the investigation to these cases is “impossible,” as it overlooks the context of crimes committed against the Guatemalan people.
  • In a move that seeks to expand affirmative action in the country, O Globo reports that Brazilian senators have approved a measure that would reserve 20 percent of federal job openings for individuals of African descent. The bill will now go to President Dilma Rousseff to be signed. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Policy Heavyweights Urge Change on Cuba

Yet another mass letter has been sent to President Barack Obama calling for a shift on U.S. policy towards Cuba. What makes this one stand out, however, is the high profile of those who have signed on to it.

The list includes big names like John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence under President George W. Bush, retired Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela. As the Miami Herald reports, it also includes prominent Cuban-American businessmen like Andres Fanjul, Paul Cejas and Carlos Saladrigas.

In all, 44 high-ranking diplomats, civil servants, military officers and business figures signed the letter. While they stopped short of calling for an end to the embargo, they put forth four main proposals, urging Obama to: 1.) Loosen restrictions on travel to Cuba; 2.) increase support for Cuban civil society; 3.) engage with Cuba on humanitarian and security issues of mutual interest and 4.) allow financial institutions to carry out any necessary transactions associated with licensed activities.

Points one and two are each broken down further, with specific  recommendations like ending limits on remittances, allowing Cuban entrepreneurs to pursue internships in the U.S., and allowing American travelers easier access to money in Cuba.

The broad range of Beltway insiders -- and especially the inclusion of conservative figures like Negroponte -- is sure to build momentum in Washington for further changes in Cuba policy. It comes amid similar calls for Obama to use his executive authority to shift the U.S. approach to the island, as well as polling data suggesting that a majority of the U.S. (56 percent, according to a February Atlantic Council survey) supports engaging more directly with Cuba.

News Briefs
  • Bloomberg reports that just hours after the publication of the letter, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced that its president and CEO, Thomas J. Donohue, will lead an executive delegation to the island next week to assess the impact of economic reforms there. In a statement, Donohue said the trip would provide “first-hand look at changes in Cuba’s economic policies and whether or not they are affecting the ability to do business there.”
  • Last week marked two years since Brazil’s highly-praised freedom of information law went into effect, the result of years of advocacy and lobbying by NGOs. The pro-transparency group Artigo 19, which was instrumental in pushing for the law’s passage, has since submitted hundreds of information requests -- with varying degrees of success. The group has cataloged the 474 information requests sent to some 51 federal entities since the law came into effect on its online observatory, which provides a statistical breakdown of the responses. While most of the requests received some answer, Artigo 19 found a significant percentage to be incomplete or unsatisfactory, a fact which was picked up in an editorial published in today’s Folha de S. Paulo.
  • Efforts by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) delegation to restart the government-opposition dialogue in Venezuela appear to be meeting resistance. While Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño announced yesterday that they had succeeded in “opening up bridges of communication again” between both sides, El Nacional reports that MUD spokesman Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told reporters yesterday that the opposition’s conditions for talks to continue had not been met.
  • The Miami Herald has an investigation into the U.S. assets of the new owners of Venezuelan news channel Globovision, Raul Gorrin and Gustavo Perdomo. They are seen as relatively close to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, and the fact that they own property in Miami has been used by Republican lawmakers as evidence of the need for targeted sanctions in Venezuela.  However, in a Washington Post op-ed, David Smilde argues that these would be counterproductive and only reinforce Maduro’s claims that his government is under attack by foreign, imperialist interests.
  • Ahead of the June 1 inauguration of Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, Spanish judge and human rights advocate Baltasar Garzon has an op-ed in today’s El Pais in which he expresses hope that the new administration will take steps to facilitate investigations into human rights abuses.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is following up on her promise to reform her country’s education system.  The president submitted the first bill of her reform package, which would end state subsidies for for-profit schools, to lawmakers yesterday. It is expected to be followed up by another bill later this year which would guarantee free university education. While Bachelet framed the measure as “following through with what our students repeatedly said: education is a right, not a privilege,” some student leaders have been found fault with the bill. As La Tercera and Wall Street Journal report, University of Chile Student Union (Fech) President Melissa Sepulveda criticized the reforms as not going far enough.
  • Mexican authorities have announced the discovery of 16 bodies in the northern state of Tamaulipas, and Animal Politico reports that state officials said they were victims of an apparent clash between rival gangs in the area. The Associated Press notes that the announcement comes a week after major protests in Tamaulipas, in which thousands participated in a march against violence.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is taking full advantage of the scandal involving his main rival ahead of Sunday’s elections, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. Referring to the recently-leaked video showing Zuluaga meeting with a hacker accused of attempting to turn up dirt on the negotiators in Havana, Santos accused his opponent of running a “criminal campaign.” Meanwhile, La Silla Vacia has an extremely useful breakdown of the major revelations that have come out since the scandal broke, as well as some of the questions that haven’t yet been answered about the motives behind the video’s release.