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.

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