Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Santos: Colombia May Widen Peace Talks

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has indicated that his government is looking to incorporate the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) in ongoing peace talks in Havana. But it’s unclear whether significant progress is being made on this front or whether the remarks are part of his re-election strategy.

In an interview with Spanish news agency EFE, Santos said he was hopeful that the current talks with FARC rebels could reach a final agreement before the end of the year, and that the peace process would be widened to include the ELN.

The ELN has been particularly vocal about its desire to participate in the negotiations, even sending representatives to Havana  only to have them turned away by Cuban officials because they lacked the permission of the Colombian government. Last year, the president called on the guerrillas to free all of their hostages, and then signaled that he was “ready to talk” with the ELN following the August release of a Canadian hostage. In the weeks after the release, there were rumors that Uruguayan President Jose Mujica -- a former guerrilla himself -- would help facilitate dialogue with the rebels, but ultimately this never materialized.

There is reason to be suspicious about the timing of Santos’ remarks, however. His critics have accused him of using the peace talks to boost his campaign ahead of the May 25 presidential elections, an allegation that was fueled by the announcement that the official negotiating team would go on a nationwide tour to promote the talks this month. And as EFE points out, the president has made stump speeches under the campaign slogan “Vote for peace.”

La Silla Vacia also notes that the remarks could have more to do with the ongoing rural agricultural protests in the country, which have been joined this week by campesino movements sympathetic to widening the talks to include the ELN. Mentioning giving the guerrillas a seat at the table, the news site claims, is a strategy to appease these sectors.

Santos’ announcement also comes amid a developing campaign scandal. Yesterday, his  chief campaign strategist J.J. Rendon  was forced to resign after El Espectador and Semana  reported that he is accused of accepting money from drug traffickers in exchange for communicating their offer to turn themselves to avoid extradition to the U.S.

News Briefs
  • Meanwhile, a new poll published on Monday suggests that Santos’ conservative challenger, the Uribe-backed Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, continues to gain on him. While Santos remains in the lead, Cifras y Conceptos survey shows that a second-round vote would be tight, with the president beating Zuluaga by just 34 percent to 31 percent, Reuters reports.
  • While Panamanian Vice President Juan Carlos Varela was elected to serve as the country’s next president in Sunday’s vote, a full count of legislative elections revealed yesterday that his party will hold just 12 of the 71 seats in Panama's National Assembly. The largest bloc, with 29 seats, will be current President Ricardo Martinelli’s party, followed by the center-left Democratic Revolution Party with 21. The Wall Street Journal notes that although Martinelli will retain significant political influence, Varela may not have a difficult time working with the next legislature because of his promises to continue much of the policies of his predecessor, “only more efficiently.”   
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro also appears to have seen his popularity fall of late. According to a Datanalisis survey published in El Universal on Monday, 59.2 percent of respondents disapprove of his performance, up from 44.6 percent in November. The poll also found that Venezuelans placed the economy as their top concern, beating out insecurity and crime for the first time, according to the AFP.
  • According to a report by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) -- referred to by the Miami Herald as “the island’s top human rights group” -- the first four months of 2014 saw a record number of short-term arrests of dissidents in Cuba. Some 3,821 individuals were arrested during this time, compared to 1,588 reported arrests in the same period last year.
  • Award-winning Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, who has become one of the leading figures in the country to question President Enrique Peña Nieto on his proposed energy reforms, published yet another full-page ad in Mexican newspapers yesterday calling on the president to hold a series of public debates on the reforms. El Pais notes that such a national debate were to happen it would have to be organized soon, as the government is seeking to pass the reforms before July.
  • After Uruguayan President Jose Mujica signed the implementation guidelines of his country’s historic marijuana law yesterday, they have officially entered the legal record, according to La Republica. Meanwhile, El Pais reports that National Drug Council Secretary Julio Calzada has provided more details on the state land where commercial marijuana will be grown. According to Calzada, commercial cannabis will be produced not in rural parts of the country, but in Montevideo and the surrounding metropolitan area.
  • While international human rights groups continue to express surprise over the exclusion of Claudia Paz y Paz from a shortlist of candidates for Guatemala’s attorney general, Paz y Paz has accepted the development. Siglo21 reports that the prosecutor has told reporters that she will not challenge the nomination of her successor, and plans on returning to academic life when her term ends this month.
     
  • Today’s New York Times features a look at the epidemic of a fungus known as “coffee rust” in Central America, which has taken a major toll on the region’s coffee production. Experts say the problem has been exacerbated by climate change, which has allowed the fungus to thrive at higher altitudes.
  • The Washington Post takes on reports that the price of limes in the U.S. has skyrocketed recently due to extortion of lime growers and drug cartel violence in lime-growing states like Michoacan. While the violence may be a contributing factor, the main reason for the spike in price, according to growers consulted by the Post, is poor weather conditions.