Monday, June 30, 2014

Argentine VP Charged With Bribery in Corruption Case

With time running out for Argentina to reach a settlement with holdout creditors, the past week has been a rough one for President Cristina Fernandez. 

On Friday, things got a good deal worse after a federal judge officially charged Vice President Amado Boudou with bribery and influence peddling. Though prosecutors initially investigated Boudou for allegedly helping the Ciccone Calcografica printing company avoid tax obligations during his time as economy minister in 2010, the case escalated from there. The Associated Press reports: 
According to the judge's investigation, Boudou — as economy minister and then vice president — acted to smooth the Ciccone Calcografica printing company's exit from bankruptcy and engineer its purchase by a shell company so he and other secret partners could benefit from unusual tax exemptions and lucrative government contracts. 
The shell company, The Old Fund, was led by businessman Alejandro Vandenbroele, who is accused of secretly representing Boudou in business deals. The scandal broke open after Vandenbroele's former wife exposed the alleged arrangement, saying she had to give media interviews because her life was being threatened for what she knew.
Perhaps even more surprising than the corruption allegations against Boudou is the fact that even with lawmakers pressing for his impeachment, he has not stepped down or taken a leave of absence while his attorneys fight the charges.  Boudou, who was on an official visit to Cuba when the ruling was announced, travels today to Panama to attend the inauguration of newly-elected President Juan Carlos Varela, the AFP reports. If convicted, he could face up to six years in prison.

President Fernandez, for her part, has remained silent on the case. According to La Nacion, the president was visiting the southern province of Santa Cruz over the weekend, and her office declined to issue a statement in the wake of the ruling.

News Briefs
  • Syndicated columnist Andres Oppenheimer has an interesting take on Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis’ well-publicized swipe at what he called “the cult of the presidential image.” Oppenheimer praises Solis’ ban on his name and image from being associated with public works, and contrasts it with recent self-aggrandizing actions by the presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.
  • According to a report in Cuban news site 14ymedio, a group of top Google executives visited the island over the weekend, meeting with officials, technology experts and 14ymedio journalists in a trip aimed at promoting " the virtues of a free and open Internet." Reuters notes that Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt appeared to confirm the visit by retweeting a message about it by dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, though the company has made no official statement.
  • After 32 years in print, Ecuadorean newspaper Hoy has announced it will become an online-only publication, a decision its editors say was partially due to less demand for print media, and partially because of restrictions imposed by a controversial communications law passed in 2013. For a good overview of the law’s impact on Ecuador’s media landscape, see John Otis’ recent account for the Committee to Protect Journalist’s blog. He points to complaints by press freedom advocacy group Fundamedios and other organizations that the newly-created government media watchdog appears to ignore complaints about inaccurate coverage in state media, while disproportionately targeting private media outlets that publish content that is critical of the government. A good example of the pressures on private media, which was noted in the Oppenheimer column mentioned above, is a recent speech by President Rafael Correa in which he accused the press of violating peoples’ "right to know" after coverage of an official visit to Chile was not as extensive as he would have liked.
  • President Barack Obama is expected to ask Congress today for over $2 billion to deal with the surge of undocumented immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as authorization to speed up deportation proceedings against unaccompanied minors currently being detained. Also on the immigration wave, WOLA’s Adam Isaacson has posted an interesting map released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection showing the breakdown of where more than 35,000 unaccompanied Central American children detained between October to May are from. Interestingly, CBP asserts that child migrants from Guatemala are motivated to make the trek north due to poverty, whereas those from El Salvador and Honduras are driven more by violence and crime.
  • FiveThirtyEight has an analysis of Brazil’s spending on stadiums ahead of the World Cup, noting that Brazil holds the record of the highest nominal stadium construction costs of any Cup-hosting country, while much of the promised spending on long-term infrastructure failed to materialize. The New York Times profiles skepticism about the benefits of the stadiums from residents in cities like Natal, Manaus, and Cuiaba, which lack soccer teams to properly fill them after the tournament.  
  • Following Colombia’s victory over Uruguay in Saturday’s World Cup match, Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro told reporters that at least eight people were killed over the weekend in the city amidst the subsequent celebrations, though police have said the deaths were unrelated to the game. Still, in a column for El Espectador, Mauricio Garcia Villegas of human rights group Dejusticia argues that so-called “dry laws” during mass sporting events are an important factor in preventing what he calls “the difficulty we Colombians have with celebrating without violence.”
  • A massive blackout affected much of Venezuela on Friday, fueling traffic jams in Caracas and cutting off a presidential broadcast twice. It was the second major nationwide electricity outage in the past year, according to Reuters.
  • On Friday, Paraguayan authorities announced that rains and flooding had forced the evacuation of 200,000 people living near the Paraguay and Parana Rivers. In the days since, that number has been raised to 300,000, and local officials say they are seeking humanitarian assistance from the UN and Red Cross.
  • In a column for Al-Jazeera America, Dan Beeton of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) ties in the surge in unaccompanied minors with the five-year anniversary of the 2009 coup in Honduras. Noting that much of the violence that makes Honduras the “murder capital of the world” -- including persecution and intimidation of campesino, human rights and indigenous activists -- is actually politically motivated, Beeton questions the Obama administration’s strategy of providing additional aid to the country’s notoriously corrupt security forces.
  • One of the most high-profile leaders of the militia movement in the Mexican state of Michoacan, Jose Manuel Mireles, was arrested by federal security forces on Friday for allegedly carrying an unauthorized firearm. El Universal reports that he was arrested along with 82 others, and according to EFE Mireles was subsequently taken to a maximum security facility in the north of the country. The BBC notes that the arrest comes after the militia leader’s refusal to join a new rural police force.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Militarization, the Other Controversy in Ecuador’s Constitutional Reforms

Lawmakers belonging to Ecuador’s ruling Alianza PAIS party submitted a series of constitutional reform proposals to the country’s Constitutional Court yesterday, seeking approval to pass them through a legislative vote. The court now has 45 days to study the reforms and determine whether they must be approved by a popular referendum.

Understandably, the press coverage of the proposals (see Reuters, the AP and Wall Street Journal) has mostly focused on the inclusion of language that would scrap term limits for all elected officials. This would pave the way for President Rafael Correa’s indefinite re-election. Even though the president denied that he would seek re-election in remarks to official media in January and previously opposed such a reform, he has since reversed his position and it is unclear whether he will run again in 2017.

A lesser-known -- but equally important -- element of the proposal is that it includes changes to the constitutional authority of the armed forces, which could facilitate the militarization of public security in the country.

Under Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, which Correa supported, internal security and law enforcement are specifically listed as “the responsibility of the national police force.” The armed forces, meanwhile, are tasked with “defense of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” As El Universo reports, the Alianza PAIS-backed amendment would add “supporting the comprehensive security of the State in compliance with the law” to the military’s mission.

This is no doubt meant to aid the Correa administration’s attempts to deepen the military’s role in fighting organized crime. In some respects, the move makes sense given the notorious level of corruption in the police relative to the armed forces. It also may have to do with the president’s historically tense relationship with elements of the Ecuadorean National Police (PNE), which came to a head in 2010 after PNE officers barricaded the president inside a hospital during a revolt he characterized as an attempted coup.

Regardless, if the reforms are passed Ecuador will join countries like Mexico, Venezuela and Honduras in fueling a worrisome trend in the region: an increasing dependence on the military for law enforcement and citizen security.

While corrupt local police forces may make this a more viable policy option in the short term, in the long run it is no substitute for investing in strong, transparent judicial institutions subject to civilian oversight.  Until such institutions become a reality, involving the armed forces in policing runs the risk of establishing a repressive security climate, overseen by security forces whose human rights training and familiarity with due process are likely minimal at best.

News Briefs
  • Days after releasing its survey of Bolivia’s coca crop, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has released its annual report on coca cultivation in Colombia. According to UNODC figures, coca covered roughly 48,000 hectares of land in the country in in 2013, the same as last year’s estimate. However, as Reuters notes, estimates of the country’s potential cocaine production have fallen 6 percent since 2012. In its analysis of the report, news site La Silla Vacia notes that coca growth appears to have established footholds in areas largely out of reach of government eradication efforts, and that even in places where coca cultivation has fallen, other illicit activities like unlicensed mining have taken its place.
  • The UNODC also released its annual World Drug Report today, and while the main headlines on the report have to do with its finding that opium production has increased to historic levels, it also asserts that “more permissive cannabis regulations correlate with decreases in the perceived risk of use,” according to Reuters.  As El Pais reports, the UNODC also cautioned that “years of observation” would be necessary in order to judge the wider effects of cannabis legalization initiatives like those passed recently in Uruguay, Colorado and Washington.
  • In a sign that the White House sees its approach to immigration as a vulnerability in the  wake of the attention given to the influx of unaccompanied minors along the U.S.-Mexico border, the L.A. Times reports that administration has put off plans to soften deportation laws. Meanwhile, the president has continued to take on perceptions that the U.S. is more tolerant towards undocumented child immigrants, remarking in an ABC interview: “Do not send your children to the borders. If they do make it, they'll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it.”
  • While Nicaragua has largely been spared the drug-fueled violence afflicting its neighbors in Central America, Spain’s El Pais notes that recent wave of femicides -- 46 so far this year -- have fueled debate over the government’s role in preventing gender-based violence.
  • The Economist looks at the progress of constitutional reforms in Brazil intended to guarantee basic rights to domestic workers in the country. While issues related to severance pay are still being debated in Congress, the law has already led to better pay, and many middle class families are relying less on domestic workers for household chores.
  • The Washington Post has an excellent explainer on the recent court decision regarding Argentina’s obligation to holdout creditors and its global consequences, highlighting claims from analysts who say predictions that it will negatively affect the ability of developing countries to restructure their debts are overblown. Meanwhile, the United Nations trade agency UNCTAD has taken issue with the ruling, and the Argentine government has announced that it has begun processing a payment due to holders of its restructured debt due June 30.
  • The AP profiles dissatisfaction with the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro among his own Chavista base, as evidenced by recent high-profile criticism of his administration from two former ministers. David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights have a more in-depth overview of recent dissent by ideologues in the ruling PSUV ahead of a party congress next month, noting the forceful response by Maduro and other officials who have countered criticism with calls for “maximum loyalty and discipline.”

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Anti-Mining Governor Jailed in Peru

A Peruvian judge has ordered Cajamarca Governor Gregorio Santos to remain in pre-trial detention for 14 months as authorities investigate corruption allegations against hm. While the ruling comes amid a broader crackdown on corruption at the provincial level, Santos’ supporters claim he is being persecuted for his staunch opposition to a controversial mining project in Cajamarca.

In yesterday’s ruling, the judge ordered Santos’ detention while authorities investigate bribery and criminal conspiracy charges against him. He is accused of receiving money in exchange for favors to a wealthy local business owner.

The development comes amid an apparent push by federal prosecutors in Peru to go after corrupt regional officials. In the past month, two other governors have been arrested and a third has gone missing to escape charges. According to La Republica, prosecutors are investigating 19 governors linked to 158 separate corruption cases. The most well-known of these is Ancash Governor Cesar Alvarez, accused of ordering the assassination of a political opponent in March.

But Santos’ supporters are crying foul at the accusations against him. The official has been a leading critic of the Minas Conga project, a copper and gold mine owned by U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corporation.  Mass demonstrations in Cajamarca placed the project on hold and led President Ollanta Humala to declare a state of emergency there in December 2011, and the region has seen waves of protests against the mine ever since.  Santos has capitalized on the clashes to lash out at the president, accusing him of breaking his campaign promises to prioritize dialogue over the use of force to settle mining conflicts.

Administration authorities have insisted that the investigation against Santos is unrelated to the fact that he has been a major thorn in Humala’s side, but many in Cajamarca see his detention as political persecution. The governor recently launched a re-election campaign ahead of October regional and municipal elections, and polls indicated he was a leading candidate. While his detention does not automatically remove him from the race, as El Comercio notes, it will certainly make it more difficult for him to campaign.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that financial analysts in Peru have perked up at the news of Santos’ detention, with many interpreting it as a sign that Minas Conga and other stalled mining projects in the region might resume in the near future.

News Briefs
  • The defense lawyer for Alan Gross, the former USAID contractor serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba, released a statement warning the U.S. and Cuban governments that his client is despondent and “plans to end his life” to escape his situation. In a statement, his wife claimed she was concerned he was “going to do something drastic” following the recent death of his moth. Despite the announcement, the AP notes that neither American nor Cuban authorities had any immediate response.
  • Newly-launched Brazilian news site Ponte features a sobering analysis of police killings in São Paulo state since 1995, when authorities first began releasing the data to the public. According to official figures, over 10,000 people have been killed by military police personnel in the past 19 years. While abuses by Brazil’s military police have been in the news a fair amount recently, Ponte’s investigation suggests they employ particularly brutal tactics in São Paulo. From 2008 to 2012, the state military police killed almost 10 times as many people as all the police forces in the United States combined. Noting that Brazil’s Public Security Secretary (SSP) declined to comment on the story, Ponte has five unanswered questions regarding the trend, emphasizing the SSP’s apparent lack of action on the issue.
  • The L.A. Times looks at protests in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, one of the few places to draw sizeable demonstrations during the World Cup. There, locals are opposing a plan to build new high rises they say won’t benefit the current residents. Agencia Publica also reports on opposition to the World Cup in Recife, noting at least 20 cases where the estimated 200 families who were forced to relocate for development projects linked to the Cup -- some of which never materialized -- have not received compensation they were promised by the government.
  • Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation has released a new study on the challenges that demobilization efforts face in the country. According to the authors, 36 percent of those who left illegal armed groups have been approached to rejoin them, and ten percent say they have been tempted to accept the offer.
  • Al Jazeera America has an in-depth report on the impact that a boom in drug trafficking through Honduras has had on indigenous communities in the remote northeastern La Mosquitia region. The increasing presence of criminal networks has contributed to deforestation and violence, and a lack of state presence in the area allows organized crime to operate with impunity there.
  • On top of contributing to backlog in the U.S. federal immigration court system, the influx of undocumented immigrants along the southern Texas border with Mexico has impacted the work of local law enforcement as well. The Wall Street Journal reports on the work of police in San Juan, Texas, where authorities say they are finding an increasing number of so-called “stash houses” used by migrant smugglers, many of whom abuse or extort migrants for extra cash.
  • Honduran First Lady Ana Garcia de Hernandez arrived in Texas yesterday at the head of a delegation tasked with studying the situation along the border. La Tribuna reports that the first lady will visit emergency shelters housing Honduran immigrants and border police facilities, as well as a desert crossing used by many immigrants. Honduran officials say some 13,000 Honduran minors are believed to be held in shelters along the border, according to EFE.
  • Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis, whose April election win broke a longstanding two-party tradition that dominated the country for decades, has continued to build a reputation for himself as an iconoclastic leader.  The president signed a decree yesterday which prohibits his name from being placed on public works projects -- a common practice in Costa Rica -- and bans public offices from hanging up his portrait. The AFP reports that Solis announced that the decree marked the end of the “cult of the presidential image, at least in my government.”  Additionally, while Solis was elected on an anti-corruption platform, he has rejected opening up an official probe into corruption under his predecessor, ex-President Laura Chinchilla. Instead, he has said he will address the public on the issue in a state of the union speech marking 100 days in office in August.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose administration has come under criticism from some figures in the ruling Socialist Party -- notably ex-Education Minister Hector Navarro and recently dismissed Planning Minister Jorge Giordani -- has hit back at his leftist attackers. Saying that this criticism comes mainly from the “outdated left,” the president accused them of attempting to divide the party and threatened to “unmask” them for serving the interests of the opposition, the AP and Ultimas Noticias report. Navarro, meanwhile, has confirmed that he was removed from the party for agreeing with Giordani’s criticisms of the Maduro administration.
  • Former Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Richard Mardo, who was stripped of parliamentary immunity last year, has been charged a host of crimes, including tax fraud and violating election campaign laws, according to El Universal. The opposition has framed the case as an attempt to silence criticism of the government.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bachelet Reaches Out to Chile's Indigenous

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has announced a new plan to deepen land restitution to the country’s indigenous communities and better incorporate them into the political process.

The president made the announcement in a speech yesterday to commemorate Chile’s National Indigenous People's Day. Noting that nearly 25 years had passed since the country’s return to democracy, Bachelet said that even after five successive democratic administrations, the government “remains in debt to indigenous peoples.”

El Mercurio reports that the president did not provide specifics about her proposal, but that it included three main elements: creating a new institutional framework (including a new Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, a Council of Indigenous Peoples and a Council of Culture and Heritage), strengthening the government’s land restitution program, and granting indigenous communities greater representation in Congress.

Any eventual reform initiatives will not be unilateral. The government has signaled that it is entering into a six-month process of consultation with indigenous organizations. Restitution is sure to be an especially contentious issue. As La Tercera notes, the government has purchased and turned over land to indigenous communities since 1994, benefiting some 16, 000 families over the last twenty years. Still, many indigenous Chileans, especially Mapuche groups in the troubled Araucania region, are dissatisfied with the slow progress of this program.

While no concrete legislation has yet been presented, Bachelet’s speech offers the latest sign that her government is interested in moving indigenous rights forward in Chile.  It comes in the wake of repeated promises by administration officials -- most recently before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva  -- not to invoke a Pinochet-era terrorist law to prosecute Mapuche activists. It also follows up on her appointment of part-Mapuche politician Francisco Huenchumilla as the government’s top official in Araucania, and his historic apology to the Mapuche in March for over a century of land theft and displacement.

News Briefs
  • Mexican authorities have confirmed the capture of the head of the Tijuana Cartel, one of the oldest criminal organizations in the country. Security forces arrested Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias "El Ingeniero," in Tijuana on Monday as he was watching Monday’s Mexico vs. Croatia World Cup match, El Universal reports.  Reuters notes that a photo released by officials after the arrest shows Sanchez Arellano still in a soccer jersey and with his face painted in Mexico’s national colors. InSight Crime’s James Bargent suggests that a bloody power struggle in Tijuana is unlikely to follow the arrest, as the mighty Sinaloa Cartel is believed to have already solidified control over the Tijuana “plaza.”
  • While a Mexican law aimed at protecting human rights defenders and journalists threatened in the course of their work has been on the books since last year, the government of Enrique Peña Nieto has been criticized by civil society groups for not providing the program with enough resources or staff to be effective. El Universal reports today that the Interior Ministry has proposed regulatory changes to allow it to obtain necessary funding more easily.
  • The Associated Press has picked up on the story -- noted in yesterday’s brief -- of the first marijuana club in Uruguay taking a first step towards legal recognition under the country’s marijuana law.
  • The AP also has a long investigation based on interviews with Central American migrants, who indicate that in the debate over whether endemic crime and violence or the belief that U.S. policies are more lenient toward children and their mothers is responsible for the ongoing surge of unaccompanied child immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, both sides are right.
  • U.S. lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing yesterday on the increased immigration flow, and remarks by some legislators  showcase the challenges faced by advocates of comprehensive immigration reform. One Republican committee member called for aid to Central America should be cut, arguing that the region needed a “whack” to understand that “we're not the ATM machine.” Ultimately, the main target of the hearing was President Barack Obama and his record on immigration, as the Wall Street Journal reports.
  • These U.S. lawmakers are not alone in the hemisphere in supporting a hostile approach to immigration policy. In the Dominican Republic for instance, where Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent have long faced discrimination, one legislator recently called for the construction of a “border fence” along the Haitian border. As EFE reports, the proposal has been criticized by progressive sectors in the country.
  • São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad’s unique approach to crack use in the city’s center, the harm reduction-oriented "De Braços Abertos" program, is expected to receive an endorsement today during a visit by the UK’s Prince Harry. O Estado de S. Paulo reports that Harry, who is in Brazil for the World Cup, will visit Cracolândia today alongside Haddad. The paper notes that the officials say the prince himself requested the visit, out of a desire to see how one of the largest cities of the world addresses drug use.  
  • Ecuador’s legislative assembly approved a law yesterday which will allow state control over water resources in the country. Indigenous groups have been critical of the measure, recently organizing a national march calling for it to include protections of the rights of indigenous communities living near water reserves. As the WSJ reports, supporters of the measure in the ruling Alianza Pais party say they have included most of the demands made by indigenous activists.
  • Venezuelan newspaper Ultimas Noticias has won critical acclaim for its coverage of the official crackdown on student protests in February this year, particularly of a video analysis of demonstrations which proved that security forces had fired on protestors. On Monday, the investigative team behind the report received a first place prize in an investigative journalism contest held by the Venezuelan Press and Society Institute (IPYS). It’s worth noting, however, that the head of Ultimas Noticias’ investigative unit, Tamoa Calzadilla, resigned in protest in March after the paper pulled an article of hers on the demonstrations.
  • After the UN released its estimates of coca cultivation in Bolivia on Monday, showing a dramatic reduction in coca crops, Bolivian officials provided some sobering figures to complement the news. Felipe Caceres, Deputy Minister of Social Defense, told journalists that 47 percent of the total coca crop in the country is diverted to drug trafficking networks, La Razon reports.
  • El Pais reports on a symbolic change made last week to the clock mounted over Bolivia’s legislative assembly building, which was replaced with a modified clock with hands and numbers designed to be read counterclockwise, or to the left. In a press conference yesterday, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca dubbed it the “clock of the south.” The BBC notes that reception of the clock among locals in La Paz has been mixed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

UN: Bolivia’s Coca Crop Drops to 12-Year Low

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has released its latest survey of coca cultivation in Bolivia, which finds that the amount of coca grown in the country has fallen for the third straight year.

As La Razon and the Wall Street Journal report, coca leaf cultivation in Bolivia fell by 9 percent last year compared to 2012, and now stands at around 23,000 hectares (56,800 acres). The figure is the lowest level recorded by the UNODC since 2002, and represents a 26 percent drop since 2010.

The Bolivian government has attributed the reduction to its unorthodox approach to coca cultivation, which relies on a mix of regulation of legal crop quotas and eradication of surplus and illicit plots. Praising what he called a “record” drop, President Evo Morales noted that the country is on track to meet its goal of reducing coca cultivation to 20,000 hectares (49,420 acres) by 2015, and even suggested the benchmark could be met ahead of schedule.

However, just because the total area used to grow coca has fallen does not necessarily mean cocaine production in Bolivia has decreased. As the Associated Press notes, the UNODC does not estimate potential cocaine production based on its coca cultivation observations. The omission is important, because reports suggest the methods used to make cocaine in the country are increasingly becoming more advanced, relying less on open air maceration pits and more on sophisticated labs. As a result, a greater concentration of cocaine alkaloids can be extracted using less raw coca.

Still, estimating total cocaine production is an inexact science at best. The most well-known estimates come from the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has asserted that Bolivia’s potential cocaine production increased since 2006 even though the amount of coca grown there has fallen.

But the accuracy of the ONDCP figures is doubtful. As the Andean Information Network pointed out, last year the office quietly readjusted its estimates of Bolivia’s cocaine production potential for 2011 -- dropping it to 190 metric tons from 265 -- after its methodology was questioned by independent analysts.  No explanation was given for this modification, nor for retroactive decreases made to ONDCP estimates of the previous five years, potentially amounting to a tacit admission that they were inflated.

News Briefs
  • On Monday, Argentina took a first step towards negotiating with hold-out creditors, asking a U.S. judge to put a stay on his ruling against the country in order to allow it to make a June 30 payment on its restructured debt. And in a signal that talks will soon be underway, the WSJ reports that the judge appointed a lawyer to oversee negotiations. The move comes in the wake of a concerted media effort by Argentina over the weekend to promote its version of the case, in which the government took out full page ads in major U.S. papers to warn that “paying the vulture funds is a path leading to default.” James Bosworth points out that this represents a slight but significant shift in rhetoric for the Argentine government.
  • Venezuelan opposition figure Maria Corina Machado, who was recently questioned by authorities over an investigation into an alleged plot to assassinate President Nicolas Maduro, has been barred from leaving the country. Machado is a vocal critic of the government, and earlier this year conducted an international tour in which she spoke out against alleged corruption and police abuses against protesters.
  • Yesterday a FIFA disciplinary committee dismissed allegations of discrimination levied against Mexican fans for yelling a widely-used anti-gay slur at World Cup matches, finding that it was not “considered insulting in this specific context.” As Animal Politco reports, Mexico’s National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination (Conapred), issued a statement arguing that the use of the word reflected widespread homophobia, machismo and misogyny prevalent in Mexican society.
  • The Guardian takes a look at Lima’s “Place of Memory, Tolerance and Social Inclusion,” a museum dedicated to commemorate victims in its armed conflict, noting that conservative sectors and the military have strongly objected to accounts of the violence that point to abuses committed by security forces.
  • According to a new report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of refugees and internally displaced people has topped 50 million “for the first time in the post-World War II era.” While the number of those displaced in Colombia has fallen, the UNHCR finds that its internally displaced population is second only to Syria, at 5.3 million.
  • The International Crisis Group (ICG) has released a report on violence along the Guatemala-Honduras border, offering a timely look at the kind of violence in Central America that is partially fueling a surge in undocumented immigration to the U.S. from the region. As an InSight Crime analysis points out, one interesting finding of the ICG report is its assertion that an increased crackdown on trafficking and the declining U.S. market for cocaine over the last decade has meant that smuggling networks have had to adopt more cutthroat methods of competition.
  • Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has announced yet another cabinet-shakeup as his approval rating sunk to a new low of 21 percent, Reuters reports. According to El Comercio, Humala appointed new ministers of interior, foreign relations and transportation and communication yesterday. Daniel Urresti, who previously oversaw efforts to rein in illegal mining, will serve as the president’s sixth interior minister since taking office in July 2011. 
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero looks at the arrival of over 200,000 Spanish-speaking Latin American fans to the World Cup in Brazil, even more than the number of U.S. ticketholders. While many visitors are having to cut costs on food and lodging to adjust to steep prices in places like Rio de Janeiro, their presence alone points to the  steady emergence of a small but economically empowered middle class in Latin America.
  • The Miami Herald reports on Brazil’s attempts to promote sustainable tourism during the World Cup, a move that has earned praise from some environmentalist groups.  
  • According to Uruguay’s El Pais, some there have taken advantage of the marijuana law starting to go into effect last month to legally register the first-ever marijuana growing cooperative in the country, one of three forms of cannabis cultivation authorized under the law. The group has registered with the Ministry of Culture, a preliminary step before it can obtain a license from the Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) to begin growing and harvesting the drug. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Human Rights Case for Argentina in its Hold-Out Battle

The days following last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decisions involving Argentina’s debt case have seen a wealth of commentary on their consequences.

The Economist has argued that the odds of the Argentine government negotiating with the hold-outs could be distant, noting President Cristina Fernandez’s hardline stance on compromising with the so-called “vulture funds” in the past. Friday’s New York Times featured a more comprehensive analysis of what Argentina’s loss of the court battle means for the future of government debt. Comparing the ruling against Argentina as an endorsement of a “21st-century equivalent of a debtor’s prison for countries confronting an oppressive debt burden,” the Times suggests that the move could discourage nations from borrowing under U.S. law, a position the Obama administration holds as well.

But especially interesting -- at least from a human rights perspective -- is an analysis of the development by the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a Buenos Aires-based human rights group. Over the weekend, CELS published a concise but compelling argument for Argentina’s position based on international human rights norms.  According to the authors, the case puts property rights, “supported by the predatory practices that the financial system enables,” in direct conflict with the duty of states to guarantee economic, social and cultural rights to their populations.

CELS argues that the right for nations to restructure their debt on terms that do not impact their social obligations to citizens is supported by the Guiding Principles on Foreign Debt and Human Rights, which the UN Human Rights Council endorsed in 2012. This is also backed, according to CELS, under Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which asserts: “All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.”

The group also maintains that the hold-out lenders’ refusal to participate in restructuring agreements goes against the principles of good faith and abuse of process, which it declares are among “the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations” enshrined in the Statute of the International Court of Justice.

On Friday, President Fernandez gave a speech in which she adopted a more conciliatory tone towards the hold-outs than many analysts expected, and the prospects for negotiation are looking better than ever, as the Wall Street Journal  and La Nacion report. Regardless, as CEPR’s Mark Weisbrot argues in an NYT op-ed today, last week’s ruling will damage the ability of countries to escape debt crises in the future, and serves as a blow to CELS’s interpretation of the above international human rights guarantees.

News Briefs
  • Following U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s meeting with Central American leaders over the immigration crisis on Friday, the U.S. government has announced it will attempt to curb the surge in undocumented immigration from the region with a multi-million dollar aid program to support security and development. The money will also include funding for repatriation programs in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  According to the White House,  this will be accompanied by “steps to enhance enforcement and removal proceedings,” which will include accelerated deportations, the Washington Post reports.  
  • The Associated Press has published an investigation into the overburdened system that oversees deportation proceedings, finding evidence of long delays which ultimately make the perception that the U.S. is more tolerant of undocumented child migrants “understandable,” according to the AP.
  • While the recent primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was widely seen as the nail in the coffin for immigration reform in the U.S., the Miami Herald profiles cautious optimism among some lawmakers that that a reform bill could still pass the House this year.
  • The absence of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez at Friday’s meeting -- he sent a top aide, while both the Salvadoran and Guatemalan presidents met with Biden -- earned some criticism for the Honduran government from some corners. As the New York Times reports, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras issued a blunt rebuke to him last week, remarking on a radio program Friday: “I know he is in Brazil, and today there is a very important game, but the country has priorities for which the top leader should be present.” Dan Restrepo, a former chief adviser to the Obama administration on Latin America, delivered even more acid criticism in an interview with Fox News Latino, accusing Hernandez of denying his country’s role in fueling the wave of immigration and using the U.S. as a scapegoat. “The Honduran economic and political elite have systematically and historically failed the people of Honduras,” Restrepo said.
  • Over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Hugo Perez Hernaiz and David Smilde offer some analysis of President Nicolas Maduro’s removal of planning minister Jorge Giordani from office last week. While some analysts have interpreted this as a sign of the administration favoring pragmatism over ideology, Giordani’s subsequent public criticism of Maduro exposes an emerging rift in Chavismo. This divide could come to a head in next month’s Congress of the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV), in which the party’s leadership will be chosen.
  • When a Mexican federal court ordered government prosecutors to pay reparations to Jacinta Francisco Marcial, an indigenous woman wrongly imprisoned for three years, the news made international headlines. However, the international media appears not to have picked up on the fact that the attorney general’s office has refused to comply with the order, despite criticism from human rights groups like Centro Prodh and Amnesty International, as Proceso reports.
  • Sunday’s New York Times featured an op-ed by Mexican reporter Marcela Turati, co-founder of the Grassroots Journalists Network, who provides a critical look at the bureaucratic process Mexican journalists face when applying for asylum in the United States. Turati notes that U.S. officials request evidence of a concrete threat in order to grant asylum, which many find is difficult to prove.
  • At a party conference in Brasilia on Saturday, Brazil's ruling Workers Party (PT) solidified President Dilma Rousseff's re-election bid ahead of the October vote, ending speculation that ex-president Lula might jump in the race at the last minute. While the endorsement of Vice President Michel Temer on the ticket also renewed the PT’s alliance with the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), Veja reports that the formerly PT-aligned Labor Party (PTB) confirmed its split from the PT over the weekend, illustrating the party’s diminished ability to forge broad alliances. As the Wall Street Journal reports, this factor combined with Rousseff’s waning popularity is setting up the presidential race to be more competitive than initially expected.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Pope Francis and Drug Policy in Latin America

Pope Francis has once again come out strongly against drug legalization, a position that could complicate reform initiatives in heavily Catholic Latin America.

Speaking to participants in a drug enforcement conference in Rome earlier today, the pontiff criticized even limited legalization of drugs, saying that doing so is both legally problematic and counterproductive. According to Vatican news agency Zenit, the pope said: "Legalizing so-called 'soft drugs', even partially, in addition to being questionable in terms of legislation, does not produce the desired effects." This is because, he argued, "substitute drugs are not sufficient therapy, but a veiled way of surrendering before the phenomenon [of drug addiction]."

The Associated Press notes that Uruguay, which neighbors Pope Francis’ native Argentina, recently published the implementation guidelines of its landmark marijuana law. Uruguayan officials have been particularly vocal about framing marijuana legalization as a way to fight crack cocaine use, potentially limiting pot users’ exposure to the more harmful drug.

Because Uruguay has a long, proud tradition of being among the most secular nations in the Americas, Pope Francis’ statement is unlikely to spark any kind controversy there. But it may resonate elsewhere in Latin America, the region with the greatest number of Catholics on the planet.

The pope’s words echo his own remarks during a visit to Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, in which he criticized the “liberalization of drug use.” However, his choice of language reflects a lack of familiarity with the global drug debate. Uruguay’s government, for example, has insisted that the new law is the opposite of liberalization, because its goal is to regulate a black market that was previously left unchecked.  

And marijuana legalization is hardly the only alternative response to the drug problem.  Some countries in the hemisphere, most recently Jamaica, are opting instead for decriminalization.  The Economist Explains blog recently published a helpful overview of the important distinction between these two approaches, providing essential reading to anyone who may be unfamiliar with the difference, the pope included. From the blog:
Decriminalisation does not mean that people can use drugs with impunity. Instead it means that possessing small amounts no longer lands the perpetrator with a criminal record or a jail sentence. Jamaica has proposed that people caught with up to two ounces (57 grams) of cannabis should be fined, but not arrested or taken to court. Drug users in Portugal can be forced to attend classes aimed at getting them back on the straight and narrow. People found with cannabis in Italy may have their driving licences confiscated. By contrast, legalisation means that consumers face no penalty at all (unless, for instance, they smoke in public places).

News Briefs
  • Today’s New York Times profiles former Colombian presidential candidate Clara Lopez, whose endorsement of President Juan Manuel Santos is credited with clinching his re-election win in last Sunday’s elections. But while the NYT characterizes the endorsement as a pragmatic move that makes the left in the country “politically relevant again,” it does not come without a price.  As Semana reports, Lopez has come under fire from the left-wing Senator Jorge Robledo, the most popular lawmaker in the country, exposing a divide between progressive sectors who support constructive criticism in a coalition framework over a less flexible approach to opposition.
  • As the Washington Post reports, on Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department removed over 300 individuals and entities from a sanctions list targeting Colombia’s Cali Cartel, the largest delisting in Treasury history. CNN referred to the move as a declaration of “victory” over the cartel, and U.S. officials described the development as the end of the “empire” of the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, the imprisoned Cali kingpins.
  • Some 1,500 people turned out in a demonstration in São Paulo yesterday to mark the anniversary of last year’s wave of mass protests in Brazil. Though it started out as a peaceful march organized by the Free Pass Movement, a group that advocates free public transportation, it escalated after masked demonstrators began vandalizing cars and banks, as Folha de S. Paulo and the Wall Street Journal report.
  • The Inter-American Press Society (SIPA) has issued a statement condemning violence towards journalists covering the World Cup, saying that security forces are responsible for the majority of cases. In the first week of the tournament alone, at least 17 media workers have been assaulted in Brazil, according to SIPA.
  • Ahead of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit with Central American leaders today to discuss the flow of undocumented immigrant children along the border, President Barack Obama phoned Mexican leader Enrique Peña Nieto to address the situation yesterday. According to a White House press statement, Obama praised Mexico’s "efforts to target the criminals that lure families to send children."
  • After meeting with Dominican President Danilo Medino in Santo Domingo yesterday, Biden praised the recent passage of a law which grants a legal path to citizenship to individuals of Haitian descent, offering a partial fix of last year’s controversial Dominican court ruling. EFE reports that the vice president likened it to calls for immigration reform in the U.S., stressing the potential for such initiatives to benefit the economy.
  • In an op-ed for El Universal, Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope argues that the country’s approach towards citizen security lacks strategic planning based on evidence and evaluation. He asserts that public pressure is an essential requirement for this, however, stressing that officials must be called on “not just to do something, but to do something that works.”
  • Animal Politico reports on the status of an agreement over energy reform laws in Mexico, which has been held up by lawmakers of the conservative PAN party, who are refusing to support an energy bill until the ruling PRI agrees to pass an electoral reform measure. The law would reform the constitution to allow re-election of mayors and lawmakers, and change rules regarding proportional representation in state legislatures, according to the L.A. Times.
  • This week’s issue of The Economist features a grim prediction on Venezuela, noting that while opposition protests seem to have died down in recent weeks, the steps that President Nicolas Maduro’s may need to take to restore economic growth -- like devaluation and relaxing price controls -- may add fuel to protests and further damage his falling popularity.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Different Discourses Ahead of Guatemala Meeting on Immigration Crisis

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to meet with the Guatemalan and Salvadoran presidents, as well as a high-level Honduran representative in Guatemala City on Friday as a final stop on his regional tour this week. His goal is to dispel rumors that undocumented child immigrants are exempt from deportation, but the governments of these three Central American countries appear to have more ambitious goals for the meeting.

As the L.A. Times reports, Biden’s plan to stress that the recent wave of unaccompanied minors at the border are ineligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is a pivot for the Obama administration, which until this week had stubbornly rejected claims that  confusion over its policies was a factor behind the a spike in immigration and the associated humanitarian crisis.

In his visit tomorrow, the vice president is also expected to emphasize the dangers of the trek north, stressing that ultimately (as an administration official told reporters on Sunday): “[I]t’s not worth subjecting children to a perilous journey when, at the end of the day, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”

As valid as this may be, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran officials have agendas of their own, which seem to clash with Biden’s talking points.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez, for instance, plans to use the visit to call on the U.S. government to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Guatemalans living in the country, a request that Guatemalan officials have been making since 2011.

For his part, Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren has said he will emphasize the importance of immigration reform in the U.S., “where family reunification can take place,” as La Prensa Grafica reports. He also said that funds had been allocated to assist children being housed in temporary shelters along the border.

The Honduran response to the wave of child immigrants, by contrast, has been all over the place. Last Friday, President Juan Orlando Hernandez blamed the trend on a lack of immigration reform and “weak” drug laws in the U.S. “We are very worried about the children, but sadly this is a security problem provoked by drug trafficking from the drugs that are consumed by the U.S.,” Hernandez said in remarks to the Chamber of Commerce in Washington. “Sadly, here some U.S. officials think this problem is a health one, not a life and death situation like it is for us.” Additionally, as CNN and El Pais report, on Tuesday the Honduran Foreign Ministry announced it was preparing to request that undocumented children be allowed to stay in the country, urging U.S. officials to unite them with relatives there.

Yesterday, however, President Hernandez said that an official delegation would be sent to the U.S.-Mexico border to assess the situation and help locate and identify Honduran citizens. In an apparent reversal, the president announced that "The idea is that once they are found, these children and adolescents will return to Honduras,” according to La Tribuna.

Meanwhile, most pundits have interpreted Eric Cantor’s surprise primary loss as a nail in the coffin for U.S. immigration reform for the foreseeable future. As Shannon O'Neil argues in a column for Foreign Policy, the timing could not have been worse, as the perilous journey faced by unaccompanied minors highlights the need for reform now more than ever.

News Briefs
  • In Colombia on Wednesday, Biden met with President Juan Manuel Santos for over two hours in Bogota. Afterwards, the AP notes that he pledged U.S. support for Colombia’s peace talks with rebels in Havana, saying they had potential to “benefit all the region.” He also visited Bogota’s Memory, Peace and Reconciliation Center, a space dedicated to commemorate conflict victims. Today, the vice president is in Santo Domingo, where he will meet with Dominican President Danilo Medina. According to administration officials, the controversial citizenship ruling affecting thousands of individuals of Haitian descent is among the issues the two will address.
  • El Espectador has published an interview with Biden, in which the vice president touched on U.S. efforts to mend frayed ties in the region following last year’s NSA leaks, as well as the administration’s support for handing Guantanamo detainees over to governments in Latin America.  Accepting these prisoners, Biden said, would “send a powerful humanitarian gesture and give a clear indication of the strength of our partnership on security and counterterrorism.”
  • Six years after Mexico’s legislature approved a landmark justice reform law, and just two years before its 2016 deadline for implementation, Mexico’s state governments have made slow progress on the issue. According to a new report by transparency advocacy group Fundar, just half of Mexican states have even partially implemented the legal framework specified by the 2008 law. As La Jornada reports, Mexican Institute for Human Rights and Democracy (IMDHD) has launched a website which Mexicans can use to pressure legislators to move the reforms forward.
  • The governor of Mexico’s troubled Michoacan state stepped down yesterday, citing health problems, El Universal reports.  However, L.A. Times notes that his resignation came just days after photos emerged which purported to show his son meeting with the head of the powerful Knights Templar drug cartel. According to Proceso, the attorney general’s office has announced it is investigating the matter.
  • At 100 days in office, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has fulfilled an impressive 46 of 50 campaign promises for her first few months in office. La Tercera has an analysis of her administration’s record so far, noting that has stuck to her original promises far better than in the first 100 days of her first term in office.
  • The NYT reports on a combined effort by the governments of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile to ensure special recognition of an ancient Incan trail running through the countries' borders by the Unesco World Heritage Committee.
  • In a Monday editorial, the Jamaica Observer criticized apparent inconsistencies in a Jamaican proposal to alter its marijuana policies. Even though it would “decriminalize” pot use for religious purposes and in cases when it is prescribed by a doctor, possession of less than two ounces of the drug would still be a “ticketable offense,” a contradiction the paper claims “simply doesn't make sense.”  The Guardian, meanwhile, questions whether the move can provide an economic boost in the country, noting that Jamaica is “light years behind western Europe and the U.S. in terms of establishing laboratory and research infrastructure, official distribution networks, finding merchants untainted by the criminal underworld, and an organized framework of governance.”   
  • The Financial Times and Wall Street Journal note that a lawyer representing the Argentine government at a U.S. District Court hearing yesterday said it would negotiate payment with holdout creditors in a meeting next week in New York. However, the AP notes that President Cristina Fernandez has continued to float the idea that her government can ignore the U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering it to settle with holdouts while honoring its commitments to other bondholders, a maneuver the news agency calls a “doomsday scenario.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Brazil, U.S. Move to Thaw Relations

In Brasilia yesterday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, the first high-level meeting since last year’s NSA scandal led Rousseff to cancel a planned Washington visit. Remarks by both suggest that U.S.-Brazil relations are on the mend.

According to a White House press release, the two discussed growing bilateral trade and financial issues, as well as both countries’ shared interest in reducing the role of nation states  in the future of internet governance. Biden also praised Brazil’s efforts to promote dialogue in Venezuela, though government talks with the opposition came to a halt last month.

Additionally, the U.S. Vice President announced a new project to declassify and share documents with Brazil’s National Truth Commission documents related to its investigation into military abuses from 1964 to 1984. He turned over the first batch of these documents to officials yesterday.

The AFP reports that following the meeting, Biden told reporters that they had a “candid” discussion of the NSA’s surveillance program, saying the U.S. would “keep consulting closely with our friends and partners like Brazil.”  When asked by a journalist whether he believed relations with Brazil could be improved, Biden said he was “confident” they could be.

This mirrors language used by Presdient Rousseff, who in a recent interview with foreign correspondents said she was prepared for a thaw in U.S.-Brazil relations. The Brazilian president said she was “certain we can pick up our relations where we left off,” and even claimed she would consider rescheduling her canceled state visit to Washington. Still, she made no immediate public comments after the meeting, and the AP notes that a plan for Biden and Brazilian Vice President Michel Temer to make a joint statement was scrapped without explanation.

The Wall Street Journal notes that plenty is at stake in talks of improved ties. In addition to its status as an important trading partner, the paper points out that Brazil has strategic potential to serve as a middleman with governments more hostile towards the U.S. in the region, like Bolivia and Venezuela.

News Briefs
  • In a press conference yesterday, Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof held a press conference yesterday to lay out the government’s response to Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on its fight against holdout bondholders. Because the ruling would deny Argentina access to the U.S. financial system until it pays off the holdout creditors, Kicillof said the country would begin to negotiate an arrangement with those who accepted previous debt restructurings so that they could be paid in Argentina under Argentine law.
  • Tomorrow will mark two years since Wikileaks founder Julian Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, EFE reports. Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa marked the occasion yesterday by calling on the UK and Swedish governments to grant him reassurances that he would not be extradited to the U.S. if leaving the embassy, accusing the hacktivist’s enemies of “violating his human rights.”  According to El Universo, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said he would hold a joint press conference with Assange tomorrow.
  • Writing for Reuters, Caracas-based journalist Girish Gupta reports on a unique intersection of two of the most pressing issues facing Venezuela today: the high murder rate and shortages of basic goods. A lack of brass, varnish and satin has made the production of coffins in the country difficult, so many Venezuelan undertakers are encouraging cremation in order for coffins -- used only in the wake -- can be “recycled.”
  • In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos defended peace talks with FARC rebels in Havana against critics who accuse the government of infringing on victims’ right to justice by granting some form of amnesty to guerrillas. Framing the issue as a necessary component of transitional justice, Santos said the following: “How much justice are people willing to sacrifice for peace. Where does one draw that line? If you ask a victim, they will always want more justice. If you ask a future victim, they will always want more peace."
  • La Silla Vacia has an analysis of the “winners and losers” of Colombia’s presidential election last Sunday, noting the changed political landscape in the country. Among the “winners” are ex-President Alvaro Uribe and his supporters, certain figures on the left and the peace negotiators in Havana, while the news site claims that Colombia’s mainstream media are among the main “losers,” as the campaign season highlighted widespread bias towards Santos.
  • Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels have accused the government officials altering the wording of a joint announcement of exploratory peace talks between the two in a press conference last week, El Pais reports. The guerrilla group claims it has raised doubts about the government’s integrity going into negotiations, though the rebels say they will continue to dialogue with officials.
  • The Miami Herald profiles various perspectives on the recent protests in Brazil from sociologists and political analysts in the country, many of whom frame the demonstrations as signs that the country’s democracy is maturing and its middle class is gaining a political voice.
  • Brazilian news site Agencia Publica, an excellent source of investigative journalism on corruption, unaccountability and environmental justice in the country, is supporting the launch of Ponte, a new online media outlet dedicated to citizen security, justice and human rights in Brazil. In its manifesto, Ponte stakes out a broad mission for itself, including combating fear of police abuses, a justice system that favors elites, and media coverage and policies that “benefit the center over the periphery.” will begin reporting next week.