Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Colombia Announces 'Exploratory' Talks With ELN Rebels

The Colombian government has confirmed that it has begun exploratory peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second-largest rebel group in the country. Despite the hype behind the announcement, the timing (five days before presidential elections) is suspicious and it is unclear how these talks differ from previous backchannel dialogue.

In a joint statement released yesterday, the government and ELN rebels acknowledged that they have begun discussion on an agenda for peace talks, but gave few details about the agreed-upon content. The statement notes that dialogue includes discussion of “victims and societal participation,” but concedes that the rest of the agenda has yet to be set up.

The two sides announced that the current stage had begun in January, but said it was based off of meetings and contacts initiated in 2013. In fact, the government had already quietly acknowledged that it had started to communicate with ELN leaders regarding participation in the peace process. In September, for instance, Vice President Angelino Garzon said that talks with the ELN would take place “in the coming days,” and that they would be held “in a place other than Havana, Cuba.” Because exploratory talks were an open secret, yesterday’s announcement may be of little significance, especially if it is not followed up by the launch of full-fledged negotiations, as news site La Silla Vacia points out.

While Uruguayan President Jose Mujica volunteered to help facilitate talks, it appears that the main intermediaries are the same that have accompanied the FARC talks in Havana (Norway, Cuba, Venezuela and Chile), as well as Ecuador and Brazil. El Tiempo reports that the latter two have had especially important roles in the ELN talks, and hosted meetings between rebel negotiators and government representatives earlier this year. The government’s main point man for the dialogue, according to Semana, is Frank Pearl, who has also been participating in talks with the FARC.

The proximity of the announcement to this Sunday’s elections has not gone unnoticed. President Juan Manuel Santos’s re-election hinges on his image as the peace candidate, and the potential widening of talks fits suspiciously well with his campaign messaging. His main challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, has accused him of “playing politics with the peace process,” as El Espectador reports.

News Briefs
  • After months of a bitter standoff between Haitian President Michel Martelly and lawmakers over long-overdue municipal and legislative elections, the government of Haiti has announced a date for the legislative vote. The first round will be held on October 26, though the date for the runoff vote has not yet been determined.
  • On the eve of the World Cup, Brazilian television and radio aired a pre-recorded speech by President Dilma Rousseff last night in which she defended her country’s preparations for the tournament from so-called “pessimists” and “defeatists.” While she insisted that Brazil’s infrastructure is prepared for the Cup and the country is ready to come under international attention, she acknowledged that misallocation of funds was under investigation. As the AP reports, however, she said anyone found responsible would “receive the maximum punishment.”
  • A new survey by Ibope polling firm suggests the odds that Dilma will face a runoff election in October have increased. As Estadão reports, the president’s approval ratings are still higher than both her major opponents combined, but they appear to be slipping, and Ibope found that more respondents rate her presidency negatively than positively for the first time since she took office.
  • The L.A. Times looks at the challenges faced by Brazil’s middle class, noting that many still struggle to make ends meet in the country’s cities, where the cost of living is on par with major urban hubs in the U.S.
  • Offering a counterpoint to the recent NYT article profiling the prevalence of beliefs among Central American immigrants that the Obama administration is more lenient with children, McClatchy makes the case for rising crime and violence in Central America as the main contributor to the recent wave of unaccompanied child migrants to the U.S. southwest.
  • Guatemalan police have arrested three suspects allegedly linked to the 1990 murder of anthropologist and human rights activist Myrna Mack, all of whom are former police officers. The AP notes that one of the suspects was initially tasked with investigating Mack’s death, and Prensa Libre reports that prosecutors say all three are believed to have participated in the 1991 killing of Jose Merida Escobar, another police investigator who believed Mack’s murder was linked to the government. A hearing will be held on Thursday.
  • On Sunday, Peru’s Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s guilty ruling against General Carlos Paz Figueroa, accused of colluding with the 1990 forced disappearance of a teacher. Figueroa was sentenced to 15 years in prison in September, and La Republica notes that the Court’s swift annulment of the decision was carried out in “record time.”
  • The Chilean government has rejected an $8 billion proposal to dam two rivers in the country’s Patagonia region, a move that is being hailed by environmental activists as a major victory. The decision was announced yesterday by a commission of cabinet ministers following a three-hour meeting. As La Tercera reports, however, the company behind the proposal is expected to appeal the decision to an environmental court.
  • Milenio reports that Mexican Senators have begun debating the implementation of December reforms to the country’s state-owned oil industry. However, some lawmakers on the left have criticized the timing of the issue, accusing the ruling PRI and conservative PAN parties of using the World Cup as a distraction from the debate.