Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rousseff Ahead, LGBT Rights in Focus in Brazil Election

It appears that the Brazil observers who stuck with President Dilma Rousseff as the favorite to win the upcoming elections -- despite Marina Silva’s rise in the polls -- may turn out to be right in the end. Recent surveys have shown the incumbent making a rebound head of this weekend’s first round vote, and suggest she will come out ahead of Silva in a likely second-round matchup.

On Friday, Datafolha released a new survey showing that support for the president in the first round had risen from to 40 percent from 37 percent a week earlier, while Silva's first-round support fell to 27 percent from 30 percent.  In a second round, Datafolha showed 47 percent for Rousseff and 43 for Silva.

Other, smaller pollsters have published figures that seem to support this trend to varying degrees, as Reuters reports. On Monday, polling firm MDA released a survey suggesting that the president would win a runoff with 47.7 percent of the votes, compared to 38.7 percent for Silva. Another survey, by Vox Populi, showed Rousseff beating Silva 46 to 39 percent in a runoff.

In Folha’s Painel blog, Bernardo Mello Franco writes that Marina’s falling support has cheered up the Rousseff camp considerably, so much so that some of her advisors are reportedly preparing a backup plan in case the conservative Aecio Neves pulls ahead into the second round instead of the environmentalist candidate.

On another note on Brazil’s election, it is impressive how much LGBT rights have made their mark on the electoral race, often with the help of social media. First, there was the outcry that followed Silva’s dramatic overnight amendment of her platform’s section on LGBT issues. And when Rousseff tried to capitalize on the incident, activists like Congressman Jean Wyllys began holding the president accountable for her own inaction on the same issues, as well for Rousseff’s past dismissal of education programs targeting homophobia and transphobia as “sexual propaganda.”

Now, gay rights have again entered the electoral discourse in the wake of remarks made in Sunday’s debate by minor conservative candidate Levy Fidelix. And as the Associated Press reports, once again activists have taken to online outlets and social media to denounce his bigotry. 

The AP’s write-up of his remarks (the news agency notes Fidelix said: "Those people who have those problems should receive psychological help. And very far away from us, because here it is not acceptable.")  do not to justice to their offensiveness.  The candidate also called on the public to “confront this minority,” and compared being gay with pedophilia, praising the Vatican’s recent crackdown on several high-profile child sex abuse scandals.  

While none of them responded to the remark during the debate, the subsequent backlash has pressured all the main candidates -- Rousseff, Marina and Neves -- to issue statements on Monday criticizing Fidelix’s words, O Globo reports.

As Diego Iraheta writes for the Brasil Post, Fidelix’s language is more than just offensive. It is also punishable by an anti-discrimination law in São Paulo, where the debate was held, and his calls for a “confrontation” could arguably be interpreted as an apology for violence. Iraheta points out that the remarks also take on added weight in the wake of the murder of a gay teen earlier this month in Goias state, a case that gay rights activists say highlights the need for legislation criminalizing homophobia nationwide.  Following the death, Rousseff publicly echoed her past support for a bill in Congress that would do just that, though she said it should be partly amended.

News Briefs
  • Also on the subject of the scale of homophobia in Brazil, O Globo reports that a Bahia-based NGO which serves as a kind of nationwide observatory for the issue claims that at least 216 Brazilians have been killed this year alone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Foreign Policy has an interview with newly-elected Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, who lays out the main goals of his administration. Among these is a commitment to transparent governance, combatting crime, and improving services like sanitation and public health.
  • At Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde and Hugo Perez Hernaiz assess the prospect for a renewed UNASUR-facilitated dialogue between the government and Venezuelan opposition. The odds don’t look good, even though the new UNASUR Secretary General  Ernesto Samper has come out in favor of restarting talks. As Smilde and Hernaiz note, Samper’s remarks stand in stark contrast to a recent statement by OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza to Spain’s El Pais, in which the OAS figure said that the opposition couldn’t be expected to negotiate with some of its leaders --like Leopldo Lopez -- in jail.
  • While authorities in the Mexico state of Guerrero investigate 22 police accused of opening fire on student protests over the weekend, the New York Times and Animal Politico report that 27 protestors are still missing since the violence, with witnesses saying they were put on a bus and escorted from the scene by police officials.
  • InSight Crime reports on the Peruvian government’s recently-announced plans to purchase a fleet of new military aircraft and install 10 military bases in the country's main coca-growing region, supported by a new radar system.  The plan appears to be in response to fears of a growing “air bridge” linking Peru to Brazil’s growing cocaine market, which IDL-Reporteros estimates transfers some 54 to 72 tons of cocaine each month.
  • In the latest chapter of Argentina’s high-profile battle with U.S. Judge Thomas Griesa over the country’s failure to pay holdout creditors, the judge has found Argentina “in contempt” of the court, pointing to its efforts to pay bondholders in defiance of his rulings, the WSJ reports. According to BBC Mundo, Argentina has responded by saying that Griesa’s decision violates international law.
  • Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has continued to flirt with the idea of running for another term once his current one expires in 2017. As the country awaits a Constitutional Court decision on whether a government-backed reform proposal must be put to a popular vote, EFE reports that Correa has said he is not opposed to calling a referendum on ending term limits, even if the Court does not call one.
  • In an op-ed column for Al Jazeera English, Mark Weisbrot has an analysis of Hilary Clinton’s description of her work in the aftermath of the 2009 Honduran coup in her recently-published book, “Hard Choices.” Weisbrot is critical of the former Secretary of State’s admission that she called for “free and fair elections” in Honduras following the coup, which he identifies as an effort to ensure the coup’s success and guarantee that Zelaya would be permanently removed from office.  
  • The Guardian reports on opposition to Nicaragua’s plan to construct a rival to the Panama Canal from environmental advocacy NGO Forests of the World, which is concerned that the canal will displace indigenous communities and wreak havoc on the local ecosystem.

Monday, September 29, 2014

¡Viva el Comercialismo!

While it’s not a story with major hemispheric implications, it’s certainly an interesting case study in the increasing autonomy of state-run companies in Cuba, as well as their limits.

At a convention in Havana last week, Cuban cosmetic manufacturer Labiofam announced it had -- with the help of a French perfume company -- developed two new colognes named after revolutionary figures Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez. According to the Associated Press, “Ernesto” features a “woodsy and refreshing citric scent,” while “Hugo” offers “hints of mango and papaya.”

(In a humorous aside, The Guardian highlights the irony in naming a cologne after Guevara, who apparently had a legendary aversion to taking showers and baths.)

While this is hardly the first time that Guevara’s image has been used as a marketing tool, the developers told reporters that they had obtained permission from his and Chavez’s relatives to use their names in association with the scents. Still, the branding amounts to a striking display of consumerism by a state-managed company in a socialist country.

Perhaps because of this contradiction, the colognes have raised the ire of Cuban authorities.  On Friday, state newspaper Granma featured a front-page rebuke of Labiofam by the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers, solemnly titled “Los Símbolos son Sagrados” (Symbols Are Sacred). The decision to market the scents, according to the committee headed by President Raul Castro, was an “irresponsible act” and those responsible for it will face “corresponding disciplinary measures.”

The nature of this ominous-sounding punishment is unclear, as it is a term that the AP notes could describe anything from “a chiding by a supervisor to criminal prosecution.”

This kind of public clash between the state and the (semi-)private sector is a fascinating development, and points to an emerging lack of central planning on the island. Yes, the blatant display of consumerism was ultimately quashed by Communist officials, but not before state company representatives publicly pitched their products to the international press, uncensored.

This is part of a trend in Cuba. In the latest reform package approved by the government in April, state companies were given more autonomy and greater control of their own profits, as well as permission to experiment with side businesses. As officials continue to roll back restrictions on private enterprise, it will become increasingly difficult to avoid similar confrontations between state-sanctioned ideology and commercial interests.

News Briefs
  • Bloomberg news looks at the influence and perks enjoyed by Venezuela’s military under the government of President Nicolas Maduro. Under special programs, military personnel have access to subsidized food goods and cars at exclusive markets, while ongoing scarcity means that most citizens have to wait in long lines for the same products.
  • With just days to go before Brazil’s October 6 first-round presidential election, the second-to-last live candidate debate was held last night on TV Record. O Globo and the AP report that President Dilma Rousseff came under heavy fire from her opponents, with both Aecio Neves and Marina Silva making references to allegations that some in her administration took part in a Petrobras corruption scandal. Folha, however, notes that Rousseff intensified her attacks on Silva’s voting record as a senator.
  • Argentina’s national drug policy secretary, who as Clarin reports has presented a series of bills to Congress that would overturn laws that criminalize the use of illicit substances and the small-scale cultivation of cannabis, adopted a position on the matter more closely in line with the Global Commission on Drug Policy. In a radio interview, Juan Carlos Molina said he personally supported legalizing all drugs and making treatment available to problematic users. It’s worth noting that the recently-submitted bills would bring Argentina’s drug laws in line with a 2009 Supreme Court ruling that overturned the criminalization of drug possession for personal use.
  • On Thursday, Guatemala’s Supreme Court ruled that the ruling Patriotic Party of President Otto Perez Molina had violated campaign law last week by naming former Communications Minister Alejandro Sinibaldi as its candidate in the September 2015 elections. Though the court suspended the party from carrying out any political activity for the next six months, Prensa Libre reports that Sinibaldi has continued to make appearances at campaign rallies despite the ban.
  • The L.A. Times features an analysis of the June massacre of 22 individuals allegedly committed by Mexican soldiers, framing it as a “major test” of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s commitment to human rights issues. In a separate column for El Universal, Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope also has a rundown on the various reasons why the case is important, noting that it could provide Peña Nieto with an opening with which to distinguish himself from his predecessor on abuses committed by security forces.
  • In the U.S., the transfer of military-grade items to local police departments has generated controversy not only in small towns like Fergusson, MO, but also along the Mexican border. The Texas Tribune reports that while the program is under federal review, local authorities in border communities praise it for giving them access to equipment they  would not have been able to pay for otherwise.
  • Colombia’s La Silla Vacia has an analysis of the draft peace agreements published last week by government and FARC negotiating teams in Havana. If implemented correctly, the news site notes that the accords would challenge the power of large-scale landholders and put an end to the systemic abuse of rural farmers.
  • The Wall Street Journal reports on the impact that a series of small-scale bombing incidents in the Santiago metropolitan area has had on the city’s residents, noting that despite the low number of victims it has left many feeling insecure.  It has also complicated matters for President Michelle Bachelet, who had to put her administration’s agenda on hold to address the panic generated by the subway attack earlier this month.

Friday, September 26, 2014

8 Detained in Connection with Mexico ‘Massacre’

Yesterday evening, Mexico’s Defense Ministry (SEDENA) announced that eight military personnel -- an army officer and seven soldiers -- had been detained in connection with the June killing of 22 people in the state of Mexico.  It’s still unclear what the individuals have been accused of, but the fact that authorities are moving forward with an investigation into the alleged massacre is a positive sign.

It is also somewhat surprising considering that both state and federal authorities have maintained that there is no evidence of wrongdoing in the June incident. Only recently does there appear to have been a shift in the official attitude, with President Enrique Peña Nieto telling reporters in New York that the Attorney General’s Office was pursuing a full investigation into the alleged massacre.

According to El Universal, a SEDENA press statement released last night asserts that the men are being held in a military jail “for their alleged role in offenses against military discipline, disobedience and breach of duties in the case of the officer, and a breach of duties in the case of the enlisted personnel.”

Fortunately, because of reforms to Mexico’s Military Code of Justice passed earlier this year, a military investigation does not prevent civil authorities from investigating and prosecuting alleged abuses separately.
The Associated Press, which has been keeping tabs on the story ever since it noted suspicious irregularities at the site of the killings in the days after the June 30 incident, offers a summary of its findings in its coverage of the detentions:
At least five spots inside the warehouse where the bloodshed occurred showed the same pattern: One or two closely placed bullet pocks, surrounded by a mass of spattered blood, giving the appearance that some of those killed had been standing against a wall and shot at about chest level.
This fits with the statements of witnesses who told the press that all but one of the 22 had been executed after being interrogated.

News Briefs
  • In Cuba, Raul Castro has returned economic reform czar Marino Murillo to a former position as Economy Minister, tasking him with “harmonizing and integrating at a higher level the process of updating the economic model,” Spanish news agency EFE notes.
  • Reuters profiles remarks by Colombian anti-human trafficking authority Martha Diaz, who believes that the country needs to invest in more prosecutors to tackle the issue. Amazingly, last year just one official was responsible for handling all transnational trafficking cases in the entire country.
  • In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this week, Mexico’s Peña Nieto told journalists that he does not support legalizing marijuana, saying doing so would be “opening the door to a large intrusion of drugs that is very damaging to the population.” The position stands in stark contrast with the position of Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, who in a recent Global Commission on Drug Policy report called for a new shift in drug policy, saying: “If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that’s the solution, I will welcome it.”
  • The Economist features an analysis of the electoral landscape in Brazil ahead of the October 5 election, noting that President Dilma Rousseff has caught up in the polls to her challenger Marina Silva. The magazine also attempts to put forward a comprehensive analysis of the state of the “Latin American Left,” arguing that close elections in Brazil and Uruguay -- and a coming vote next year in Argentina -- are proof that the “pink tide” is ebbing and the region is moving back to the center. Still, the magazine concedes that the left has succeeded in placing inequality on the political agenda, and that the right will need to convince voters it can govern for all, “not just for the fat cats.”
  • In the event that the ruling Frente Amplio coalition loses Uruguay’s close presidential election in a likely second round vote in November, it may also mean that the country will no longer accept Guantanamo detainees from the U.S. El Pais reports that National Party candidate Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou, who polls show is running neck-and-neck with Tabare Vazquez, told reporters he is “totally opposed” to accepting Guantanamo prisoners, and would likely not adhere to an agreement made by the Mujica administration to accept them.
  • Vox’s Dara Lind has a smart analysis of the sharp decline in child migrants along the southwest U.S. border, identifying the likely causes of this as: increased enforcement along migrant routes in Mexico, stepped-up U.S. investigations into migrant smuggling, and a drop in the number who attempt the trip in the first place due to increasing public awareness of the associated dangers and legal barriers.
  • Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group has an op-ed in the Miami Herald in which he asserts that “international mediators need to have a virtually permanent presence in Caracas” in order to persuade both the Venezuelan opposition and the government of President Nicolas Maduro to establish dialogue on certain issues, like naming new members to an independent electoral council.
  • In a Foreign Policy column published this week, conservative figure Roger Noriega criticizes the agreement reached in Latin America regarding the rotation of a regional UN Security Council seat, which is more or less guaranteed to Venezuela. Asserting that regional leaders will regret allowing the Maduro government to represent Latin America’s interests on the council, he also attacks the Obama administration for not challenging Venezuela’s bid.  Obama, Noriega asserts, has no constructive agenda in the Americas  compared to “the Bush years,” in which “the U.S. foreign policy team of which [Noriega] was a part helped save Colombia, doubled aid to the region, and offered mutually beneficial trade to Central American and Andean countries.”
  • Writing for InSight Crime, Hector Silva Avalos reports on the allegations of reform-minded Salvadoran Colonel Carlos Alfredo Rivas Najarro, who believes that his son was gunned down in April by assassinations paid for by elements in the armed forces.
  • As the Vatican prepares for a landmark trial of a priest accused of sexually assaulting minors in the Dominican Republic, Pope Francis has taken yet another step to crack down on child sex abuse associated with the Church in the Americas. As the New York Times and AFP report, the pope has dismissed a bishop from his post in Paraguay due to his promotion of a priest linked to abuses in Argentina and Pennsylvania, as the Global Post’s Will Carless has detailed.
  • In the Global Post, Seth Robbins  looks at the recorded phone calls of Padre Toño, the Spanish Catholic priest accused of conspiring with imprisoned gang leaders in the country to transfer them to different facilities, as well as to smuggle in cell phones and other contraband. The calls, which reveal that the priest had direct, even informal contact with Barrio 18 leader El Viejo Lin, have sparked a discussion of whether the Church official was engaged in criminal activity or merely  “getting his hands dirty” in an attempt to mediate gang feuds in his parish.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Northern Triangle Countries Present Their ‘Plan Central America’

The governments of the Northern Triangle region -- Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador -- have presented the United States government with a reportedly comprehensive plan to address the root causes behind the recent wave of northward migration.

The document itself, known as the “Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle,” has not yet been released to the public. In a Tuesday background briefing, a State Department official told journalists that the report “focuses on economic opportunity and development and employment opportunities, public safety and access to judiciaries, and strengthening institutions,” all of which are generally in line with U.S. development goals in the region.

This remark was essentially all that the media had to go on until yesterday evening, when Reuters reported that it had obtained a copy of the report. According to the news agency, the plan involves major spending on electricity and natural gas projects, as well as improving roadways and other infrastructure elements.

Curiously, several of the proposed projects are not actually in the Northern Triangle, but appear to be relevant to these countries’ trade interests. According to a Reuters Factbox based on the report, the plan includes proposals to improve the international airport in Managua, Nicaragua, as well as to renovate Belize City’s main port.

While the plan does not specify a total cost, the news agency notes that its price tag is likely well over $1 billion, if development projects which had already been announced are included.

Despite the lack of a detailed cost breakdown, the plan sounds like a step beyond the $300 million requested by the White House in July to address the root causes of migration. If Reuters is to be believed, the measure could provide a significant economic boost to the three countries involved, though it may fall short of the massive Plan Colombia or Marshall Plan-style “Plan Central America” that regional leaders have been lobbying for.

Central American leaders have maintained that at least 80 percent of the aid mentioned in the plan should be provided by the United States on the grounds that the North American country’s drug market is fueling much of the violence in the region. It’s a fair point, but hopefully this money will hinge on certain conditions.

In Guatemala, for instance, the U.S. would do well to use the aid money to pressure President Otto Perez Molina to extend the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) beyond its current expiration in September 2015. As Prensa Libre reported last week, the Perez administration has recently shown some flexibility on the issue, having announced that it will study the possibility of renewing the judicial independence watchdog’s mandate.  At the very least, the U.S. could use the money as leverage to encourage the government to crack down on the backroom deals and corruption associated with its top judge-appointing process, as Steve Dudley has detailed.

In Honduras, the Obama administration could pressure President Juan Orlando Hernandez to take a firmer stance against corruption and police abuses, as well as to support the prosecution and investigation of journalist and human rights activists’ murders (as over 100 U.S. lawmakers suggested earlier this year).

In El Salvador, we have already seen what kinds of concessions the U.S. is interested in gaining in exchange from aid money. As Politico noted last week, the U.S. approved a second round of aid to the country via the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) after El Salvador passed a series of reforms meant to tighten its anti-money laundering regime. Indeed, the MCC’s breakdown of the spending  seems to dovetail with the Northern Triangle Plan’s aims, as much of it will be used to improve highways and border crossings.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday, the Colombian government and FARC rebels released the full text of the previously secret draft agreements reached so far. As Semana magazine reports, both negating teams agreed to publish the agreements in response to increasingly bold rumors and fear-mongering generated by critics of the peace process. The AP claims that the agreements seem to “contain few surprises and a large number of unresolved details,” but perhaps the most headline-grabbing element of the agreements is the fact that they confirm plans to set aside an undetermined number of legislative seats for war-torn areas. Still, as El Tiempo notes, this was already widely-known.
  • In his speech before the UN General Assembly yesterday, the Listin Diario reports that Dominican President Danilo Medina called on the international community to assist Haiti in providing documentation to its citizens. “Help Haiti. Help them document their people in their territory and ours,” he said. It’s worth noting here that while the D.R. has passed a measure meant to regulate a legal limbo caused by a ruling that revoked the citizenship of thousands of individuals of Haitian descent, its impact has been limited and many remain essentially stateless.
  • In his latest column, syndicated columnist Andres Oppenheimer criticizes Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s General Assembly address as a campaign stump speech, noting how it lacked any mention of Russia’s annexation of Crimea or the expansion of ISIS. These omissions, according to Oppenheimer, are proof of Brazil -- and the region in general -- showing a “lack of engagement on major world conflicts, or an outright refusal to defend core U.N. principles.”
  • In his first speech before the United Nations yesterday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro made headlines by calling for a "democratic re-founding" of the UN, El Universal reports. Maduro said the organization should be changed to reflect the current multipolar world order, and also praised Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for his clash against Islamic militants, and promised $5 million to fight Ebola, BBC Mundo and the AP report.
  • The Wall Street Journal has an update on the ongoing strike by workers at the Venezuelan government-owned Orinoco Steelworks (SIDOR) company. Workers have been calling for a new contract since their old one expired four years ago, and their struggle has been repeatedly highlighted internationally as an example of discontent with the government among some labor groups. Human rights group PROVEA has on several denounced the repression of SIDOR workers, noting that this clash with President Nicolas Maduro’s claims to be “a Workers’ President.”
  • Over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Rebecca Hanson offers some analysis of Venezuela’s attempts to adopt a progressive, prevention-based approach to law enforcement. Hanson notes that recent remarks on the subject by Attorney General Luisa Ortega clash with the position of Minister of Interior and Justice Miguel Rodriguez Torres, who has been criticized by some analysts for failing to recognize the often heavy-handed role of the police in contributing to violence.
  • NPR offers a look at El Salvador’s draconian anti-abortion law, which has led police to arrest women who suffer miscarriages on suspicion of illegally terminating their pregnancy, for which they can face up to 50 years in prison.
  • A survey released today by leading Uruguayan pollster Cifra has brought good news for the ruling Frente Amplio coalition. The poll found that support for the FA, which has been slightly dwindling since February, increased by three points to 43 percent. Support for the opposition National Party increased to 33 percent support from 32 percent last month. While the presidential vote will still likely go to a second-round matchup between former FA President Tabare Vazquez and National Party candidate Luis Lacalle Pou, it seems as if the latter challenger has definitively lost his momentum.
  • In what appears to have been a failed attempt to replicate the recent bombing in Santiago, yesterday Chilean authorities announced that a man was killed after handling a bomb that went off unexpectedly. La Tercera reports that the victim has not been identified, nor has any definitive link to the previous attack been established.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Obama Supports Jailed Venezuelan Opposition Figure

Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez, who has been in held jail since February on charges of inciting violence during protests earlier this year, earned a nod from United States President Barack Obama yesterday.

In remarks at the 10th annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York on Tuesday, Obama focused his speech on civil society activism worldwide, and on its importance to building strong democracies.  Saying that he and his administration “stand in solidarity with those who are detained at this very moment,” Obama named a number of imprisoned dissidents around the globe.

Alongside others in China, Russia, Cambodia and elsewhere, the president identified Leopoldo Lopez as one of many jailed activists who “deserve to be free” and “ought to be released.” He also praised Berta Soler, leader of Cuba’s Ladies in White.

The remark was not widely reported in the U.S., but in local Venezuelan press it has made a big splash, as evidenced by coverage today in El Universal, El Nacional, Globovision and Ultimas Noticias.

Lopez, for his part, remains in prison, and his trial has been marked by irregularities and delays. The judge presiding over the case has rejected all but one of 68 proposed defense witnesses, while allowing the prosecution to call 108. On Monday, as BBC Mundo reports, Lopez’s defense lawyer said that the trial had postponed a hearing for the third time, because of the ill health of a student activist being tried in the same case.  

News Briefs
  • As El Pais reports, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is slated to speak before the United Nations General Assembly this afternoon, in what the paper calls a “test” of the leader’s international legitimacy. His country is virtually guaranteed a seat at the Security Council, and it is not likely that the U.S. will block the bid this time around. Yesterday Maduro addressed a crowd at a Bronx community college yesterday. As the AP’s Hannah Dreier notes, the president stressed his efforts to maintain a positive relationship with the United States, though he also delivered a few Chavez-style quips aimed at Obama.
  • Left-wing Colombian Senator Ivan Cepeda managed to focus national and international attention on former President Alvaro Uribe’s alleged ties to paramilitary groups last week in a legislative debate on the issue, but this has come at a cost. Semana magazine reports that Uribe and his allies have filed five different investigations against Cepeda into allegations that he, among other things, pressured paramilitary leaders to testify against Uribe, and that he has ties to the FARC.
  • The Northern Triangle countries -- Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala -- have presented U.S. officials with a plan to reduce migration north.  Called "The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle," it was developed with the help of the Inter-American Development Bank and seeks to boost economic growth in the region. The AP reports that there have been relatively few details of the plan presented to the public, and its costs and specific measures remain unclear.
  • Today’s Washington Post reports on the fact that nearly half of Guatemalans are younger than 19, reflecting on the lack of economic opportunity and the incentives for children to seek better futures in the United States.
  • Uruguay’s marijuana law received an important endorsement over the weekend. Former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, who was sworn in as the new head of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) earlier this month, met with Uruguayan President Jose Mujica on Saturday. In a subsequent press conference, Samper hailed Mujica’s leadership on drug policy reform, calling the Uruguayan president “courageous for opening a new path,” as Radio 180 reports. What’s more, the UNASUR leader suggested that drug policy reform be placed on the agenda for the next UNASUR summit. It is a long shot, but this could mean that UNASUR could succeed where the OAS has failed to unite the region around alternative drug policy measures.
  • Presidents Michelle Bachelet, Juan Manuel Santos, Enrique Peña Nieto, and Ollanta Humala have published a joint op-ed in Bloomberg news today in which they tout the advances of the Pacific Alliance. The column itself -- in which the authors praise the value of free movement of people and goods -- is not particularly noteworthy, but as Greg Weeks points out it is interesting to see how the economic bloc has united regional leaders across ideological differences.
  • The AP profiles a recent Ibope poll ahead of Brazil’s presidential elections, noting President Dilma Rousseff’s strong support among the poor of the country, who have seen their quality of life rise under the past two Workers Party administrations. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, notes that many analysts believe Rousseff’s main challenge lies in convincing the middle class that she can deliver on their rising demands.
  • Mexico’s El Universal reports that elementary-level history texts in the country have been edited to incorporate recent social conflicts and human rights struggles of the past forty years. Progressive historians should be pleased. The new version, according to the paper, includes references to the repression of student protests in 1968 and to indigenous rights abuses in Chiapas and the 1994 Zapatista uprising.
  • A national congressman in Mexico, Gabriel Gomez Michel, was found dead yesterday after being kidnapped in Jalisco state, the AP and La Jornada report. According to Televisa, authorities have obtained video footage of his kidnapping, and authorities are using it to proceed with an investigation into the killing.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Another Suspension of Civil Liberties in Guatemala

The government of Guatemala has imposed a “state of prevention” in the central municipality of San Juan Sacatepequez, sending in security forces and suspending civil liberties after 11 people died in clashes over plans to build a cement factory there. This strategy has become a familiar pattern in the country, where civil society groups say there is a chronic lack of dialogue with communities over development projects.

The violence in the municipality began on Friday, after residents in favor and against a proposed cement factory and highway clashed. Eight people were reportedly killed in the initial violence, which continued through Saturday, and at least six vehicles and a house were burned.

On Monday authorities raised the death toll to 11, and President Otto Perez Molina declared a 15-day “state of prevention” in San Juan Sacatepequez. Protests, strikes and large gatherings of any kind are prohibited, Prensa Libre reports, and some 900 National Police officers have been sent in to secure the community.

The roots of the conflict are murky, and both sides in the dispute appear to have resorted to violence. According to El Periodico, the initial conflict was sparked when locals confronted an area man who worked for the cement company and sold it his land. He was allegedly given five hours to leave town, but when he refused, armed individuals surrounded his home and opened fire, ultimately killing him and his family.

However, The Human Rights Convergence – a coalition of Guatemalan human rights groups -- has offered a slightly different version of events. According to a Convergence press release, the victims were killed in retribution for the murder of two opponents of the cement factory, who were shot at a protest earlier in the day. Regardless of the cause, the Convergence directly faults the state for failing to send police officers to the area as the violence escalated early on.

While the duration of this state of prevention appears to be relatively short-term, it is the latest in a series of similar measures imposed in rural areas throughout the country in recent years. A months-long state of siege was declared in Peten province in mid-2011 after the massacre of several farmworkers, another one was imposed in Huehuetenango in May 2012 following hydroelectric project conflicts, and a state of siege was announced in Jalapa and Santa Rosa departments last year in response to mass protests against a mining project there.

In the face of domestic and international criticism of his handling of social conflicts, Perez Molina has sought to give greater resources to the National Dialogue System, a federal commission tasked with entering into dialogue with local communities to de-incentivize violence.

Nevertheless, these efforts have failed to stem criticism of the administration. As Oswaldo J. Hernandez detailed recently in an in-depth report for Plaza Publica, the dialogue system -- and the government in general -- is largely seen as in the pockets of the extraction industries.  And human rights groups in the country, especially those that work in rural areas, view Perez Molina’s approach to social conflicts as a military-heavy extension of Civil War-era counterinsurgency strategy. This attitude is reinforced, as Hernandez notes, by the administration’s 2013 shift towards addressing social conflicts as matters of “national security.”

News Briefs
  • While polls show Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is narrowing the gap between herself and her main challenger Marina Silva, Silva continues to enjoy wide support in the international press.  In a Financial Times profile published yesterday, the environmentalist candidate is heralded as a radically honest outsider, and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party described as “paying the price for corruption and complacency.” In a column for Bloomberg View, meanwhile, Mac Margolis argues that Silva’s victory could mean the end of an economic strategy implemented since Lula came to power, as well as the death of Lula’s political dynasty.
  • The Associated Press has an update on a marijuana legalization bill under discussion in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which supporters say could be passed by the end of the year. The news agency notes that Jalisco Governor Aristoteles Sandoval has not yet publicly supported the measure, though the bill’s sponsors say they are optimistic about obtaining his backing.
  • Animal Politico and the AP report that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has, for the first time, publicly addressed the accusations that Mexican soldiers massacred 21 victims in June. Yesterday he told reporters that the attorney general’s office would be “digging into the investigation,” remarks that came after the U.S. embassy in Mexico urged for a full probe into the deaths.
  • Both the Washington Post and New York Times  featured Sunday editorials criticizing Venezuela’s pending acquisition of a rotating UN Security Council seat to represent Latin America. Analyst James Bosworth has a comparative take on the columns, criticizing the Post for calling for US action and praising the NYT for recognizing the need for regional powers like Brazil and Colombia to take a stand on the issue.
  • In a blow to Maduro’s efforts to rein in inflation and manage the economy, the New York Times reports that cleaning product giant Clorox has announced that it will be closing operations in the country due to a loss of profits from government price controls.
  • Ever since international and foreign media picked up on some doctors’ criticism of Venezuela’s handling of a Chikungunya outbreak -- one called it an “unknown” illness -- the Wall Street Journal reports that the administration of President Maduro has publicly persecuted these medical professionals, accusing them of “psychological warfare” and generating panic. While Maduro has accused the U.S. press of tarnishing his reputation, Reuters reports that the president has said he hopes to overcome the “racist manner” in which he is portrayed at a UN speech this week.
  • Also gearing up for the UN General Assembly this week is Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who in a forum in New York yesterday sought to reassure international analysts and investors that the peace process would not fundamentally alter Colombian democracy. “We have nothing to do with ‘Castrochavismo,’as it is called back in Colombia. That will not happen. There is nothing that we are negotiating that are of concern to people who invest in Colombia,” Santos said, according to El Espectador and BBC Mundo.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Still No Drug Consensus in the Americas

On Friday, representatives of the 35 members of the Organization of American States met in Guatemala City in a special summit to discuss the achievements and challenges of the hemisphere’s approach to illicit drugs.  While there were some important advances made in the context of the lead-up to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs in 2016, the meeting was by no means a watershed display of regional unity on the issue.

For the moment, it appears Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa was correct when he remarked in a visit to Guatemala last month that, on drugs, “[t]here is no common position, least of all in the Americas.”

Prior to the summit last week, there was hope that it would provide an opportunity for the Americas -- a region that has become a hotspot for drug policy reform and experimentation, as recent developments in Uruguay, Mexico, Chile and Colombia show -- to band together and push for major changes to the international drug policy regime at UNGASS 2016. The summit had been scheduled in the wake of last year’s OAS Secretary General report identifying legalization and decriminalization as valid policy options, and after OAS members agreed in the subsequent Antigua Declaration to move towards adopting a “comprehensive policy” on drugs in the region.

Earlier this month, 28 civil society organizations in the hemisphere published a joint declaration on the issue at the 5th Latin American Conference on Drug Policy in Costa Rica, under the banner of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC). Among other things, the groups called for OAS members to adopt a drug strategy based on respect for human rights, as well as the distinction between “harms associated with drug use and harms associated with drug policy.”

Much like the Antigua Declaration, however, the resolution published on Friday was far weaker than many drug policy reform advocates surely would have liked. While the OAS General Assembly agreed on “the importance of Hemispheric and international cooperation to jointly tackling the world drug problem,” it did not adopt any stance on concrete policy actions. Perhaps the closest the resolution comes to the IDPC’s recommendations is in a provision asserting the need for “responses that prevent social costs or contribute to their reduction,” though this is to be carried out “according to the reality of each State.”

Still, Friday’s resolution is important for two reasons. First, it commits OAS organs like the General Secretariat and the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) to continue to evaluate progress on drug policy in the coming years, with an emphasis on “scientific evidence, experiences and impact indicators.” Second, the General Assembly resolved to forward their resolution to the United Nations “for consideration” of UNGASS 2016, showing that there is at least a general agreement that the region as a whole will have to demonstrate at least some unity at the UN meeting in two years’ time.

News Briefs
  • Unlike other regional leaders like Juan Manuel Santos and Jose Mujica, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has cultivated a reputation as a crusader for widening the drug policy debate in the hemisphere, but has so far made no major push to enact reforms in his own country. However, last week saw some important progress on drug policy reform at a national level, when a civil society commission appointed by Perez Molina released a preliminary report on drug laws (.PDF file here) in the country on Thursday, as La Prensa Libre reports. Like the OAS resolution, the report does not call for any radical changes.  However, it raises some important points about drug policy in Guatemala, and its conclusion makes some sensible, albeit cautious, recommendations. For example, the report notes that Guatemala’s approach to drugs runs “counter to the legislative developments” elsewhere in the region, and that its failure to specify which amounts of drugs can be classified as destined for personal consumption rather than sale leaves considerable room for judges to impose their own standards. Among other recommendations, the commission calls for closer monitoring of black market pricing and purity data, for a deeper study of the “cost of the current drug policies” in Guatemala, and for a rigorous analysis of the size of the country’s illicit poppy crop. According to the report, a final version will be presented to the president in December, and the commission’s mandate was recently extended to the end of this year. After that, it remains to be seen what will come of Perez Molina’s claims that the report “might lead to” a bill legalizing marijuana and poppy cultivation.
  • In the race for the next OAS Secretary General, Uruguay’s Luis Almagro seems to be gaining momentum. El Pais reports that on Thursday, the Uruguayan foreign minister’s bid received the public backing of the government of Paraguay. Paraguay joins Chile and Brazil in endorsing Almagro, and there have been reports in local press that the United States also views the Uruguayan candidate positively.
  • Venezuelan police commissioner Ivan Simonovis, who has been lionized by the opposition as the longest-held political prisoners in the country, has won an important victory. Citing his poor health, a judge has ruled that he is eligible to be moved from his current facility to house arrest, though the AP notes that the Supreme Court has said he will be moved back when his health improves. The Wall Street Journal profiles remarks by some analysts who believe that the move was a part of a political calculation on President Nicolas Maduro’s part,  an effort to partially placate his opponents.
  • While Maduro’s efforts to crack down on smuggling along the Colombian border have been criticized by the Venezuelan opposition as a hopeless crusade, they seem to be making some impact, albeit one with negative side effects. The Miami Herald reports that border communities in Colombia that have traditionally relied on inflows of cheap subsidized goods from Venezuela have seen their access to affordable food drop considerably, leading to a spike in chronic hunger and malnutrition.
  • Today’s New York Times features a report on the crackdown on undocumented migration in Mexico at the behest of the United States, which has made the already perilous journey even more difficult for Central American migrants.
  • Despite the evidence that has come out recently to suggest that Mexican soldiers massacred 21 suspects in Mexico State in June, authorities are sticking to the official version of events, maintaining that the victims were killed during a shootout. El Universal reports that the Mexican Ministry of Defense has insisted that no wrongdoing occurred, and that it is willing to cooperate with a federal investigation into the matter.  Representatives of the Mexican Human Rights Commission (CNDH) have also told reporters that they are looking into the massacre allegations.
  • After Mexico’s Coahuila state became the second sub-federal jurisdiction to legalize same-sex marriage -- following Mexico City -- on September 1, Animal Politico reports that the measure has gone into full effect, with a state registry office recognizing the marriage of a gay couple on Saturday, for the first time in its history.
  • The political reforms presented by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, which include a proposal to end presidential reelection, will be debated today in Congress, Semana magazine reports.  On top of ending reelection, the bill would change the way the inspector general (procurador) and ombudsman’s positions are appointed, giving the executive branch the authority to present senators with a list of candidates rather than allowing lawmakers to name them directly.
  • Marking the 38th anniversary of the death of Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier in a car bomb placed by Pinochet regime intelligence agents in Washington DC, BBC Mundo has an interview with Juan Gabriel Valdes, the current Chilean ambassador to the U.S. who only escaped being a victim in the bombing by circumstance.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Witnesses: Mexican Soldiers Killed 21 in June Massacre

It was a suspicious story from the beginning. When authorities announced that 22 people had been killed by army personnel in a June 30 shootout in the state of Mexico, the Associated Press noted with skepticism that all but one soldier had miraculously escaped injury, and that “the warehouse where many bodies were found showed little evidence of sustained fighting.”

Despite the questions over the incident, Mexican authorities have persistently stuck to the official version of events. On July 17, Mexico State Attorney General Jaime Gomez Sanchez assured reporters that there was “no evidence whatsoever” that the 21 victims were executed.

But this story became harder to defend this week, when Esquire Mexico published an investigation into the incident featuring exclusive testimony from a witness who offered a disturbing description of the events. According to alias “Julia,” who officials identified as a kidnapping victim freed in the operation, only one suspect was killed in a shootout, which broke out after soldiers opened fire first. The rest surrendered, but were then killed after being interrogated. A medical examiner who carried out an autopsy on one of the victims, a 15-year-old girl, told Esquire that her wounds were the result of a point-blank execution.

 “Julia” also claims that authorities held her in confinement for one week after the incident, saying that Navy officials, state prosecutors and federal investigators all coerced her to sign documents identifying the victims as criminals.

Alongside Esquire’s report, yesterday the Associated Press published an account from the 15-year-old’s mother, who had allegedly approached the suspected drug gang to try to retrieve her daughter from them. In addition to confirming soldiers’ murder of her daughter, she claims that the army killed two men claiming to be kidnapping victims, as they were apparently unconvinced of their stories.

These reports have caused uproar among international and Mexican civil society organizations alike. As Proceso magazine reports, the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center (Centro Prodh) and Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH) have called on authorities to carry out a transparent investigation into the incident. Human Rights Watch’s Jose Miguel Vivanco released a statement yesterday calling for a clarification of the facts, as well as describing the testimony as a potential indicator of “the worst slaughter of civilians by the military of this administration.”

The head of Mexico’s Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has also said it is looking into the alleged massacre.

Even if an independent investigation fails to materialize, at the very least the incident casts further suspicion on President Enrique Peña Nieto’s decision to continue the military-heavy security policies of his predecessor. Relying on the army for law enforcement, after all, was initially sold to the public as a necessary measure to compensate for the relative corruption among local police forces. But with the military potentially responsible for abuses like those described by the witnesses mentioned above, it’s worth questioning just how incorruptible the Mexican armed forces really are.

News Briefs
  • Yet another poll has been released regarding Brazil’s presidential race. Like other recent surveys, Friday’s Datafolha poll suggests that President Dilma Rousseff is closing the gap between herself and her main challenger Marina Silva. A hypothetical second-round matchup shows the two statistically tied, with 46 percent for Silva and 44 for the president.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro may not be as wildly popular as Hugo Chavez, but he certainly has a knack for making the same kinds of inflammatory statement as his predecessor. Yesterday, for example, Maduro raged against the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald, BBC Mundo and CNN, among other outlets, for reporting on a series of deaths called by what one medical industry figure called an “unknown” illness. Authorities in the country say the cause of these deaths are established and likely due to Chikungunya disease, and Maduro accused the above outlets of waging “psychological warfare” against his government.
  • Laura Capriglione of Brazilian news site Ponte offers a critical look at São Paulo's progressive mayor Fernando Haddad, who has established a name for himself as a champion of alternative drug policies and unique approaches to urban administration. However, the reporter asserts that he has a “dark side,” noting his repressive response to a movement calling for more public housing, and failure to look into police abuses.
  • Also on Guatemala, Plaza Publica profiles an effort by the LIDER opposition party, whose leader Manuel Baldizon is the leading candidate in next year’s presidential elections, to revive an old law that would criminalize investigating companies without prior authorization, a potentially profound limitation of the public’s access to information.
  • The Chilean government announced yesterday that three suspects had been arrested in connection with the recent Santiago subway station bombing. El Mercurio reports that an anarchist group took responsibility for the attack in a statement posted o line yesterday, in which it also claimed that police had been informed about the attack ten minutes beforehand, in hopes that the site would be evacuated.
  • Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa continues to play coy about whether or not he will seek another term in office once his current one expires in 2017. Yesterday in remarks to a group of supporters, the president said he as “not in the least interested in re-election,” even though he has thrown his support behind a reform package that would, among other things, allow for his indefinite reelection.  
  • One day after conflicting  pro-government and anti-government demonstrations were held in main cities around Ecuador on Wednesday, El Comercio reported that Interior Minister Jose Serrano announced that criminal investigations would be carried out into violence he attributed to an opposition student group, the Popular Democratic Movement (MPD). 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mixed Signals from the U.S. on Venezuela’s Anti-Drug Efforts

Yesterday, just two days after the White House criticized Venezuela for failing to pull its weight in the fight against drug trafficking, a top State Department official cushioned this criticism somewhat.

On Monday the State Department released a statement saying that the White House had issued a memo naming Venezuela as one of the three countries (alongside Burma and Bolivia) that “failed demonstrably” to meet their international counterdrug obligations in the past year. The announcement was not terribly surprising, as both Venezuela and Bolivia have consistently made this list for the past four years at least.

As they have in the past, Venezuelan officials reacted strongly to the classification, accusing the U.S. of using the War on Drugs as a “means of domination and violation of the sovereignty of our countries [in Latin America], as an excuse to maintain military presence in our territories,” El Nuevo Herald reports.

On Wednesday, however, State Department anti-narcotics official William Brownfield made an interesting concession in remarks to reporters in Panama. “Now, I have to admit something, starting a year and a half or so ago, efforts have been detected by the Venezuelan government to control and reduce the transit of illicit drugs through their territory,” said Brownfield, according to the AP. “There is little collaboration with the United States at least, but I have to admit that there is evidence of serious efforts to control it.”

The news agency notes that the remarks come as Jay Bergman, DEA director for the Andean region, is posed to Venezuela to begin high-level talks over restarting cooperation with U.S. anti-drug efforts. The visit is the result of nearly two years of preparation by both governments.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday’s Senate debate in Colombia regarding former President Alvaro Uribe’s links to drug traffickers and paramilitaries proved to be more lively than expected. Surprisingly, Uribe actually showed up in person, and while he initially stormed out in protest of Ivan Cepeda’s allegations of his paramilitary ties, he later returned and took the mic to --as he put it -- defend his honor. Still, while the debate made headlines in Colombia, both La Silla Vacia and the AP note that most of the evidence and testimony presented by Cepeda was largely public knowledge.
  • The government of Venezuela said yesterday that it would be moving to revoke the citizenship of actress Maria Conchita Alonso, who has been a high-profile critic of President Nicolas Maduro. The NYT notes that in a recent interview with Voice of America she said she wished the U.S. “would invade with bullets to remove all those wretched communists from Venezuela,” a comment which the government has used to portray her as a violent extremist.
  • Animal Politico and Fusion report on the shockingly high incidence of rape and sexual assault reported by Central American migrants women during their journey to the border. According to estimates by migrant aid workers, more than half and as many as 80 percent of all women are victims of sexual assault along the way north.
  • Guatemalan news site Plaza Publica profiles a unique immigration trend in that country: a growing number of transgender Hondurans have fled to neighboring Guatemala not only because the economic conditions are better and the crime rate somewhat lower, but also in response to a hostile, discriminatory environment. However, many say that the level of discrimination they face in Guatemala is just as bad.
  • In response to the government’s calls for a public demonstration of support, a major demonstration of supporters of Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa took place yesterday in Quito, EFE reports. According to El Universo it was joined by separate opposition protests by certain unions and indigenous groups, and authorities say 74 people were arrested yesterday.
  • InSight Crime has published a partial transcript of an interview conducted by Jerry McDermott with Paraguayan drug czar Luis Rojas. In it, Rojas laments the lack of technical knowledge over the exact size of the country’s illicit marijuana crop, despite the fact that Paraguay has long been South America’s largest source of the drug. Rojas is also surprisingly self-critical of Paraguay’s anti-drug approach, frankly calling for a more comprehensive approach to the problem. “90 percent of our resources in repression of the drug trade, and not attacking the problem at its roots, which are also social,” he said.  
  • Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva has granted her first interview to a foreign news agency since replacing her late running mate Eduardo Campos as the Socialist Party’s nominee. In a wide-ranging interview with the Associated Press, Silva discussed her desire to address the dissatisfaction voiced by many Brazilians in last year’s June protests, as well as her view of some of Brazil’s foreign policy priorities. According to Silva, if victorious she would press Brazil to be more vocal regarding human rights abuses abroad in places like Cuba, Venezuela and Iran.
  • Argentina took a step further in its efforts to prosecute Dirty War-era abuses yesterday, as a trial against three doctors accused of facilitating the theft of babies of captured dissidents went underway. As Pagina12 reports, the three allegedly helped military officials mask the identity of babies born to captive mothers in the 70s and 80s, signing false birth certificates permitting them to be put up for adoption.
  • In an op-ed in today’s New York Times, Argentine writer Pola Oloixarac describes how President Cristina Fernandez’s battle with the so-called “vulture funds” has raised her profile and boosted her flagging popularity. Oloixarac claims this is the result of a national Argentine “weakness for defiant characters.”