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.