Friday, October 17, 2014

A Look at Uruguay’s “No a la Baja” Campaign

In the face of rising insecurity, Uruguay’s conservative opposition succeeded in organizing a referendum on lowering the age of criminal responsibility to take place alongside general election on October 26. If it passes, the measure would drop the age at which offenders could be tried as adults for serious crimes from 18 to 16.

Ever since mid-2012, when the campaign in favor of lowering the age of criminal responsibility succeeded in pairing the referendum with the upcoming election, it has been opposed by certain sectors of civil society. Local human rights groups like Proderechos, the Institute for Legal and Social Studies (IELSUR) and the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ) argued that not only would the measure violate children’s rights and go against a more compassionate view of juvenile justice, but that it would also be ineffective at tackling insecurity. Official statistics show that less than 7 percent of all crimes are committed by teenagers, a figure that has remained stable even as crime has risen over the past decade.

Despite this logic, the measure remained largely popular. A November 2012 Cifra poll found that 64 percent of the population supported lowering the age of criminal responsibility. This makes sense considering that while Uruguay remains one of the safest countries in the Americas, the homicide rate has remained at a record high since 2012, and both violent and non-violent robberies have increased in recent years. 

Compared to elsewhere in the region, the country is behind only Venezuela in terms of the percentage who list insecurity as their greatest concern (36 compared to 47 percent).

Things looked bleak for human rights advocates in Uruguay until late 2013, when the coalition of groups who opposed the reform -- known as the “No a la Baja” Commission -- doubled their outreach efforts and launched a revamped multimedia campaign. Using playful, colorful imagery (see examples at www.noalabaja.uy) meant to invoke childhood and youth, the No a la Baja team began making its case to the public.

The effect of the appealing messaging and concentrated, coherent arguments on Uruguayan public opinion has been astounding. Support for No a la Baja began to snowball, building a movement that includes not only supporters of the ruling Frente Amplio coalition, but also the local UNICEF office, national trade union center PIT-CNT, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of Uruguay, and some youth factions of the opposition Colorado and National Parties. As an astute analysis of the campaign in La Diaria puts it, supporters of lowering the age of criminal responsibility have been “practically isolated” from joining in the public discussion of the issue.

The No a la Baja Commission convened a march through downtown Montevideo yesterday, and its massive turnout was a testimony to the campaign’s success. As leading dailies El Observador and El Pais report, tens of thousands of people participated in the march, with organizers putting their estimate at around 50,000.

The turnout seems to confirm what recent polls have been indicating: while the outcome of presidential elections is too close to call, it seems safe to say that the measure will not pass on October 26. A September 25 Cifra poll showed that support for the reform has dropped ten points since March 2014, from 58 percent to 48 percent, and while pollsters Factum and Equipos Mori still show slight majorities in favor of the reform, most analysts agree that it will likely fail.

News Briefs                         
  • In a new editorial, the New York Times looks at Evo Morales’ recent re-election as an example of an “unhealthy” trend for democracies in Latin America, noting the similarly extended run of Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff squared off with her main challenger in upcoming elections, Aecio Neves, again yesterday in a televised debate. O Globo reports that both candidates exchanged allegations of nepotism and lying, a pattern that spokesmen from their respective campaigns say will continue until the October 26 runoff vote. After the debate, Rousseff appeared light headed and  had to sit out a period meant for candidates to field questions from journalists, the AP notes.
  • Brazil’s Petrobras scandal, in which leading politicians have been accused of taking kickbacks from the state-owned oil company, has so far been seen as a major obstacle to Rousseff’s re-election, and it is one of Neves’ favorite talking points. However, it appears the scandal has reached Neves’ PSDB party as well. According to O Globo, the former Petrobras director admitted yesterday to bribing PSDB President Sergio Guerra to back off from an investigation into the company in 2009.
  • Animal Politico reports that state lawmakers in Guerrero, Mexico have impeached Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, who is accused of having a hand in the disappearance of 43 students there late last month.  Abarca’s whereabouts remain unknown.
  • Guatemalan candidate for OAS Secretary General Eduardo Stein spoke at the Wilson Center in DC yesterday, where he attempted to drum up support for his bid.  Spanish news agency EFE reports that Stein vowed that if elected, he would stop it from “being a mess,” calling attention to the fact that the OAS’ spare funding is currently divided among757 mandates. According to EFE, Stein promised to “choose those which truly represent the fundamental interests” of the region.  The news agency reports that Stein also said he has received the backing of five countries so far: El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic. El Salvador’s alleged support for Stein is notable given that the Uruguayan press has reported that Foreign Minister Luis Almagro has also been backed by the Central American country.
  • Colombia’s conservative -- and allegedly corrupt -- Investigator General Alejandro Ordoñez has seized on the recent news that the administration of Juan Manuel Santos allowed FARC head Timochenko to travel to Havana multiple times since peace talks began.  El Tiempo reports that Ordoñez sent a public letter to the president asking him to clarify the executive’s views of the legality of the visits, to which Santos has responded by implying that the official is overstepping his official functions.
  • A recent investigation by news site El Faro has revealed the destination of the Taiwanese donations that former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores has been accused of embezzling during his 1999-2004 term. According to the site, most of the $10 million went to the right wing party ARENA, which used it to support its own political initiatives as well as the presidential campaign of his successor, Tony Saca.
  • The killing of journalist Pablo Medina, who worked for Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color, yesterday has set off a wave of indignation over the government’s commitment to protecting media workers in the country, as the AP reports.  According to ABC, Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga has issued a statement promising that the government of Paraguay will investigate the murder to the fullest extent.