Thursday, November 20, 2014

Colombia Clears a Hurdle in Peace Talk Crisis

Today’s headlines bring excellent news for Colombia’s peace process: the government and FARC rebels have reached an agreement on the necessary conditions for the release of the captured army general and four other guerrilla prisoners.

As El Espectador reports, in a brief press conference yesterday representatives of the peace talk guarantor countries -- Cuba and Norway -- told reporters that the two sides had come to an agreement to free the captives “as soon as possible.” In addition to General Ruben Dario Alzate and his companions, the rebels will release two soldiers captured last month in Arauca. This was confirmed by a press statement released by the president’s office, which thanked the guarantors for their support and promised that the Colombian negotiating team would return to Havana as soon as the FARC prisoners were freed.

El Tiempo notes that the speedy agreement has highlighted the important role that Cuban and Norwegian authorities play in keeping both sides at the table. According to Semana magazine, the army will temporarily cease military operations in Arauca and Choco provinces in order to allow the guerrillas to organize the release, and BluRadio reports that Cali Archbishop Dario de Jesus Monsalve claimed yesterday that sources in the army told him that the prisoners would be freed in 48 hours.

The terms of the prisoner release remain unknown, but the fact that both sides reached a consensus so rapidly suggests that the swap will not prove too costly for the Colombian government. Despite speculation that the FARC would be able to use the capture to force a bilateral ceasefire, it is not likely that administration of President Juan Manuel Santos would have crossed what it considers to be a red line, especially so quickly.

As Adam Isaacson points out, while the FARC’s capture of the general may have been permitted under the ground rules of negotiations, the reality is that Colombia’s political climate would not allow the guerrillas to continue peace talks while holding the army official. The FARC, he argues, were forced to “choose between keeping Gen. Alzate or keeping the peace process alight.”

But while FARC may have ultimately had little choice but to free General Alzate, the fact that they are acting to resume negotiations as fast as possible is a positive sign. La Silla Vacia suggests that the deal has provided the FARC an opportunity to show they are committed to peace talks, and may also indicate the rebels’ increasing concern over public opinion.

News Briefs
  • Major anti-government marches are planned across Mexico today, coinciding with the anniversary of the Revolution of 1910. El Universal reports that three caravans of relatives of the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students are due to converge in downtown Mexico City after weeks of traveling around the country to raise support for their cause.
  • In his latest response to recent allegations of corruption in his administration, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has published details of all of his assets. Animal Politico has the full list, which includes four houses, an apartment, four tracts of land, artwork, jewelry and watches, furniture and other home accessories, as well as financial investments. The president released the information after praising his wife’s explanation of her acquisition  of a property tied to a government contractor, which as the New York Times notes failed to directly address the root of the controversy.
  • The new head of Mexico’s semi-governmental National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), former UNAM lawyer Luis Raul Gonzalez Perez, held his first press conference as ombudsman on Tuesday. In it, he promised reporters that he would not seek re-election (and would work to end the position’s eligibility for re-election), and warned that the country is facing a “human rights crisis,” as El Universal and Notimex report.
  • Global Witness’ recently-released report on the deadly risks faced by environmental rights activists in Peru, which named the country the fourth most dangerous in the world for environmentalists, has struck a nerve. Official Peruvian press agency Andina has published the transcript of an international press conference yesterday in which President Ollanta Humala was asked about his commitment to protecting the Amazon and indigenous communities ahead of the upcoming COP20 climate summit. Humala said he did not agree with painting indigenous rainforest defenders as “the best guardians of the forests,” and claimed that this was the role of the state. “For this reason the state must hire forest officers, and there is the National Forest Service et cetera,” Humala said.
  • Despite concerns over corruption and civil society groups’ objections to recent judicial nominations in Guatemala, the country’s Constitutional Court upheld the appointments in a 3-2 ruling yesterday afternoon. Prensa Libre reports that the new Supreme Court and appellate court judges -- who were reportedly chosen as a result of backroom deal between the ruling Patriot Party (PP) and the opposition Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER) -- will assume their offices in five days’ time. In an interview with El Periodico, human rights advocate Helen Mack of the Fundacion Myrna Mack told the paper that the decision represents proof of the lack of judicial independence in the country. As a next step, Mack endorsed a proposal by the UN-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to hold a series of technical conferences to put together an agenda for justice reform.
  • Steve Inskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition has a brief interview with former Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who describes some of the risks she faced in her job. Out of concern for her safety, Paz y Paz claims that she traveled with a seven-member security detail in Guatemala. Asked about why she has moved to the U.S. after leaving office, the ex-prosecutor said her family “needed to be away for a little bit.”
  • O Globo and the AP profile a new report by Brazil’s Observatório do Clima on greenhouse gas emissions, which found that the country’s emissions increased by eight percent in 2013 and called for more investment in alternative energy sources.
  • Among the flurry of decrees issued by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in his final hours before the expiration of his expanded powers last night is a measure to create a new “National Anti-Corruption System.” While details on the reforms are scarce, El Universal reports that the new institution will report directly to the president and that reforms include new sanctions for bribery. Spain’s El Pais describes the measure as a response to recent allegations of entrenched corruption from opposition groups and civil society.
  • Also on Maduro’s decrees, Hugo Perez Hernaiz of Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights explains recent measures passed by the president which aim to heighten the importance of communes and communal councils. While these structures are held up by government supporters as a unique form of community governance, Perez Hernaiz notes that are many concerns about their potential to undermine representative local government and ultimately expand executive authority.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez appears to be recovering well after undergoing treatment for a colon infection. La Nacion reports that her cabinet chief, Jorge Capitanich, has announced that the president will return to work next Tuesday, three weeks after being hospitalized.