Friday, December 5, 2014

After Deaths, Venezuelan NGOs call for Prison Minister’s Removal

Following reports that as many as 41 inmates died after allegedly ingesting toxic substances from the infirmary following a protest, the official version of the incident has come under suspicion and the Venezuelan prison minister is coming under pressure to resign.

On November 24, inmates at the Uribana prison in western Lara state initiated a hunger strike to call for improved conditions in the facility. The prison is notorious among inmates for its high level of overcrowding and violence, and was the site of a deadly clash between prisoners and National Guard troops in 2013.

According to the official story, the protest turned violent and some inmates broke out of their cells and into the infirmary ward. There, they allegedly ingested rubbing alcohol and various medications, with 145 becoming intoxicated. The government claims 35 of these inmates have died, while 20 have gone into a coma and the rest are receiving treatment.

The non-governmental Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP) has placed the death toll even higher, saying at least 41 have died and that relatives of the prisoners say they were poisoned. According to the OVP’s Humberto Prado: “The (inmates) were sent bottles of water and food... they haven't said who sent it, but it was let into the prison and that's what family members say caused (the intoxications).” The group is calling for independent toxicology tests to be carried out on the deceased, and for an impartial investigation into the circumstances behind the deaths, a demand that has been echoed by international human rights NGOs.

The group is also making more targeted demands. The OVP, alongside human rights NGO PROVEA, is calling for the resignation of Prisons Minister Iris Varela, as El Universal and El Nacional report. In a press statement released yesterday, both groups criticized Varela for a lack of progress on overcrowding, noting that the prison population saw a three percent increase this year. They also pointed out that 1,463 inmates have been killed and 2,259 injured since the government set up the Prison Ministry under Varela in 2011.

When Varela first took office, she was charged with adopting a more “humanist” approach to the country’s penal systems. But as these figures indicate, the country has a long way to go before its notoriously violent, overcrowded and underfunded prisons meaningfully incorporate humanist values.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday, São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad announced that he would be expanding welfare coverage in the city to include registered immigrants, a shift that could benefit as many as 50,000 people, according to O Globo. These immigrant communities (which include Haitians, Bolivians, and many from West African nations) will be able to benefit from the country’s Bolsa Familia cash-transfer program, as well as other successful welfare initiatives like Minha Casa Minha Vida.
  • Today’s Wall Street Journal picks up on a new paper on climate change by a Brazilian academic who, as mentioned in yesterday’s briefs, links the current record drought in São Paulo with deforestation in the Amazon. As the WSJ notes, the paper has sparked a rare policy debate on the implications of illegal lumber harvesting for the country’s large urban population in the south.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has made his first visit to the state of Guerrero since the September disappearance of 43 students in the town Iguala. Despite signaling earlier this week that he would visit the troubled town -- which were later scrubbed -- Peña Nieto limited his trip to the resort city of Acapulco. As El Universal and the AP report, the president called for the country to overcome “this painful period,” and presented a plan meant to spur economic growth and tourism in Guerrero.
  • This week’s issue of The Economist features an overview of the ongoing protests against the Mexican president, noting demonstrators’ wide ranging demands for an end to corruption and a weak rule of law.  The magazine also has a positive appraisal of how fast both sides in the Colombian peace talks were able to overcome the recent crisis, though questions persist over their ability to reach a final agreement in time to put it up for a vote coinciding with the October 2015 local elections. The Economist’s Bello Blog also has an analysis of the potential for President Obama to take executive action on Cuba, which may be hindered by growing support for sanctions on Venezuelan officials.
  • The Honduran press has begun raising questions about a recent Supreme Court decision ordering the state to pay a pharmaceutical company after defaulting on a previous payment. As El Proceso and La Tribuna report, the November 24th decision bears the signature of several judges who were apparently out of the country during the “debate” of the case, and Supreme Court Judge Lidia Estela Cardona claims that she did not actually sign the ruling, though it apparently bears her signature. A Supreme Court spokesman has told the press that her signature is the result of a clerical error, but Russell N. Sheptak of Honduras Culture and Politics notes that the rushed circumstances of the pharmaceutical case ruling (especially the reliance on replacement judges) raise deeper questions about due process and judicial corruption in the country.
  • Last week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a new report on the right to truth in the Americas (.pdf). While the Commission’s report praises the work of Truth Commissions across the region in revealing the extent of human rights abuses committed by autocratic regimes, it finds that less progress has been made regarding reconciliation and prosecution of these abuses. Amnesty laws in places like Peru, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil and El Salvador represent serious impediments to victims’ access to justice, which the Commission refers to as these states’ “outstanding debt” to citizens who suffered human rights violations.
  • Colombia’s Semana magazine highlights several recent cases of corruption and collusion with armed groups in the country’s National Police, including the recent discovery of an alleged FARC collaborator among the police force in Cauca province. The latest incident has focused attention on corruption in police ranks, prompting Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon to announce that a thorough vetting process of the institution is underway, as RCN reports.
  • According to a new Datanalisis survey released earlier this week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s approval rating has fallen to 24.5 percent, a drop of nearly 6 points from September. The poll also found that an overwhelming share of Venezuelans -- 85.7 percent -- say the country is heading in the wrong direction. Over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, David Smilde notes that this is lower than even Hugo Chavez’s record low 30.8 percent in June 2003, suggesting that Chavismo’s dedicated base may be smaller than expected.
  • Uruguay’s El Pais reports that the six Guantanamo detainees the country has agreed to accept from the United States are due to arrive late Monday or early Tuesday. Upon their arrival, the six will be taken to a military hospital where they will reportedly undergo medical exams. The fact that the transfer is coming so soon after the recent election seems to confirm reports that President Jose Mujica sought to delay it in order to minimize the potential for electoral backlash.
  • Spanish news agency EFE reports on a trend with interesting potential for indigenous and land rights in the Americas: the use of drones by indigenous advocacy groups to identify abuses in the extraction industry and monitor the welfare of remote tribes.