Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ecuador’s Opposition Pushes for Popular Vote on Reforms

Ecuador’s fractured opposition is struggling to challenge the constitutional reforms proposed by President Rafael Correa’s Alianza Pais political movement, but have seen electoral authorities shoot down two bids to hold a referendum in the past week alone.

Yesterday, opposition figure and 2013 presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso announced that the National Electoral Council (CNE) had rejected his party’s request to begin gathering signatures for a popular vote on the reforms, which among other things would end term limits for all elected officials. As El Comercio reports, the decision came just days after the CNE denied a separate, similar request submitted by the party of ex-President Lucio Gutierrez.

According to El Universo, in both cases the CNE found that the language of the proposed petition questions had to be approved by the Constitutional Court before the parties could begin gathering the 585,323 signatures needed to trigger a referendum.  But as columnist Jorge Alvear Macias notes, the logic behind the ruling has been heavily questioned.

In the case of the Yasunidos campaign -- the most recent example of a high-profile attempt to organize a referendum -- the Constitutional Court issued a ruling that seems to directly contradict the CNE’s decision, finding that electoral officials had to first endorse the validity of the campaign’s signatures before the court could assess the language of the questions.

Officials in the CNE have said that the difference in this case is the fact that the current referendum initiative involves constitutional reforms, which require the Constitutional Court’s approval to move forward.

Nevertheless, the unclear procedures and the apparent judicial obstacles ahead of the opposition’s attempts to organize a referendum are sure to draw comparisons to the officials’ rejection of the Yasunidos signature drive, which raised questions about the independence of state institutions.

If the opposition manages to overcome the odds -- which are compounded by its own divisions, as the existence of various referendum petition requests shows -- and force a popular vote on the reforms, the resulting showdown could gain popular support and deal a significant blow to President Correa. Though the president remains largely popular, there is a great deal of support for submitting the reforms to a vote. According to a Cedatos poll released in October, 73 percent of the country is in favor of voting on a proposal to allow indefinite reelection.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto officially submitted his security reform initiative to the Senate, and El Universal has more on the text of the reforms. In addition to its proposal to place the country’s municipal police under state control, Animal Politico notes that the package would amend the constitution to allow the federal government to assume security responsibilities in municipalities where there is “sufficient evidence” of criminal presence, without stating what that evidence would be.
  • The Colombian general whose capture by the FARC sparked a recent crisis in the peace talks, Gen. Ruben Dario Alzate, released a statement yesterday explaining why he traveled to an area with a heavy rebel presence unarmed and with no security detail on November 16. According to the general, he was in the area overseeing an energy development project, and was dressed as a civilian in a bid to gain the local community’s trust. In the same statement, Alzate also announced his retirement from military service, as the WSJ reports. News site La Silla Vacia claims that sources in the military say Alzate was largely forced into retirement by the army leadership, which felt embarrassed by his errors.
  • The FARC and government negotiating teams will resume dialogue today in Havana, where chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle has said that the two sides will begin a “cold evaluation” of the status of the talks in light of the recent crisis, AFP reports.
  • After Alzate’s release on Sunday, the FARC released photos showing rebel commander Pastor Alape posing for a photo with the army official, as well as images of Red Cross facilitators and representatives of the guarantor nations of Cuba and Norway. BBC Mundo has an excellent overview of the controversy caused by the photos, noting that while the guerrillas may have intended them to fuel hopes for a lasting peace, to many in the country they are a symbol of the armed forces’ humiliation.
  • The non-governmental Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP) has publicly questioned the official narrative regarding a prison riot last week in which 35 inmates allegedly died after breaking into a clinic and ingesting toxic chemicals. 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).” Prado also said that the group believes as many as 41 prisoners were killed.
  • According to El Pais, Uruguayan President-elect Tabare Vazquez will announce his top cabinet picks of his next term tonight at 8pm local time (5pm EST). For international drug policy reform advocates, it will be particularly interesting to see who he chooses for the next National Drug Secretary, in order to get a better sense of how he will handle monitoring and evaluating the country’s cannabis regulation law.
  • On Monday, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights initiated a country visit to Honduras, where it will be meeting with civil society representatives and government officials over the next five days to evaluate the human rights situation around the country, La Tribuna and El Heraldo report. Coinciding with the visit, a group of 23 local and international civil society groups have sent a letter to the commissioners highlighting the growing level of violence in the country and calling for them to pressure the government to adhere to international human rights norms.
  • As the fifth anniversary of the arrest and imprisonment of USAID contractor Alan Gross nears, the Miami Herald has an update on his health condition and questions the U.S. government’s refusal to swap him with the remaining prisoners of the “Cuban Five” on the grounds that Gross was not conducting secret intelligence work on the island.
  • Forensic experts investigating claims that the military poisoned the president toppled in Brazil’s 1964 military coup, João Goulart, have found no evidence to back this up. An autopsy has determined that he likely died of natural causes, as Agencia Brasil reports.