Monday, April 8, 2013

Lula Investigated for Alleged 'Mensalão Scandal' Links

Prosecutors in Brazil have begun an inquiry into allegations that former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva played a part in the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history, charges which could take a toll on the popularity of his successor, current President Dilma Rousseff.

The New York Times reports that the investigation was officially announced by Public Ministry prosecutors on Friday, who requested that federal police look into claims that Lula knew about the so-called “mensalão” vote-buying scheme during his presidency, and even benefited from it financially.

These allegations were made by businessman Marcos Valerio, who in October was convicted of facilitating the scheme and sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment. In September, Valerio testified that he transferred funds to Lula at least twice as part of the scheme. When the accusations leaked to the press late last year, Lula himself called them an outright “lie,” and criticized press coverage of Valerio’s testimony as sensationalism.

Despite his vehement rejection of any links to the scandal, there is room for doubt. Seeing as Lula’s ex-chief of staff, the former head of his Workers’ Party (PT) and a number of other figures in his administration have been convicted of involvement in the scandal, it is likely that he was at least aware of the activity at the time.

As Reuters points out, if Lula is implicated in the scandal, it could potentially hurt President Rousseff, who served as Lula’s chief of staff from 2005 to 2010, and is seen as his political protégé. Rousseff currently enjoys a 79 percent approval rating, but this could take a hit if her mentor is successfully linked to the mensalão plot. It may even cost her re-election in 2014. She is already vulnerable to criticism over economic issues, and widespread dissatisfaction with the level of corruption in Brazil could cause the public to turn against her, depending on the degree of Lula’s involvement.

At the very least it will serve as fodder for the campaign of Brazilian Senator Aecio Neves, which will reportedly be advised by David Axelrod, former chief strategist for U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Neves is a rising star in the Social Democracy Party (PSDB), which has been spearheading Brazil’s high profile anti-corruption investigations in recent months.

News Briefs
  • In other Brazilian campaign-related media coverage, the New York Times’ Simon Romero writes an interesting profile of Brazilian campaign strategist João Santana. Santana ran Lula’s 2005 re-election campaign, Rousseff’s 2010 campaign, Dominican President Danilo Medina’s 2012 presidential campaign, as well as the final re-election campaign of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He is in high demand among politicians across Latin America, and is seen as particularly skilled at pinpointing the weaknesses of candidate’s political adversaries.
  • Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has announced the names of her campaign team ahead of Chile’s November presidential elections, La Tercera reports. It includes figures from her previous administration, as well as some newcomers who were obviously chosen with an eye towards expanding her support amongst sectors of the left which are distrustful of the former president. Included in this category is former student leader Karina Delfino, head of the campaign’s youth initiatives. Her selection is a clear nod to Chile’s student movement, and a sign that she may take up their calls for education reform.
  •  The Miami Herald reports that Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles held the final rally before elections in Caracas on Sunday, delivering “one of the most combative and optimistic speeches” of his campaign.
  • Ahead of this Saturday’s presidential election in Paraguay, a human rights organization has accused Horacio Cartes, the frontrunner in the race, of having ties to drug trafficking organizations.  According to EFE, the Paraguayan Permanent Assembly of Human Rights filed a complaint with the country's Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office to investigate claims that property owned by Cartes has been used by drug runners.
  • The Guardian spoke with the elusive author of the most popular blog on organized crime in Mexico, “El Blog del Narco,” who revealed some unexpected facts about her identity. Under the pseudonym Lucy, she claims to be a young female journalist in her mid-20s living in northern Mexico.
  • The AFP reports that a leader of Mexican teachers’ union CNTE is organizing a protest against the government’s education reform push. In contrast, the larger SNTE union appears  to have tacitly consented to the reforms, and its new leader met with President Enrique Peña Nieto last week.
  • Afro-Cuban essayist Roberto Zurbano, who recently wrote a NYT op-ed in which he spoke out against economic marginalization of blacks in his country, has been dismissed from his post as editor of the Casa de las Americas publishing house, according to the Havana Times blog. Zurbano apparently told supporters that the government-funded Casa de las Americas had offer him another position.
  • The BBC reported on Friday that the death toll caused by flash flooding in Argentina’s Buenos Aires province rose in the days following the rainfall that began last Tuesday, rising to 57 confirmed deaths. La Nacion reports that local judicial officials say the figure could be even higher. The Christian Science Monitor has an overview of the political blame game that has ensued in the wake of the disaster.
  • The exhumation of the remains of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda has begun, La Tercera reports. The paper is live-blogging the event here, although a verdict on the cause of his death (many suspect he was killed by the Pinochet regime) will not be released for days.
  • Alias "Pablo Catatumbo," a top commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has arrived in Havana to join the group’s peace talks with the government, bringing the number of members of the FARC Secretariat in Havana to three.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Guatemalan President Implicated in Civil War Massacres

Allegations that Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina had a hand in the atrocities of the country’s civil war have resurfaced after a witness in the genocide trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt claimed the president led troops who committed massacres during Rios Montt’s 1982-1983 rule.
In court on Thursday, the tenth day of the trial, former army engineer Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes testified via video link from an undisclosed location, Reuters and Prensa Libre report. When questioned by the prosecution, he said soldiers systematically burnt homes and rounded up civilians in the vicinity of the northwestern municipality of Santa Maria Nebaj.

When the prisoners were brought to a nearby military base, Leonardo Reyes claimed they had been tortured, and said he saw captives “with their tongues removed and fingernails pulled out, among other injuries.” They were subsequently executed.

According to Leonardo Reyes, among the commanding officers in the area was President Perez, then a major who went by the nom de guerre “Major Tito.” The witness also implicated retired General Jose Luis Quilo Ayuso in the crimes, and said it was impossible for the officers to be unaware of the violence. As elPeriodico notes, Quilo Ayuso was named by Rios Montt’s lawyers as a witness for the defense, and the allegation is sure to cast doubt on his testimony.

This is far from the first time that Perez has been linked to alleged atrocities. Rights groups have long maintained that troops under his command committed human rights violations in the western Cuchumatanes highlands in the early 1980s, and Jennifer Harbury, an American activist whose guerrilla leader husband was tortured and disappeared by the military in 1992, has alleged that Perez ordered his killing.

Like most civil war-era military officers accused of perpetrating human rights abuses, Perez has never faced criminal charges in court. In all likelihood he never will. Still, yesterday’s testimony serves as an important illustration of the institutionalized brutality of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign, and a reminder that many of its orchestrators remain in positions of power today.

Note: There was some variation in the media coverage on the degree to which Leonardo Reyes was implicating Perez in the abuses in Nebaj. Plaza Publica has the most nuanced overview of the testimony, provided in the context of the questions being asked by the prosecution.

News Briefs
  • Colombian "Emerald Czar" Victor Carranza, a political powerbroker and alleged paramilitary financier who made his vast fortune by taking over the country’s emerald trade, has died after years of battling cancer, Semana reports. As InSight Crime noted back in July, a number of criminal organizations have been eyeing his assets in parts of Colombia’s lawless interior recently, and there is reason to believe his death could spark a wave of violence in the country as these groups fight over the right to control them either directly or through extortion.
  • 86-year-old retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro has weighed in on the escalating tension between North Korea and the United States. In a a letter published in Granma, the country’s official daily, Fidel called on both countries to avoid causing a nuclear war which would affect “70 percent of the planet’s population.”
  • Writing for Upside Down World, Medellin-based journalist James Bargent profiles the autonomous education system created by the San Jose de Apartado Peace Community in the northern Colombian region of Uraba. When public schoolteachers were driven away by paramilitary violence, the community created a “Campesino University,” geared towards mixing elements of campesino culture with basic teaching subjects like reading and arithmetic.
  • Uruguayan President Jose Mujica’s penchant for irreverence has once again landed him in hot water with the press, El Pais reports. Following a press conference on trade relations with Argentina and Brazil, Mujica made disparaging remarks about Argentine President Cristina Fernandez to a local official without realizing that his microphone was on, saying: “This old lady is worse than the cross-eyed man,” a reference to Fernandez and her late husband, Nestor Kirchner. “He was more of a politician, she’s stubborn,” he added.
  • Reuters takes an in-depth look at Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s popularity, with a view to the October 2014 presidential elections. Although opinion polls put support for the president around 79 percent, the news agency suggests that her re-election is not as certain as many believe.
  • Julia Michaels of The Rio Real blog argues that the media attention given to the recent rape of an American woman on a transport van in Rio de Janeiro reveals a discriminatory social division in the city. Brazilian women regularly report incidents of sexual assault on the vans -- a common form of transportation for lower class Brazilians -- but city officials took no action until after the most recent incident involving a tourist.  
  • The AP reports that a Brazilian jury on Thursday convicted two men of the 2011 murder of a pair of land rights activists in the north of the country. A third suspect, accused of masterminding the killing, was acquitted.
  • On Wednesday, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala traveled to China, Peru’s largest trading partner, to discuss economic relations between the two nations.
  • The New York Times has the latest on calls for an independent investigation into the death of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, who was killed last year in a car crash in eastern Cuba. After the driver of the vehicle claimed that the crash was caused by the impact of another car, the United States government joined those requesting an inquiry of the crash. Paya’s daughter is now touring the U.S. and Europe, pressing the case for an investigation.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Uruguay Launches Public Debate of Marijuana Legalization

In an attempt to build popular support for its controversial marijuana legalization initiative, the government of Uruguay is sponsoring a month-long series of presentations and panel discussions on the issue around the country before Congress takes up the debate next month. If passed, the bill could serve as a model for the growing number of Latin American countries which are considering breaking with the dominant U.S.-backed anti-drug strategy in the region.

The measure was first proposed last July by President Jose Mujica, who called for the state to assume direct control over the production and sale of marijuana. Since then, its language has changed considerably. In its current form (.pdf) it permits the creation of private cannabis growth and consumption cooperatives, known as “membership clubs,” as well as domestic cultivation of up to six cannabis plants. All cannabis cultivation would be authorized and monitored by a federal regulatory organization, the National Institute of Cannabis (INCA), and would not exceed 30 hectares nationwide. Possession for personal consumption of the drug would be capped at 40 grams per month.

While the ruling Frente Amplio coalition has enough votes in both legislative houses to pass the bill, Mujica instead opted to promote a campaign geared towards raising awareness of its benefits, organized by the executive office’s National Drug Council (JND). It begins today with a series of panel discussions on controlling and regulating the cannabis market, to be held in in four provinces. Similar events will be held in towns and communities across the country over the next 30 days.

It remains to be seen whether this sizeable awareness campaign can overcome public skepticism of the bill, however. A December poll showed that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Uruguayans are against marijuana legalization. Critics say its potential to reduce crime, one of the bill’s biggest selling points, is minimal. Marijuana possession, they point out, is already decriminalized in the country, and its small but growing organized crime problem is mostly related to the market for cocaine and crack.

But if the campaign is able to make a dent on public opinion, Congress will likely pass the bill sometime in July. Because the legalization initiative is so ambitious, its implementation would doubtlessly be closely studied by other governments in the region, where a historic wave of opposition to the U.S.-led “war on drugs” is underway. Depending on its success in Uruguay, the leaders of other Latin American countries may even propose similar legislation in the near future.  One potential candidate is Guatemalan President Otto Perez, who has already endorsed the legalization of marijuana in his own country, and is building a reputation as a leading voice for drug policy reform internationally.

News Briefs
  • At least 52 people have drowned or been killed over the past three days as a result of torrential rainfall and subsequent flooding in Argentina’s Buenos Aires province. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez visited the most flooded areas yesterday, and has declared a nationwide three-day period of mourning for the deaths. El Pais notes that Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, who is hoping to succeed Fernandez in 2015, has been criticized for his handling of the disaster.
  • On Monday, Bolivian President Evo Morales temporarily suspended his official duties due to health concerns, which Vice President Alvaro Garcia said were caused by “respiratory problems.” He resumed normal activity on Tuesday morning, meeting with a delegate of the Palestine Monetary Authority. According to Communications Minister Amanda Davila, Morales is now more concerned about his own health after the death of Hugo Chavez, which was caused by cancer-related respiratory failure.
  • Despite U.S. Southern Command head General John Kelly’s recent claim to the contrary, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon and armed forces chief Gen. Alejandro Navas have said they have no evidence of this.
  • Reuters reports that seven members of the Cuban National Ballet have defected while on tour in Mexico last month. According to Café Fuerte, six of the seven have crossed into the United States and are now in Miami.
  • The Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog hosts an analysis of the electoral strategy of Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by Iñaki Sagarzazu. Sagarzazu points out that, based on polling data, Capriles’ only hope of winning lies in turning out large numbers of his own supporters while also convincing 20 percent of Chavistas and undeclared voters to vote for him. With the election in only ten days, this is a tall order.
  • A U.S. judge has rejected Chevron Corp’s request for a court to force the advocacy group Amazon Watch to turn over internal documents regarding a pollution case in Ecuador.
  • In an illustration of shifting trends in the hemispheric drug trade, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement William Brownfield has announced that a crackdown on drug trafficking in Central and South America is causing more drug shipments to pass through the Caribbean.
  • The L.A. Times reports that U.S. border officials are using a high-tech airborne radar system originally designed to track Taliban fighters in Afghanistan on the U.S.-Mexico border, and have found that the number of undocumented immigrants who elude authorities is higher than expected.
  • In spite of recent reports in the press highlighting the growth of a middle class in Mexico, a joint study conducted by UNICEF and Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONCEVAL) has found that 54 percent of Mexicans under the age of 18 live in poverty.
  • After online Mexican entertainment magazine DiarioBasta ran a column which accused domestic workers of being “ungrateful, whining, abusive thieves,” the country’s National Council to Prevent Discrimination has launched an investigation into the site, the AP reports.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

UN Passes First Global Arms Trade Treaty, ALBA Abstains

On Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to pass the world’s first treaty regulating global arms sales, with 154 votes in favor, three against and 23 abstentions. Remarkably, the United States -- the planet’s leading arms exporter -- joined most of the world in supporting the treaty, although the influential National Rifle Association has vowed to prevent the U.S. Congress from ratifying the deal.

Latin America has played a key role in pressing this issue internationally. The campaign began in 1997, when former Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Oscar Arias led a group of seven Nobel Peace Prize laureates in drafting the International Code of Conduct on the Transfer of Arms, which provided the framework for the current treaty. In 2006 this document was endorsed by a General Assembly resolution co-sponsored by eight countries, including Costa Rica and Argentina. Even Brazil, the largest arms exporter in Latin America, supported the measure.

As BBC Mundo reports, however, not every country in the hemisphere backed the treaty yesterday. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) nations of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua were among the 23 countries which abstained from voting. They were joined by China, Russia and India, a factor which is sure to limit the treaty’s effectiveness.

Cuba’s ambassador to the UN, Rodolfo Reyes, told Telesur that the treaty was “unbalanced.” Reyes said his country rejected the treaty because the document “gives arms exporting countries the power to evaluate the behavior of importers on the basis of subjective and imprecise criteria that is subject to abuse and manipulation for political reasons.” This is likely a reference to the fact that, as the New York Times points out, the treaty includes language which links arms sales to a country’s human rights record.

Unfortunately, despite yesterday’s vote, implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty is still years away, as it will not go into effect until 90 days after it is ratified by the 50th member state.

News Briefs
  • Uruguay’s Senate yesterday approved a marriage equality bill in a 23-8 vote. The bill cleared the country’s lower house in December and will likely be signed by President Jose Mujica, putting Uruguay on track to be the 12th country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. As El Pais reports, the bill also authorizes same-sex couples to adopt children. A major sticking point in Uruguay's marriage equality debate was determining the family name for children adopted by same-sex couples. The bill resolves this by permitting same-sex couples to determine this on their own, and allowing couples who can't agree to have it chosen for them at random by the civil registry office.
  • On Monday the tribunal overseeing the case against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt rejected a request by the prosecution to allow victims who were sexually assaulted by soldiers during Rios Montt’s time in office to testify in private. The judges said they would preserve the anonymity of the witnesses by allowing them to testify with their faces concealed, which led several victims to testify while covering their heads with a blanket. The AP has a powerful photo of this treatment, which drives home a point made in a recent New York Times op-ed by Anita Isaacs: that the trial is ultimately “ill-suited to dignifying Guatemala’s victims.”
  • The United Nations mission in Haiti announced yesterday that heavy storms have taken a toll on crops in the Caribbean nation, causing malnutrition to spike. According to the UN body, 1.5 million Haitians are at risk of malnutrition due to crop damage.
  • The latest round of peace talks between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, which was scheduled to begin yesterday, has been postponed to the third week in April. Both negotiating teams accepted the delay, and said the extra time was necessary to consult with their respective leadership. The talks have been stuck on the issue of land reform, which the rebels insist must be part of any peace accord. Ivan Marquez, head of the FARC’s negotiating team, yesterday rejected calls for the negotiators to skip the issue and proceed to other points of disagreement. In a statement published on the FARC’s peace process blog, he said that a “poorly constructed peace” would be worse than war.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced yesterday that he would direct security forces to crack down on illegal mining, which is becoming an increasingly important source of funding for armed groups and criminal organizations in the country. Last weekend, Semana magazine published a special series on the issue, featuring maps of the affected areas as well as an analysis of the state’s failure to protect artisanal miners.  
  • After drawing criticism for likening the Venezuelan opposition to the “heirs of Hitler,” Venezuelan interim president Nicolas Maduro is raising eyebrows for making yet another odd remark on the campaign trail ahead of the April 14 elections. In kicking off his campaign yesterday he told supporters that he was blessed by Chavez’s spirit in the form of a little bird which appeared before him while he prayed in a chapel, circled him three times and began to whistle at him. “I felt him there as though he were giving us a blessing, saying to us: ‘Today the battle begins. Onwards to victory. You have our blessing,’” said Maduro. “I stayed watching him and whistled back. I told him ‘If you whistle then I’ll whistle,’” he added.
  • Milenio reports that nearly a month after police arrested the head of Mexico’s powerful teachers’ union on charges of money laundering, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto met with her replacement, Juan Diaz de la Torre.
  • The Mexican government has sued the telecommunications giant Telmex, claiming that the company is charging customers illegal fees. The L.A. Times notes that this looks like part of Peña Nieto’s ongoing strategy of putting pressure on political powerbrokers to pursue reforms, in this case targeting Telmex owner and billionaire Carlos Slim.
  • The New York Times reports on the phenomenon of abandoned rural villages in Mexico’s central plains. The article claims this is due to a wave of migration northward, though organized crime and violence are factors as well.  
  • The Brazilian government has declassified millions of documents dating back from its 1964-1985 military dictatorship, and has made them available online via the public archive of Sao Paulo State. According to the BBC, the documents show that the Brazilian government kept a close eye on high profile Brazilians like soccer star Pele.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Candidates Kick Off Security-Focused Presidential Campaigns in Venezuela

The Venezuelan presidential race formally begins today, although candidates have been unofficially campaigning for much of the past month. Over the next ten days, both Venezuelan interim president Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Henrique Capriles will be touring the country, drumming up support for their platforms ahead of the April 14 vote.

With violent crime on the rise, both candidates appear to have chosen citizen security as one of the main talking points of their campaigns. Maduro preceded the beginning of his campaign with a televised address yesterday broadcast from the National Experimental University of Security (UNES), a civilian-run police academy which places an emphasis on human rights and community policing (see this profile of UNES by Rebecca Hanson and David Smilde of WOLA’s Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog). He also announced the launch of a state-sponsored initiative called the "Movement for Peace and Life," intended to reduce crime by reaching out to at-risk youth.

Today he is slated to take the campaign to Barinas, the home state of his predecessor Hugo Chavez. According to the Associated Press, he is expected to play up his roots as a working-class bus driver by driving his own tour bus for at least part of the campaign.

Capriles has also seized on the issue of insecurity. Almost immediately after Maduro’s speech, he held a press conference to announce the agenda for the first week of his campaign. His first event was a “walk for peace” which he led last night in Caracas. According to the opposition candidate, the walk served to express his hope that Venezuelans “will safely be able to walk the streets at night, that public spaces will belong to the citizens," according to El Universal.

Monday also brought an illustration of just how much crime has risen in recent years. El Nacional reports that the Caracas morgue announced yesterday that it saw a 7 percent increase in violent deaths in the first three months of 2013 compared with the same period last year, putting the city on track for a record year in homicides.

News Briefs
  • The Atlantic Wire and the Miami Herald have more on Venezuela’s presidential campaign, both of which focus on the increasingly harsh attacks launched by both the Capriles and Maduro camps. BBC Mundo offers a more comprehensive look at the main policy issues ahead of the April 14 vote, as well as an overview of the general strategy of each campaign.
  • The trial against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt continued yesterday after a weeklong recess. According to the Open Society Justice Initiative’s, the court will hear testimony today about sexual assaults committed by members of the Guatemalan security forces during Rios Montt’s time in power. Although the prosecution asked that the tribunal hear the testimony in private in order to protect the identities of the victims, the justices turned this down, saying they would arrange for the witnesses to preserve their anonymity by covering their faces.
  • Writing for Al-Jazeera Engligh, WOLA Senior Fellow Jo-Marie Burt profiles the recent announcement by Peruvian forensic anthropologists that they have identified the remains of three people who were held in a military prison and later disappeared by security forces between 1984 and 1985.  The news brings hope to the families of the more than 15,000 people who disappeared in Peru’s armed conflict that their relatives can be identified.
  • Members of the indigenous Nasa tribe in the southwestern Colombian province of Cauca have released three soldiers after holding them hostage for roughly 24 hours in an effort to pressure the government to investigate the murder of a Nasa leader last week. El Tiempo reports that officials say the man was killed in the crossfire in a shootout with rebels, but locals say he was shot at a military checkpoint.
  • The New York Times reports on the violent abduction and rape of an American tourist over the weekend in Rio de Janeiro, an incident which shocked many in Brazil and has damaged the city’s image as it tries to promote itself ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. According to the Times, the crime drew comparisons in the Brazilian media to recent high-profile incidents of violence against women in India, which have caused the number of female tourists visiting the country to drop by 30 percent in that country.
  • The Argentine government is arguing that its plan to pay $1.4 billion in defaulted debt to creditors is fully compliant with the orders of a U.S. court, but Wall Street analysts claim it amounts to just a sixth of the money owed.  The AP reports that experts say an Argentine default is “now much more likely.”
  • The Miami Herald reports on Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez’s public appearance in Miami yesterday, in which she addressed the divisions in the Cuban-American community. "In the Cuba that so many of us dream of, there is no need to clarify what type of Cuban you are," she told a crowd at Miami’s Freedom Tower. "We'll be just Cubans. Cubans, period."
  • La Tercera has a look at the international forensic team that will be overseeing the exhumation of the remains of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who some claim  was poisoned by state agents in 1973. The date for the exhumation is set for April 8.
  • After the famously unpolished Uruguayan President Jose Mujica made an off-the-cuff remark last month about “economists, scribes and lawyers” in response to criticism over his handling of the economy, El Observador reports that a Uruguayan lawyer is suing him in court for “defamation and damages.” The lawsuit claims that Mujica’s words are a demonstration of his increasingly “profane” language, and the plaintiff is reportedly seeking a “psychological evaluation” of the president as part of a settlement.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Mexico’s ‘Grand Bargain’ Starts to Crack

In early December 2012, the leaders of Mexico’s three largest parties (the PRI, PAN and PRD) signed an accord in which they promised to work together on 95 general points, known as the “Pact for Mexico.” Although the pact’s language was broad, it has proven surprisingly effective at forging consensus among all three parties on a legislative agenda, and has been hailed as a model for overcoming political stalemates. On Saturday, the Washington Post editorial board argued that Washington “should be cheering Mexico’s gridlock busting — and taking it as an example.”

But while the agreement has been credited with easing the passage of recent education and labor laws, its biggest test begins today, when the pact’s Advisory Board -- consisting of leaders from all three parties -- will present Congress with a schedule for debate on a number of reforms, including ending the monopoly of Mexican state-owned oil company Pemex.

The move, a stated goal of President Enrique Peña Nieto, is controversial in Mexico.  Peña Nieto’s own Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) only altered its platform last month to allow for private investment in oil industry, a historic shift for the party. For decades its role in Mexico’s nationalization of oil and the founding of Pemex has been a source of pride for the PRI.

The change is also opposed by many in the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), who see it as the first step in a crusade to end Pemex’s state-owned status. According to PRD Senator Dolores Padierna, tackling energy sector reform will be the death of the Pact for Mexico. As the senator told El Economista: "On energy [reform] there will not be any compromise, because either my colleagues will follow the party line or they will betray it and go with the PRI, and they’ll be cast out of the party. I do not think the latter is going to happen; instead I think this is going to break the pact.”

If the pact falls apart, it will have implications for more than just Mexico’s energy sector. Peña Nieto has been building a reputation as a bold reformist, but much of the country’s recent progress would have been impossible without the lawmakers’ accord. Its dissolution would make it far more difficult for him to push his agenda, likely taking a toll on his growing approval rating.

News Briefs
  • In The Guardian, Mark Weisbrot argues that the U.S. government’s continued funding of Honduran police despite evidence of human rights abuses mirrors President Reagan's support for governments employing death squads in Central America in the 1980s. The U.S. has maintained that none of its security aid goes to law enforcement units under controversial national police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla, despite allegations that, under Honduran law, every police officer in the country falls under his command.
  • The Associated Press has published an investigation which claims that Mexican drug trafficking organizations are becoming increasingly involved across the border, “dispatching some of their most trusted agents to live and work deep inside the United States.” According to the AP, the country’s most powerful cartels are believed to oversee drug-running operations in at least nine non-border states, often in middle-class suburban areas.
  • The Miami Herald reports that Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez begins a full day of meetings in Miami today, beginning with an early morning meeting with the paper’s reporters and editors. Sanchez is expected to leave Miami on Thursday, when she will travel to Europe and return home to Cuba in May.
  • The Argentine government on Friday presented a payment plan after a U.S. court ordered the country to specify how it would repay $1.4 billion to lenders who lost money after the country’s 2002 default. The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times note that the court is unlikely to accept the proposal, which has heightened fears that the country could plunge into a technical default.
  • The Los Angeles Times profiles Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, a Brazilian clown who ran for Congress in a 2010 satirical campaign, but who has made a name for himself as a staunch opponent of corruption and bureaucracy upon reaching office.
  • After being criticized for “promoting violence” for announcing that he would officially kick off his presidential campaign this Tuesday in the same state as interim President Nicolas Maduro, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles has apparently changed his mind.
  • CNN Español gives a blow-by-blow account of a high-profile clash between Maduro and former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe via their respective Twitter accounts, which began on Saturday after Uribe criticized the Venezuelan leader for comparing Capriles to Hitler. While the incident has mostly served as headline fodder for local media, Professor Greg Weeks of UNC Charlotte makes the interesting point that the incident reflects on Twitter’s importance to IR theory, as it provides leaders with an opportunity to “express raw views without the same backlash as a formal media event.”
  • In a communique released via their website on Sunday, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) again denied any link to drug trafficking after the Colombian government claimed to have seized 1.6 tons of marijuana trafficked by the group.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Ecuador to Sell a Third of its Amazon Rainforest to Chinese Firms, Despite Protests of Indigenous Groups

Indigenous rights groups in Ecuador have sounded alarm bells over the Ecuadorean government’s plans to auction off over three million hectares of rainforest to Chinese oil companies, despite opposition from local tribes living in the vast area. As Business Insider notes, the land in question amounts to more than a third of Ecuador’s 8.1 million hectares of Amazonian rainforest.

Jonathan Kaiman, a Beijing correspondent for The Guardian, reports that Ecuadorean politicians discussed bidding contracts with Chinese oil firms on Monday at a meeting in Beijing, after previous meetings in Quito, Houston and Paris saw demonstrations by indigenous groups.  Seven indigenous groups living in the affected areas oppose oil exploration, and last fall this coalition released a statement in which they denounced the bidding process as a violation of their collective rights.

But the Ecuadorean government claims it is already working with local communities, and has met their demands to exclude some land from the bidding process. From The Guardian:

In an interview, Ecuador's secretary of hydrocarbons, Andrés Donoso Fabara, accused indigenous leaders of misrepresenting their communities to achieve political goals. "These guys with a political agenda, they are not thinking about development or about fighting against poverty," he said.

Fabara said the government had decided not to open certain blocks of land to bidding because it lacked support from local communities. "We are entitled by law, if we wanted, to go in by force and do some activities even if they are against them," he said. "But that's not our policy."

Interestingly, it could be argued that the bidding process is unlawful on the Chinese side as well. According to the U.S.-based Amazon Watch, oil exploration in the area violates recent guidelines announced by the Chinese Ministries of Commerce and Environmental Protection, which mandate that Chinese companies must "promote harmonious development of local economy, environment and community."

News Briefs
  • El Espectador reports that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have released a statement saying they will reject any peace deal that calls for rebel leaders to be jailed, in response to an to an alleged government proposal that the group surrender and FARC commanders spend “a few years” in prison. This could prove a sticking point for negotiations, because while the Colombian Congress has already passed legislation which places limits on criminal prosecution of FARC members, a total amnesty is likely impossible and some guerrillas -- including leaders -- will have to stand trial.
  • Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo reported yesterday that David Axelrod, former chief strategist for U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, will be advising Brazilian senator and Social Democracy Party (PSDB) member Aecio Neves in his campaign in next year’s presidential election.
  • The Brazilian government has announced that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon increased by 26 percent in the last six months.
  • After tendering his resignation last week, Michel Forst, the United Nations' Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti, sent an open letter to Haiti’s press in which he harshly criticized the country’s lack of progress on human rights issues. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter, which reportedly accused the Haitian government of arbitrary detentions, interfering with the court system and threatening journalists.
  • Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose criticism of the U.S. embargo on Cuba has been in the news of late, expressed a more nuanced opinion on the policy in a recent interview with Television Martí. When asked last week if she was in favor of lifting the embargo “without conditions,” she responded: “I think that it is clear that there should be conditions [for lifting the embargo], and that above all there should be a long process of debate before doing so.”
  • While former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s return to Chile and subsequent announcement of her candidacy for president this week was positively received in the country, there are already signs that she will face opposition if elected for a new term in office. Matias Sotelo, a former activist in the student movement, made headlines in Chile for approaching Bachelet in the Santiago airport and criticizing her last administration. According to El Mostrador, Sotelo said “The people will not forgive or forget, and the students won’t either,” and “remember your betrayal in 2006,” referencing a hunger strike by Mapuche indigenous activists that year.
  • As Venezuela’s April 14 presidential election draws closer, both the opposition and the Chavista camp appear to have taken to instilling the race with religious significance. Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles characterized the election as a “spiritual battle” earlier this week, and the government funded VIVE TV recently aired this rather crudely-animated cartoon depicting Hugo Chavez meeting Simon Bolivar and other leftist Latin American heroes in heaven.
  • Mexico’s peace movement, headed by poet and activist Javier Sicilia, celebrated its second anniversary yesterday, also the second anniversary of the murder of Sicilia’s son by members of a drug gang. La Cronica de Hoy reports that he commemorated the anniversary by announcing that the movement would seek to have the recently-constructed Pillar of Light (Estela de Luz) in Mexico City converted into a memorial for the victims of Mexico’s drug war.
  • The government of Argentina has been given until midnight Friday to clarify how it will comply with the terms of a ruling ordering the payment of $1.4 billion to creditors who lost money after the country’s 2002 default. On February 27 the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered Argentina to come up with a proposal for paying the creditors, but as the AP notes, the government has maintained that the investors should get the same treatment as other creditors, who accepted a deal in which their bonds were exchanged for others of lesser value. Many fear that Argentine defiance of the Court’s ruling could lead to another default, which would be detrimental to the economy.
  • Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, whose 1971 book “A Theology of Liberation” popularized liberation theology across Latin America and brought members of the Catholic Church closer to the social movements of the era, has endorsed Pope Francis’ vision of a "Church of the poor." Writing for the website of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, where he teaches theology, Gutierrez commended the pope for apparently recognizing that the “the authentic power of the Church lies in serving the poor.” Praising Pope Francis is an interesting move for Gutierrez, as the pope himself is a staunch critic of liberation theology.