Monday, November 16, 2015

Cuban migrants in Central America create diplomatic crisis (Nov. 16, 2015)

Cubans making their way across Central America with hopes of arriving in the U.S. where they could be granted asylum are creating a diplomatic crisis in Central America.

Yesterday, Nicaragua closed its border with Costa Rica to Cuban migrants, reports Reuters.  Nicaraguan security forces turned back hundreds of Cubans who they say had crossed into the country illegally -- reportedly using tear gas and shots to turn them back, reports the Tico Times. One witness says a child and two women were injured in the encounter, though the Foreign Ministry couldn't confirm the report.

The surge comes as Cubans fear that reestablished diplomatic relations between the two countries will end longstanding U.S. asylum rights for those who manage to make it across the border. (See Nov. 2nd's post.)

Nicaragua's government accused Costa Rica of sparking a "humanitarian crisis" after its southern neighbor issued transit visas over the weekend to more than 1,000 Cubans who had been detained at its border with Panama demanding the right to proceed. On Saturday, Costa Rica began issuing temporary transit visas to Cuban migrants at Paso Canoas, valid for seven days. Some estimate there are 2,000 Cubans in Costa Rica waiting to cross through Nicaragua on their way north.

The transit path involved flying to Ecuador, crossing by land to Colombia, and boat to Panama, and they intend to continue towards the U.S. by land, reports El Nuevo Heraldo.

Nicaraguan First Lady and government spokesperson Rosario Murillo called on international organizations to deal with the issue, saying Costa Rica's actions had violated its national sovereignty. Nicaragua, which is governed by former Marxist guerrilla Daniel Ortega, is a close ally of Cuba, reports Reuters.

The Costa Rican foreign minister, Manuel González, criticized Nicaraguan officials for using the military to stop the migrants, reports the Associated Press. He also rejected Nicaraguan accusations that the Costa Rican government was goading Cubans to cross en masse. The Cuban migrants "are going to look for any way to cross and it will drive them right back into the clutches of organized crime," said González, according to the Tico Times.

Last week El Nuevo Herald reported that the Costa Rican branch of a Cuban human smuggling ring -- with contacts in Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala and the U.S. -- was broken up. Costa Rican officials say the network charged $400 to smuggle Cubans through Costa Rica, and laments that desperation to reach the U.S. before potential policy changes is fueling human trafficking networks.
According to the Tico Times, Cubans have been able to pass through Central America in increasing numbers and relatively without issue during the last several years, but last weeks crackdown on smuggling networks contributed to the thousands of undocumented migrants gathering at border crossing checkpoints and sparked the crisis.

According to Costa Rican officials, only 50 undocumented Cuban migrants entered the country in 2011, a number that increased to over 12,000 in the first nine months of this year.

News Briefs

  • Venezuelan commentators have already noted that the government is employing several strategies to tilt the playing field in its direction in the upcoming National Assembly elections. And last week OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro accused the government of not ensuring fair elections and employing unfair electoral advantages (see last Thursday's post). The Associated Press looks at one particularly confusing ruse for voters: fielding politically unknown candidates with the same name as opposition candidates, and using a party with a similar name and logo to that of the opposition MUD coalition. 
  • In a WOLA - Brookings Institution event last week David Smilde reviewed Venezuelan polls: which predict dismal results for the government. Over sixty percent of voters favor the opposition, and 30 pro-government candidates. Smilde says that presidential job approval is an important predictor for electoral results, and that President Nicolas Maduro's job disapproval rate is at nearly 77 percent. However, it's worth noting that he says the opposition is mainly benefitting from anger against the government, rather than support for its proposals, which have been very abstract and content free, he says. " ... The opposition’s strategy of having a minimalist campaign seems to be working, this time around. Like a presidential candidate who is ahead and refuses to debate, they have more to lose than gain by campaigning since the government is doing such a good job of making them appear attractive." He thinks it unlikely the government will throw out unfavorable results, noting that they appear to be preparing for an opposition National Assembly. The government's legitimacy is dependent on credible elections, and despite refusing international observation, it has responded well to domestic observers requests, he says. More observer credentials have been granted and opposition demands to tighten up the criteria for no-matches and institute an automatic post-electoral audit of the fingerprint machines have been attended to. "This attitude makes sense. The government's  national and international legitimacy is strongly dependent on their having come to and maintained power through credible elections. Any obvious attempt at fraud would cause them serious problems nationally and internationally."
  • Reuters notes that oil ties between Venezuela and Haiti -- preferential oil agreement known as Petrocaribe -- did not help protect the nephews of Maduro's wife who were arrested there and deported to the U.S. on charges of conspiring to traffic cocaine. (See last Thursday's post.)
  • Peace between the Colombian government and the rebel FARC group -- both sides have committed to a March, 2016 deadline for an agreement -- will set in motion a process of "daunting logistical complexity," says the Washington Post. More than 6,000 fighters must come out of the mountains, turn in their weapons and start a new chapter as regular citizens. The process, known as demobilization, disarmament and rehabilitation, or DDR, should begin within two months of a peace deal, but nobody knows how exactly. The mechanism is the last sticking point in the negotiations that aim to end the fifty year conflict in Colombia. FARC fighters are concerned that disarmament will put them at the mercy of paramilitary groups, drug-cartel assassins and others looking for revenge. President Juan Manuel Santos says he will be sensitive to FARC sensibilities, avoiding an event that looks like a capitulation to the army -- he has envisioned a ceremony involving an array of Colombians, which would send a message that FARC will be making peace with society, not just the government or the military, he said in an interview with the Post. The government has extensive intelligence regarding the FARCs remaining fighters and arms thanks to a program that encourages rebels to defect. The piece also cites concerns that demobilized fighters will feed into criminal organizations, as has happened with paramilitary fighters.
  • A piece in TIME looks at an attempt in the Brazilian Congress to loosen restrictions on personal gun ownership, that would bring the country closer to the U.S. model of the right to bear arms. (See Oct. 23rd's post.) The law, which is set to be voted on this month, would introduce the right for citizens to own firearms for self-defense or the protection of property. It would also reduce the minimum age for purchase of weapons to 21 and removes a ban on those under criminal investigation from owning or carrying weapons. It represents a repeal of the 2003 national Disarmament Statute, which citizens be required to demonstrate "actual need" to carry a weapon and is credited with saving over 160,000 lives since it was implemented. Critics fear the changes will lead to even more murders and an increase in vigilantism, reports TIME. It's the latest move by the so-called "Bullets, Beef and Bible Caucus." Politicians linked to the security services, big agricultural firms and evangelical Christians consolidated their power in last year’s elections and have advanced a series of conservative measures. Among the other laws being debated are a plan to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16; narrow the country’s robust definition of slave labor; weaken indigenous tribes’ right to claim their ancestral lands; exclude homosexual couples from the definition of family; and criminalize abortion in cases of rape (see last Monday's post).
  • Brazil's environmental protection agency, the IBAMA, has fined Volkswagen $13 million over an emissions cheating scheme and is requiring the company to present a plan for recalling vehicles sold with software that turns on pollution controls during government tests and turns them off while on the road, reports the Wall Street Journal. The fine is the maximum possible under Brazilian law. The company is recalling some 8.5 million cars with the software across Europe. It says about 11 million cars have the software, world-wide.
  • Argentines generally gather on Sunday evenings to watch futból matches. Last night the first ever run-off election debate between two candidates dominated airwaves and commentator energy. The two candidates rather stiffly hit at each others' governing records. Government candidate Daniel Scioli made the case that his opponent represents a return to neoliberal economic policies, with a shock devaluation and an end to energy and transportation subsidies. Conservative candidate Mauricio Macri says he represents a change from a government that constantly lies and bullies to maintain power. "His policies are a danger for our society," Scioli said at the open of the televised debate at a Buenos Aires university. "Who would pay the price of the fiscal adjustment that would come from the sharp currency devaluation he wants?" The Associated Press notes that discussion of devaluation and access to dollars is particularly fraught in Argentina, where memories of the catastrophic economic recession that culminated in a massive devaluation, a $100 billion debt default and left millions in poverty and unemployment in 2001-2002. On the subject of foreign policy Macri promised to be tough on Venezuela, while Scioli avoided answering the question. Both candidates promised to tackle the growing problem of drug trafficking, with Macri saying it's due to 10 years of government inaction on the subject. Nonetheless, experts quoted in Reuters say that while Macri has momentum for Sunday's vote, it's not clear whether the debate itself would sway many votes. 
  • Fiction buffs will enjoy The Guardian's piece looking at the genre of crime writing in Medellín and how the city's clean-up -- as well as the possible upcoming piece -- might affect it.

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