Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Central American Spring? (June 30, 2015)

Are we witnessing a Central American spring, asks Foreign Policy. The question is whether the outrage generated by corruption in Guatemala and Honduras, where thousands are gathering regularly to protest scandal rocked governments and demand presidential resignations, is the equivalent of the demands for democracy that characterized the so-called Arab Spring.

The piece makes the case that protests in Guatemala -- spurred by anger regarding arrests related to two massive fraud and bribery scandals involving dozens of high-level government officials -- have spilled over to Honduras, where citizens are protesting their own high level corruption case.

Foreign Policy is not the first to link the two cases (see for example this Los Angeles Times piece from earlier this month). Analysts quoted in the piece note that real change will require new actors on the political scene.

However, it's unclear whether this will actually happen. In Guatemala protesters are simultaneously demanding that President Otto Perez Molina step down, but also that elections (scheduled for September) be postponed so that Congress can pass electoral reform, including tighter campaign-finance regulations. 

Don't expect a conclusion right away, warns Nómada, which notes that the struggle in Guatemala is far from over, though some would count the Vice President's resignation (in relation to the customs fraud scandal) as a success. The problems are structural, and there won't be a rapid balance, argues Bernardo Arévalo.

In Honduras, protesters, which include the political opposition, are demanding the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernández, but also the creation of an Honduran version of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the U.N. sponsored body responsible for unravelling the recent corruption scandals.

Though Foreign Policy reports that JOH -- as protesters are calling the Honduran president -- initially rejected the suggestion of such a body, the weeks of protests led him to request assistance from international bodies.

Yesterday the  U.N. and OAS announced they will assist the government of Honduras in the implementation of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, in order to reinforce the national dialogue.  The terms of the international assistance were agreed upon by the Secretary-General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, Honduran Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales and the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, reports TeleSur

Though protesters are demanding much more, it's likely that this kind of change will be able to have more of a lasting impact than one-off presidential resignation. Keep in mind it's exactly this kind of international body that allowed for Guatemala's corruption to be effectively investigated and prosecuted. Protesters are grabbing attention on the streets, but its worth noting that dozens of officials have been arrested.

The question is what happens if the protesters get their wish and the presidents resign. The region's diplomats were concerned enough to approve an OAS resolution in support of elections scheduled for later this year in Guatemala (see June 16th's post). It's difficult to see how the democratic processes would be furthered by a power vacuum or by the delay of elections in Guatemala.

News Briefs

  • Governor Alejandro García Padilla called on Puerto Ricans to assume their share of sacrifices as he announced that the U.S. territory cannot pay back some $72 billion in public debt. Though it's not clear what that means for the island's 3.6 million residents, García said he'd be seeking a debt payment restructuring plan, reports the Miami Herald. It's unknown what options Puerto Rico will have if bondholders reject the moratorium proposal. The island's government cannot file for bankruptcy under current U.S. rules, nor can its public agencies, notes the AP. The Puerto Rican government has been pushing to be permitted to file under Chapter 9 bankruptcy, and the White House urged Congress to consider changing the law to permit that.
  • A hug between U.S. President Barak Obama and his Brazilian counterpart, Dilma Rousseff, shows the countries are ready to leave behind the diplomatic tension caused by allegations that the NSA spied on Rousseff and Petrobas, reports Reuters. (See yesterday's briefs.) The two presidents had a working dinner after visiting a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial yesterday, and will hold a joint press conference today. Rousseff, who is looking to attract U.S. investment and funding for infrastructure projects, will go to Silicone Valley next for meetings with Google, Facebook and Apple. The visit is an opportunity for the embattled Brazilian president to show businesses at home that she's working on securing export opportunities, according to the Wall Street Journal. On the U.S. side, the visit is an opportunity for Obama to continue warming up to Latin America. But analysts quoted in the piece expect few concrete results other than diplomatic warmth from the visit. U.S. News and World Report says that concerns over Venezuela will be a matter of discussion between Obama and Rousseff. While the U.S. has been very critical of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, regional governments, including Brazil, have been more supportive.
  • Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras announced yesterday that it will slash investment by 37 percent over the next five years, a drastic move to reduce debt and recover investor confidence amid the wide-ranging corruption scandal rocking the company. The reduction has huge implications for Brazil's economy, which is already expected to contract by more than one percent this year. Petrobras' announcement is also a blow to Brazil's goal of join the world’s top five oil-producing nations by the end of this decade, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Many observers have noted the similarities between the Dominican Republic's plan to deport thousands of undocumented Haitian migrants and the U.S.'s migration travails. But in fact the U.S. has deployed ts own Border Patrol members to the Dominican-Haitian border, and funded the Dominican Border Patrol, according to Truthout, based on a 2013 piece by The Nation. And the piece cites According to data from the Security Assistance Monitor data showing that the U.S. has given the Dominican military more than $96 million since 2000, through military training and education programs, counternarcotics operations and antiterrorism programs.
  • Venezuelan authorities have detained seven government officials in relation to repression of protests last year, and 29 more are under investigation, reports EFE. Nine have been accused of homicide and 27 of cruel repression in relation to violent anti-government protests last year that left 43 dead.
  • Pope Francis has asked to chew coca leaves on an upcoming visit to Bolivia, reports theBBCCoca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, has been used in the Andes for thousands of years to combat altitude sickness and as a mild stimulant. Though the leaves are considered an illegal substance internationally, their cultivation for medicinal and religious purposes is legal in Bolivia. President Evo Morales, who used to be a coca grower, has long campaigned to decriminalize the consumption of coca leaves. Bolivia temporarily left the U.N. drug convention and re-acceded with a reservation on the chewing of coca leaf.
  • A judicial decision in Colombia permits indigenous communities to consume and sell products containing coca leaves. The Council of State found that use of coca leaves is an ancestral right, reports El Tiempo.
  • U.N. representative urged the Colombian government to pay heed to last week's Human Rights Watch report of systematized extrajudicial army killings, and not to shoot the messenger. President Juan Manuel Santos initially rejected the report which details how approximately 3,700 civilians were executed by army troops and passed off as guerrilla combatant deaths. (See last Wednesday's and Thursday's posts.)
  • Colombian authorities detained retired army colonel Alejandro Robayo Rodríguez in relation to the extrajudicial killings, reports EFE.
  • Argentine presidential candidate Daniel Scioli, running as the ruling Frente para la Victoria's candidate, surged ahead in polls, reports Reuters. He is leading with 35 percent of voter intention for October's election compared to 27 percent for Mauricio Macri, Buenos Aires' mayor.
  • A tax on sugary soft drinks in Mexico successfully reduced sales by as much as 12 percent last year, but bottlers will be exploiting loopholes in the National Strategy for Weight Control that goes into effect this week, reports El Daily Post. The tax has been considered a successful tool in combating Mexico's weight problem: a study by the University of North Carolina, working with Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, found the bulk of the consumption drop took place among low-income Mexicans, those who are most vulnerable to diabetes and other overweight-related conditions. But the new plan is vulnerable in its regulations against marketing junk food to kids, among other issues, warns a coalition of consumer groups called the Alliance for Food Health (Alianza por la Salud Alimentaria).
  • Cuba’s tourism industry generated more than $1.7 billion in revenues in the first half of this year, according to the Latin American Herald Tribune based on state television reports.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Venezuelan authorities throw opposition for a loop, require more women candidates (June 29, 2015)

Venezuela's National Election Council announced on Thursday that at least 40 percent of each party's candidates for the December National Assembly elections must be women. The announcement came the day after the 29-party opposition MUD coalition announced its list of candidates: out of 110, only 11 are women. It's not clear how the opposition will respond to this new requirement, reports the Miami Herald.

The ruling PSUV held primaries to select candidates yesterday, and about half of the candidates are women. Authorities say they are defending women's rights, and criticize the opposition MUD for lack of diversity among candidates. But opposition leaders say the move is intended to trip them up ahead of Decembers elections, where the PSUV might lose control of the National Assembly for the first time in a decade.

MUD leadership came out to criticize the changes, saying it's not fair to move the goalposts in the midst of the electoral process.

At the Caracas Chronicles, Audrey Dacosta lambasts the MUD leadership for not implementing better diversity policies ahead of elections this year. "... We’ve known this was coming since March. Bocaranda and Diosdi both warned us. And the MUD decided to look the other way. I mean, every election the CNE has been tugging our ears over our female participation," she writes. "It’s time to face it guys: the MUD has a sexism problem. It’s a sausage fest."

And Juan Cristobal Nagal, also from the Caracas Chronicles, though more critical of the government's moves, also says it's time for the MUD to face up to it's gender disparity issue.

"The other good thing that comes out of this is that it forces the MUD to be nimble and adapt. This is just the first salvo in the Tibi vs. the MUD war that will keep us gripped in the next few months. If the MUD can’t deal with this, then it won’t be able to deal with the tsunami of bull-crap coming their way, courtesy of the Revolution’s institutions – candidates disbarred, judicial investigations, torture, harassment, etc. They need to show their mettle, and they need to do it quickly. They have more than enough capable women in their ranks to fill Tibi’s absurd quotas," he writes.

And on the topic of government electoral moves, the Venezuelan government is keeping opposition leader Leopoldo López in jail as part of an electoral strategy to weaken the opposition, argues David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The opposition is split among those who favor an electoral strategy against the government and those who favor a more radical approach, it's in the government's interest to strengthen the more radical minority, to the detriment of the opposition's electoral strategy. Also, keeping López in jail focuses the opposition on a "freedom" message, which fails to engage Venezuelan society at large.

But the Venezuelan government is paying a heavy international cost for imprisoning López and other political opponents, which at some point soon may shift the balance of the equation in favor of freeing him, says Smilde.

News Briefs

  • Thousands of angry Hondurans, as much as 25,000, again marched in Honduras on Friday demanding the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernández, reports Reuters. A coalition of opposition political groups is demanding an independent investigation into a $200-million corruption scandal at the Honduran Institute of Social Security, where companies, some formed by institute officials, overcharged for services. 
  • Yesterday marks the six year anniversary of the presidential coup in Honduras that deposed President Mel Zelaya, for proposing constitutional reform that might have included overturning presidential term limits. (Of course, that happened this year and nobody seemed to care very much, see April 24th's post.) TeleSur notes that the numbers since the coup are pretty bad: "violence and poverty rates have skyrocketed in the country: 60 percent of Hondurans live below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest nations in the region. It is also the most deadly, with about 85 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Murders target vulnerable populations like children (almost 1,000 died in 2014, partly explaining why so many flee north to the United States), women (the femicide rate has reached epidemic levels – one woman is killed every 14 hours), and activists: Honduras is the most dangerous place for environmentalists (over 100 killed between 2010 and 2014) and journalists (29 killed since the coup) and rural leaders."
  • "Far from being a discrete episode of US imperialism’s sordid past, the coup and its legacy remain a driving force in Honduran politics and society today," argues Counterpunch. "The beneficiaries and participants are all still either in government or have shifted to the private sector, and continue to enrich themselves at the cost of the poor and working people of the country. The coup government of Honduras continues to wage a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against minority communities to benefit itself and its patrons from the US and elsewhere."
  • Guyana won't let Venezuelan claims on two-thirds of its territory -- including a recently announced significant oil discovery off Guyana's coast. President David Granger says he will resolve the issue through diplomatic channels, and is offering Exxon Mobil —which was contracted by Guyana— assurances that exploration work won’t be interrupted, reports the Wall Street Journal. The boundaries in question were set in 1899 by a Paris arbitration tribunal, but were rejected 60 years later by Venezuela. Analysts quoted in the piece speculate that Venezuela's government is angling to distract citizens from a crumbling economy ahead of parliamentary elections in December. Guyana is the hemisphere's third-poorest country and Granger says the oil discovery could be an important boon for the nation. 
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is visiting the U.S., two years after the originally scheduled state visit was cancelled in the wake of allegations that the National Security Agency had spied on her and on Petrobras. Economic difficulties at home has forced Rouseff to turn to the international scene, reports the Washington Post. She is seeking foreign investment, and will spend today meeting with bankers in New York to sell a $63 billion infrastructure package. But the current visit is also viewed as an opportunity to reset relations between the two countries, according to the Washington Post. 
  • New York Times profile on Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Brazil's philosopher minister of strategic affairs, tracks his journey from Harvard Law School to the Amazon. Unger views his role in Rousseff's government as an intellectual provocateur of sorts. "I have to create tension within the administration and agitate outside."
  • Economic woes in Brazil have spurred interest from some of its citizens in a program offering fast-track green cards for foreigners who invest in the U.S., reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is stepping down in December, at the end of her second presidential term, but critics fear she will retain influence behind the scenes, reports the New York Times. Kirchner endorsed Daniel Scioli as the candidate for her Frente para la Victoria party, effectively by passing the primaries scheduled for August. Scioli appointed a close Kirchner aide, Carlos Zannini, as his running mate, and is running as a continuity candidate. The piece covers speculation that Kirchner, who cannot run for a third consecutive term, will attempt to return to power after a Scioli administration. 
  • An Argentine federal judge has ordered authorities to seize the assets of five companies drilling for oil in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands. The oil companies named in the case are not based in Argentina and it is not clear how the measure will be implemented, reports the BBC.
  • Colombia's leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) claimed responsibility for an attack on an army helicopter last week that killed eight soldiers, reports AFP. The army had reported the attack, but blamed the FARC, amid intensified fighting from the rebel guerrilla group in recent months.
  • The Panama canal $5.25 billion expansion project is nearing an end, and will open to commercial traffic in xApril of next year, reports the Miami Herald. The Panama Canal Authority filled the new Atlantic locks earlier this month, and will begin a four month testing phase. And ports in the Caribbean and along the Eastern seaboard, including PortMiami, are rushing to be able to receive post-Panamax ships. Cuba is also eying Panama traffic and has overhauled, deepened and expanded Port Mariel, though an expert quoted in the piece says Jamaica is a more logical waypoint for U.S. headed shipping traffic.
  • The Uber ride-sharing application is receiving bad news around the world as authorities attempt to limit services, but it may receive an unexpected boost in Mexico DF, where it received the thumbs up from the Federal Commission on Economic Competition, reports the AP. Though city authorities have yet to formally decide, the new cab services' popularity in Mexico is due, in large part, to the poor service of traditional taxis, which for years were linked to robbery and abductions.
  • El Daily Post has a review of Cartel Land a new documentary that offers an up close look at the vigilante movements in Mexico and in Arizona. The piece particularly lauds the Mexican portion of the film, which focuses on the autodefensa movement in theTierra Caliente region of Michoacán. The director follows the vigilantes very closely in their quest to defeat the Knights Templars drug gang. "And he is there to document the transformation of the valiant crusaders into something that eerily resembles their enemies."

Friday, June 26, 2015

Thousands protest against Correa in Ecuador (June 26, 2015)

Thousands of protesters gathered yesterday in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, to protest President Rafael Correa's policies, especially proposed inheritance tax reforms. Though Correa temporarily withdrew the contested bills from parliament ahead of a papal visit next week, protesters are demanding their permanent shelving.

Led by Guayaquil mayor Jaime Nebot, a member of the political opposition, yesterday's demonstrations -- which also took place in Quito and other cities around the country -- were part protests that have been ongoing for the past three weeks. The nominal reason is a proposal to tax inheritances up to 77.5% and a 75% tax for capital gains from real estate, though protesters are also complaining about other economic policies and "what critics describe as President Correa’s dictatorial attitude," reports the Wall Street Journal.

Correa is criticized by foes for his confrontational style in dealing with such sectors of society as the church, the press, banks and traditional political parties. Human rights groups have called him intolerant, reports the AP.
Nebot said Ecuadorians don't want to become Venezuela, and suggested protesters give Correa a "democratic kick" in the ass, reports AFP.

Government supporters have held counter demonstrations, often simultaneously, but separated by police. Correa says the new policies are aimed at creating greater equality and rejects protests as attempts to destabilize his government.

Economists say both bills will negatively affect Ecuador’s economy and families in a country where 95% of businesses are family owned, according to the Wall Street Journal. According to a survey conducted by Cedatos-Gallup International in six major cities of the country between June 10 and 11, 70% of Ecuadoreans disapprove of the capital-gains tax, while 72% disapprove of the inheritance tax.

Correa has called for a "national dialogue" regarding the projects and what social and economic model Ecuadorians want. He announced that after meeting with businessmen this week he is already proposing a modification of the new inheritance tax, reports InfoBae.

Correa is proposing that the new rate exclude working businesses that are inherited by family, as long as they are up to date on their tax payments, reports El Universal. "Inheriting a business is not the same as getting a house with a pool," he told supporters yesterday.

Over 15,000 leaders from Ecuador’s so-called “rural parish governments” were slated to hold a an assembly in support of the government yesterday, reports TeleSur.

And Correa singled out Nebot as a clear example of the progress the country has made with respect to the collection of taxes, reports TeleSur. The president observed that in 2006, before the arrival of the Correa government to power, Nebot paid just $1,994 in income taxes but by 2014 he was paying $66,593, according to figures from the government revenue agency. 

The opposition mayor admitted in an interview on CNN that he would be among the richest 2 percent of Ecuadoreans that would be impacted by the proposed inheritance tax law.  

Ecuador is facing economic difficulties in the midst of an oil revenue decline that surpasses 50 percent. Among other measures, the government cut its 2015 fiscal budget by about 4%; imposed import tariffs of between 5% and 45% for 2,800 products; and ordered wage cuts of 5% to 10% for high-level public sector employees. The government also has nationalized various private pension funds and passed a bill that eliminated mandatory state contributions to the pension system, estimated at about $1.1 billion this year, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Nonetheless, Correa emphasized his commitment to maintaining the dollar as Ecuador's national currency, saying the government will "maintain dollarization at any cost," reports InfoBae.

Correa's left-wing government has taken an estimated 1.1 million people out of poverty, according to official figures, reports TeleSur.

News Briefs

  • The Miami Herald has a four-part series on the Nicaragua Grand Canal project. Though millions of dollars of preliminary work has already begun, the 170 mile megaproject, funded by a Chinese corporation, remains cloaked in secrecy. The series has detailed graphics of the project and speaks to government authorities involved in the canal, who say the canal and its affiliated enterprises, once in full operation, would employ 200,000 people in direct and indirect jobs. The project foresees a massive free-trade zone where some 5,000 businesses would have operations in manufacturing, logistics and shipping, employing 113,000 people. All of this activity will double Nicaragua's economy, according to government proponents. But scientists worry about the potentially considerable environmental impact while activists are concerned about the people who will be displaced along the projected canal route.
  • Mexican soldiers executed half of the 22 civilians who died last year in an incident known as the Tlatlaya massacre, reports La Jornada, based on prosecutors' investigations. Five others were killed attempting to defend themselves and thereis no mention as to whether the remainder shot at police. Mexico's defense department initially said that 22 suspected members of a kidnapping gang died in a gunfight with army troops. But subsequent reports found that between eight and 15 people were executed, reports EFE. Eight soldiers who participated in the operation were detained on Sept. 25, 2014, three of whom face homicide charges and one a charge of tampering with evidence.
  • Brazil's central bank will hone its target inflation rate, reports the Wall Street Journal. While the goal will continue to be inflation of 4.5 percent, the tolerance band will be reduced to 3 and 6 percent.
  • Brazil's unemployment rate climbed for the fifth straight month this year in May, and wages fell, adding to signs of an imminent recession reports Reuters.
  • A U.S. court heard arguments yesterday that oil giant Petrobras should stand trial for a culture of bribery and corruption, a suit brought forward by investors who include British academics' pension funds, and retirement funds of state workers in Ohio, Idaho and Hawaii, reports The Guardian.
  • In an interview with the Washington Post Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said her critics show a sexual bias. "Have you ever heard someone say that a male president puts his finger on everything? I’ve never heard that. ... I believe there is a bit of a sexual bias or a gender bias. I am described as a hard and strong woman who puts her nose in everything she’s not supposed to, and I am [said to be] surrounded by very cute men," she said.  
  • The Dominican Republic's crackdown on Haitian migrants is creating a humanitarian crisis for its neighbor, announced Haiti's Prime Minister Evans Paul yesterday. He said 14,000 people have crossed the border in less than a week, many of them should be considered Dominican citizens he says. The thousands of people include those being deported and leaving voluntarily, reports the AP. The Dominican government has said deportations will be a slow and lengthy process, with migration officials saying more than 12,000 people have left the country voluntarily.
  • The AP has a feature on Canaan, a self-built city on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, that sprung up after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Authorities are seeking ways to improve conditions in the neighborhood, which is already the country's fourth-largest urban district and could reach a population of one million people in a decade.
  • Honduras' criminal underworld is fragmenting, after nearly a decade of relative stability. The upheaval could have important impacts on Honduras' political elite, reports InSight Crime. An investigation by El Heraldo says the country's drug trafficking groups divided the country into small fiefdoms, which operated for almost a decade with “absolute impunity,” thanks to their control of Honduras' police and military, as well as the country's political class and justice system, according to InSight. The captures and extraditions of several traffickers have opened the door to the possible prosecution of prominent Honduras politicians.
  • Paraguayan authorities are focusing on an marijuana cultivation eradication policy in order to combat the drug trade, but critics say support must be given to poor farmers who have few choices for survival, reports The Guardian.
  • Peru lacks the manpower to clamp down on illegal gold mining in the Amazon, leading to an increase in gold output from unregulated mining, reports Reuters.
  • Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera has been confronting island authorities since December, when she tried to organize a free-speech forum in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución. Bruguera was arrested, along with more than two dozen supporters in December. Since then she has been detained four more times and has been barred from leaving the country while facing charges of disturbing the public order, resisting arrest and inciting criminal behavior, reports the Washington Post. Authorities see her as a calculated provocateur says the piece, and are using her to send a message to those "who are thinking of returning home to take advantage of new economic opportunities and easing tensions with the United States. Cuba is willing to welcome them back as entrepreneurs, sure, but not as dissident activists."
  • Argentina's Federal Chamber of Criminal Appeals confirmed a bribery case against Vice President Amado Boudou, which will send the case to trail at some point next year, reports AP. Boudou rejects the accusations and says they are politically motivated.
  • Univisión announced that it will no longer air the Miss USA pageant, ending its relationship with the Trump Organization in light of Donald Trump's recent remarks about Mexican immigrants. During his presidential announcement last week, Trump proposed building a wall along the border to keep criminals and “rapists” from sneaking into the United States, reports the New York Times.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Santos rejects report on extrajudicial killings, but met with HRW (June 25, 2015)

The Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal cover new angles on Human Rights Watch's report on the Colombian army's extrajudicial killings. (See yesterday's post.)

President Juan Manuel Santos condemned the report yesterday and said it smeared top army brass without evidence, reports the WSJ. That’s no way to be watching for the respect of human rights,” said Mr. Santos, who denied there were open investigations into high-ranking army officials. 

Santos met with HRW Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco yesterday after his initial rejection of the report, according to Colombia Reports. Santos “proved to be very receptive and we had the opportunity to have a conversation I would say was very respectful and, moreover, focused on the evidence, the cases and the data were were able to inform him of,” Vivanco told press afterwards.

The LATimes piece makes reference to older reports on the "false positives" killings and emphasizes that the killings are linked to top army leadership and U.S. military funding. "This (HRW) report confirms what we all knew: that responsibility for the extrajudicial execution scandal in Colombia reaches top leadership," said Lisa Haugaard of the Washington-based Latin America Working Group think tank, who worked on the 2008 study that helped bring the false positives case to light.

The piece also mentions a study last year by the New York–based peace advocacy group Fellowship of Reconciliation, or FOR, which also linked false positive killings to specific Colombian army units and commanders who had received training at the U.S. Army’s Ft. Benning and other installations. 

The FOR and HRW studies are especially relevant because the U.S. government is using Colombian officers to train foreign militaries in Central America and the Middle East, explains John Lindsay-Poland, a former FOR official.

The WSJ piece notes that Colombia has been the recipient of nearly $10 billion in U.S. aid over the past 15 years. "We are reviewing the Human Rights Watch’s most recent report on Colombia now," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Julia Straker, speaking from Washington. The U.S. military’s annual foreign financing review "takes into consideration whether or not Colombia is investigating, prosecuting, and punishing persons responsible for gross violations of human rights," she added. 

International human rights advocates, including Vivanco, say it's important that any potential peace deal with the FARC should not include impunity for army officers convicted in false positives killings.

Transitional justice -- alternative penalties for war crimes -- is a major sticking point in the ongoing Havana peace talks with the FARC. Concessions made to rebel leaders will likely extend to army commanders, explains the Miami Herald.

In fact, Silla Vacía reports that this might be the goal of prosecutors who this week ordered four generals to testify regarding the case. Should they be implicated, they will be very interested in supporting transitional justice and the peace initiative in general. (See yesterday's post.)

The report is a reminder of the kinds of crimes that might go unpunished, says Vivanco.

News Briefs
  • More than 12,000 Haitians have voluntarily left the Dominican Republic, fearing violent mass deportations, reports the Washington Post. While Dominican authorities quoted in the piece say they have not yet expelled one person since a deadline registration for undocumented migrants expired last week, many Haitians are fleeing to the border.
  • Dominican Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz and Haitian-American author Edwidge Danicat spoke out in Miami against the Dominican government's policies to register hundreds of thousands of undocumented Haitian migrants and deport those who are determined to be illegal residents, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The DR's director of the National Council on HIV and AIDS announced that he will seek a change in the country's drug law so that users are considered patients and not criminals, reports 7 Días.
  • Fears about the potential negative impact of broad legalization of drugs are founded, but possibly exaggerated argues Folha de S.P in an editorial from this week. There is a growing understanding that the war on drugs is not working, and that new paradigms must be sought, argue the editors. They reference a recent study in The Lancet Psychiatry that shows marijuana legalization in U.S. states has not impacted rate of use among teens. The piece comes as the Supreme Court (STF) prepares to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of Article 28 of the Anti-Drug Law, which penalizes the possession of drugs self-use.
  • Three of the five chambers that make up Hondura's judicial branch have spoken out against mismanagement and abuses of power. Judges sent a letter to the president of the Supreme Court, Jorge Rivera Avilés, asking him to be vigilant regarding undue interference from the Judicial Council, reports Criterio.
  • New York Times op-ed today denounces the Honduras Supreme Court for an April decision permitting presidential re-election. The prohibition on reelection in the Honduras constitution was specifically made to be unchangeable by politicians, in an attempt to avoid dictatorships and endless "caudillo" regimes, argue Brian Sheppard and David Landau. The decision is particularly polemic in light of the rational for the 2009 coup which ousted President Mel Zelaya for attempting to revise the constitution and potentially presidential term limits. (See April 24th's briefs.) "While an independent and capable judiciary can be a great support to liberal democracy, courts without these characteristics may pose a serious threat, particularly in countries with fragile democracies and ineffective civil society groups, like Honduras," argue the authors. They say that the U.S. aid package for Central America is desperately needed, but that American authorities should carefully oversee how funds are spent in order to ensure they are not coopted by local politicians looking to further their power.
  • Protesters encamped outside of the Honduras presidential palace say they were attacked early Tuesday, resulting in one injury. Four young protesters are on a hunger strike to protest over a corruption scandal that involved the alleged embezzlement of as much as $120 million from the Central American country's Social Security Institute, reports the AP.
  • Venezuela freed two student activists arrested in relation to last year's violent anti-government protests. An estimated 75 activists who the opposition considers political prisoners remain in jail for their role in the protests, reports the AP.
  • Brazil's lower chamber of Congress passed a measure that would readjust pensions annually, a move that will likely raise expenditures in upcoming years and goes against President Dilma Rousseff's proposal to cut pension spending, reports Reuters. The measure will have to pass the Senate, but is a defeat for Rousseff who is struggling to implement austerity measures in order to avoid a credit rating downgrade.
  • And the Brazilian central bank raised its inflation prediction for this year and also cut its forecast for economic growth, reports the Wall Street Journal. The bank said gross domestic product would contract by 1.1 percent in 2015, (it had previously predicted a 0.5 percent decline) and raised its inflation forecast to 9 percent.
  • Brazil’s Grupo Andrade Gutierrez, the country’s second-largest construction firm in terms of revenues, said in a statement published Wednesday in the country’s major newspapers that the arrests of its executives were "illegal and unnecessary," reports the Wall Street Journal. Last week Brazilian police arrested the company's CEO, Otávio Azevedo, along with the CEO and other executives of Brazil’s biggest construction company, Odebrecht SA. as part of an ongoing investigation into corruption at state oil giant Petrobras.
  • Former dictator Manuel Noriega asked Panamanians for forgiveness regarding his years in power. He has been in prison for 26 years, and faces charges of human rights abuses committed during the six years he governed Panama, reports Reuters. Noriega's rule in Panama ended in 1989, following a U.S. invasion. He was later convicted on charges of drugs and racketeering in the U.S. where he served time until 2010, he was then extradited to France, on a separate money laundering sentence. He's been in Panamanian prison since 2011 for crimes committed during his rule.
  • The head of Argentina's army, Maj. Gen. Cesar Milani, long accused of human rights violations, submitted his resignation yesterday, reports the AP. The Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), which had heavily criticized Milani's appointment based on alleged human rights violations, welcomed the change.
  • Caribbean officials are concerned that rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba -- and the surge in tourism that has already headed towards the island -- will impact their tourism-dependent budgets. Tourism officials in the region are looking partner with the U.S. to help boost investment and travel across the Caribbean, reports the AP.
  • Academic partnerships are another new frontier that could open up as a result of the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic thaw, though the Miami Herald reports that both sides are wary. Florida International University is interested in opening a campus or two in Cuba, for example, but is concerned over issues of academic freedom. FIU president Mark Rosenberg said last week that democracy would have to be restored in Cuba first. In the meantime, the university is focusing on technical fields that are less likely to encounter politically charged issues such as freedom of speech.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Colombian top brass involved in extrajudicial killings says Human Rights Watch (June 24, 2015)

Colombian army generals and colonels were involved in the systemic and widespread extrajudicial killing of civilians between 2002 and 2008, according to a Human Rights Watch report released today.

The 95-page report, "On Their Watch: Evidence of Senior Army Officers’ Responsibility for False Positive Killings in Colombia," presents previously unpublished evidence "strongly suggesting that numerous generals and colonels knew or should have known about 'false positive' killings, and may have ordered or otherwise actively furthered them."

The "false positive" killings, as they are known in Colombia, refer to as many as 3,700 civilians killed by army troops under pressure to boost body counts in the war against guerrilla groups. Soldiers abducted drug addicts, homeless people and petty criminals, or lured people from low-income backgrounds with promises of jobs. They were then killed, disguised in combat fatigues and planted with weapons in order to be passed off as combat fatalities.

Prosecutors in Colombia are investigating at least 3,000 of these cases, and about 800 lower-ranking soldiers have been convicted, but few colonels and no generals have been accused, according to Human Rights Watch.

"False positive killings amount to one of the worst episodes of mass atrocity in the Western Hemisphere in recent years, and there is mounting evidence that many senior army officers bear responsibility," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Yet the army officials in charge at the time of the killings have escaped justice and even ascended to the top of the military command, including the current heads of the army and armed forces."

The practise came to light after the abduction and killing of 19 young men from a Bogota slum, reports the Washington Post. The army's top commander was forced to resign, and three army generals and nearly a dozen officers were fired. President Juan Manuel Santos, then defense secretary, pledged to investigate.
The scandal resulted in the resignation of the commander of the Colombian Army, the firing of a few high-level officers and stained the reputation of the president at the time, Álvaro Uribe, who aggressively escalated the campaign against the guerrillas, reports the New York Times.

But the report suggests the killings were far more systematic and widespread than previouslybelieved. Evidence from the report -- garnered from interviews of Army officials conducted by Human Rights Watch and testimony given to Colombian prosecutors -- shows that the tactics used were largely consistent across units, reports the New York Times. Commanders at the very least should have been suspicious of the killings which occurred in areas where guerrillas did not generally operate and were carried out by troops not typically engaged in combat operations. 

Civilians were lured to a place where waiting soldiers would shoot them and plant weapons on their bodies to make them look like guerrilla combatants. Commanders rewarded soldiers with vacation days.

Generals are off the hook, says Human Rights Watch, a charge denied by Colombian authorities. Chief Prosecutor Eduardo Montealegre said more than a dozen generals were under investigation, but so far none have been charged, reports the AP.

Yesterday, Montealegre's office ordered four retired generals, including former army commander Mario Montoya, to provide testimony to prosecutors investigating the killings of civilians. Should the investigations follow due course, they will no doubt ally the army with transitional justice initiatives. That is to say, the investigation will pressure army authorities to recognize if there were institutional incentives for the false positives. But this could also lead to beneficial deals for perpetrators at the peace talks, which would put the army firmly on the side of the peace process, explains Silla Vacía

This move is unprecedented, not only because it involves so many generals, but because it sends a message that the responsibility of a high officer can be established even without evidence that he ordered a crime. "It is enough to prove that despite the information that they had they did not do what was necessary to punish and avoid the commission of new extrajudicial killings," reports Silla Vacía. Montoya is being cited more for omission than because of something he actively ordered.

The report draws attention to a key issue in the ongoing peace talks between the FARC rebel guerrilla group and the Colombian government: how to punish human rights violations committed by both sides during the conflict.

In 2012, Colombia enacted the Legal Framework for Peace, a constitutional amendment that paves the way for impunity for atrocities by guerrilla groups, paramilitaries, and the military if a peace agreement is reached with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, reports Human Rights Watch. The amendment empowers Congress to limit the scope of prosecutions for atrocities.

Human Rights Watch notes that the ICC is monitoring false positive proceedings in Colombia and could open an investigation if it determines that national authorities are unwilling or unable genuinely to investigate and prosecute them. 

The New York Times notes that an important point raised by the original scandal and the report is the matter of U.S. oversight of the human rights track record of the Colombian army, which is the Latin America’s largest recipient of military aid from Washington.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Obama administration to suspend the portion of military aid, around $7 million a year, which is conditioned on Colombia's respect for human rights, reports theAP.

U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), author of the legislation which would permit the suspension of military aide due to human rights violations, told the Washington Post that he was "deeply troubled" by the report and that it should force a new look at U.S. security assistance. "As we provided billions of dollars in aid to the Colombian army over many years, its troops systematically executed civilians," Leahy said.

News Briefs
  • Jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López ended his month-long hunger strike yesterday, after government authorities announced a date for parliamentary elections, one of his key demands. In a letter read by his wife in press conference yesterday, López said the election date announcement was a victory for him and 100 others who joined his hunger strike, reports the Wall Street Journal. López has been detained since last year on charges to incite violence in the context of nationwide protests that resulted in 43 deaths. His trial has been questioned by human rights organizations, and his legal team says they are not allowed to present evidence and testimony in his defense, according to the WSJ. The announcement ended months of speculations over whether the vote would be held as legally mandated, though authorities denied the election was ever in question. The Los Angeles Times notes that the date for polls is usually set far earlier in the year, allowing for a longer campaign season. (See yesterday's post.)
  • Mexican police say they captured the son and alleged-second in command of the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, Rubén Oseguera González, alias "el Menchito," reports the AP. The Jalisco cartel is blamed for some of the bloodiest and boldest attacks on federal forces in years. (See May 4thsMay 13ths, and May 26ths postings.)
  • Twenty-two people were killed or found dead this weekend in Mexico's Nuevo León state, raising concerns over an increase in violence in the wealthy state, reports VICE. In Guerrero, 21 people were killed or found dead over the weekend. The independent governor-elect of Nuevo Leon, Jaime Rodriguez took to Facebook to display his anger over the violence, which he said had been unseen in the region in four years. "We should not allow the return of this wave of violence, which the current authorities claim everyday is under control," Rodriguez wrote, urging authorities to clarify the circumstances of the killings.
  • Guatemalan authorities arrested 12 people, including civilians and current and former police officers, suspected of corruption reports the AP. The case involves $6.4 million in contracts to maintain patrol cars and renovate police stations — work that was never carried out, according to prosecutors and the CICIG, the U.N. commission investigating criminal networks in the country.
  • Guatemala's embattled former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, reappeared in public for the first time in a month after stepping down as a millionaire corruption scandal implicated a close aide, reports the AP. She attended a legal hearing on her petition for the return of properties frozen during the investigation. The appeals court upheld a lower court's decision to embargo those assets while it is determined whether they were obtained illegally.
  • Haitian migrants fearing mass deportations from the Dominican Republic can hop on a complimentary bus service offered by DR authorities for the next two weeks, which will drop them off at the Haitian border, reports the AP
  • The Caribbean is facing the worst drought of recent years this summer, affecting crops, reservoirs and cattle reports the AP. There is strict rationing in Puerto Rico, among the Caribbean islands worst hit by the water shortage. Tens of thousands of people in Puerto Rico only receive water every third day.
  • Most of Brazil's audit agency -- the TCU -- favors rejecting President Dilma Rousseff's fiscal accounts, reports Bloomberg. The agency has decided to give her government a month to explain budget practices that it says violate the fiscal-responsibility law. The TCU has never before recommended lawmakers reject government finances. 
  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said his Workers' Party is old and out of touch. "We have to define whether we want to save our skins and our jobs or if we want to save our project," he said at seminar Monday, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • To invest or not to invest. The latest installment in a seemingly endless debate comes from a JLL report quoted in the Miami Herald. The report cautions investors to avoid jumping on the euphoric Cuba bandwagon (which might be a figment of the media's imagination anyway): "integration with Cuba, even if the embargo is fully lifted, will take decades." 
  • Despite business interest in a ferry connection between the Florida Keys and Cuba, there are still hurdles to be cleared. The next step is getting a ferry terminal in Key West where U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents can clear international travelers, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Cuba's economic and political reforms, key to the diplomatic thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, are not without tradeoffs, argues Valerie Wirtschafter at the Council on Foreign Relations. "... And reform has already brought a combination of good, bad, and necessary change to the island and its people." She gives an overview of the impact of different economic reforms for islanders and concludes that: "Though Cuba is on an irreversible path, so far reform has meant creating space for the good, letting some of the bad return, and above all, implementing what is necessary to survive as a nation."
  • Peru's Congress granted President Ollanta Humala extraordinary powers to pass new laws aimed at combating crime. The government wants to be allowed to tap into telephone conversations as a measure to cut down on contract killings, to toughen sentences for those who hire minors to carry out killings, and to be able to pay for information on suspects, among other things, reports the Wall Street Journal. Humala's approval rating is at a new low of 17 percent, with a majority pointing to government corruption and crime as their main concerns, according to the piece
  • Prosecutors in Peru say they found a mass grave with 17 bodies, believed to be victims of the Shining Path rebel group in the 1980s, reports the BBC.
  • It's time for LatAm to start looking towards India as well as China, argues Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. India's economic growth is set to outpace China's this year, and business leaders like Carlos Slim are already taking notice, he says. It's a market that is virtually ignored by Latin America, but which could be very beneficial he argues. While China mostly buys raw materials, India trades more in technology services, which creates more and better jobs for Latin America.
  • A computer glitch that has stranded hundreds of Mexican migrant farmworkers on the U.S. border is threatening Washington State's cherry harvest, reports the New York Times.
  • Peruvian and Bolivian authorities dismantled an aerial drug smuggling route between the two countries. Bolivian and Peruvian drug enforcement agents have conducted 5,170 operations since January, seizing 34.8 tons of marijuana, 7.3 tons of cocaine and six tons of cocaine paste. Law enforcement officials destroyed over 50 clandestine airstrips have been destroyed in Peru and more than a dozen small planes have seized in the Bolivian Amazon, reports Reuters.
  • Colombia's Congress is perceived as the country's most corrupt government body, according to a Transparency for Colombia study covered by Colombia Reports.
  • Vicuñas are being slaughtered by poachers, motivated by the skyrocketing value of their wool. The killing of the wild Andean relatives of camels is endangering the livelihood of native Andean families in Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina who maintain a centuries old tradition of corralling and shearing vicunas as they migrate from watering spots to higher elevation sleeping grounds, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • Panama led the world in overall well-being for the second year straight, according to the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index. Fifty-three percent of residents report thriving in three or more areas of well-being, measures that include a person's sense of purpose, financial well-being and physical health, reports Reuters.
  • A ten percent tax on sugary soft drinks in Mexico, targeted at reducing the nation's obesity problem, succeeded in reducing consumption by six percent in the policy's first year and 12 in the second, reports The Guardian. A study by the Mexican National Institute of Public Health and the University of North Carolina found that the tax's impact appears to be similar to that of taxes on tobacco and other goods that are hard to give up, where the drop in sales increases over time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Venezuelans to hold elections December 6, López maintains his hunger strike (June 23, 2015)

Venezuelan authorities announced that elections for the 167-seat unicameral National Assembly will be held on December 6 -- a date that commemorates the first election of the late President Hugo Chávez in 1998.

Official campaigning will begin on November 13 and Unasur will be invited to monitor the elections, reports the Miami Herald

The elections, in which the Socialist Party (PSUV) legislative majority could be defeated by a coalition of 29 opposition parties, were legally required to be held this year, but the government had not yet set a date, leading some to question whether they would be held.

Opposition parties and international diplomacy applied increasing pressure for authorities to set a date. But in yesterday's announcement election council head Tibisay Lucena said authorities were not bowing to such pressure. She ratified that the elections had always been scheduled for this year, adding her team provided all the assistance to the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) for their internal elections last May, reports TeleSur.

Polls indicate that voters will punish the governing PSUV, in a context of triple-digit inflation and shortages of basic goods, reports the Wall Street Journal. The Miami Herald also notes rampant crime.

A recent poll by Datanálisis found Mr. Maduro’s popularity at 25% in June. More than 84% of respondents felt the country was heading in the wrong direction and nearly half of the population blamed the president for food shortages. The same polls found two out of five Venezuelans identifying themselves as opposition, while just over 20% allied were with the ruling party. The rest were undecided, reports the Wall Street Journal.

But opponents of the Bolivarian Revolution shouldn't rejoice too soon. (See May 18th's post.)

Opposition parties have not captured a legislative majority since Chávez won the presidency more than 16 years ago, notes The Guardian. They have lost every recent national election, and currently hold about a third of the seats in the legislature.

Some analysts also note that the PSUV will spend heavily ahead of the elections and that districts were redrawn for the last elections in a way that favors the governing party.

It's worth revisiting an analysis by Dimitris Pantoulas and David Smilde from last month which notes that "opposition movement has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory before."

The opposition benefits from anger towards the government, but comes with few concrete proposals, note Pantoulas and Smilde. "The opposition ... is distinguished by the abstract nature of its message and diffuseness of its proposals. ... When it bothers to communicate at all, the opposition tends to focus on issues of liberty that rally its base but leave most of the population flat."
The PSUV will hold primaries this weekend. President Nicolás Maduro urged followers to flock to the polls on Sunday and build popular support for the upcoming election, reports the Miami Herald.

Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López has not suspended his hunger strike, which has been ongoing for 29 days, although an election date with international observation was one of his primary demands. 

His wife Lilian Tintori visited him this weekend and said he is too weak to stand. He has resisted calls from family and social leaders to desist in the hunger strike, which has been joined by up to a hundred other prisoners, students and members of civil society according to his political party, Voluntad Política.

The Miami Herald notes that human rights organizations have called his trial a sham.

The Washington Post reports that setting an election date with international observers were two of the three goals on the agenda for a meeting in Haiti last week between State Department counselor Thomas Shannon, a former assistant secretary for Latin America, and the president of Venezuela's National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. The final aim was to keep López alive and free him and other political prisoners.

Analysts say it's likely he will lift it shortly, and members of his Voluntad Popular political party tweeted yesterday that the strikes had been successful.
Maduro's six-year presidential term lasts until 2019, but will be eligible for a voter referendum at the midway mark next year. Polls earlier this year found that two thirds of Venezuelan voters expected Maduro's administration to end with a referendum, according to the Wall Street Journal.

On a humorous side-note the Miami Herald continues to try to establish the existence of an alleged "U.S. Government" source quoted in pro-government Venezuelan media. The enigmatic Jim Luers now has a column in Quinto Día.

News Briefs 

  • Haitian migrants looking to leave the Dominican Republic ahead of a wave of expected deportations are being offered free bus service to the Haitian border for the next two weeks, reports the AP.
  • Four prominent opposition politicians and members of Congress were charged in Chile with tax fraud in a high-profile corruption case related to illegal campaign financing, reports the New York Times. They will be the first politicians to appear in court, in a case that appears to involve dozens of candidates from across the political spectrum over a period of the past decade. The four -- Senator Iván Moreira; Congressman Felipe de Mussy; Jovino Novoa, a former senator and official in Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship; and Pablo Zalaquett, a former mayor in Santiago — are accused of using trusted individuals and firms as intermediaries to issue false invoices to the financial holding firm Penta and the mining giant SQM, among other companies, in order to obtain funds for their campaigns. They are all members of the right-wing opposition party Independent Democratic Union, known as U.D.I.
  • A dozen Central American migrants escaped gang kidnappers in southern Mexico, reports the BBC. The tens of thousands of migrants crossing through Mexico are vulnerable to abductions and forced recruitment.
  • Hundreds of Mexican migrant agricultural workers, desperately needed for the U.S. harvest, continue to be stranded at the border due to a computer glitch, reports Reuters. Washington State's cherry crop is particularly vulnerable, as the time-frame for picking is passing, according to the piece.
  • Haiti's capital got its first movie theater in years, reports the AP, a welcome sign of progress after a devastating earthquake five years ago