Thursday, September 17, 2015

Venezuelan and Colombian presidents to meet in Quito (Sept. 17, 2015)

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro will meet on Monday in Quito, to resolve the ongoing border crisis between the two countries that has led more than 20,000 undocumented Colombian migrants to flee Venezuela and choked off trade between the two countries.

The encounter brokered by Ecuador's President Rafael Correa and Uruguay's President Tabaré Vásquez, comes a day after Maduro announced he was closing yet another important  border crossing between the two countries, reports the Wall Street Journal. Unasur's secretary general Ernesto Samper will also be present, reports Página 12.

Maduro will extend the state of emergency to another 10 municipalities on the border with Colombia, reports the BBC. It temporarily restricts some constitutional rights and allows security forces to search homes without a warrant.

The three week crisis comes as a result of a Venezuelan crackdown on smuggling of subsidized food, medicine and (especially) gasoline  -- in a context of important food shortages and currency collapse. Cheaply purchased goods are sold by smugglers at an enormous profit across the border, explains the BBC.

The operations began after three soldiers and a civilian were injured in an alleged Colombian paramilitary attack near the border last month. The 2,500 km border is virtually militarized under state-of-emergency decrees and cross-border traffic has been stopped, according to Página 12. Maduro says the measures have stopped nearly 30 million liters of gas from leaving the country -- what he says is a business that's more lucrative than drugs.

Critics say it's a pre-electoral move to distract citizens from shortages of basic goods and medicines, sky-high crime and inflation. The government's approval ratings were plummeting and the ruling PSUV might well lose its legislative majority in December's elections. In this context, the Colombian migrants are a convenient scapegoat, says Naky Soto Parra, who coordinates leadership training for Caracas-based NGO Liderazgo y Vision in a New York Times op-ed.

He notes that there is a high number of Colombians living in Venezuela (an estimated 604,000 according to the International Organization for Migration), many displaced from Colombia's long-running internal conflicts, urban violence and drug related crime.

But Santos said Venezuelan authorities are starting to meet pre-conditions for a negotiation: there haven't been reports of abuses of Colombians over the past few days, Venezuelan authorities have permitted Colombian children living over the border to cross in order to attend school in Colombia and have permitted the reunification of families split by the border crisis. (See yesterday's briefs.)

Amid the tensions, 43 percent of Colombians fear a war will breakout between the two countries, according to Colombia Reports.

News Briefs

  • Ecuador's Correa did a sudden about-face on his country's drug policy. The country is toughening penalties for microtrafficking, "further confusing an already muddled system," saysInSight Crime. A table classifying amounts of drug possession differentiating between consumers, small-time dealers and large-scale traffickers was altered after Correa said micotraffickers were "poisoning" the population, reports El Universo. He said that humane policies for consumers were shielding these dealers. The most significant changes were for heroin and cocaine, reports InSight Crime: whereas previously possession of anything up to one gram of heroin and 50 grams of cocaine was considered "minimum," and essentially decriminalized, now such quantities are rated as "high" -- just one step below "large scale," and maximum prison sentences. The changes involve more jail time for all the categories, reports El Comercio. A far cry from the Correa of a few years ago who spoke of decriminalization and criticized the punitive drug paradigm. (See yesterday's post.) "Correa's proposal appears less of an appropriate response to this challenge and more political bluster that will add to the nation's already confused drug policy," argues InSight.
  • VICE notes the hypocrisy of the U.S.'s "decertification" of Bolivia over a so-called failure to comply with international narcotics agreements. (See yesterday's post.) "The decision, while widely expected, was roundly criticized by drug policy experts, who called the move hypocritical given that the US may be in contravention of U.N. drug conventions due to legalized marijuana markets in several states."
  • In Brazil the Instituto de Segurança Pública (ISP) found that most drug arrests involve small quantities of illicit substances. Last year the amount of marijuana captured was less than six grams in more than half of the arrests, reports O Globo. The report comes as Brazil's Supreme Court contemplates decriminalization for personal consumption, and experts warn of the socially harmful effects of harsh punitive drug laws.
  • Experts identified a bone fragment from one of the 43 Ayotzinapa students -- only the second to be identified in the year since they disappeared in a case that rocked Mexico and the international human rights community. The bone fragment is from the site of a dump where the government alleges the students were killed and cremated, reports the New York Times. Attorney General Arely Gómez announced yesterday that the evidence was identified though DNA testing at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. But an outside group of experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said the physical evidence at the dump did not support the hypothesis that the students were cremated there. (See September 8th's post.) Though government officials said they would review the investigation in light of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts' findings, several senior Mexican prosecutors have defended the initial conclusions, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A human rights referent and university rector, Juan Alfonso Fuentes Soria was named Guatemala's new vice president yesterday, replacing Alejandro Maldonado who stepped into the presidency two weeks ago, reports the Associated Press.
  • Over at the AULA blog, Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg, discuss a potential CICH -- a Honduras version of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG). In favor of creating such a body, they say is the argument that only an independent entity with U.N. endorsement can help Honduras climb out of the deep hole it finds itself in, in terms of endemic corruption. On the other hand, they note the high costs and long-term time frame of such a solution. In Guatemala the CICIG costs between $12 million and $15 million annually, and Honduras is poorer. They conclude: "The weakness and rot within Honduran institutions and the venality of national leadership strongly suggest that neither approach – a foreign-backed entity like CICIH or a home-grown solution – could quickly reverse the tsunami of corruption and violence that the isthmus’s poorest country has been experiencing since the 2009 coup.  Ideally, the best of Honduras’s own efforts could be buttressed by a Honduran version of the CICIG model, but the knack of the country’s leaders for overwhelming even the best of intentions, as they did the “Truth Commission” charged with determining accountability for the coup and rights abuses carried out in its aftermath, argues for extreme caution in forming expectations.  The debate therefore may boil down to the moral argument of whether the international community, witnessing Honduras’s descent into utter lawlessness and destitution, can stand idly by or should at least offer its help in what form it can, such as a CICIH.  Even if a CICIH is not a panacea, it at least would send a powerful message to Honduran elites that the world is watching."
  • A Center for Economic Policy and Research report on Honduras warns that IMF imposed policies could cause the country extended economic problems, reports TeleSur. The financial agreement with the international institution, "includes many austerity measures, despite the weak labor market and growing poverty, and provides almost no protections for the most vulnerable sectors of society," according to the CEPR. 
  • A 8.3-magnitude earthquake that struck off Chile's coast on yesterday, caused at least eight deaths and forced over one million residents to evacuate after tsunami warnings were issued, reports the New York Times. President Michelle Bachelet said she would travel to northern Chile today to assess the damage near the epicenter of the quake, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brazil's economy is tanking declares the Washington Post (somewhat late to the flood of news in this respect). The country's economy is expected to shrink by 2 to 3 percent this year, inflation is pushing 10 percent and unemployment is over 8 percent. The Brazilian real has lost about a third of its value against the dollar this year.
  • Continuing in Brazilian bad news, the BBC has a story on the country's continuing corruption problem in reference to the ongoing Petrobras scandal and investigation. Be that as it may, the company reported a record production last month in national and overseas oil fields. Average daily production in August was up 0.8 percent, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Argentine prosecutors have filed a criminal complaint over a cyanide spill at a gold mine operated by Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold, while hundreds of local residents demanded yesterday that authorities halt work at the deposit, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.Locals were warned not to consume water coming from the Rio Blanco.
  • Haiti's high-priest of voodoo, Max Beauvoir, died on Saturday in Port-au-Prince. The New York Times has a piece outlining his rise as a spokesman and prominent promoter for voodoo and his links to dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
  • Cuban President Raul Castro will speak to the United Nations General Assembly session in New York this month for the first time, reports the Los Angeles Times. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that he expects "interactions" between Castro and Obama, but the White House was noncommittal regarding a meeting between the two leaders. It will be Castro's first U.S. visit as president. 
  • Havana's hotels, restaurants and related businesses are under strain from the influx of tourists that have inundated the island since Cuba and the U.S. began a diplomatic thaw last year. Businesses are having trouble getting enough supplies to cater to the crowds -- which are expected to grow during the Pope's visit this weekend. Many tourists are driven by a desire to see the island -- frozen in time thanks to the U.S. trade embargo and poverty -- before a potential transformation, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Brace yourselves for the next round of media pope-mania. Los Angeles Times has a feature on how Argentina remembers Francis as a man of the people.

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