Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Latin American countries urge U.S. Cuba migrant policy change (Aug. 31, 2016)

Nine Latin American countries have joined together to urge the U.S. to change its Cuba migration policy. The countries argue that a special policy allowing Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay is creating a humanitarian crisis for tens of thousands of Cubans who must transit illegal and dangerous routes in their attempted migration, reports McClatchy.

The message comes in the midst of a dramatic increase in Cubans migrating to the U.S. -- fueled in part by fear that the renewed relations between the two countries will end the Cuban Adjustment Act. Already more than 46,500 Cubans were admitted to the United States without visas during the first 10 months of the 2016 fiscal year, according to the Pew Research Center. That figure compares with more than 43,000 in 2015 and just over 24,000 in 2014.

Cubans traditionally set out by sea to attempt to reach Florida, which is why the favorable immigration policy is known as "wet foot, dry foot," in reference to the requirement that migrants reach dry land in order to qualify. But in 2013, when the Cuban government lifted an exit visa requirement for its citizens, an alternate path began to involve taking a flight to another country in the region and then heading north to Mexico's northern border.

Read more here:

“Cuban citizens risk their lives, on a daily basis, seeking to reach the United States,” says a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, signed by the foreign ministers of the countries, which include Ecuador and Costa Rica. “These people, often facing situations of extreme vulnerability, fall victim to mafias dedicated to people trafficking, sexual exploitation and collective assaults. This situation has generated a migratory crisis that is affecting our countries.”

Over the past year the already fraught route has become more complicated by countries requiring visas for Cubans and clamping down on land borders migrants must use to head north. Thousands of migrants have gathered at Costa Rica's border, for example, after Nicaragua closed its border for migrants. (See post for Nov. 25, 2015, for example, and also briefs for Aug. 12.) 

The costs have been significant for transit countries forced to deal with stranded migrants.

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The U.S. must do more to redress the difficulties caused by its policy, say the signatory countries. Up until now the main focus has been encouraging other countries to stringently apply their own immigration laws and deport Cubans back to their home country. Cuban activists note that this approach would only encourage more Cubans to undertake the dangerous sea journey.

"The difficulties between the U.S. and Cuba has a direct consequence on other countries in our region that serve as transit," Costa Rica's foreign minister Manuel González told McClatchy. “And we are, in a way, paying the consequences of that bilateral relationship.”

New York Times editorial joins the call for the U.S. to change this "irrational" and "anachronistic policy," noting that it also has the effect of easing pressure on Cuba's government to reform, "by offering an incentive to those who are most dissatisfied with the status quo to take a dangerous way out."

Earlier this month Cuban diplomats also stepped up pressure on the U.S. government to change the policy, which has led to a human resources drain on the island. (See Aug. 19's briefs.)

Cato Institute op-ed in the Miami Herald argues in favor of maintaining the policy, arguing that Cubans deserve differential treatment because "Cuba is the only 'unfree' country in the Western Hemisphere" -- and that the law must be maintained until there are free elections in Cuba.

Though Cuban migrants are at the center of the debate, they are by no means alone. A surge of migrants from Haiti, Africa, and the Middle East have also been following a similar route through Central America, echoing the more publicized migrant crisis in Europe, notes the Miami Herald.

News Briefs
  • More on migration: Mexico's authorities have cracked down on a migrant route on a cargo train, nicknamed "La Bestia" for its high human toll on migrants headed north on the tracks that cross Mexico from the south. The efforts against the emblematic route culminated last week with the announcement that the service, as is, will be shut down, reports the New York TimesAnimal Político reports that the numbers of migrants detained on the tracks have shot up. The upward trend began in 2014, when the Mexican government announced efforts to stop migrants from hopping on the train. In the first six months of this year, authorities have detained 1,700 migrants on the tracks. Last year they detained 2,351. But as analysts note, the efforts are only pushing migrants to more dangerous routes.
  • U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will be in Mexico City tonight to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto, ahead of an Arizona speech focused on his immigration policy, reports the Washington Post. The Mexican government issued the invitation to both parties' candidates, according to the WP. The visit comes as Trump has wavered on whether he will maintain his hardline stance on immigration, particularly a call to deport 11 million migrants living illegally in the U.S. Trump will be accompanied by hardline immigration advisors, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, reports Animal Político, which transcribes some of their more incendiary phrases on the issue. The Mexican government's move is surprising, considering its harsh stance against Trump. Earlier this year Peña Nieto compared his rhetoric to Adolf Hitler's and Benito Mussolini's. And just last week the Mexican tourism minister, was in Miami debunking key elements of Trump's rhetoric and arguing that a schism between the two countries would also affect U.S. prosperity, reports the Miami Herald. The Guardian also notes that it's difficult to see how the visit will favor Peña Nieto, whose popularity has plummeted, given a widespread dislike for Trump in Mexico. Immigration advocates are denouncing the visit as a stunt, notes the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times reports that it's Trumps first meeting with a head of state as the Republican presidential nominee.
  • Peña Nieto is expected to present an annual report to Congress later this week, with a dismal national outlook of rising homicide rates and poor economic performance, reports the Associated Press.
  • Brazil's Senate is expected to have a final vote on President Dilma Rousseff's impeachment trial later today. Earlier today Senators agreed to vote separately on the issues of her impeachment and disqualification from holding office, reports Folha de S. Paulo. It's a final attempt at saving face from her Workers' Party supporters, as it could permit her to be impeached but still hold administrative positions in future governments.
  • Venezuela's national electoral council announced that the next stage in the opposition push for a referendum on President Nicolás Maduro's mandate will take place on Oct. 24, reports Venezuela Analysis. That stage involves gathering 20 percent of the electorate's signatures in favor of the move. However, the CNE's timetable would lead to the actual referendum taking place next year. The opposition will be rallying tomorrow demanding a more rapid timetable that would allow the vote to take place this year and a replacement election to take place if Maduro is ousted. (See yesterday's post.) The opposition is banking on a big turnout in tomorrow's "great taking of Caracas." "The opposition is measuring its organizational power,” Dimitris Pantoulas told Bloomberg. "It’s not that they are taking the temperature of the streets, it’s that they are taking the temperature of themselves." 
  • In the meantime the government has intensified a crackdown on opposition leaders ahead of the march, reports the Wall Street Journal. In addition to detaining former San Cristobal mayor Daniel Ceballos, yesterday intelligence agency police arrested Carlos Melo, a leader of the Progressive Advance party. On Monday Yon Goicoechea, an organizer for the Popular Will opposition party, was arrested for allegedly carrying materials to make bombs. Popular Will says at least four other leaders are in hiding after their homes were raided or arrest warrants were issued for them. Opposition oriented Efecto Cocuyo reports seven attacks on opposition leaders ahead of 1S.
  • A judge ordered former Salvadoran attorney general Luis Martínez to remain in jail, on charges of divulging intercepted phone conversations, reports the Associated Press. Martínez was originally arrested earlier this month in a separate case in which he was charged with obtaining personal favors from a well-connected businessman. (See last Thursday's post by David Holiday.)
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales accused the OAS of pushing a right-wing agenda in the region, abandoning left-wing governments under attack in the region, reports TeleSur
  • Jet Blue inaugurates commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba today with a trip from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara. Tomorrow Silver Airlines follows suit. And next week American Airlines will run a flight from Miami, "heart of Cuban exile," reports the Miami Herald.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed a decree calling citizens to polls on Oct. 2 to answer a yes or no question in a plebiscite on the peace accord with the FARC: "Do you support the final accord for ending the conflict and constructing a stable, long-lasting peace?", reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • In the midst of Colombia's peace deal plebiscite campaign, the Los Angeles Times has a retrospective on the fifty years of fighting with the FARC. Though Colombians seem to generally support the idea of peace, many are expected to vote against the accord. "Few families in Colombia are untouched by the war’s kidnappings, displacements and extortion involving threats of violence. Although the military and right wing paramilitary groups committed atrocities over the course of the conflict, the public holds the rebels most accountable," explains the piece.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri unveiled a new anti-drug initiative yesterday. Developed with NGO's, judicial, legislative and academic institutions, the plan commits to eliminating "paco" cocaine base and protecting witnesses who provide information on drug traffickers, and increased resources for the justice and police systems, reports the Latin American Herald TribunePágina 12 notes the discourse at the presentation heavily focused "winning the war." And later Security Minister Patricia Bullrich discarded legalization as a tool to combat drugs, saying examples from the region have not worked, reports Página 12 separately. Yet huge amounts of state resources are taken up by detaining and prosecuting small time traffickers, reports Bubble in a critical piece. "According to a series of reports issued by Federal Prosecutor Federico Delgado, a vast majority of cases that reached his desk didn’t have anything to do with drug-lords, but citizens who had been detained for personal consumption: out of the 376 cases filed in April for violating the country’s drug laws, 250 were for personal consumption, 66 percent of the total. That marks a whopping 30 percent increase from November. 'The investment and human energy that is taken in the whole process, which goes from detaining the person who broke the law, to filing the case, to entering it in the court system, are parameters that should be evaluated at the time of doing this, as the Attorney General’s Office spends money and energy that is later insufficient to investigate more important issues,'" Delgado told Bubble.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Venezuelan opposition gearing up for massive march on Thursday (Aug. 30, 2016)

Venezuela's opposition is planning a massive demonstration on Thursday, aimed at pressuring the national electoral council (CNE) into pushing forward the time table for a referendum on President Nicolás Maduro's mandate. Holding the election this year would trigger a national election for his successor, while holding it next year means the vice president will finish Maduro's term if he is ousted.

A wave of thousands of Venezuelans are descending upon Caracas ahead of Thursday's march, reports the Wall Street Journal. It might be the last opportunity to force the election that would likely oust Maduro. The opposition says that government control of the judiciary and the CNE have left it with no choice but to take to the streets to push for their demands to be met.

But the current pace of the referendum process leaves little hope of an election being held this year, notes Geoff Ramsey on Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. If that is the case, the question will remain how the opposition proceeds.

In the meantime, "The Taking of Caracas," or 1S, as it's being called, is gearing up to be an intense battle between the two sides.

The government has called for counter-protests, and banned private planes and drones in Caracas airspace this week. Yesterday El País reported that the government has also scheduled sales of scarce food supplies for that day and reiterated threats to fire government employees supporting the opposition demands.

Venezuelan officials are denouncing a U.S. sponsored coup attempt, after the State Department called for the release of opposition leader Daniel Ceballos, who was taken to prison by state intelligence agents on Saturday, reports the Associated Press. (See yesterday's briefs.) The former mayor of San Cristobal was imprisoned for a year, and transferred to house arrest last year due to health concerns. While authorities say they had information that he was planning to foment violence on Thursday, human rights groups say he is a political prisoner.

Venezuela's journalists' union said authorities are expelling an Al Jazeera crew who arrived yesterday to cover the protest, reports AFP.

News Briefs
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto fired the federal police commissioner yesterday, in response to a human rights commission report that found the force was responsible for 22 summary executions in a raid last year. (See Aug. 19's post.) Though the official version is that the suspected gang members were killed in a protracted gun battle, the dismissal opens the path into an investigation into allegations that police carried out a massacre, with many victims shot at close range from above or behind, and then altered the evidence at the scene of the crime, reports the New York Times. Interior minister Miguel Osorio Chung said the removal was aimed at permitting a transparent investigation, reports the Associated Press.
  • Peña Nieto did indeed plagiarize chunks of his law thesis, confirmed his university. But the failure to adequately credit the texts did not violate the institutions rules at the time, and the case will not be subject to any action, reports the Associated Press. (See Aug. 22's post.)
  • Today is the international day of the disappeared -- a column in Al Jazeera looks at the situation across the region -- from the estimated 16,000 Peruvians who disappeared in violence in the 1980s and 90s, to Argentina's 30,000 dictatorship disappeared, to more recent disappearances in Colombia and Mexico. "Across Latin America, the process of uncovering the truth about the fates of legions of disappeared people has generally been characterized by a great deal of inertia and antagonism on the part of authorities. ... In many places, the state's reluctance to dig up the crimes of the past has to do with the state's own complicity in many of those crimes," writes Belen Fernandez.
  • The Toronto Star has a piece looking at a few of the 28,000 cases of disappearances in Mexico in recent years, emphasizing that many of their families will never really know what happened to their loved ones.
  • An in-depth investigative piece by Buzzfeed examines the shadowy world of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), essentially binding binding arbitration on a global scale, drawn into trade treaties in order to provide a mechanism to settle disputes between countries and foreign companies that do business within their borders. The results have been so expensive for countries that even the threat of an ISDS suit can be enough to force governments to roll back internal regulations or drop criminal charges. The piece looks at several examples from around the world, including a village in El Salvador suffering from crushing lead poisoning from a nearby factory -- the owners fled to the U.S. and used the threat of ISDS to push the Salvadoran government to an easier settlement, according to the Buzzfeed investigation.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's speech defending herself at a Senate trial yesterday is unlikely to change the likely result of her impeachment, but she successfully presented her case that she is innocent of the charges and maintained that the proceedings against her amount to a coup against a democratic government, reports the Guardian. (See yesterday's post.) In the question session that followed her 45 minute speech yesterday, most senators were critical of her administration, and maintained the legality of the proceedings. The session was relatively calm, with proponents of impeachment seeking to avoid an appearance of victimizing Rousseff, according to the Guardian.
  • Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrande Aristide made a rare public appearance yesterday, urging support for his longtime spokeswoman and pick for the upcoming presidential election, Maryse Narcisse, reports the Miami Herald.
  • After a bilateral cease-fire officially began yesterday between the Colombian government and the FARC, the guerrilla force's fighters began the process of congregating forces and notifying monitors of their locations, reports the Wall Street Journal. Government officials explained yesterday that the FARC will first gather together far-flung units, and then move them to the concentration areas agreed on for disarmament.
  • Vice News reports on a curious side-effect of the Colombia-FARC peace deal, the elimination of a widely used cover story for undercover DEA agents in cases targeting suspected terrorists, drug dealers, and other criminals all over the world.
  • A new bill in Uruguay's Congress would automatically provide information on bank accounts held by Uruguayans and foreign citizens to the country's tax bureau, effectively killing the country's bank secrecy. The move could have important ramifications for the estimated $3.3 billion held by Argentines in Uruguay, reports the Buenos Aires Herald.
  • Two men have been detained in connection to the murder of Brazilian journalist João Miranda do Carmo, who had received threats because of his work reporting on local politicians, drug dealers and criminals, reports the Guardian. The second arrest came last week, after the UNESCO director general demanded an investigation into the case.
  • Reuters profiles an innovative school meal program in Brazil that contracts with family farmers and cooperatives to provide food for public schools.
  • Public unrest over Chile's dictatorship era private pension system could drag the issue of reform into the country's presidential election next year, risking extreme solutions, reports Bloomberg, based on an interview with the head of a presidential reform commission.
  • Peruvians are upset with their new president's self-described British humor, reports Reuters.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Rousseff defends herself in Senate (Aug. 29, 2016)

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff testified before the Senate this morning. She took a defiant stance, facing accusations of budgetary manipulation that could lead to her impeachment. "Today I only fear the death of democracy," she said, in what El País characterized as her possible last speech as president.

Rousseff said her conscience was "absolutely clean" and that she had not committed any crime, reports the BBC. She said her administration had made mistakes, but that cowardice and disloyalty were not among them, reports O Globo.

She is specifically accused of delaying government payments to a state-controlled bank, which effectively forced it to provide her administration with allegedly illegal short-term loans which masked the country's budget deficit, explains the Wall Street Journal.

After her 45 minute speech the floor opened up to senators' questions, in a session expected to last all day, reports Reuters.

El País has live coverage of her answers to senators regarding allegations that she illegally altered the budget without Congressional approval. 

She maintains that the actions do not constitute an impeachable crime and described the charges against her as "pretexts in order to perform a coup against the constitution," reports NPR.

There is a huge focus of debate centered around the legality or not of her probable ousting. While Rousseff said that now it will be possible to force governors from their positions without legal basis, senators in favor of her ousting emphasized that her very presence in the Senate trial, chaired by a Supreme Court judge, showed the legality of the proceedings, reports Folha de S. Paulo.

It's the last chance she has to convince Senators to return her to office -- which she has been suspended from since May (see May 12's post). A two thirds majority of the 81 Senators must vote for impeachment in order to oust her. Earlier this month, senators voted 59 to 21 in favor of putting her on trial.

On Friday the Wall Street Journal noted the high tensions in the first days of the trial, but said the delays weren't "likely to reduce the likelihood that Ms. Rousseff will get the boot. But it is a sign that the president’s supporters aren’t going to go meekly."

An editorial by El País' adjunct director questions the stance of Rousseff's detractors, who blame her for the stalled economy and corruption ills plaguing the political class. Temer's government will not have long term success he hypothesizes. "No, the new definitive Temer presidency will not make corruption disappear magically, nor the lagging international demand for primary materials, nor the enormous public and private debts of businesses and families." Nor will the political change vanquish the millions of voters who were lifted from extreme poverty by the 13 years of Workers' Party government, he writes. "It is likely that those voters, in a country with obligatory participation, will have something to say in two years, when Temer must submit, not to the judgement of street protests, but to true legitimacy, which is conferred only by voting."

The moment harkens back to the 1992 impeachment proceedings against former President Fernando Collor de Melo, who quit rather than face the final Congressional vote. El País compares the similarities and differences between the two cases.

News Briefs
  • Brazilian federal police recommended prosecutors file charges against former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his wife, for money laundering and corruption in relation to a beachfront luxury property they allegedly own -- both deny the charges. The allegations form part of the Operation Car Wash investigation into corruption at Petrobras, reports the Wall Street Journal. The move by the investigative police comes at a critical moment of Rousseff's Senate trial, notes the New York Times.
  • Venezuela is gearing up for an opposition demonstration on Thursday, demanding the national electoral council (CNE) rush the referendum against President Nicolás Maduro so it can occur this year. In turn government supporters are expected to turn out in counter marches. El País reports that the government has also scheduled sales of scarce food supplies for that day and reiterated threats to fire government employees supporting the opposition demands.
  • Prominent opposition leader Daniel Ceballos was jailed again by intelligence agents on Saturday, a move the government characterized as necessary to prevent acts of violence, reports the Associated Press. Ceballos was jailed for a year, before being released to house arrest due to health concerns. His wife said intelligence agents put him in an ambulance on Saturday, claiming to take him to a medical exam, but instead transferred him to jail. The government said it has evidence that the former mayor of San Cristóbal was planning to flee and instigate acts of violence ahead of Thursday's protests. Rights groups, including Amnesty International, criticized the detention.
  • A permanent bi-lateral cease-fire began today in Colombia between the government and the FARC guerrilla group, after a peace deal was reached last week. Both sides said they were halting attacks, reports the Associated Press. (See last Thurday's post.)
  • New York Times op-ed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Harvard psych professor Steven Pinker lauds the FARC peace deal as a regional milestone and an example of how violent conflicts can draw to a close. "From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, war — in the classic sense of a violent conflict over governance or territory fought by at least one national army — has disappeared. Although drug-related gang violence in Latin America continues, the extinguishing of political armed conflicts from an entire hemisphere deserves note," they write. But "waging peace can be almost as difficult as waging war, and for Colombia, the remaining challenges are considerable."
  • Chief-government negotiator Humberto de la Calle urged Colombians to remember that while many would have liked more punishment for the FARC (see Friday's post), responsibility for atrocities extends to other actors, including "state agents who deviated from their missions and third parties who financed grave crimes and massacres," reports El País.
  • A major challenge proponents of the peace face in the upcoming plebiscite on the accords is the growing identification between the agreements and Santos, argues María Victoria Llorente in a New York Times op-ed. "The belligerent tone of the debate has impeded a serene and constructive reflexion on the challenges and opportunities peace represents for the future of Colombia," she writes.
  • A piece by Annie Corral in the New York Times tells the story of her father's 1999 kidnapping by the FARC. Though the eight month episode cost her family their livelihood, "he let go of the rancor, the outrage at what had happened, quite senselessly, to him and to our family. Like so many victims of Colombia’s conflict now, in his time, he chose peace."
  • The deal offers a rare victory for American diplomacy, according to the Washington Post, and a validation of the approximately $10 billion spent as part of the Plan Colombia.
  • Mexico's dissident teachers union and the government are in a firm standoff over education reform and deaths at a protest earlier this year. The danger for bloody confrontation is greater than ever, according to The Nation, which covers the latest on the issue.
  • Thousands of union members and teachers marched last week in Ecuador, protesting the government's dissolution of a public teachers' guild, reports AFP.
  • El Salvador's Supreme Court denied a Spanish extradition request for three former military officers in connection with the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri campaigned on the vision that human rights violations committed by the country's last military dictatorship are a thing of the past, and that the country must move forward. But since taking office he has "shattered" the country's "consensus on the gravity of dictatorship-era crimes," writes Uki Goñi in the Guardian. "Earlier this month, Macri rattled nerves in the human rights community when he appeared to doubt the long-accepted historical understanding that 30,000 people died under the dictatorship. ... Some sympathizers with the former regime have long raised doubts over the number of desaparecidos, but Macri’s words marked the first time that such denialist rhetoric gained admittance to mainstream political discourse."
  • The case of $67,000 in cash stolen from the home of Argentine Vice President Gabriela Michetti -- apparently by her bodyguard -- is a high profile example of a cash-based economy that often masks task evasion, reports Bloomberg. The case comes as Argentines debate a tax amnesty push by Macri aimed at pulling citizens into the banking system.
  • Bolivia is used to radical social protests, but striking miners who beat to death the deputy interior minister last week took it to a whole new level that escalates the level of violence in the country and challenges President Evo Morales' goal of creating a strong state, argues Pablo Stefanoni in Nueva Sociedad. (See Friday's briefs.)
  • Morales characterized the protests as a coup attempt and announced on Saturday that it had been squashed, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • A multi-lingual book publishes the myths of the Kukama amazon indigenous tribe -- as told by grandparents and illustrated by children -- reports El País. The stories tell about the aquatic species and mythological beings that live in the Marañón river in Peru, threatened by crude oil spills, hydroelectric dams and waterway traffic.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Colombians begin to debate peace (Aug. 26, 2016)

Negotiators finally finished the monumental task of hammering out a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC (see yesterday's post). 

President Juan Manuel Santos hand delivered 297-page accord to lawmakers yesterday, reports the Associated Press. And the formal bi-lateral cease-fire between both sides will begin on Monday at midnight.

Now voters must ratify or reject the accord, a simple yes or no decision that belies the deep wounds of Colombians and complicated concessions contained in the agreements. Colombians are deeply divided over the issue. 

The government and proponents of the deal must win support from many who would prefer to see the guerrillas militarily defeated, notes Reuters.

The latest poll by El Tiempo shows the favorable vote leading slightly, with 32.1 percent against 29.9 percent against. Several recent polls showed the "no" vote leading, a tendency that has reverted since Aug. 17. However, the intended abstention rate has increased to 26.9 percent, an issue of concern for proponents who must achieve a minimum of 13 percent of the electorate in order for the pact to be ratified.

Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, said a rejection by voters could have “unimaginable” and “catastrophic” consequences if Colombians reject the pact, reports the Miami Herald. He also rejected the argument put forth by the "no" camp, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, that a rejection of the deal is an opportunity to renegotiate a deal with tougher terms for the FARC.

While many Colombians object to the terms of the deal that basically amnesty most FARC fighters, and provide alternatives to jail for the worst crimes committed by them, de la Calle emphasized that the pact -- which includes two-year subsidies for former fighters -- should be seen as a "safety net" that allows the FARC to take a chance on peace.

Human rights groups have noted that soldiers who committed human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, would also be except from jail-time under the pact.

Yet, "though flawed, the “transitional justice” that the peace accord will bring about will be more rigorous than that achieved in other countries, such as South Africa and El Salvador, which have ended bitter conflicts," argues the Economist. "The peacemakers asked the pope and the UN secretary-general to help pick the committee that will appoint judges to the tribunal. That will bolster its credibility."

Yet, except for avoiding jail, the achievements of the FARC at the negotiating table have been modest, according to the Washington Post.

In a country where most families have been in some way affected by the violence, people are torn between the desire to move forward and mistrust of the FARC, as well as a desire for more punishment for crimes, reports the New York Times.

Yet proponents of the pact are also affected by a new generation that has been less affected directly. “For the most part the average Colombian today is urban and the war is just something they saw on TV,” Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America told Fox News. “These people haven’t really been affected by the war since the mass kidnappings.”

On the other hand, rural areas more affected by fighting are inclined to end the war, despite misgivings over justice, according to the Economist.

The New York Times talks with some Colombians about their personal experiences.

The " "Yes" campaigners, like former President César Gaviria categorically reject that vision, saying that a no vote means the FARC would continue fighting, reports the Economist.

The formal end of war is an opportunity for Colombia to "at last to become a normal country," according to the Economist.

Al Jazeera has an interview with Judith Simanca Herrera, a FARC commander also known as Victoria Sandino, a member of the Havana negotiating team.

This morning the U.N. Security Council had scheduled a meeting to discuss the organization's role in implementing the peace deal, reports the Associated Press.

News Briefs
  • Striking miners in Bolivia kidnapped and beat to death deputy interior minister Rodolfo Illanes, who went to Panduro to mediate a dialogue, reports the Associated Press. The episode followed the killing of two protestors in clashes with the police. Informal miners, numbering at about 100,000 in the country, are associated into cooperatives, and are demanding the right to associated with private companies. The National Federation of Mining Cooperatives of Bolivia, former allies of President Evo Morales, have been on indefinite protest since mining legislation negotiations failed. About a 100 people have already been arrested in relation to the murder, reports Reuters.
  • The Associated Press profiles the case of Marvin Ramos Quintanilla, a Salvadoran who portrayed himself as a reformed gang member since leaving jail three years ago, but who prosecutors say used pastoral credentials to gain access to incarcerated leaders and running MS finances. Quintanilla was captured last month in the Operación Jaque crackdown on the gang's financial network. (See July 29's post.)
  • Washington Post op-ed by Joel Dreyfuss notes the long and complicated history of international interference in Haiti's affairs, topped by the cholera epidemic brought by U.N. peacekeepers six years ago and misspent aid funds following the 2010 earthquake. The problem is that Haitians themselves are ignored, he says. He also emphasizes long-running interference by other nations in national elections which has distorted results. "The ultimate challenge for Haiti — and many other small countries — is how to gain a measure of control over their own destinies, especially when they are in the “back yard” of powerful nations, dependent on foreign aid and are forced to deal with internal divisions. ... But the best incentive for change will come from Haiti itself. A new chapter for the embattled nation will come only when Haiti’s rapacious business and political elites and its masses of neglected poor learn the lessons from 200 years ago — that no one is coming to save them."
  • The U.N. admission to partial responsibility for the Haitian cholera epidemic means policy changes aimed at preventing such outbreaks in future peacekeeping missions can finally be implemented, write epidemologists Ralph Frerichs and Renaud Piarroux in the Miami Herald.
  • The expanded role of the military in combatting rampant criminal violence in Central America poses a threat to democracy argues Alberto Mora, the coordinator of the "State of the Region Report," in an interview with EFE.
  • Peruvian health clinics will offer the morning-after pill free of charge, an important advance for women's rights after more than a decade of heated debate, reports TeleSur.
  • Brazilian police recommended that prosecutors file charges against American Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte for providing false testimony in an episode where he claimed to have been robbed by men in police uniforms, reports the New York Times. (See Aug. 18's briefs.)
  • Thirty-eight former Argentine military officers were convicted yesterday for their roles in kidnapping, torturing and killing several hundred victims during the country's last military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Thousands of people gathered outside the courthouse in Córdoba celebrated, holding pictures of the victims, reports the New York Times. The trial grouped together about 20 cases from torture centers around the province, including the infamous La Perla. Argentina has led the region in prosecution of human rights crimes committed during its dictatorship, with over 600 convictions so far. This case is the first in Córdoba that also included atrocities committed by death squads before the 1976 military coup.
  • A report by the International Labor Organization found Latin America and the Caribbean will be the region most affected by youth unemployment this year, reports EFE. The rate is expected to reach 17.1 percent next year, which in absolute numbers means 9.3 million unemployed youths.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

El Salvador's crusading attorney general and Colombia announces final peace deal (Aug. 25, 2016)

El Salvador's New Attorney General crusading against powerful, corrupt pols and gangs

- By David Holiday 

Guatemala has the CICIG and Honduras now has MACCIH, but El Salvador has no international commission to assist its institutions in the fight against corruption and high-profile criminal cases.  Despite overwhelming popular opinion in favor of a such an entity (nearly 97 percent, according to one recent UCA poll), the Salvadoran government has steadfastly refused to consider such a body.  In fact, the FMLN secretary general, Medardo Gonzalez, told a crowd of supporters on May 1 that anyone who asks for such an entity should be considered "golpistas" who are only interested in destabilizing the government, according to a report in El Faro.

The government’s proposition is that El Salvador has a strong enough judicial system to take care of its own problems, and it is beginning to look like they might be right. In the past few weeks, the new Attorney General, Douglas Melendez – elected by the Assembly as a compromise candidate earlier this year, and probably not expected to ruffle many feathers – has begun to prosecute an unprecedented number of high-profile cases, including:

  • Operación Jaque – the arrest of dozens of individuals involved in the financial network of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang (See post for Aug. 12)
  • The Court of Accounts, El Salvador’s primary auditing body that has long been held by individuals close to the conservative PCN party, was investigated by the Attorney General, bringing to light 48 case files that were never acted upon and that would have resulted in $2.2 million in fines that could have benefited the state’s coffers, according to El Faro.

But the news does not stop there.

On Monday night, Melendez’s immediate predecessor  as Attorney General – Luis Martinez – presented himself to the Attorney General’s office, only to be taken into police custody and charged with procedural fraud and "omission" in various cases related to Enrique Rais, a wealthy businessman who has deep connections to one of the strongmen of the ruling FMLN party, Jose Luis Merino (who is also the highest ranking FMLN representative in the Venezuelan-funded Alba Petroleos.)   Rais, his nephew, his lawyer and a former prosecutor from the Attorney General’s office were also taken into custody, while another 10 persons were the subject of arrest warrants.

Stories in  El Faro and Revista Factum provide extensive details and background, and both have long covered these cases.  For example, both have documented numerous trips whereby Martinez traveled abroad on Rais’ personal planes, which have been under investigation in the US by the DEA for involvement in drug trafficking.   In July, the usually quiet Government Ethics Tribunal fined Martinez $9000, noting that Martinez had buried cases brought against Rais, but prosecuted others wherein he was the victim, and encouraged the Fiscalia to investigate.  The crime of “failure to investigate” carries a potential jail term of five years.  Hector Silva Avalos, from Factum,  is currently being sued by Rais for defamation for reporting on Rais’ links to drug trafficking.

An even bigger case is in the making, however, as the Attorney General began to execute search warrants at numerous properties linked to former President Mauricio Funes, as well as his close colleagues Miguel Menendez (known as “Mecafe”) and Fune’s former Agriculture Minister, Pablo Ochoa.  Funes was already the subject of a civil suit for “illicit enrichment”, but these moves indicate the AG is building a criminal case as well. El Farohas all the details.

Attorney General Melendez justified these moves based on indications that Funes was preparing to apply for political asylum in Nicaragua.  (Tweeting from Nicaragua, Funes says that is not the case, but has given contradictory information about his reason for being there – tourism or business? – according to a report in Confidencial, which also noted that a Guatemalan congressman under investigation for corruption in his country is also currently in Nicaragua.)  Menendez and Ochoa were originally part of the “friends of Mauricio” who supported his candidacy in 2009, and Menendez in particular benefited from numerous, uncompetitive contracts for private security services with the Funes administration, and was named head of the government-run International Convention Center (CIFCO).

Taken together, these cases alone demonstrate a more functional prosecutorial power than El Salvador has seen for many years.  Of course, the real test will depend on whether those prosecutions will ultimately be successful. And we can expect pushback from very powerful political and economic elites should these kind of cases continue to move forward. 

Additionally, the Attorney General would do well to be more aggressive in prosecuting cases of police abuses (including extrajudicial executions) as well as support transitional justice cases moving forward (such as the Mozote massacre), given the recent overturning of the amnesty law.  

In the meantime, it certainly raises the bar of expectations for future prosecutions.


Colombian government and FARC announce final deal

The Colombian government and FARC guerrilla movement announced they had reached a final peace agreement yesterday in Havana, bringing nearly four years of negotiations to a close and signaling the potential end of 50 years of violent conflict in Colombia. 

The fighting has cost over 220,000 lives -- most of them civilians -- and displaced millions. The agreement effectively ends the region's last guerrilla conflict, reports the New York Times.

President Juan Manuel Santos said the project will be sent to the Colombian congress today, which in turn will convoke a plebiscite on the accord for Oct. 2, reports the Miami Herald. A citizen ratification is necessary for the implementation of the agreement to move forward.

An emotional crowd of about 400 people gathered in a Bogotá plaza to watch the Havana announcement on a large screen, reports the Associated Press. The agreement sparked celebrations around the city, reports Reuters.

"Once this accord is implemented, for the first time in most Colombians’ lives, much of this activity will end, and Latin America’s third most-populous country will no longer face an armed group capable of generating violence on a national scale," celebrated WOLA yesterday.

The final touches on the many partial agreements included a commitment to expanding state presence in the poor countryside, reports the Wall Street Journal.

The agreements basically focus on five points: significant investment in neglected rural areas, political reforms that will allow the FARC to transition from a fighting force into a political movement, a new approach to eliminating illicit coca cultivation focused on FARC assisted subsidies and alternatives to forced eradication, a truth commission for war crimes and transitional justice that will permit alternative punishments to those who confess war crimes, disarmament and reintegration into society of FARC fighters. 

Check out Silla Vacía for full details on the accords.

The deal will incorporate three former fighters into each chamber of Congress in a non-voting capacity to monitor the pacts implementation. And in the 2018 congressional elections, the FARC would be guaranteed at least five seats in the house and five in the senate, for two legislative periods. As of 2026 the still-unnamed force will have to fight for seats in elections.

The concessions are widely resisted among Colombians, and are called "toads" (sapos) by Santos and negotiators. La Silla Vacía reviews the specifics, noting that while they have justifications, they're still hard to "swallow." Guaranteed seats in Congress, for example, might well be ratified by voters, and are a relatively common concession in peace negotiations. More polemic is the guaranteed 20 percent of what the state gives to political parties, and special financing for the FARC's Senate candidates.

While other leftist insurgents in the region have successfully become political forces -- like the FMLN in El Salvador -- the FARC will have less popular support and will have to effectively organize in its power base rural areas and among urban leftists, according to Reuters.

Already the peace negotiations have driven violence down to its lowest levels since fighting began, notes the Associated Press. And once the accords are signed, FARC fighters will begin to demobilize and hand over weapons to U.N. monitors, which will turn them into three monuments.

While most Colombians say they want peace, many oppose amnesty for FARC fighters and their inclusion in politics. The campaign against the deal led by former President Álvaro Uribe makes the case that the deal cedes too much to terrorists.

Human Rights Watch said today that the issue of transitional justice in particular risks undermining the very peace the agreement aims to bring about. “FARC’s commitment to demobilize and disarm should end a tragic and bloody chapter of Colombian history and help bring relief after years of violence and abuse,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But the negotiating parties seriously undermined this opportunity for a sustainable and just peace with a so-called victims’ agreement that fails to fulfill the rights of those who suffered some of the worst atrocities.

HRW emphasizes that the deal not only lets FARC fighters off the hook, but also members of the armed forces who committed human rights abuses like the "false positives" extrajudicial killings.

But in many cases the victims groups have been defenders of the peace deal.

The agreements promise transformation for Colombia, but also entail risks, warns La Silla Vacía's Juanita León.

The human toll has been astronomical: More than 220,000 people —over 80 percent of whom were civilians— were killed, more than 6 million Colombians were forcibly displaced and more than 45,000 were disappeared, details the Latin America Working Group (LAWG).
Rural, impoverished, and marginalized communities —including Afro-Colombians, indigenous, and women— were disproportionately affected by the violence. These groups have taken the lead in defending the rights of their communities at home and at the peace table.
LAWG also calls on the U.S. to support what promises to be an expensive, long-term peace process.

The Santos administration is pushing an ambitious tax reform through Congress in order to finance the implementation of the accords, and a failure to gain Congressional approval could trigger a downgrade in the country's credit rating, according to the WSJ.

The deal is expected to boost the country's growing economy, which has been hindered by the ongoing conflict, according to the NYTimes.

The deal must be approved by voters in order to be implemented -- polls have indicated a tight race and it's not clear that it will pass. FARC fighters must also accept the pact, while they are expected to do so, there are some factions that have expressed dissent, notes the Miami Herald.

And the process is just beginning. "Once these steps are finished, Colombia will face serious challenges in the post-accord period. The FARC’s exit from the drug trade will not mean the end of the drug trade or the powerful, violent organized crime groups that participate in it. The 2,000-member, 52-year-old National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group remains active in some regions and has not yet begun formal peace talks. And strong doubts surround the Colombian government’s ability to fill the security vacuum and implement accords in at least 281 of the most poorly governed of the country’s 1,100 counties," warns WOLA.

The Associated Press has a timeline of the conflict starting with the FARCs founding in 1964. And a separate Associated Press piece looks at the historical development of the conflict.

News Briefs
  • Haitian politicians kicked off the campaign for October's presidential election re-do. Authorities called on candidates to play fair and avoid electoral violence. The Haitian government will be paying the $55 million bill for elections -- cobbling together most of that with funds from public agencies, including the port and the central bank, reports the Miami Herald. The U.S. said it would not provide funding and demanded the return of $2 million which remained unspent from $33 million in financing for last year's botched elections.
  • The Brazilian Senate began the final phase of the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff today, with a final vote that is widely expected to oust her to take place next week, reports the Wall Street Journal. Senators will hear the testimony of eight witnesses in the case which accuses Rousseff of budgetary manipulation. She is expected to speak in her own defense on Monday, notes the Wall Street Journal in a separate piece.
  • Debate over boar hunting in Argentina -- where proponents have tradition and even ecological arguments on their side, pitted against a growing vision of animal rights that has been backed by politicians and the judiciary -- mirrors cases around the world as activists increasingly oppose traditional hunts, reports the New York Times.