Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Castro demands more executive actions to chip away at the U.S. embargo

U.S. and Cuban Presidents Barak Obama and Raúl Castro met yesterday and discussed Pope's visit and efforts to keep improving ties between the two countries. But Congress is unlikely to approve further steps, including lifting the embargo, without signs of clear political change in Cuba, reports the New York Times.

According to White House officials Obama reviewed recent regulatory changes aimed to loosen the embargo, and urged Castro to implement policies in order to maximize their impact, reports the Wall Street Journal

Castro asked Obama to continue weakening the embargo through decrees, as he's done over this year, allowing increased trade and travel with the island, according to La Nación. After the meeting Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez affirmed that normalization of relations between the two countries will depend on Obama weakening the embargo through executive decree, reports the Wall Street Journal. The steps taken so far do not amount to "substantial changes" in the Cold-War era policy, Rodriguez said.

The next test for the thawing relations between the two countries will come on October 27, when Cuba puts its anual anti-embargo resolution to vote in the U.N. Cuba has obtained overwhelming support for its condemnation of the U.S. policy for years, and Rodriguez said Castro's administration is eager to see how the U.S. votes, according to the Miami Herald. Last year only the U.S. and Israel voted against the motion. Diplomats have hinted that the U.S. is considering an abstention from the vote, a break in longtime U.S. policy.

News Briefs

  • The leader of Colombia's rebel group, the FARC, Rodrigo Londoño (known as Timochenko), gave a rare television interview in which he ratified the group's commitment to leave the battlefield, though he said the six month deadline agreed on last week might be too short a timeframe. "If there's political will, we can do it earlier, but six months may also be too short," he said. The interview is significant more for its existence -- Londoño is known for being secretive -- than for any revelations he made, according to the Associated Press.
  • The Peruvian government declared a state of emergency in the regions of Cusco and Apurimac after three people died protesting a Chinese owned mining project, reports Reuters. (Seeyesterday's briefs.) The martial law means civil liberties such as freedom of association and movement are restricted, military patrols are permitted and police can enter homes without search warrants, reports the Wall Street Journal. The protests against the $7.4 billion Las Bambas copper mining project are the latest in a wave of unrest that has led to the suspension of several large projects. Mining accounts for 50 percent of Peru's exports. 
  • The Brazilian government's unemployment survey found that joblessness increased to 8.6 percent in May through July, up from 8 percent in the previous three month period. And average monthly wages, adjusted for inflation, are at their lowest point since November 2014, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Back in the U.N., Guaya's President David Granger used his address to the General Assembly yesterday to blast Venezuela, accusing the neighboring country of "intimidation and aggression." "There has been a series of acts of aggression by presidents of Venezuela against my country," Granger said, citing actions from 1968 through the present. In May of this year Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro laid claim to a long disputed piece of territory adjudicated to Guyana in 1899. Exxon Mobile Corp announced that it had found oil in the area under a license granted by the Guyanese government. The speech comes just two days after the two countries agreed to reestablish diplomatic ties, reports Reuters
  • As if there was any doubt left regarding the scandalously tainted investigation into the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students: Animal Político reports that the four alleged hitmen whose confessions led to the official version that the students were killed by gang members and cremated in the Cocula town dump were picked up drunk on the street, with supposedly self-inflicted beatings and "spontaneously confessing." The piece is based on transparency requests that permitted reporters access to the prosecutors' investigation (declassified last week) and questions the sources of the official story, which has been cast into doubt by independent investigators.
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto presented a proposal yesterday to create special economic zones in the country's poorer southern states. GDP growth in the region in recent years lags far behind that of the more industrialized north. The plan would include tax incentives for companies investing in the designated areas, trade facilities and duty-free customs benefits, as well as streamlining of regulatory processes, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The much anticipated opening of Mexico's oil industry to foreign companies -- after nearly eighty years of state exclusivity -- has been thwarted by global plunge in crude oil prices, reports the Wall Street Journal. Today the Mexican government will auction off nine fields in the Gulf of Mexico. After the first oil auction this year, in July, came up very short, the government has sweetened the terms of the deal: the blocks are bigger, the financial terms less rigid and the government’s slice of the profits smaller, reports Bloomberg.
  • The Associated Press has a feature on a Mexican woman who was abducted by a drug gang last year, and whose husband is one of the thousands of disappeared in Mexico.
  • Haitian politicians will court Florida's growing Haitian community -- the presidential candidates running for office in October 25's elections will be debating in north Miami, reports the Miami Herald. Similar forums were already held in New Jersey and Washington earlier this month. 
  • The Miskito tribe in northern Nicaragua has taken up arms against settlers from the country's west, a clash that has left at least 9 dead and forced hundreds to flee their ancestral lands, reports the Associated Press.
  • And Reuters has a feature on Colombia's nomadic Nukak tribe, which was forced out of its jungle territory by the FARC in 2005. In the midst of an uncomfortable culture clash, some members hope to return to their lands, but that possibility depends on the outcome of the Havana peace talks.
  • International and regional leaders used this week's U.N. General Assembly forum to applaud the advances in the Colombian government's peace negotiations with the FARC. But not so fast, argues Andres Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald, reviewing various potential obstacles the agreement must overcome. The preliminary deal may stall in the Colombian Congress, for example, Oppenheimer notes that opposition legislators say it would require a constitutional reform in order to permit former FARC commanders to run for office. He also brings up human rights organizations' criticisms of the deal that would allow those who committed war crimes alternatives to jail time.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Castro at the U.N. -- calls for end to the embargo and return of Guantanamo (Sept. 29, 2015)

Cuba will continue to raise a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo on the island until the "economic blockade" is lifted, said President Raúl Castro yesterday in his first ever address to the U.N. General Assembly.

He said true normalization of relations between the two countries -- which in July reestablished diplomatic relations after a 54 year gap -- can only occur when a series of conditions are met: the end of the embargo; the return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay; the end of "destabilizing" activities against the Cuban government sponsored by the U.S., such as Radio and TV Martí; and reparations for the Cuban people for the damages caused by the long-standing embargo, reports theMiami Herald.

Castro said this weekend at the U.N. that the embargo has caused Cuba an estimated $1.1 trillion in damages and is the primary obstacle to developing Cuba’s economy, reports the Wall Street Journal.

But Castro also commented on world issues, saying the Iran nuclear deal is proof "that engagement and negotiation are the only effective tools to settle disputes" among nations. He also demanded the European Union take responsibility for the "human crisis it helped generate" in Syria by taking in refugees from there.

U.S. President Obama also mentioned the Cuba rapprochement in his speech to the GA earlier yesterday, saying the former U.S. policy towards Cuba failed to improve Cubans' lives, and that that has now changed. He said the U.S. will "continue to stand up for human rights."

In his speech Castro emphasized human rights as well, but not the civil and political rights Obama was referring to, according to the Miami Herald. Castro mentioned the right to live in peace and the right to a better standard of living, noting that just a fraction of the $1.7 trillion spent worldwide for military purposes could help the 795 million who suffer from hunger and 781 million illiterate people in the world.

Obama and Castro are scheduled to meet today for their first formal summit since diplomatic relations were restored in July.

Last year only the U.S. and Israel voted against the measure condemning the embargo, with a final vote of 188-2 in favor of demanding the policy's end. The U.S. is debating whether to abstain from voting on the measure this year, depending on what language is included in this year's version, according to the WSJ.

A number of leaders, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Chilean President Michele Bachelet mentioned their approval of the new relationship between Cuba and the U.S. Rousseff said she hoped the process would culminate in the end of the embargo, ending the Cold War-related dispute between the two countries.

Rousseff focused her speech on environmental issues, pledging to reduce Brazil's greenhouse emissions by 43 percent by 2030. (See yesterday's briefs.) Brazil is the first major developing country to promise an absolute reduction over the next 15 years, in line with a climate pact to be signed in December in Paris, reports the New York Times.

"We will aim for a proportion of 66 percent of hydropower in our electricity generation output; a share of 23 percent of renewable sources, including wind, solar and biomass power," Rousseff said.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto also mentioned migrants in his speech yesterday, emphasizing that the world migrant experience has been one of risks, discrimination, and abuse, made worse by ignorance, racism or pure political opportunism. He called on the U.N. to create a global scheme to protect migrants' rights.

He also mentioned the need for a more just and humane international response to the international drug problem, calling for more people-centered policies ahead of the Assembly's special session next year. 

News Briefs
  • The Bolivian Legislative Assembly approved a bill amending the national constitution in order to permit presidents to run for three consecutive terms. The change, which was pushed through on Saturday in a marathon session, will have to be ratified by voters in a national referendum, which will likely happen in February. The change will permit President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term (supporters say his first term doesn't count as it was under the previous constitution), which would allow him to govern until 2025, reports the Wall Street Journal. He won his third term by a landslide last year.
  • Venezuela will permit more than 1,500 Colombians to return as legal residents after they were deported during a border smuggling crackdown over the past month and a half, reports theAssociated Press. The U.N. estimates that 20,000 more Colombians left voluntarily fearing security forces actions.
  • The outlook is gloomy for Brazil concludes the Associated Press. The piece reviews the litany of bad news of the past few months: plunging currency, rising unemployment, low consumer spending and a political crisis that has tied the government's hands with respect to economic measures to fight the recession. Not to mention, of course, the ever-persistent rumors of President Dilma Rousseff's possible impeachment amid the corruption scandal that has engulfed Brazil's political elite.
  • Dilma's low point might mean heightened ambitions for her coalition partner the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). The centrist party has long been Brazil's kingmaker, explains the Wall Street Journal, trading support for the ruling party in exchange for offices an influence. But now experts note how Vice President Michael Terner, a member of the PMDB is taking on a more prominent role in Brasilia, and could potentially become president if Rousseff is ousted. But the piece also notes that critics say the party lacks a clear ideology or agenda.
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is suing Brazil's Petrobras and its auditor in a New York court, claiming a vast corruption scheme centered on the state-run oil company caused the charitable organization to lose tens of millions of dollars, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A clash between police and farmers protesting a $7.4 billion Chinese-owned copper mining Las Bambas project resulted in three deaths and 17 wounded reports the Associated Press. Police apparently fired on the protesters and medical help was delayed when they shot at the vehicle carrying doctors to the site as well. Protesters were demanding that the owner company, MMG Ltd, revise its environmental plan and hire more locals, as the company finishes the construction of the mine that is expected to extract 400,000 tonnes per year, reports Reuters. Over 1,500 security officials were sent to the site ahead of rallies that started on Friday.
  • According to an anonymous source from Honduras' security forces, there hasbeen a 72 percent drop in drugs moving through the country. The source, quoted in El Heraldo, says the reduction is thanks to an improved ability to act on intelligence from the US and Colombia, as well as increased maritime and land patrols, and use of radars to track drug flights. InSight Crime notes that though El Heraldo's piece is based on somewhat flimsy evidence, its joins multiple claims that drug trafficking in Honduras has dropped significantly. However, while the country's criminal organizations are currently in flux, potentially contributing to this decrease, that creates a dangerous opening for MS-13, warns the piece.
  • TeleSur has a more in-depth report on Honduras and this week's announcement that the U.N. will be setting up a local human rights monitoring office (see yesterday's briefs). Human rights organizations have reported increased violations since the 2009 coup that deposed President Mel Zelaya. And a hybrid military police force launched in 2013 has lowered the country's sky-high murder rate (according to the president), but has been very criticized by rights groups. Honduran soldiers were accused of at least nine murders, over 20 incidents of torture, and some 30 illegal detentions between 2012 and 2014, according to numbers compiled by Reuters. President Juan Orlando Hernández plans on expanding the force, though the U.N. has urged the government to put a time limit on the military's security activities.
  • Panama has had success in reducing its homicide rate this year: it's gone down by over 21 percent in the first nine months of this year, and it's most violent city, Colón, has seen it's murders nearly halved, reports the BBC. Officials attribute the improvement to gang member rehabilitation programs.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Ayotzinapa draws attention to enforced disappearances in Mexico (Sept. 28, 2015)

Thousands of people marched in Mexico City on Saturday, the one year anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students from a teachers college in Ayotzinapa. The crime has mobilized Mexicans and the international community and drawn attention to the issue of forced disappearances in a country where 25,700 people are estimated missing in recent years, reports the Associated Press

(See Friday's post.) 

A new element in this latest demonstration was an increased emphasis on the thousands of other unsolved disappearances that have occurred in Mexico in the last decade, reports El Daily Post.

Amid the demands for justice, it's worth remembering that there were 49 victims that night: six more people died that night -- three students (one of whom was tortured brutally) and three people who were just in the wrong place, reports the Associated Press. Families say the judicial neglect that plagues the case of the 43 missing students extends to the other six deaths of the night.

WOLA prepared a summary of the events of the night of the 26 of September of last year, based on the findings of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos y Expertas Independientes) appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

El Daily Post's Alejandro Hope predicts a tug-of-war between the government and the parents of the students on many fronts including how the OAS group of independent experts will operate; new experts for an investigation into the alleged incineration of the students; the newly announced special prosecutor on disappearances and continuing investigations into the case. He predicts that the parents will mostly lose. He also notes that international pressure could increase over the next months. "So far, not many people outside Mexico seem to be buying the "historical truth" and that skepticism could show up in diplomatic circles in the near future."

The parents of the missing 43 led Saturday's march. Many refuse to accept their children are dead, highlighting the special horror of forced disappearances: the uncertainty that haunts the victim's loved ones.

"When there a disappearance it's worse in a way than death. It's permanent, it's a crime that continues," says Argentine artist Marcelo Brodsky, whose brother was disappeared in the 1970s.

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times write about the continuing anguish of the families that don't know whether their children are dead or alive.

The independent experts group's report notes the psychological toll for families and the pressure they feel to maintain the search for their loved ones. WOLA emphasizes the horror of the night itself: 
"Apart from the 43 forcibly disappeared students, six people were extrajudicially executed that evening and more than 40 people were injured, some gravely, including a student who has been in a coma since the attacks. More than 110 people, including students, teachers who came to their aid, members of a soccer team, and passersby, were attacked that night. And by extension the incident affected the more than 700 immediate family members of those who were disappeared, killed, injured, and attacked."

Brodsky, together with the Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan put together aphotography exhibit based on photos from around the world demanding justice for the 43 students from Ayotzinapa.

And the BBC features a reading of poet Horacio Lozano Warpola's writing on the issue in Poets for Ayotzinapa.

News Briefs

  • The U.N. will open a human rights monitoring office in Honduras this year to guard against potential violations by security forces as they crack down on drug gangs. President Juan Hernández emphasized that the ombudsman's office, which will be in place by the end of the year, comes at the government's specific request, reports Reuters. He says that the militarization of the country's security has helped stem gang bloodshed and disputes claims that violations have risen as a result.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff kicked off this year's General Assembly later today. Brazil's U.N. objectives include a burning desire to obtain a permanent seat on the Security Council, but also Internet governance, gender equality, the international migrant crisis, and affirmative action policies, reports the New York Times. What she is unlikely to mention, according to the piece is the reasons for Brazil's economic downturn.
  • This weekend Rousseff pledged to cut Brazil's emissions by 37 percent by 2025 from 2005 levels by reducing deforestation and boosting the share of renewable sources in its energy mix. It's the first big developing country to promise an absolute reduction in emissions as part of a proposed global pact against climate change, reports the Associated Press.
  • Raúl Castro is scheduled for this afternoon and will probably speak about the U.S. embargo -- framing the issue as the next step for Cuba's opening to the world, predicts the New York Times. On Saturday, speaking at the U.N. Sustainable Development Summit, he called the embargo an "economic, commercial and financial blockade" that brought hardship to the Cuban people and stood as the main obstacle to the country's economic development, reports CNN.
  • Obama and Castro will meet tomorrow for a bilateral meeting, reports CNN. It will be their first formal encounter since the U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in July, and will be accompanied by formal diplomatic trappings including flags of both nations, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A last-minute glitch almost derailed last week's breakthrough agreement between the Colombian government and rebel FARC forces in Havana. In an interview with the New York Times, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos says rebel leader, Rodrigo Londoño questioned the agreed upon six month deadline to end negotiations, which Santos considered essential to the accord. But Santos affirmed his faith in the negotiations to end the 50 year conflict (see last Thursday's post). "I have learned to believe in the sincerity of what the FARC wants," he said.
  • Support for Latin American governments has fallen steadily since 2009 in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, according to a new Latinobarómetro study. Citizens across the region are feeling disillusioned in light of weakened economies and corruption scandals, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Election politics: Accusations of corruption against Argentina's political elite are rife in the lead up to October's presidential elections. But voters don't seem to care much, according to theAssociated Press. The top issues are crime, the economy and inflation, with corruption coming in a distant fourth according to a recent think tank poll. It's worth noting that accusations of corruption are lobbed lightly in the politically charged climate as well as the fact that there are serious accusations against both leading parties. The piece also explains that the slow moving justice system leaves average citizens with few tools to discern which accusations are true.
  • A decision by the Haitian National Bureau of Electoral Litigation (BCEN) declares that two candidates for the national Senate had received enough votes against challengers to represent their respective departments. The decision, in response to the candidates' challenging of their preliminary standing after last month's first round of voting, further confuses the already muddy ground of an election that has been marred by episodes of violence and allegations of fraud, reports the Miami Herald
  • A post on Venezuelan Democracy and Human Rights by Eugenio G. Martínez (originally posted on parses the Venezuelan election authority's rejection of international observation, ahead of December's parliamentary elections. Martínez notes that while representatives of UNASUR, PARLASUR, CELAC, and other regional bodies will be invited to "accompany" the elections, that is not the same as an observation mission, which can make independent statements and diagnoses. He also says that "Electoral observation has been requested by politicians and technicians linked to the opposition, but also by people who in the past were part of the Chavez’s government or who at some point publicly supported the Bolivarian Revolution."
  • Venezuela and Guyana have agreed to restore their respective ambassadors, reports Reuters. The agreement came after a meeting between the two country's presidents and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York.
  • Violent crime is on the rise in Mexico City, contributing to a national increase in homicides, reports the Wall Street Journal. Homicides rose by 21 percent in the first eight months of this year, reaching the highest level since 1998.
  • The woes of Brazil’s sugar-cane industry -- in which companies struggling to pay back debt in light of China's lower demand for commodities have teetering on the edge of default -- are an example of the problems confronting emerging markets, according to the Wall Street Journal. Raw materials prices have tumbled in recent years thanks to reduced Chinese growth and excess production capacity, leaving industries unable to pay back debt issued to build up capacity in the first place.

    • New York Times feature focuses on Brazil's byzantine tax code -- curiously intertwined with one of Brazil’s institutional strengths: collecting taxes.

    Friday, September 25, 2015

    Ayotzinapa's missing 43 - one year later (Sept. 25, 2015)

    A year after 43 teachers college students disappeared in Iguala, in Mexico's Guerrero state, there are still few answers about the crime that shocked the country and the international community -- and has put a spotlight on Mexico's enforced disappearance problem.

    President Enrique Peña Nieto met with the families of the disappeared students yesterday, only the second time in the year since the crime. He used the occasion to announce the creation of a special prosecutor to investigate the country's thousands of missing persons cases, reports the Associated Press. He also promised to incorporate international experts' findings into the investigation process and that the investigation will continue until it has found out what happened to each of the disappeared individuals, reports Animal Político.

    In turn, the families presented eight demands, including a new internationally supervised investigation of the disappearances and an investigation into those responsible for the initial inquiry, which the families believe was intended to mislead them.

    "Again and again, we ask ourselves how could we trust again in an institution that tricked us," the families wrote in the letter delivered to the president, reports the AP.

    The president's offer is not enough said one of the fathers. "We don't want a special prosecutor, we want a special unit just for the Iguala case," said Felipe de la Cruz, according to Animal Político.

    The Washington Post notes that the families are literally "starving for answers," as they are in the middle of a two day hunger strike ahead of a planned protest on tomorrow's anniversary.

    The government's official version of events is that the students were illegally detained by local cops as they attempted to commandeer buses in order to attend a commemoration in Mexico City, and then handed over to a local gang that killed them and incinerated the bodies in a nearby dump.

    But an international group of experts, under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights severely questioned the official narrative in a report that came out earlier this month. They found a number of shortcomings and points of concern. Specifically, it concluded the bodies of 43 students could not have been burned at the garbage dump in Cocula as the government maintained, reports Reuters. (See Sept. 8th's briefs.)

    The president's spokesman confirmed yesterday that international experts would be involved in a third investigation of the alleged incineration site.
    Yesterday the Attorney General's office announced the public release of its entire investigation -- an 85 tome behemoth with more than 53 thousand folios, reports Animal Político.

    Amnesty International has a timeline of the case over the past year, and Animal Político reviews the past year of Ayoztinapa related hashtags, including the most representative: "#FueElEstado" (the government did it) "YaMeCansé" (I'm sick of this) and "#AyotzinapaSomosTodos" (We are al Ayotzinapa).

    The Washington Post piece notes the relevance of the case for Americans, in light of the U.S. heroin epidemic that is fueling Mexico's drug gangs and violence and reviews how the case has contributed to the past "year of misery" for the country.

    And it's worth noting that the issue of enforced disappearances in Mexico might be symbolized by the missing 43, but is far more widespread. Amnesty International says 25,700 people have gone missing in recent years, most under the current Peña Nieto administration.

    Related aside: the Mexican Instituto para la Seguridad y la Democracia (Insyde) presented a report on its national Torture Prevention Campaign, and proposals on a special unit to investigate cops who torture, reports Animal Político.


    Alerta Democrática is a new project that examines possible paths for democracy in Latin America over the next fifteen years.

    Though democracy predominates in the region, the project notes that it's far from irreversible, and explores four possible scenarios for its evolution, ranging from the optimistic to pessimistic.

    "Democracy in Transformation" portrays a future in which institutional innovation strengthens democratic governments; "Democracy in Tension" shows a future where political and economic power is concentrated in a caudillo style democracy of appearances; while "Democracy in Mobilization" portrays a social movements that push for transformation and democratic renewal; and "Democracy in Agony" outlines a scenario in which corruption and illicit activity hijack democratic governance, violence creates failed states and the future is uncertain.

    The report uses a methodology called "transformative scenario planning," which aims improve the systemic understanding of complex problems, as well as to the establishment of new relationships and new intentions that facilitate the solution of problems through collective action.

    The scenarios were developed by a team of 37 leaders from around the region and built on 65 interviews with key actors and well-known people. The project was developed with the Open Society Foundations, Fundación Avina and the Ford Foundation.

    It's fascinating to see a discussion about the quality and aspects of democracy in a region that has for so long struggled to have democracy at all. What is interesting about the different scenarios is that each builds on an element that is clearly identifiable in democracies around the region today -- often coexisting within the same country. It's interesting to see how the project identifies these different aspects and teases out what could happen when some elements of democracy predominate over the others.

    Check out the site for more details on the scenarios and the methodology.

    News Briefs

    • Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López -- jailed since last year on charges of inciting violence and recently sentence to nearly 14 years of imprisonment -- has an op-ed in the New York Times vowing to continue the fight for a free Venezuela. He protests that he was "convicted on the absurd basis that I used “subliminal messages” in my speeches about nonviolence to inspire violence during the February 2014 protests." He goes on to note how the December 6 parliamentary elections are a unique opportunity for change and calls on the international community to defend democracy in Venezuela and attempt to curb abuses. "Finally, the government of Venezuela must end its baseless disqualifications of opposition leaders from the coming election. ... The regime should also release all 76 of its political prisoners, including those under house arrest, like the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, and the illegally ousted mayor of San Cristóbal, Daniel Ceballos. An election cannot be free or fair when those who think differently are barred from running or are even behind bars."
    • Hugo Pérez Hernáiz has a post on Venezuela's university crisis as professors ask for higher wages and budget constraints cut into basic student services.
    • Colombian and Venezuelan diplomats are meeting in order to hammer out the border normalization the presidents agreed to earlier this week, but there is little information on their advances, reports El País, which emphasizes that the Venezuelan government is particularly concerned with financial issues. (See Tuesday's post.)
    • Brazil's real hit a new low yesterday, and the head of the central bank announced that the country could dip into its $371 billion in reserves to stabilize the currency, reports the Wall Street Journal.
    • Brazil's environmental protection agency is threatening to stop the controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric plant until the consortium which built the dam completes mitigation projects in the area to be affected, reports The Guardian. Last month Brazil's human rights council unanimously voted to recommend withholding the consortium's license grave violations of human rights and failure to comply with the terms of its contract.
    • What next for the Colombian peace process after the major breakthrough announced Wednesday? (See yesterday's post.) Negotiators must focus on the complicated details of implementing an agreement ending the five-decade conflict and selling it to the Colombian people, according to the Los Angeles Times that notes it will be difficult considering the public's disregard for the FARC and the fact that the negotiated deal will not put guerrilla leaders behind bars (though it will deprive them of liberty for up to eight years). The piece quotes WOLA's Adam Isacson who notes the importance of the pace of implementation for the deal. "The time between the signing of the final accord and when the Colombian government and the international community will be set up to implement it will be a tense period, a time of limbo, that you want to be as short as possible," Isacson said.
    • But the transitional justice agreement reached this week does not address the key issue of drug trafficking according to InSight Crime. Specifically "whether the FARC's drug trafficking activities should be considered a "political crime" (or a politically connected crime), for which the government has stated it will grant a large degree of amnesty."

    Thursday, September 24, 2015

    Peace at last for Colombia? (Sept. 24, 2015)

    Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced a breakthrough in peace negotiations aimed at ending the country's fifty year conflict that has killed an estimated 220,000 people and displaced millions.

    Santos and the FARC's top commander, Rodrigo Londoño, also known as Timochenko, shook hands yesterday at a Havana press conference, urged on by Cuban President Raúl Castro. They announced that a final agreement will be signed within the next six months, and the guerrillas have agreed to begin handing over their weapons 60 days after a deal is signed.

    Silla Vacía's Juanita León celebrates the historic move, noting that it means guerrilla disarmament in less than a year, breaks with the FARC narrative of simple rebellion and provides an opportunity for both sides to start a new history.

    The two sides agreed on special peace tribunals to try the worst crimes of the 51-year conflict, from sex abuse and kidnapping to torture and executions, but a possible amnesty for other combatants, reports Reuters.

    "Peace is near," tweeted Santos yesterday, announcing a surprise trip to Havana where, government representatives have been negotiating a peace accord with country's largest rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for the past three years.

    On their part, the FARC posted photos on Twitter of Londoño meeting with members of his negotiating team in Havana, with the message, "Peace has arrived."

    The long-awaited announcement comes after gentle prodding from Pope Francis in his Havana Mass on Sunday (see Monday's post). According to the Associated Press, the guerrilla group's negotiators rushed to demonstrate progress ahead of the papal visit. In a separate piece the AP says "the spirit of the popular pontiff hovered over the negotiation of the historic agreement, people involved in the talks said."

    The latest advances in the talks involved three central elements that have been sticking points in the negotiations: the transfer of weapons; how combatants -- both from the FARC and from the military -- will be punished for human rights violations committed during the war; and the deadline to complete the deal, reports the New York Times.

    Both sides had already agreed on plans for land reform, political participation for guerrillas who lay down their weapons and how to jointly combat drug trafficking.

    The new deal outlines how special peace tribunals will work: those who confess to human rights violations and war crimes will face punishments of up to eight years -- the consequences will involve community service or assistance to victims of the war, and some form of detention, but not prison. Combatants who deny crimes but are found guilty will get up to 20 years.
    Guilty military personnel, guerrillas and civilians alike will have to pay reparations to their victims. 

    Those who sign the peace deal, accept responsibility, face charges and pay reparations will be safe from extradition if they are wanted by the United States on drug trafficking charges, explains Colombia Reports.

    And those accused of lesser political crimes might be eligible for amnesty under the agreement, reports the Miami Herald.

    The system will give heavy incentives for participants in crimes to confess and implicate the entire chain of command, argues León.

    Special tribunals, which will be run by national and foreign jurists, will be in charge of sentencing and giving response to victims.

    The deal forces the FARC to admit to crimes, already an important advance, rights León in Silla Vacía. But the guerrilla group won some important concessions from the government, and were able to negotiate as equals against the state she notes. 

    Citizens will have to approve the potential deal somehow, possibly through a referendum, which will likely be a bitter political fight, according to the international press coverage.

    Critics of the peace process are concerned that the agreements will let human rights violators off lightly, both guerrillas and members of the armed forces, reports the New York Times.

    But Senator Roy Barreras, president of Colombia's congressional peace commission, is quoted in the Wall Street Journal emphasizing the importance of reaching any sort of sanctions at all: "This is unique," he said. "Remember that in South Africa, Ireland and the Southern Cone [of South America], the agreements ending conflicts were completed without criminal sanctions." (He neglects to note the counter example: Argentina has followed a path of "memory, truth and justice," instead of the "truth and reconciliation" model.)

    The issue of justice has been a gordian knot for negotiators, explains Silla Vacía. The FARC leadership has strenuously denied criminal actions and rejects prison time as a possible result of the negotiations. At the same time, the government is loathe to appear to be letting the rebels off the hook, and wary of running afoul of international conventions on war crimes and human rights.

    Still, Human Rights Watch said the transitional justice deal does not go far enough, and might not survive a review from Colombia's constitutional court and the International Criminal Court if those who committed abuses don't spend a single day in prison.

    The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) also emphasized the importance of consequences, saying it hoped the agreement "includes real accountability for individuals on both sides who committed war crimes ."

    A 2012 International Criminal Court report on Colombia says "there exist reasonable grounds to consider that the FARC, the ELN, the National Army and the paramilitaries have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Colombia after the beginning the court's temporary competence" on November 1, 2002, says Colombia Reports. This means the court could feasibly step in if it considers that those "ultimately responsible" for war crimes were not adequately punished.

    Silla Vacía has a review of yesterday's announcement on transitional justice and analyzes some of practical questions that arise, such as how the tribunals will be put together and who will be included in the transitional justice process (everybody).

    The agreements will also permit former rebels to join in the country's political process reports the Los Angeles Times, although Silla Vacía notes that the mechanism for their participation (ie: whether they can become a political party) is difficult, as people who have committed war crimes will not be allowed to run for office.

    The government has said that a deal could add up to 2 percent to Colombia's GDP, as dangerous areas open up to legal businesses and the rebels suspend their attacks on infrastructure, according to Reuters.

    And the negotiations are already paying off in terms of violence reduction: Colombia’s Conflict Resource Analysis Center says violence in recent weeks has hit a 40-year low after the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire June 20, reports the Miami Herald.

    History lesson: The Associated Press has a review of the fifty-year conflict.

    News Briefs
    • On Tuesday Santos unveiled a strategy against illicit coca cultivation, replacing the polemic U.S. backed aerial herbicide spraying program with one that aims to foment voluntary eradication of coca fields. Growers who abandon the illicit crop used to make cocaine will receive support for alternative crops, reports the Associated Press.  "Colombia doesn't need to continue being the biggest exporter of coca on the planet and we're going to prove it," said Santos. (See May 11th's briefs.)
    • Despite moving forward to ending the Venezuela-Colombia border dispute (see Monday's post), Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that the 1,400-mile shared border could remain closed for another six months, according to Colombia Reports.
    • Guayan President David Granger said Venezuela launched an "extraordinary military deployment" near a disputed border area, reports Reuters
    • Parents of 43 Mexican students who disappeared last year began a 43-hour hunger strike on yesterday, reports AFP. Today a group of families of the victims are scheduled to meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto ahead of the crime's anniversary. Peña Nieto has resisted meeting with them and the meeting is likely to be unpleasant, reports El Daily Post. A meeting last year ended poorly and the families have embraced the role of political adversaries, accoridng to the piece. In Mexico 11 police officers were injured in clashes with protesters angry at the disappearance of 43 students, who threw Molotov cocktails at officers in riot gear who responded with tear gas on a road near the Ayotzinapa teacher training college, where the missing students were studying, reports AFP. A piece in The Guardian reviews evidence that the students were killed after they unwittingly commandeered a vehicle which was carrying a hidden shipment of heroin or money. (See Sept. 8th's briefs.)
    • Brazil's ongoing economic woes, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal: The country's Central Bank attempted to maneuver to prop up the slipping value of the real. As that was happening, the national Congress handed President Dilma Rousseff a win in the form of permitting presidential veto of spending bills that worsen Brazil's fiscal problems as the government attempts to close a budgetary hole. Reports on the country's rising unemployment rate, cuts to this year's GDP forecast and falling consumer confidence are only available to VIP subscribers.
    • The Brazilian Congress is also looking at legalizing gambling to increase revenues, reports Reuters and postponed a decision on a possible salary increase for judicial employees. And hundreds of demonstrators protested deep budget cuts that form a government austerity plan reports AFP.
    • A group of former Volkswagen employees has filed a civil lawsuit against the firm, accusing the carmaker of allowing its workers to be detained and tortured under Brazil's military rule from 1964 to 1985 reports the BBC.
    • Three polls this month put Argentine presidential candidate Daniel Scioli near to winning the first round of elections next month, avoiding a run-off vote with his nearest rival, Mauricio Macri, reports Reuters.
    • And Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is denying rumors that she might resign, despite facing her lowest popularity ratings ever, according to the Associated Press.
    • Forty members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang accused of at least eight killings, five kidnappings and membership in a terrorist organization were arrested by El Salvador's police on Tuesday, reports the Associated Press.
    • The International Court of Justice in The Hague agreed to review Bolivia's territorial dispute with Chile, giving the country a major step forward in its historic demand to regain access to the sea after more than 130 years, reports Bloomberg. The court will now review whether Chile is obliged to negotiate its border with Bolivia. 
    • The Bolivian Congress took the first step towards allowing for three consecutive presidential terms, which would allow President Evo Morales to run again in 2019, potentially extending his mandate until 2025. The Legislative Assembly's constitutional committee approved of the constitutional amendment, which will now pass to the plenary session, where two-thirds of legislators must vote in favor in order for it to pass, reports the Wall Street Journal. However, according to TeleSur, the change will be put to a citizen referendum in February. Under Bolivian law, the constitution can be altered through a grassroots referendum called by 20 percent of the electorate or through a reform within the legislature with two-thirds support. Both instances require a referendum.
    • Three Guatemalan judges were arrested Tuesday on corruption charges, the Guatemalan Attorney General's Office said. One Marta Sierra de Stalling allegedly accepted bribes in exchange for freeing members of the La Linea customs corruption ring last April, reports EFE.
    • A a new World Bank report calls for a social contract to improve the lives of all Haitians, dig itself out of poverty and head to sustainable and inclusive economic growth, reports the Miami Herald.
    • A senior Nicaraguan official reaffirmed the country's commitment to an inter-oceanic canal mega project at a Council of the America's event in Washington. The $50 billion proposed grand canal would theoretically cut transport times for mega-ships too big to transit the Panama Canal, but has been questioned and protested by indigenous and environmental groups, reports EFE.
    • Opposition to Southern Copper Corp's Tía María mining project in Perú might be easing thanks to a door-to-door outreach campaign carried out by the mining company, reports Reuters. The project was put on hold in May after protests against it by locals turned violent. (See April 23rd's briefs.)
    • Looking for exotic erotic inspiration? Check out this New York Times piece on São Paulo "love motels," where couples looking for some intimate time alone can take advantages of services such as helicopter rides over the city, water slides that end in private plunge pools, dinners by celebrated chefs or 4-D movies on undulating sofas. (I don't even know what that last one means!)

    Tuesday, September 22, 2015

    Venezuela and Colombia to normalize border (Sept. 22, 2015)

    Venezuela and Colombia have agreed to "a progressive normalization" of their borders.

    The countries' two presidents, Nicolás Maduro and Juan Manuel Santos, met yesterday in Ecuador agreed to normalization, but did not set a date for the border reopening, a month after Maduro first ordered a border crossing closure as part of a major anti-smuggling campaign, reports the BBC.

    The two countries will immediately return ambassadors to each others' capitals and will continue talks supported by Uruguay and Ecuador, with a follow up meeting of ministers scheduled for Sept. 23, reports TeleSur.

    "Common sense, dialogue and peace between our peoples and our countries have triumphed today," said Maduro yesterday. Santos said: "I agree that criminal organizations working in the border area are a big problem, but the best way to deal with it is by working together."

    Maduro also agreed to investigate allegations that Venezuelan jets violated Colombian air space earlier this month.

    More than 1,500 Colombians living illegally in Venezuela were evicted as part of the anti-smuggling operation, which was launched after three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian were killed in an attack near the border. Another 20,000 undocumented Colombian migrants are estimated to have left Venezuela fearing deportation.

    According to the United Nations, the mass migration spurred a "critical humanitarian situation" in Colombia, that is already dealing with more than 6.4 million internally displaced citizens, says Colombia Reports.

    Human rights organizations criticized Venezuela's actions and critics say it's an electoral ploy to help Maduro's party in the upcoming December parliamentary elections. 

    Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights' David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz published a border crisis Q and A last week. It is likely that the government sincerely believes that the crackdown will help stem the flow of low cost basic goods across the border, helping alleviate shortages in Venezuela, they say. They give a great overview of the situation in Venezuela and conclude that: "If the border closing proves popular with the broader population, works to reduce shortages and effectively complicates opposition campaigning in the region, the State of Exception and border closing could well be prolonged until after the elections."

    News Briefs

    • Protesters in Guerrero attacked the local prosecutor's office in the state capital, the beginning of what might be a wave of social unrest ahead of the anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students from the state last year. A major protest march is planned for Saturday, the one year anniversary of the students' disappearance, reports the Los Angeles Times.
    • U.S. border arrests of undocumented underage migrants traveling alone or with their mothers in August went up 52 percent compared with last year, reports El Daily Post. Its not clear whether the uptick (after numbers went down considerably compared to 2014) is the beginning of another wave of child migrants or simply an anomaly.
    • Murders are still on the rise in Mexico, reports El Daily Post's Alejandro Hope. Last month homicide victims totaled 1704, a 21 percent increase over the same month last year and the worst month since June 2013. The reason murder is so common? It's relatively unpunished, says Hope. "There is very little effort to find, capture, and prosecute murderers because homicide victims tend belong to politically marginalized groups. They are mostly young, poor, and uneducated, living in fringe urban areas. Not exactly the most vocal sectors of Mexican society. By contrast, kidnapping hits the upper and middle classes disproportionately. That is one reason there is an antikidnapping czar and not an antimurder czar. There are special funds for antikidnapping units, not for homicide investigators. About a third of all reported kidnapping cases are dealt at the federal level. Very few homicide cases get the same treatment."
    • Two men accused of stealing a car were beaten and burned to death in Mexico's Chiapas state, reports the Associated Press.
    • A former treasurer for Brazil's governing Worker's Party, João Vaccari Neto, was sentenced to more than fifteen years of jail yesterday. He was found guilty of taking over $1 million in bribes in relation to the Petrobras kickback scheme, reports the Associated Press. Petrobras' former head of corporate services, Renato Duque, was sentenced to more than 20 years for funneling cash to Vaccari and taking more than $9 million in bribes. Informants have testified to federal prosecutors that some of the bribes funneled to Vaccari allegedly funded President Dilma Rousseff’s two presidential campaigns, but the party has denied all wrongdoing, reports theWall Street Journal. Yesterday authorities made another arrest in relation to corruption, this time at the state-run oil firm Eletrobras. The partner of a construction company was detained on charges of bribing officials at Eletrobras' nuclear generation unit, Eletronuclear, reports theWall Street Journal.
    • Amid the ongoing corruption scandals that are rocking the entire Brazilian political establishment, the country's Supreme Court banned corporate donations to candidates and parties in future elections, last week. The judges declared that the rules allowing companies to donate to election campaigns were unconstitutional, reports The Guardian. This is bound to be a game changer: about 76 percent of funds donated to last years presidential campaigns came from corporate entities.
    • Rousseff's government rejected the appointment of a former settlement director as Israel's ambassador to that country, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. Brazilian social movements questioned whether Dani Dayan had violated international law in Palestinian territory and pressured Rousseff to reject his credentials.
    • Bolivian President Evo Morales defended his country's record in combating drug trafficking, after the U.S. declared last week that the country had "failed demonstrably" to do enough to fight drug-trafficking and "decertified" it. (See last Wednesday's and Thursday's briefs.) The Bolivian Minister of Interior emphasized that almost 10,000 anti-drug operations were carried out over the past four years, leading to the seizure of about 22 tons of cocaine and the destruction of 15 landing lanes used to transport drugs, reports TeleSur.
    • A piece in Deutsche Welle looks at the issue of corruption in Latin American governments and how the recent events in Guatemala have raised questions over how to combat the phenomenon. While there are protests around the region calling for more accountability for leaders, the fight against corruption has more to do with judicial expertise say experts quoted in the piece. Many experts and citizens are calling for independent investigative committees against impunity, like Guatemala's CICIG. The piece notes that former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda wrote an op-ed in El País calling on the U.S. to focus funding on anti-corruption instead of anti-drug policies.
    • There's a lot of news about El Salvador's critical gang problem -- and the violence and homicides it entails for the country. The New York Times has a piece on a Salvadoran businessman who hires ex-gang members, offering them a way out. The piece notes that a recent UNDP report found that young people join a gang for acceptance and status. "From being just another scared kid in the neighborhood, the gang member gets a network that supports him and even though it demands his loyalty and his life, it rewards him with an identity, power and economic support," according to the report.
    • In another example of how the region is leading the way in transgender rights (see August 12's briefs) Argentina's most populous province, Buenos Aires, passed a law requiring that 1 percent of local government employees be transgender. The measure is intended to help this traditionally marginalized group to access employment and has been lauded by human rights organizations, reports VICE.
    • The Argentine national government lifted a ban on gay men donating blood last week, the result of more than a decade of campaigning by LGBT organizations for "blood donation equality," reports the Huffington Post. Argentina joins countries such as Chile, Mexico, Spain and Italy, where blood donors are assessed on individual risk rather than sexual orientation. The U.S., France and Germany continue to have blood donation bans against men who have had sex with men, though the piece said they are considering revision of the policies which date to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.
    • Argentine officials are creating a channel for citizens to give opinions on new genetically modified seeds to be introduced to the country, reports EFE.
    • Last week over 650 kilos of marijuana were found hidden in a shipment cigarette boxes of a company belonging to Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes, reports TeleSur.
    • Final thoughts from the Pope in Cuba: At the Brookings Institution blog, Ted Piccone looks at the potential impact of the papal visit to Cuba, saying that it's another step along a road of gradual soft change for the island and its relationship with the U.S. He notes that the Cuban government launched its annual campaign for the U.N. vote agains the embargo this week. TheNew York Times has a piece on old-guard Miami exiles who have come back to the island for the first time, pushed by the desire to see the Pope and moving beyond the anger at the Fidel Castro's communist government. In his Holguín Mass yesterday, Francis built on the theme of change and overcoming one's past. He told the Cubans that they, too, should allow themselves "to slowly overcome our preconceptions and our reluctance to think that others, much less ourselves, can change." Today he celebrated mass at the sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the country's holiest shrine and one also venerated by non-believers and practitioners of various syncretic Afro-Cuban religions. The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the melding of African and Catholic beliefs in Cuba. Pope Francis ends his Cuba trip with a direct flight to the U.S., "a potent symbol," notes the Associated Press, while Reuters says he's "figuratively connecting the two longtime Cold War adversaries who have reached detente with the help of his mediation."

    Note: I won't be posting tomorrow in observance of the Yom Kippur holiday.