Thursday, June 30, 2016

Clashes in Nochixtlán provoke debate in Mexico (June 30, 2016)

Nochixtlán, where clashes earlier this month between security forces and protesting teachers led to nine deaths, is becoming the center of a political battle in Mexico. (See June 20's post.)

Government representatives will meet today with Nochixtlán residents to discuss the investigation into the episode and possible reparations for victims' families, reports Animal Político.

Competing versions of what happened alternately pin the blame on violent attacks from the protest side -- albeit from non-union related actors -- while others say the police came in guns blazing. More than ten days after the attacks, little is clear about what actually happened.

Witnesses interviewed by Animal Político say the police arrived to break up a quiet roadblock maintained by about 30 protesters already throwing tear gas grenades, without any attempt at dialogue. The onslaught brought out Nochixtlán residents to face the police, not in defense of the teachers' movement, but in defense of their neighbors and community, according to the report based on 20 witness accounts, documents and video.

In the third installment of Animal Político's reconstruction of the clash, witnesses say that undercover cops wearing bullet-proof vests wandered around the town in the days before the lethal encounter. (See Tuesday's briefs and last Friday's.)

Mary Anastasia O'Grady in a Wall Street Journal column says the police blame the violence on militant political organizations at the teachers' roadblock. At heart of all the different versions of what happened in Nochixtlán is the question of who writes the definitive narrative, a key issue for Mexico's future, she argues.

In a column for El Universal Héctor de Mauleón decries the official silence on the issue and goes into depth on some of the competing versions. He also notes the potential presence of violent groups sympathizing with the CNTE teachers' union cause, but also questions why the police chose to act on a market Sunday, and using security forces unschooled in crowd control.

Leftwing leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador led a march this week in support of the teachers union that opposes President Enrique Peña Nieto's signature education overhaul, reports Animal Político.

And a NACLA piece included in yesterday's briefs gives background on the Oaxaca teacher's union struggle against education reform, and the local populations rejection of police repression.

News Briefs
  • Haiti's National Assembly again failed to resolve the leadership vacuum affecting the country since the interim president's mandate expired two weeks, ago, reports the Associated Press. (See June 16's post.)
  • A group of 158 U.S. lawmakers are asking the government to pressure the U.N. for a more effective response to a six-year cholera epidemic in Haiti brought by infected peacekeepers. The U.N. has contributed to the effort to combat the epidemic, which has killed about 10,000 people and sickened another 800,000, but has not acknowledged any responsibility for causing it or provided a way for victims to seek compensation, reports the New York Times. Lawyers for victims have filed suits in New York, which the U.N. argues are invalid as it is given immunity by diplomatic treaties. The U.S. government has defended the U.N.'s stance in court, an approach criticized by victims demanding compensation, notes the Guardian.
  • The head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) warned that the country's Attorney General Thelma Aldana was in a "real situation of danger." His statement comes a week after she received threats in retaliation for her anti-corruption efforts, reports TeleSUR.
  • Mexico's Supreme Court rejected an initiative that would declare prison sentences for illegal abortions unconstitutional and extend sanctioned abortions to women for medical reasons, in a country where the procedure is mostly prohibited except in cases of danger to women's lives. The court did however suggest further debate on the issue, reports AFP. Mexico City has allowed abortions within the first three months of conception since 2007.
  • U.S. President Barack Obama warned Venezuela's government not to block the political opposition's "legitimate" efforts to hold a referendum on President Nicolás Maduro's continuity, reports AFP.
  • In an interview with Time Magazine, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos praised U.S. support for the peace process with the FARC. "The FARC long considered the U.S. as one of its enemies. So to see the U.S. supporting the peace process was extremely useful," he said.
  • The first group of U.N. observers arrived in Colombia as part of a mission to monitor and verify an eventual peace deal with the FARC, reports TeleSUR.
  • Nine people were injured yesterday and 29 arrested in the first day of a 72 hour union strike in Bolivia to protest the closure of the state-run firm Enatex, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
  • Economic briefs: Brazil's unemployment rose to 11.2 percent over the past three months, up 8.1 percent over the same period last year, reports the Wall Street Journal. The country's financial situation worsened as well, with an increased budget deficit and debt load in May, reports the WSJ separately. But the government plans to reduce its inflation target to 4-4.25 in 2018, to show a greater commitment to ending high inflation, reports Reuters.
  • Argentina's economy grew slightly, 0.5 percent in the first quarter compared to the same period last year, thanks to private and public consumption, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • And Chile's unemployment rate rose to nearly a five-year-high of 6.8 percent in the March-May period, reports Bloomberg.
  • The legal battle over the extradition of Sinaloa cartel king pin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán continues. Two judges are evaluating appeals filed by his lawyers, including claims that the statute of limitations has run out on some of the crimes he is accused of having committed and that some of the accusations are based on hearsay, reports the New York Times.
  • More questions than answers remain with Zika. Researchers are warning couples to refrain from sex for six months after a male partner is infected, reports Reuters.
  • Pre-Olympics shootouts in Rio de Janeiro: Attempts to recapture a drug dealer who escaped from a Rio hospital have led to a week of gunbattles in the city's favelas, with 10 people killed and fifty schools shut down, reports the Wall Street Journal. And parts of a mutilated body washed up on the Copacabana beach yesterday, meters away from where the beach volleyball games will be held, according to Reuters.
  • But don't let the violence distract from the political drama. Brazilian Senators could vote on President Dilma Rousseff's impeachment the day before the Olympics games end, reports Reuters.
  • U.S. prosecutors have charged a new defendant in a case that accuses the nephews of Venezuela's first lady of conspiring to transport a multi-hundred kilogram load of cocaine to the United States, reports Reuters.
  • And six Honduran national police officers have been charged with conspiring to import drugs to the U.S. with the son of former President Porfirio Lobo, reports the Associated Press. A U.S. attorney says the officers agreed to ensure safe passage of tons of cocaine through Honduran jungles from 2004 to 2014.
  • Soccer legend Diego Maradonna says people should get off of star player Lionel Messi's case over quitting Argentina's national team, reports the Associated Press. Messi caused a national uproar when he quit suddenly after Argentina lost a Copa America championship match to Chile on Sunday.
  • American Airlines will work with an outside company to assist would-be travelers to Cuba, and will set up a special Cuba reservations desk, according to the Miami Herald. Commercial flights to the island from the U.S. start in September.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Post conflict strategies for Colombia's border region (June 29, 2016)

News Briefs
  • Colombia's post-conflict strategies must take into account the country's border areas, where violent non-state groups are deeply entrenched, writes Annette Idler in the Washington Post. "Finding a peace solution that accounts for the interests of these groups — but also breaks up the vicious cycle of state neglect and organized crime that has driven much of the conflict — will be essential tandem goals." She notes in particular that, in many of these areas, people "often make a pragmatic decision to support FARC or ELN, rather than an ideological choice. Whichever group will help inhabitants survive guides this choice." The future for these areas is further complicated by the creation of concentration zones for demobilized FARC fighters, she says, noting that the fate of civilians near these areas is unclear. "My research on post-conflict strategies for Colombia’s border areas suggests that better communication can help connect the disjointed people of Colombia’s peripheral regions, and promote peace as a common goal," writes Idler.
  • The country known for cocaine trafficking is starting to look at medical marijuana to generate rural jobs, reports the Wall Street Journal. The government granted its first production and export license for cannabis derivatives to a Canadian-Colombian company and seeks to approve more production licenses in the next few weeks.
  • Jennifer Lynn McCoy, former director of the Americas Program at The Carter Center, has an interesting piece in The Conversation on the role of international mediation between opposing political camps in Venezuela. At the invitation of the Venezuelan government, UNASUR mediators are trying to foster dialogue between Chavistas and the political opposition. At the same time, as the OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has been spearheading diplomatic efforts to discredit the government and push for an ouster referendum demanded by the opposition. McCoy notes that international mediators have been invited several times since an attempted coup against Chávez in 2002. "They have been asked to help resolve deep antagonisms between those who support Hugo Chavez’s 21st Century Socialism, and those who fear Venezuela will become a poor socialist country like Cuba. The country has become so polarized that there are virtually no individuals or organizations perceived as neutral. ... Once normal political adversaries, opposing parties begin to see each other as enemies to be vanquished. Those in the middle who are ready to dialogue and compromise are labeled traitors. Each side tries to force the entire population to identify with one camp or the other." But the combined international pressure, including talks with a U.S. diplomat, could help resolve Venezuela's crisis, argues McCoy. "The next step to watch is whether the international response spurs Venezuela’s National Electoral Council to facilitate citizens’ rights to petition for a recall referendum on Maduro's presidency."
  • The latest in the Venezuela crisis journalism genre from the Washington Post describes a nation facing increasing food shortages and desperation. "The poor are stripping mangoes off the trees and struggling to survive ... What has been a slow-motion crisis in Venezuela seems to be careening into a new, more dangerous phase." (See last Thursday's post on a piece in The Nation that includes criticisms of the Washington Post's editorial stance on Venezuela.)
  • A piece in Nacla give an in-depth look at the Oaxaca teacher's union struggle against education reform, and the local populations rejection of police repression earlier this month that killed over nine people. (See yesterday's briefs and June 20's post.) The piece compares the current situation to that in 2006, when government repression of striking education workers led to a six-month popular takeover of Oaxaca City. "Oaxaca has proven to be one of the last strongholds in resisting a global wave of similar education reforms in the last two decades, and its state-wide local union (Sección 22) is one of the most radical in the hemisphere. ... The social movement that has emerged against the reforms, which are sponsored by a host of national and international corporations and financial institutions, rejects the policy as a back-door way to discipline and shrink the educational labor force, require local residents to pay for education, sell access to schools to foreign corporations, and absolve the federal government of responsibility for educating its citizens," explains Eric Larson.
  • Puerto Rico is headed for a debt default on Friday unless the U.S. Senate approves a restructuring bill today. A New York Times editorial emphasizes that the bill would permit the island to avert "chaotic default and escalating human misery. Without a restructuring process that puts all claims on the table, creditors — who were or should have been aware of the risks in lending money to Puerto Rico — will never have an incentive to accept less than full repayment. The entire burden of the debt would fall on Puerto Ricans." The Washington Post has background on the politics of the Senate debate. A piece at COHA looks at the background of how Puerto Rican debt got so out of hand: "due in large part to a pattern of convoluted United States policies toward the island."
  • The Nicaraguan government expelled six foreign environmental activists, accused of handling explosive substances without proper authorization, reports the Associated Press. The four Mexicans, one Argentine and a Costa Rican were part of a group that has been holding workshops on ecological projects in poor Central American communities in recent months. They were detained following an explosion during a workshop on making low-fuel-consumption ovens in Southern Nicaragua.
  • Brazil's Congress opened up an ethics investigation to determine if conservative legislator Jair Bolsonaro broke parliamentary decorum when he praised an Army intelligence officer responsible for torture during the last military regime, reports Reuters. The praise for Army Colonel Carlos Ustra prefaced his vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff in April. Rousseff was tortured by Ustra's Army intelligence unit. (See April 18's post.)
  • Brazil's Rio de Janeiro state has been forced to slash its budget drastically in light of a financial crisis -- leaving police helicopters grounded and patrol cars idle just as the Olympic Games are approaching, reports the Associated Press. The piece quotes Igarapé Institute's Ilona Szabo, who says the cuts have led to "a very big crisis in ... the self-esteem of the policemen." Nonetheless, she said the sheer number of officers on the streets should help avoid a major security breech at Olympic sites and in Rio’s beachfront neighborhoods.
  • As the upcoming U.S. election shakes the foundations of NAFTA, Mexico and Canada have agreed to closer ties. The two countries have agreed to settle protracted disputes, such as visa requirements for Mexican visitors to Canada and opening up the Mexican market to Canadian beef imports, reports Reuters.
  • Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was officially declared the winner of Peru's presidential election yesterday, reports EFE. The president-elect will take office in a month. He called for unity among Peruvians, and said he would launch a social revolution seeking equality among citizens.
  • Al Jazeera has a piece on a form of chronic kidney disease affecting Central American sugarcane workers. "Mesoamerican Nephropathy", also known as CKDu has killed over 20,000 people in Central America over the past decade. Diagnoses generally come too late to help the patient. There is growing consensus that it is brought on by harsh working conditions, including heavy labor and heat stress, notes the piece.
  • A Panamanian judge has asked Interpol for help in arresting the country's ex-president Ricardo Martinelli on spying and corruption charges, according to AFP.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Mexican security forces routinely torture women - Amnesty

A new Amnesty International report says "the Mexican police and armed forces routinely torture and ill-treat women, and that sexual violence is routine during arrest and interrogation." 

"Severe beatings to the stomach, head and ears; threats of rape against women and their families; near-asphyxiation, electric shocks to the genitals; groping of breasts and pinching of nipples; rape with objects, fingers, firearms and the penis – these are just some of the forms of violence inflicted on women."

Based on interviews with 100 women who reported violence during arrest, the organization found that they all described some form of sexual harassment or psychological abuse. About 72 percent reported sexual violence during arrest or in the hours that followed.

Police appear to be using women -- accused of being girlfriends of a criminal or accomplices to criminal acts -- to boost figures in the government's "war on drugs."

The women affected are mostly young and from low income backgrounds, and many face discrimination for not conforming to gender expectations -- many said they were bisexual or lesbian.

The report emphasizes that torturers remain untouched, despite attempts by the Mexican state to address rampant impunity. "Of the thousands of reports of torture since 1991, only 15 have resulted in federal criminal convictions."

"Not only have the authorities failed to publish comprehensive information on torture and ill-treatment of women, but they appear intent on keeping the issue hidden. In the course of Amnesty International’s research for this report, a number of authorities put various barriers to prevent the organization from accessing a larger number of women interviewees."

The Associated Press and the Guardian have pieces on the report which came out this morning.

Separately, the Mexican government declared a gender alert in 14 Michoacán state municipalities, where at least 600 women have been violently killed over the past four years, reports Animal Político. Last year Mexico state was the first to declare such a gender alert, in the wake of an increase in femicides.

News Briefs
  • Note: Yesterday I highlighted an article in the Caracas Chronicles which was critical of a piece in the Nation by Gabriel Hetland. (See last Thursday's post on Hetland's article.) On second consideration, the piece did not merit any recommendation. I sought to include a variety of perspectives, but the article was inappropriate. The author needlessly criticized Hetland, and falsely asserted that Hetland has worked for Aporrea and TeleSUR. Again, as the situation in Venezuela gets increasingly polarized, I'll continue to attempt to show varied perspectives (see briefs below). Reader response is always welcome.
  • Animal Político has a three part series (part two out today) reconstructing the clash between a teachers union protesting education reform and security forces in Nochixtlán on June 19 that killed at least 9 people. (See June 20's post.) Witnesses say the police arrived to break up a quiet roadblock maintained by about 30 protesters already throwing tear gas grenades, without any attempt at dialogue. The onslaught brought out Nochixtlán residents to face the police, not in defense of the teachers' movement, but in defense of their neighbors and community, according to the report based on 20 witness accounts, documents and video.
  • Mexico joined the U.S. and Canada in a promise to have their countries produce half of their power from clean energy sources by 2025, reports the Guardian.
  • Independent auditors hired by Brazil's Senate found that suspended President Dilma Rousseff did not engage in the financial maneuvers at the heart of her impeachment trial, reports the Associated Press. Their findings, which are not binding, show how fragile the case against her is, according to the AP. The auditors note that Rousseff did author three 2015 decrees releasing additional credits without Congress' consent. Rousseff said she might order a plebiscite on Brazil's political future if she is returned to office.
  • Salvadorans celebrated LGBT pride this weekend, El Faro reports on the history of the march in San Salvador, where the LGBT community has challenged reigning homophobia since 1997. They seek to change a "culture that accepts as normal insulting, physical aggression, denial of legal equality and humiliation" of LGBT people. Human Rights First has an interview with Karla Avelar, Executive Director of COMCAVIS Trans in San Salvador. "In El Salvador, we don’t live, we survive," she said.  Earlier this year the Latin American Working Group published a report on the violence faced by the LGTB community, specifically transgender people. And in January El Faro published a piece on community's "invisible" deaths: over 500 LGBT people have been killed since 1995, but their cases remain untouched by the police.
  • Latin America's rightward swing is not a result of citizen attraction to right-wing economic policies, but rather a rejection of anemic growth and bad public services, especially social services, argues Mohamed A. El-Erian in Nueva Sociedad. He compares the trend to that of the "anti-system" movements in the developed world, and warns that elites will have to "effectively address the causes of popular discontent, or run the risk of facing the eventual rise of anti-systemic movements like those of the United States or Europe. This would seriously complicate the political panorama of the region and further reduce" maneuvering room for governments adapting to economic circumstance.
  • Mercosur's upcoming presidential summit, in which Uruguay was supposed to hand over the group's chair to Venezuela, has been called off, due to "the special political conditions which some country members are undergoing, such as Brazil and Venezuela," announced Argentina and Uruguay's foreign ministers yesterday. Venezuela will still get the chair. (See yesterday's briefs on Brazil's decision to skip the summit.)
  • Opponents must maintain unity and welcome all Venezuelan's to participate in recovery, argues former U.S. ambassador to the OAS Roger Noriega. "Venezuela’s vast natural wealth can fuel a robust and rapid recovery, provided people of good will find common ground and pull together," he said, pointing to a 10-point strategy released by the opposition-led National Assembly in April. 
  • Journalist Tamara Pearson calls for the defense of community organizations, which play a vital role in countering shortages and struggling against endemic corruption. But she warns that Venezuelans should resist calls for austerity in a country where citizens "still benefit from free health care, cultural activities and higher education and almost-free water, gas and electricity; attempts by the government to deny these benefits would hurt the poor majority the most."
  • CEPR co-directo Marc Weisbrot changes the focus and calls for Washington to avoid intervention in Venezuela. "U.S. intervention in Venezuela, as in other countries, has contributed to political polarization and conflict over the years, as it encouraged elements of the opposition at numerous junctures to also pursue a strategy of regime change, rather than seeking peaceful political change."
  • But Venezuela will need international assistance to climb out of its current hole, according to Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann. He calls for emergency supplies of food and medicine; financial assistance in restructuring Venezuela's international debt; and intelligence cooperation with the U.S. and other security agencies to tackle drug trafficking and money launderers. 
  • Earlier this month, Venezuela's National Assembly rejected the creation of the Strategic Zone of National Development Mining Arch of Orinoco (OMA). They had the unlikely support of dissenting Chavistas -- including Chávez's former environment minister, Ana Elisa Osorio, who spoke about the dangers that this project entails for national sovereignty and the environment, writes Antulio Rosales at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. The government's executive decree establishing the strategic zone seeks to limit the country's oil dependence. But Rosales notes a series of problems, including lack of environmental assessment, violation of the rights of indigenous peoples regarding development on their land and the potential militarization of the area.
  • While critics say Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is seeking to maintain a single-party system (see yesterday's briefs), a poll published yesterday presents a different picture. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed planned to vote for Ortega's leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party, compared with just 13 percent for the entire opposition, a disparity attributed to Ortega's economic policies and divisions among the opposition, reports Reuters.
  • Colombia will offer businesses tax incentives to invest in infrastructure and social service projects in areas scarred by the country's five decade conflict, reports Reuters.
  • Is racism in Brazil fundamentally different from that in the U.S.? A piece in El País looks at the work of philosopher and economist Eduardo Giannetti who argues that in Brazil discrimination against blacks is based on socio-economic factors and not race. It might seem like a moot point for the black people who find themselves disproportionately represented in police homicide statistics (see yesterday's briefs, for example, or the post for Nov. 4, 2015). But the difference could point towards potential policy remedies, which include improving blacks socio-economic status, argues the piece, somewhat polemically. 
  • An Orlando federal jury found that a former Chilean Army officer who had emigrated to the United States was liable for the torture and extrajudicial killing of folksinger Victor Jara at the Chilean sports stadium where he was held after a 1973 coup, reports the New York Times. Thejury awarded $28 million in damages to his widow and daughters, "one of the biggest and most significant legal human rights victories against a foreign war criminal in a US courtroom," according to the Guardian.
  • The murder of a Swedish tourist vacationing in Haiti is drawing attention to a rise in violent incidents in the country's capital, according to the Associated Press.
  • Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's lawyers presented two injunction requests to protect the Sinaloa Cartel leader from extradition to the United States, reports El País
  • The Four Points by Sheraton is opening its doors in Havana, the first American-owned hotel in Cuba to do so since 1959, reports El País

Monday, June 27, 2016

Panama Canal reloaded (June 27, 2016)

A Chinese owned ship became the first to pass through the newly expanded Panama Canal locks yesterday. The expansion, which opened with a two year delay, was carried out by the Panamanian government in an attempt to maintain the passage's relevance in an evolving shipping market that involves ever bigger ships, reports the New York Times.

The Associated Press characterizes the $5.25 billion expansion as a "multibillion-dollar bet on a bright economic future despite tough times for global shipping." The 80 km canal has generated about $10 billion in direct income for Panama since it was handed over from U.S. control in 1999, and is responsible for about 40 percent of the country's GDP. But traffic and income have been affected by the drop in oil prices and economic slowdown in China, among other factors.

Yesterday's passage was attended by about 30,000 people and eight heads of state, according to the AP. The event received significant press coverage, though officials feared that the positive news might be overshadowed by the "Panama Papers" scandal earlier this year, reports the Guardian. Still, the country's reputation was affected by the information leak about off-shore accounts earlier this year, one reason why so few heads of state were present. Jill Biden, wife of US vice-president Joe Biden, led the U.S. delegation. (Apparently 70 heads of state had been invited according to a New York Times feature from last week.)

The expansion permits the canal to accommodate a new generation of container ships, known as neo-Panamax. The new locks fit ships carrying almost three times the capacity of those passing through the old locks, notes the Miami Herald. Both old and new locks will continue to be used simultaneously.

"...The changes are critical to Western trade in the long run," argues a Wall Street Journal feature piece from last week that analyzes the project's impact on the shipping industry.

But a New York Times investigation says "the expanded canal’s future is cloudy at best, its safety, quality of construction and economic viability in doubt."

The new project is already attracting new investment and service sector jobs, according to the Washington Post. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Panama will continue to grow at its current rate of nearly 6 percent a year.

The Washington Post's coverage has colorful factoids for trivia freaks: "Like the channel that opened in 1914, the enlarged Panama Canal is a feat of engineering, albeit one that ran over budget and two years behind schedule. The contractors dredged enough material to fill the Egyptian Great Pyramid at Giza, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, 25 times over. The amount of steel used could have erected 29 new Eiffel Towers. The Empire State Building could lie down and fit into just one of the three chambers in each of the new channel’s locks."

The project is only part of Panama's massive infrastructure investment, which includes a second metro line costing $2 billion and a projected third. A new bridge over the canal will have six car lanes and two for a metro monorail. Authorities are doubling the airport size and spending $450 million for urban renewal of poor section on the canal's north side, notes the Washington Post piece.

Of course, the total costs remain to be seen, due to unresolved dispute between the canal authority and the construction firm in charge of the expansion over who is responsible for billions of dollars in cost overruns and delays, according to the Miami Herald.

And while the expansion accommodates 98 percent of the ships currently floating, it's a permanent arms race, and by 2019 the percentage will drop to 95 percent. Already Panama Canal authorities are considering a new expansion, reports the Guardian

Miami Herald piece from last week notes how the prominent place accorded to a Chinese ship reflects the changing realities of international trade over the past hundred years since the canal's inauguration.

Lack of water is a permanent threat to the canal, which in recent years has been affected by an El Niño caused draught. A Miami Herald feature looks at how small-scale farmers conserve water in the Panama Canal Watershed.

News Briefs
  • U.S. and Mexican cooperation to intercept Central American refugees in southern Mexico is tantamount to a death sentence for many, including unaccompanied minors fleeing life-threatening gang violence, argues Nicholas Kristoff in a New York Times op-ed column. In the last five years, Mexico and the U.S. have deported 800,000 people to Central America, including 40,000 children. A U.S. official celebrated these numbers, saying it will help dissuade children from undertaking a perilous journey. Instead, many are taking even more dangerous routes as they attempt to reach the U.S., notes Kristoff. (See post for Oct. 13, 2015 on the general situation.) In March a Human Rights Watch report denounced that Mexico is not complying with its own laws of how to treat unaccompanied child migrants. "By law, Mexico offers protection to those who face risks to their lives or safety if returned to their countries of origin. But less than 1 percent of children who are apprehended by Mexican immigration authorities are recognized as refugees, according to Mexican government data." The report notes that the amount of children apprehended by Mexican authorities is on the rise: more than 35,000 children were detained in 2015, nearly 55 percent more than in 2014, and 270 percent more than in 2013.
  • The Mexican state of Oaxaca has been the focal point for protests against a national education overhaul for months. Teachers opposing reforms have already been on the streets for months -- leaving thousands of students without classes. But after clashes with security forces last week left nine dead, students and adults have joined the teachers in protests against the government and the signature policy reform, reports the New York Times. (See last Monday's post.) "The government’s response to the protests has amplified a belief that the education reforms are just the latest effort by Mexico City to marginalize the people here and deprive them of their rights and dignity." But proponents argue that the changes are needed to break a union stranglehold on the OECD's worst-performing school system, rife with favoritism and graft. A piece in Jacobin Magazine takes a deeper look at the Oaxaca teachers' demands and struggle. "The education reform is better understood as an attack on labor," according to the piece.
  • Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega will likely win a third mandate in November's elections unimpeded, after a recent Supreme Court decision eliminating the opposition candidate from running. Now critics say the government is cracking down on civil liberties -- free speech, opposition parties and foreign diplomats -- in order to maintain one-party rule, reports the Guardian.
  • As Colombia nears a peace with the FARC, the Observer has an interesting in-depth piece on FARC leadership, with an interview with upcoming leader Carlos Antonio Lozada who hopes to lead the guerrilla group into its next phase as a political party. "Embracing the rainbow of Colombians will involve a very wide political project. We are betting on having a space in the political spectrum that runs from the democratic forces to the left. It is not going to be a Marxist movement; it will be a wide offer, where different groups can converge," he says.
  • A loose end amid all the talk of peace in Colombia (see Friday's post) is how to address the criminal earnings that sustain the rebel movement, argues InSight Crime's Jeremy McDermott. The piece looks specifically at the peace deal's "effects on the dynamics of organized crime, particularly the billion-dollar criminal economies that reside in FARC areas of influence."
  • With observers so excited, why are many Colombians still opposed to the deal, asks a Christian Science Monitor piece. "More than half of Colombians say their worst fear is that one or both sides will fail to fully implement the accords, while 37 percent say the government is conceding too much to the guerrillas"
  • Dialogue between Venezuela's government and the opposition could create a platform from which to request international help, said U.S. diplomat Thomas Shannon who was inCaracas last week. He said internationally mediated talks outside Caracas could help address the radically opposed perspectives of the two sides, according to Reuters. Shannon also met with former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who is working along with former presidents Martin Torrijos of Panama and Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic, to facilitate talks between the government and the opposition.
  • Venezuela's MUD opposition coalition said it has validated enough signatures to advance to the next step in the recall referendum process. More than more than 326,000 voters stood in long lines to scan their fingerprints and validate their signatures at government-run voting stations this week, reports the Wall Street Journal. But the the National Electoral Council, said it will take a month to announce if enough signatures were validated. If the opposition passes this hurdle, the next step is to collect nearly 4 million signatures in three days to activate the actual recall. The initial petition handed in last month gathered almost two million signatures but election officials said 600,000 of those were fraudulent, reports the BBC. The opposition is angling to have the recall this year, which would trigger new elections and likely replace the current Socialist government. The government is attempting to delay until next year, when an ouster referendum would result, at most, in the vice president completing President Nicolás Maduro's term.
  • On the issue of the ongoing search for truth in media coverage of Venezuela's crisis, check out the Caracas Chronicles' extremely critical response to The Nation's piece last week, which attempted to balance the cataclysmic perspective of mainstream international media. (See Thursday's post.)
  • Food is the new center of the evolving Venezuela crisis, reports the Miami Herald.
  • New Latin American order: Brazil's Acting President Michel Temer will skip the next Mercosur summit in Montevideo, in which the Venezuelan government will take over the group's chair for the next six months, reports Mercopress.
  • Temer also defended an earlier retirement age for women, arguing they are often responsible for work in the home and caring for family, reports Reuters. Divergent retirement ages by gender are common, but are being phased out by some countries.
  • Poor, young, black men and children in Brazil are far more likely to be victims of homicides and police violence than whites, Al Jazeera has the latest piece on the injustice.
  • Haiti's election redo in October will differ mainly in how poll watchers are accredited, said the new president of the country's Provisional Electoral council. Nearly one million political party representatives charged with monitoring elections last year were given blank accreditation cards that permitted them to vote at any polling station, potentially allowing them to cast multiple ballots. Now they will be assigned to voting centers and polling stations where they are registered to reduce fraud, reports the Miami Herald.
  • Argentina's struggle for post-dictatorship justice is increasingly focused on the 500 newborns stolen from political prisoners by the regime and illegally given for adoption, according to an Associated Press piece. "For the children who have already been found, coming to grips with the past is a painful process."
  • Argentina's cost of living is the highest in Latin America thanks to inflation and a weak dollar, reports El País. Their fairly informal investigation found that a cup of coffee in Buenos Aires costs upwards of $2, nearly four times what it costs in São Paulo.
  • Latin America's latest comeback attempt is Fernando Lugo, Paraguay's ousted president who announced a presidential run for 2018, reports TeleSur.
  • American Airlines is still waiting for final approval for direct commercial flights to the island, but is already selling tickets, reports the Miami Herald. But not everybody is welcome: Members of a U.S. Congressional delegation say they were denied visas for a trip to assess security and passenger screening at Cuban airports.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Colombians hope peace agreements mean #ElUltimoDiaDeLaGuerra (July 24, 2016)

Colombian and FARC negotiators agreed yesterday on a bilateral cease-fire and a plan for the disarmament of 7,000 rebel fighters, a key component of a broad peace deal that is now expected as soon as next month. But Colombian press is exuberantly celebrating the agreement, saying it heralds the end of 5 decades of fighting.

The agreement yesterday includes a roadmap for a bilateral ceasefire, the establishment of concentration zones for former fighters, disarmament for guerrillas, and -- as a bonus -- the FARC acceptance of a plebiscite ratification of the accord, explains Silla Vacía. It's actually three separate agreements: cease-fire and disarmament; guarantees for demobilized fighters and the fight against paramilitary forces; and an agreement on the referendum for peace, according to El Tiempo.

El Tiempo has more details on the specific agreements, such as the phases for disarmament.  It was a historic moment, and the Havana handshake between President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño (known by his war alias "Timochenko") was witnessed by six heads of state and international dignitaries, reports El Espectador

The conflict over the past five decades has caused 200,000 deaths and 6.9 million displaced people across Colombia, according to El Espectador.

"Colombia got used to living in conflict. We don't have even the slightest memories of what it means to live in peace," Santos said yesterday in Havana. "Today a new chapter opens, one that brings back peace and gives our children the possibility of not reliving history."

"We trust that within a reasonable time we will be pointing to another ceremony: the signing of the final accord," said Timochenko. "May this be the final day of the war."

#ElUltimoDiaDeLaGuerra was trending in Colombia's twittersphere, and was adopted by leftwing politicians hoping to create a broad coalition space that could welcome former FARC fighters, reports Silla Vacía.

It means the "irreversible end" of the guerrilla group as an armed force, according to Silla Vacía's Juanita León.

Colombians celebrated the deal yesterday, with hundreds of people watching live on a giant screen set up in Bogotá, reports the Associated Press.

Attention is now shifting to a popular referendum, in which Colombians will be asked to ratify the final deal. It's an uphill battle, according to the AP, given the unpopularity of the rebel group among Colombians, many of whom desire harsher penalties for perpetrators of violence over the past decades. Supporters also fear that voters will stay home, denying the referendum the minimum participation rate it needs to be valid.

Technically the plebiscite mechanism must first be supported by the Constitutional Court, and then approved by the president before being submitted to citizens. It must then be approved by at least 13 percent of registered voters, about 4.4 million votes, explains El Tiempo. It is a binding referendum, and peace deal must be implemented if approved and scrapped if not. Public officials will be free to campaign for either camp.

A recent poll showed that more than half of Colombians fear that one or both sides will fail to fulfill their commitments -- investment in the case of the government and handing over all weapons in the case of the guerrillas -- according to the Guardian.

And rebels fear they will be left defenseless in the face of their enemies, notes the Washington Post.

Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer argues the relevance of the deal has been oversold, at a cost of ignoring other more important issues facing Colombia.

Silla Vacía's Juanita León celebrates Santos' role in bringing the negotiations thus far. But she also points to the importance of the rise of the Latin American left in the years leading up to the peace negotiations -- an example of former guerrilla's rising to power democratically. And also Hugo Chávez's conviction that the armed struggle represented more of an obstacle for "21st Century Socialism" than help. Finally, she credits the high cost of warfare, which added a convincing economic argument for peace among the Colombian elite.

León notes that defects -- like a perceived lack of strong convictions --- which have led to a low level of popularity for Santos, have, ironically, been key in helping him move the negotiations forward.

Silla Vacía reviews what disarmament and cease fire has looked like in other civil conflicts, several of which were monitored by the U.N. as this one will be. 

El Tiempo has more details on the concentration zones where demobilized FARC fighters will gather for about six months in areas they have traditionally been present in. The zones will be bordered by a kilometer-wide safety border in which neither security forces nor FARC will be present, but will be controlled by the monitoring forces.  

And the Miami Herald has a piece on women fighters who are worried they will lose their status as equals in a post-conflict scenario.

Interesting detail: the FARC weapons handed over in the peace implementation will be melted down and used for three monuments, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Guardian has a piece on the history of the conflict from 1964 through the present.


Venezuelan situation debated in OAS, no vote

The OAS permanent council held a session on Venezuela yesterday, in which member state ambassadors met to analyze Secretary General Luis Almagro's 114 page report on the country including arguments for invoking Article 20 of the Democratic Charter. The session ended inconclusively, with no vote on the Democratic Charter issue. 

Almagro accused the Venezuelan government led by President Nicolás Maduro of violating basic democratic principles, altering the country's constitutional order, reports Reuters. He argues that the country is facing a humanitarian crisis. (See yesterday's post.)

Nonetheless, member states did not back his view, though they also did not back Venezuela's move to block the presentation of the report yesterday, note WOLA's David Smilde and Geoff Ramsey in their live analysis of the meeting.

Though media reports portrayed the session as an opportunity to suspend Venezuela, a vote on the issue would have merely called on the PC to "undertake a collective assessment of the situation," explain  Smilde and Ramsey.

"Moving forward it remains to be seen whether, now that the debate over Venezuela and the Democratic Charter appears tabled, the UNASUR dialogue process will move forward. Of course, there are some serious roadblocks in this process, and it is unclear what kind of progress both sides are willing to make," they write.

Notably yesterday's debate was rife with references to U.S. interventionism in the region, notes the Washington Post. And Venezuelan allies made the case that Almagro's quest to sanction Caracas would only weaken the OAS itself.

News Briefs
  • Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto vetoed part of package of anti-corruption bills passed by Congress. He asked legislators to change a measure that would have forced people or firms who receive government funding to publicly disclose their assets, reports Reuters. This is the first veto for Peña Nieto who has pushed for tougher anti-corruption laws. His popularity is affected by a series of corruption scandals involving his government. The clause rejected by Peña Nieto is viewed as revenge by legislators who would be forced to publish their tax returns, holdings and potential conflicts of interest, explains the Associated Press. But the clause would affect private citizens' right to privacy, argued the president's legal advisor. Business leaders argued the clause was excessive, and could even affect foreigners who don't live in Mexico but work for transnational companies, according to the Wall Street Journal. Peña Nieto is calling on Congress to hold a special session to make the changes, in order to avoid delays in the implementation of the new laws.
  • The Mexican government held preliminary meetings with the dissident teachers union who set up roadblock in Oaxaca to protest new education laws, reports the Wall Street Journal. A deadly confrontation with security forces last weekend led to eight deaths. (See Monday's post.) TeleSur reports up to 12 deaths, and says Oaxaca residents blame police for the confrontation and now want security forces out of the area.
  • The narrative over the deathly confrontation between protesters and security forces last weekend in Nochitxlán in Oaxaca state points to a police disaster, argues Raymundo Riva Palacio in an El Financiero op-ed. He points to incoherent explantations from the police, who killed eight protesters, and said they demonstrated susceptibility to armed attackers.
  • Men who identify as women? No problem in the small Mexican town of Juchitán de Zaragoza, where they are called "muxes" and enjoy social acceptance. Now what bathroom they should use in public, that's the contentious issue, reports the New York Times.
  • Brazil's landmark social housing program, "Minha Casa, Minha Vida," is facing cuts that could disrupt its work providing homes to poor Brazilians, reports Reuters. The national Ministry of Cities said spending on the program would be reduced 1.5 percent, which could affect the construction of 4.2 million new homes that are under contract to be built under the program. Though some experts criticize the program as inefficient, it has made a helped millions of Brazilians living in precarious housing situations.
  • Latest Olympic challenge: the Islamic State is posting digital propaganda in Portuguese, and poses an apparent threat to the upcoming Rio games, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Hackers also present a relevant, though less lethal, threat, write Igarapé Institute's Robert Muggah and Nathan Thompson in the Los Angeles Times. They say Brazil is taking its responsibilities to create a secure Olympics seriously, but in the process has set up a sprawling surveillance infrastructure that concerns civil liberties watch groups. On the ground, "Brazil has a less stellar record of protecting its own, especially the poorest residents of Rio, many of whom live in the city’s most marginal settlements, thefavelas. A widely lauded public security program — known as pacification police units — has ground to a halt. According to Rio’s Institute of Public Security, between January and April of this year, there were 1,715 murders in the city, a 15% increase over the same period last year, with the violence concentrated in low-income areas. As police are redirected to Olympic duty, those crime statistics, and insecurity in the favelas, may rise."
  • The New York Times has a sweet piece on Argentine writer Eduardo Sacheri's work which "has revived the soccer story as a respectable literary genre with compelling tales that use the sport as a prism to explore his nation’s idiosyncrasies."

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Venezuela dire but not apocalyptic - The Nation (June 23, 2016)

A piece in The Nation offers a counterpoint to the dominant picture of apocalyptic collapse in Venezuela portrayed by international media. "Is Venezuela descending into a nightmarish scenario, as these stories suggest? To answer this question I’ve spent the last three weeks talking to dozens of people—rich and poor, Chavista and opposition, urban and rural—across Venezuela. My investigation leaves little doubt that Venezuela is in the midst of a severe crisis, characterized by triple-digit inflation, scarcities of basic goods, widespread changes in food-consumption patterns, and mounting social and political discontent. Yet mainstream media have consistently misrepresented and significantly exaggerated the severity of the crisis. It’s real and should by no means be minimized, but Venezuela is not in a state of cataclysmic collapse," writes Gabriel Hetland. 

He notes, as have many critics of the opposition, that such characterizations of Venezuela as a failed state prepare the ground for a foreign intervention. On a political note, he says many Chavista activists will not support the opposition, but voice significant criticisms of the current government. 

The piece reviews the difficult situation in obtaining certain food staples and medications, but presents a more tempered reality than the chaos presented in mainstream media over the past few months.

"The current domestic and international climate of fear-mongering, with escalating calls for foreign intervention and exaggerated predictions of Venezuela’s imminent demise, is far from propitious. Instead of encouraging imperial interventions that will only make change more difficult, the international community, including foreign journalists, should be working hard to provide accurate information about the dire, but not apocalyptic, situation confronting Venezuela."

News Briefs
  • Ahead of today's OAS debate over whether Venezuela violated the organization's Democratic Charter, a piece in Semana looks at how the issue has revived a discussion over the OAS's role defending democracy in the hemisphere. The agreement was signed in 2001, in the wake of Fujimori's rule in Peru in the 1990s, explain Jennifer McCoy and Héctor Vanoli. They defend Almagro's crusade against the Venezuelan government as a valuable contribution, that places the OAS back in the center stage after a period in which it lost protagonism to alternative regional organizations such as UNASUR.
  • Even as a top U.S. diplomat attempts to mediate between the Venezuelan government and the political opposition, another U.S. official defended its use of sanctions against Venezuela as a means of responding to "repression," reports Bloomberg.
  • Washington has high hopes for today's OAS meeting. A top State Department official told Reuters that they hope it will lead the formation of an alliance of interested nations to help resolve Venezuela's crisis.
  • More than two dozen people have signed up to run for Haiti's October presidential election redo. Unless that number increases significantly, it still means about half the candidates who competed in last year's questioned and ultimately discarded polls. That could mean an easier election, according to Reuters. Among the candidates who registered yesterday were the four lead candidates from last year. Several politicians who ran last time have pledged support for Jude Celestin, who came second in the previous ballot. The registration of Jovenel Moïse, the top vote getter in the elections which were marred by fraud and irregularities, lends legitimacy for the elections scheduled for Oct. 9, despite his party's threats to boycott the proceedings, according to the Miami Herald.
  • More analysis on the latest breakthrough in Colombian-FARC peace negotiations (see yesterday's post). The Washington Post emphasizes that while the agreement that will be announced today in Havana is not a final accord, it "essentially amounts to an end to the fighting. It means the two sides have worked through some of the most sensitive aspects of their negotiations, particularly the nuts and bolts of getting 7,000 heavily armed FARC fighters to come down from the mountains, lay down their guns and begin a transition to civilian life under the protection of Colombia’s security forces, their lifelong enemies." And the New York Times notes that about 60percent of Colombians are expected to ratify an eventual peace deal in a national referendum. "With the latest advance, only a few minor items remain to be worked out for a peace accord," explains the Associated Press. "The biggest is how the final deal will be ratified and given legal armor so it won't unravel should a more conservative government succeed Santos, who leaves office in 2018."
  • A U.N. mission to verify the eventual ceasefire is expected to begin in mid July, reports El País, and would comprised of about 400 unarmed observers, though many will be recruits from participating countries' security forces.
  • A new report presented by the Mexican government and the UNDOC places Mexico among the world's largest poppy producers. Opium production in the country has grown exponentially, from an estimated 26 tons in 2013 to 42 in 2014, reports El País.
  • Claudia Paz y Paz and Carlos Martin Beristain, who formed part of an independent commission investigating the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students in Mexico, called for a deep follow up investigation. They spoke in Geneva, where they met with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, reports the Guardian. "It is up to the state’s willingness to investigate what actually happened," Paz y Paz said. "We expect a strong follow-up mechanism."
  • Trump continues to have significant impact south of the border. The Guardian writes about how Trumps rise comes just as anti-American sentiment in Mexico was ebbing. He has stirred up nationalist sentiment again, concurs a piece in the New York Times. There's even a new word, "Trumpear," a play on the Spanish verb trompear, though its exact meaning is still unclear. And the political class has reacted with opportunism to the "perfect piñata." At home to, some citizens think he serves as a distraction from discontent with national politicians and rage over corruption and violent crime. And another piece in the Guardian argues that Trump is America's Hugo Chávez. "In the extemporized mix of bombast, menace and bawdy humor, the symbiotic relationship with crowds, the articulation of long-repressed grievances, Trump echoes the comandante."
  • Cuban migrants camped out in Ecuador as they attempt to reach the U.S. are pleading with Mexico for help continuing their journey, reports the Associated Press. They are hoping for an airlift similar to one that earlier this year carried Cubans stranded in Costa Rica to El Salvador where they were able to continue their journey. (See Jan 13's briefs.) 
  • Acting Brazilian President Michel Temer gave his first interview to foreign media to the Washington Post. He said "it will do the country no good to have two presidents in the beginning of the Olympic Games and at the opening ceremony." He also hedged on calling suspended President Dilma Rousseff corrupt: "She might have committed administrative mistakes, but I wouldn’t call her corrupt. I would be unable to tell you if this was corruption or not." He dismissed the danger of Zika, saying it's no longer a problem and that mosquito transmission of the disease is down in the country's winter season.
  • The suspended speaker of the lower house Eduardo Cunha was indicted yesterday by the Supreme Court on charges of money laundering and illegal currency dealing in relation to the Petrobras corruption investigation, reports Reuters.
  • Allies of suspended Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff were arrested yesterday as part of the ongoing Petrobras corruption probe, reports Bloomberg. The federal police is carrying out 25 arrest and detention warrants and 40 search orders in five states, and yesterday detained Rousseff’s former communications minister, Paulo Bernardo.
  • Some articles in yesterday's briefs focused on the difficulties Peruvian president elect Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) will face governing without the support of the ad-hoc leftist coalition that was critical for his narrow margin of victory in this month's elections. But in the Miami Herald, Andrés Oppenheimer emphasizes that PPK insists he will not allow their electoral support to taint his "criticism of Venezuela and other repressive regimes."